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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

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

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.

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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

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

Thriving w/ Wayne Visser, Cambridge & Antwerp sustainable business expert – EP130

In Economics Explored EP130, we explore a new book Thriving: The Breakthrough Movement to Regenerate Nature, Society, and the Economy, by Professor Wayne Visser of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership and Antwerp Management School. Wayne is reassuringly optimistic about the future of the planet due to a variety of technological and business practice changes that mean we are approaching “tipping points”, after which we will rapidly reduce the stress we are placing on the environment – all going well, of course, as nothing is guaranteed. 

In the episode, Wayne speaks about a convergence of positive developments, such as rapidly improving electric vehicles, cultured/lab-grown meat, blockchain and synthetic DNA to aid traceability of supply chains, green hydrogen, and Unilever committing to deforestation-free palm oil (by 2023, and whether it achieves that is still to be determined). You can listen to the conversation with Wayne using the embedded player below or via Google PodcastsApple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher, among other podcast apps. 

Here’s a short video clip from the conversation in which Wayne introduces the concept of Thriving:

Links relevant to the conversation

DNA Spray-On Technology Could Revolutionize Food Traceability

Transcript of EP130 – Thriving w/ Wayne Visser

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.

Wayne Visser 00:04

Being optimistic or at least having thriving as a lens is just a more effective way to be, no matter what the state of the world is.

Gene Tunny  00:13

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 130. In this episode, we explore a new book from a world leading expert in sustainability, Dr. Wayne Visser, who joins us from the UK via Zoom.

Wayne’s new book, published by Fast Company Press is Thriving: The Breakthrough Movement to Regenerate Nature, Society, and the Economy. Wayne currently serves as head tutor, fellow and lecturer at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. He is also Professor of Integrated Value at Antwerp Management School, where he holds the world’s first Academic Chair in Sustainable Transformation, as well as being a world leading authority on sustainability. Wayne is an accomplished poet, and he shares some of his poetry with us toward the end of this episode. Wayne’s new book Thriving considers issues with huge implications for our economies, so I was very glad to chat with him about it. His book contains lots of valuable examples of how businesses and communities worldwide are attempting to make themselves more sustainable.

Please check out the show notes for links to materials mentioned in this episode, and for any clarifications. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions related to this episode or the previous ones, please get in touch by SpeakPipe. See the link in the show notes or email me via contact@economicsexplored.com. I’d love to hear from you. Righto. Now for my conversation with Dr. Wayne Visser on his new book, Thriving. Thanks to my audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Professor Wayne Visser, welcome to the programme.

Wayne Visser  02:23

Hi. Great to be joining you.

Gene Tunny  02:25

It’s fantastic to have you on, Wayne. Yes, very happy to be chatting with you about your new book, Thriving, which is on a topic that is of great interest to me, and I know to many of my listeners. It’s this issue of sustainability. Climate change is related to that, obviously a big environmental challenge. I’d like to explore what your book is about, why you wanted to write it, what those key messages are. First, I’ve just got a couple of questions about your work. You’re at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. Could you tell us a bit about that, please?

Wayne Visser  03:20

Yeah. Great pleasure to be talking to. The Cambridge Institute is a department of the university that was set up many decades ago actually, firstly, mainly, at the request of the Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, one day soon to be king, I guess, who’s always had a passion for sustainability. He set up a business and environment programme through the university, and it just evolved from that. And ow they it’s a very large office and runs many, many programmes, I head up their business sustainability management online programme, which is getting great traction. We have upwards of 900 students, taking that four times a year. We’re seeing the uptake. I’ve been associated there for nearly 10 years, and I really see how it’s changed. In fact, 20 years. Yeah, since 2003. Really, the interest levels are up, and the demand for solutions, especially from business, is really rising.

Gene Tunny  04:39

Right. You’re certainly right about Prince Charles. I remember visiting his country estate, just as a tourist, Highgrove in Gloucestershire, and before you go on a tour of the estate, you have to sit through a 10 or 15-minute video of Charles, of the Prince of Wales talking about the importance of sustainability. I think he’s into organic farming and that sort of thing. I’ve certainly seen his commitment to that, so very good…

Wayne Visser  05:19

He was way ahead of his time, especially on the organics side, or what they sometimes call in Europe, Europe bio. Many of the programmes have been very specific. We have very good climate legislation in the UK, for example, and also in Europe. That’s partly down to the Prince of Wales Business corporate leadership group that we set up at Cambridge on climate change, where we tried to be an intermediary between business and government, because business was saying they couldn’t be bold in their commitments, because they didn’t have clear policy guidance, and the politicians were saying they couldn’t be bold in policy, because they thought business would lobby against them. Playing that kind of role has been very, very effective in making the progress that we need to make.

Gene Tunny  06:11

I’d like to ask you later about good legislation in the UK. and EU. I’m interested in what you consider good legislation. That’s something we can chat about. Also, you’re a professor at, is it University of Antwerp, is it, in Belgium?

Wayne Visser  06:31

Yes, Antwerp Management School. It’s actually a sister organisation of the university, but it is independent. Yes, I have a chair there in sustainable transformation. It’s supported by corporate partners, BASF, Port of Antwerp and Ronstadt. I run the Sustainable Transformation Lab there, where we mainly work with corporate partners on advancing sustainability, but also on embedding it into all of the teaching for the full-time and the executive MBA students.

Gene Tunny  07:04

BASF, this is one of the biggest chemical corporations in the world, isn’t it? It’s a huge company, isn’t it?

Wayne Visser  07:14

It is, and right there, Port of Antwerp Zone, which goes for more than 30 kilometres, has one of the biggest chemical clusters in the world. And of course, it’s a great challenge, I must be honest, because the chemical industry has many, many impacts, and is one of the institutions, one of the sectors that has to transform, if you look at something like climate, and it’s not easy. There are massive technology investments that have to be made, whether that’s on using green hydrogen, to get their energy for their crackers, or even going for carbon capture and storage, investing in renewables, which they’re doing as well. But at least they’re one of the progressive ones, I would say, and they really are seeing that this is the future and they have to invest in it.

Gene Tunny  08:10

Okay, Wayne, what was that word you used? Was it crackers?

Wayne Visser  08:14

Yes, yes. Crackers are just the way that they get them, the molecules, the chemical molecules, how they break them apart. This is a very, very intensive, energy-intensive process, much like many other industries. Smelting I know is being done in Australia, for example, aluminium smelting, cement making. These are all very intensive industrial processes where there is no easy solution. For climate change, they really have to come with new technology, such as green hydrogen, where you get the renewable electricity to power the creation of hydrogen from water normally. That takes a lot of energy. But once you have that hydrogen, that can then create the heat that you need for these large industrial processes.

Gene Tunny  09:07

We might have to chat about that a bit later. I guess one of the things I’ve been fascinated by is just how a lot of these big corporations are… They’re seeing the future and they realise—well, many of them, I mean the more enlightened ones are realising, we probably have to get on top of this now, to start addressing this, or we could lose out in the future. I think that’s an example of that. Very good. One other thing I’ve saw in your bio, which I thought was really interesting, so you’re also a poet as well as a pragademic, if I’ve got that right, or pracademic. You’re a pracademic. You’re an academic and you’re also doing practical things involved in policy. You’re also a poet, and it turns out you’ve written 40 books. There are books on both environmental issues and also poetry? Is that right?

Wayne Visser  10:14

Yes, it is a mix. I must say, the majority of them are on sustainable business. And they range from the encyclopaedic, literally because I did an encyclopaedia the A to Z of corporate social responsibility, nd I’ve done a world guide on sustainable enterprise covering countries around the world, so that kind of reference work through to yes, even a fiction. Some poetry books, but also some fiction. There’s a parable on leadership, called Follow Me, I’m Lost, about a goose, a Scottish goose, who gets lost on the way to leadership school in London and ends up in Africa, travelling down and meeting strange creatures who each teach him a leadership lesson. There’s the full range.

Thriving is, I would say, in the middle. It’s really written for a broad audience. But it is about how we change society and the economy fundamentally. It includes some of the poetry actually in the book, as well as many stories, both personal stories, but also stories of the innovation that’s happening. I guess we’ll dive into that. But that’s one of the reasons I wrote the book is, there’s so much doom and gloom around now. Look at the statistics on many trends. Some of that is justified, even what’s going on in the world today with war breaking out in Europe. It’s hard not to be pessimistic, but you also have to take the bigger picture and see this global system that is in transformation and is actually speeding up. Many of the signals are all headed in the right direction. There’s so much innovation out there. This book was about capturing that innovation that’s happening.

Gene Tunny  12:09

That sounds great. That sounds great. With Thriving, so what you wanted to do, is basically you wanted to counter the doom and gloom. Is that what you’re saying? You think there’s too much doom and gloom? There’s actually a lot of innovation occurring out there, and are you trying to suggest, okay, given all of this innovation, this is what the appropriate policy settings are? Are you touching on policy settings at all, Wayne?

Wayne Visser  12:43

I touch on policy, but I would frame it like this. In fact, I start with something in the early chapter, called the Stockdale paradox. And this is named after Admiral Stockdale who survived a prisoner of war camp, I think he might have been in there for seven years, and came up with this philosophy that what you need to do to survive and thrive is to face the absolute reality, all the brutal facts, completely honestly. So don’t kid yourself about the state that you’re in. But at the same time, you can never give up faith or hope that things can change and can get better.

You’ll see in the book, it’s not a book of denial, or wishing things were better. I set out a lot of the facts on what’s going wrong, what’s really challenging, when nature, society, and the economy are breaking down. But then I look at the larger system and I look at how systems change, especially living systems, of which society is one nature is another, organisations as well. When you distil it down to the scientific principles of how those systems change and thrive, you actually see many signs that we are heading into a tipping point of change towards the better. It’s not that we don’t face these big challenges, but we’re seeing many transformational signals. And most people are not aware of that. And so yes, they get trapped in the pessimism or the doom and gloom.

It’s also that, you know, being optimistic, or at least having thriving as a lens, is just a more effective way to be, no matter what the state of the world is, because if you’re trapped in in pessimism, you’re disempowered. You sort of just give up before you’ve even made it a try to tackle the issues.

It’s a little bit philosophy, but it’s also backed up by some science of how change happens. And then lots of examples of where business especially, is really charging ahead and bringing the solutions that we need and starting to scale them, which is something that in my 30 years plus working in sustainability was always missing. We always had many of the solutions, but they weren’t scaling. Now they’re scaling. Tesla’s one of six trillion-dollar companies now, and its core mission is a sustainability mission. It’s to speed the transition to sustainable energy. That’s scaling. And it’s valued at more than all the other auto manufacturers, even though it makes less than 1% of the cars.

Gene Tunny  15:53

That’s extraordinary. That’s extraordinary. I want to go back to this point you made. You’re generally optimistic. However, you did note before that there are places where nature, society, and the economy are breaking down. Where is that, Wayne? Are you able to describe or tell us where that is most acute, because we hear all of these horror stories about bad things that could happen, tipping points, and all of that, but where are things breaking down? Could you tell us, please?

Wayne Visser  16:30

This gives a little insight into the structure of the book, really, because I structured into these six great transitions that we’re going through and that we need to go through. There are two breakdowns in nature, two in society, and two in the economy. I’ll briefly touch on each.

In nature, what we see is huge breakdown in ecosystems, so degradation of ecosystems. You’ve got the Great Barrier Reef on your shores there, and it’s literally dying, bleaching, just as one example. The loss of species is actually catastrophic right now. We are going through the sixth mass extinction. And we’ve lost 67% of wildlife populations since 1970. Something that took 3.8 billion years to build up on the earth, we’ve wiped out in one generation.

Yes, huge breakdown in ecosystems. But there is this counter movement of restoration, so protection and restoration of ecosystems. Yu start to see, there’s in fact a lot of work going on through the UN trying to create an equivalent international agreement to the Paris Agreement, which is on climate change, to have one on nature now. There is a widely promoted target for the world now to protect and restore 30% of our land and our oceans by 2030. Likewise, there’s a lot of work going on around deforestation coming out of the 26th Conference of Parties on Climate Change in Glasgow last year, where we have now more than 90% of the world’s countries committed, that have forests, committed to end deforestation and reverse it in the next few years. A lot of movement happening there, and a lot of big companies starting to actually put money into helping to protect and restore. If you look at the Bezos Earth Fund, putting more than a billion into the Congo, the rainforest in Africa, which always gets forgotten about because we know the Amazon, but the second largest tropical rainforest is the Congo. So that’s one example of a transition.

The second breakdown is depletion of resources. This is many, many nonrenewable resources, whether it’s water or timber or topsoil. All of these are being depleted at an alarming rate, nothing like what the earth can sustain. This has been going on—we call it the great acceleration—since about 1950, when we’ve had this exponential growth of economics, of economies and consumption, and of course, resources are finite.

The solution there is renewal of resources. This links to one of the market solutions I write about, which is the circular economy. How do we get it so that everything we use in our products and services either is made from nature and goes harmlessly back to nature—that’s one type of circle or loop—or is made artificially like chemicals and plastics and metals and so on, but continues to go back into manufacturing in an endless cycle. That’s the circular economy. Today, we’re around about 10% circular in the world. This is a massive transition. We have 90% of the economy that we need to change from a linear take make waste economy to a take or borrow, make and return economy. So that’s the second transition. Those are the two breakdowns and breakthroughs in nature.

In society, what we’ve got is disparity. Despite all of our economic growth over the last 50 years, inequality has gone up in almost every country. Even though we’ve had hundreds of millions of people coming out of poverty, the gap between the rich and the poor has gotten wider. And effectively, the rich are getting richer, faster than the poor are getting richer. And this has all sorts of social implications as well. If you look at a book like The Spirit Level, they do the research on this, and they find all sorts of social problems occur in the countries that have the highest inequality, including many developed countries.

The counterforce to that is responsibility. It’s actually to have what we call an access economy where we take care of diversity and inclusion. And again, there’s a big movement for that, but still a long way to go. If you just look at gender equality. If you look at the gender pay gap, according to the World Economic Forum, it will take more than 250 years to close that gap, if we continue on current trends, which is just ridiculous in the 21st century, but we still have a lot of progress to make there.

And then we have the second breakdown in nature, which is disease, which we’ve learned a lot about in the last few years with lockdown and everything else.

Gene Tunny  22:07

Sorry, Wayne, this is in society, you mean, is it? Second breakdown in society, disease.

Wayne Visser  22:13

The second breakdown in society is disease. We know all about COVID and communicable diseases, but the interesting thing is that 70% of people die from non-communicable diseases. These are things like heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, cancers. Many of these are lifestyle related. In fact, 40% are preventable because they relate to what we eat, especially how much meat we eat, in particular red meat, and also processed foods, and whether we live in toxic environments, polluted environments. Of course, there are things like stress as well that take that toll. What we want is revitalization, and so the well-being economy, which is again, a massive opportunity, lots of investment in innovation, lots of technology going in there, really exciting things happening, but plenty to do there. So those are the two breakdowns, breakthroughs in society.

Then if we look at the economy, I talk about disconnection. This is the technology piece. What’s happened is that we think we’re all connected, but we’re not. There is still roughly half of the world, maybe three or four billion who still don’t have an internet connection. Many, many billions still don’t have a mobile phone or live outside of mobile phone signal areas. The world is not all connected. And this refers to what we call the digital divide. It basically is an amplifier for inequality, because technology gives us opportunity. We have to really look at that gap and work on closing that gap. Meanwhile, of course, many are streaming ahead with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and with 5Gg and artificial intelligence and virtual reality and all of those things, and so the gap potentially gets wider. So we have to address that.

Then there’s a second kind of disconnection, which is that the machines start to disconnect us. This is really about automation. 25% of jobs today are at high risk of automation, and another 70% at medium risk. It’s not that we want to go backwards, but we have to look at that and take care of that, start re-skilling people, upskilling people, to be ready for that hugely disruptive transition.

The solution there is all about, I call it rewiring. It’s really the digital economy, but it’s mainly about using all of those fantastic technologies, like big data, like 3Dd printing, like all of the other things, to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Artificial intelligence, huge potential there, but we very quickly found out that it’s racially biased. We have to take care of how technology is being used and whether it’s being used to solve the problems. I really believe that it does bring many of the solutions.

The last one is disruption. This has to do with crises and catastrophes, which we’ve also learned a lot about recently. This is where climate change comes in. If you look at the wildfires, you look at the storms and floods and the droughts, you know all about that in Australia, but also all around the world now. It’s costing the world hundreds of billions, of which roughly only a third is insured. You’ve got two thirds of the millions of people who are affected by this just left hopeless, so tackling this and other crises. By the way, COVID is another example of a massive disruption. You get industrial accidents, also disruptive. BP lost 50% of its value within 50 days after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, just over 10 years ago, and has paid $65 billion since.

All of these have to be addressed. What do we want? We want to move to resilience. That’s the breakthrough. That means making our institutions but also our infrastructure more resilient. Some of that is physical infrastructure, like building flood walls and having buildings that can withstand earthquakes and lots of other very practical things we can do, but it’s also about how you build the economy, because what we’ve discovered is that our economy is very brittle in the crisis. Look at what’s happened with supply chains during COVID or during the Icelandic volcano a few years ago. There’s no longer any slack in the system to take the shocks. We think we’ve been very clever by making everything super efficient just in time, everything delivered, next-day delivery, everything like that. But actually, it makes us more vulnerable. This is all to do with a risk economy, everything that can reduce risk, but also help us survive and thrive through crises. Those are the six transitions.

Gene Tunny  27:28

That’s a very comprehensive overview. I’ve probably got comments on a lot of what you said, but I’ve got to ask you about that Icelandic volcano. That’s the one that no one can pronounce the name of, or certainly I can’t, if I remember correctly. Can you remind me what happened there? You mentioned that as an example of a disruption.

Wayne Visser  27:48

It was obviously just, they have a lot of volcanic activity there. But this one was so big that this cloud just spread across Europe and grounded everything, so planes couldn’t fly. As soon as you start messing with logistics, not only does it mean people literally stranded all around the world in countries, but also business grinds to a halt because of all of the trade that happens through logistics. It’s just an example of that kind of disruption. We’re starting to see more and more, the recent supply chain disruptions around COVID, but also to do with the oil price. Lots of these shocks just show us that… Even my book was delayed by over a month, because suddenly, there was no paper. They couldn’t get paper in the world. So we have to prepare for these kinds of shocks. This is the new volatile world, the VUCA world.

Gene Tunny  28:55

Yeah, well, it’s certainly taking a while for everything to get back to normal. I’m an economist, and I’ve got great faith in the ability of markets to adjust ultimately, but it takes time. We could have these sort of disruptions for another year or so. I think I saw one estimate.

Wayne Visser  29:21

And remember, the kind of COVID type disruption, earthquakes, volcanoes are a bit random, but COVID will most likely happen again. It still has a bit of course to run, but another type of infectious disease, we can expect those again. In fact, it’s linked to these risks we’ve been talking about because as we’ve wiped out nature, zoonotic diseases, which are these diseases that leap from animals to humans, also as we have this huge industrial agricultural system with livestock, the chances of, again, diseases going from animals to humans actually is going up. We can expect that kind of shock again. But all of the analysis that we’ve seen of climate change suggests that COVID is just a very mild dress rehearsal for what’s coming on climate change. The point is that we should be expecting to live in a world of disruption. We have to know how to cope with that, and how our economies can cope, how our organisations can cope, and personally, how we cope.

Gene Tunny  30:30

What will that disruption from climate change be, Wayne? What are your thoughts or what’s your expectation as to what we’ll see? You mentioned wildfires, and I guess flooding as well. We’ve just had some flooding here in Brisbane, where I am, on the east coast of Australia. Look, there’s a big debate. It seems to be it’s difficult to attribute any particular natural disaster or to say that that’s related to climate change. I’m not sure you can do that. But certainly, I understand that it could increase the risk of these things, so I accept that. What do you see as the potential future if we don’t stabilise the CO2 in the atmosphere?

Wayne Visser  31:28

You’re right, there’s weather, and there’s climate change, and weather changes. It’s hard to link individual weather events to climate change, although there is now a scientific centre that is doing exactly that through statistical analysis, showing the probability that this could have been just a normal weather event, without the climate driver. They can now very quickly, actually, on most events, give a rating as to whether this is likely to be climate related.

But essentially, what we’re going to look at is just more extremes, I think that’s one of the one of the mis-sellings of what was originally called global warming. People thought it’ll just get a little bit warmer, we’ll go to the beach a bit more. But actually, it is climate change. It’s more disruptive, because it’s hotter and it’s colder. The storms are more intense and more frequent. That’s for complicated reasons, largely that the oceans are warming up, which makes the weather more unstable. Just everything that used to be a very rare occurrence, like a massive storm or extended 10-year drought, will just become the new norm. Temperatures that we never used to see—Canada had its highest temperatures in the last 12 months—will again become the new norm.

This has impacts on all kinds of things. It has impacts on agriculture, of course, the food system, to survive those floods and droughts, but also the climate is moving. So if you’re in a particular area, and that’s no longer good for agriculture, because everything’s got warmer, then that becomes a problem. Tropical diseases will increase because we’re moving to a warmer world. So places that never had to deal with things like malaria or Dengue fever suddenly will be dealing with those. So there are health impacts. And also remember that for every degree, on average, warmer that it is, people are less productive. And there are statistics on that as well. You have economic losses as well, as the world gets warmer.

So lots of different impacts, but it’s all about the volatility and the extremes of climate and wheather our infrastructure and our organisations and even our homes are just ready for that. As I said, you know, only a third is insured of all the climate damage that we’re seeing year on year. So for two thirds of people, it’s not covered.

Gene Tunny  34:25

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

Female speaker  34:30

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Gene Tunny  34:59

Now back to the show. Wayne, I think what’s terrific, what you’ve done is really good with these six great transitions, I think you call them, so two in nature, two in society, and two in the economy. And if you hear that, then you’re thinking, oh, okay, there’s some big challenges that the world faces. How are these going to be addressed? It sounds like you’re relatively optimistic. To what extent will they be addressed by what’s happening with business, business transforming itself with innovation that’s occurring right now? And then how much needs to be addressed by government policy, or changes in the household that could be encouraged by government policy—changes in households and business? Could you take us through that, please, because just looking at that, those six great transitions, it looks like we need some sort of, I hate to say great reset, because that’s become such a controversial term and really triggers people, so I don’t want to say that. But could you take us through, how are we going to get through this, please?

Wayne Visser  36:19

I don’t think it’s wrong to call it a great reset. It’s become a political term. But it is of that scale. We really are looking at reinventing capitalism and going through another industrial revolution that’s very different. World Economic Forum calls it stakeholder capitalism. Now, that’s a huge shift from shareholder capitalism.

But maybe I’ll give you a little insight into another part of the book, which is to look at the underlying science, because the science tells us where the change is happening. There are six keys to thriving, which is an insight into how these complex systems change. One is complexity. This is all about how many relationships there are in any given system. And what we see is the world getting more and more complex. Of course, we’re getting more and more connected. Social media can help; sometimes it can hinder. But just in so many ways, the connections are increasing.

One of the solutions we start to see more and more, partnerships, so companies getting into partnerships with government, with NGOs, and even getting into partnership sometimes with competitors to change the landscape. When Unilever decided to go for 100% sustainable palm oil, which is a big problem in the world today, if they did it on their own it’s useless. They had to convince their competitors as well to do it. The other big ones like Nestle, for example, Procter and Gamble, and so they went through the Consumer Goods Forum, and they got everybody signed up. We’re seeing far more of those kinds of initiatives. It’s all about creating more and more connections.

Then the second one is coherence. This is about having really big goals to aim for. Now we’ve got the sustainable development goals, which are certainly helping, these 17 global goals that all the world’s countries have signed up to, that has created a common focus. But we also see coherence arising around specific issues. Like I mentioned, the 30% land and water protected by 2030, or on climate change, consensus really has emerged around a 1.5 degree warming target, not even two degrees anymore, and net zero by 2050. That’s just become the new norm that everybody is going for. We see this coherence start to emerge in different ways. Policy certainly helps here, because that’s what good policy does is it sets the destination, and then lets business innovate to get there. And we’re starting to see more and more of that good policy. If we look at the Green Deal in the European Union, it’s a great example of that.

Gene Tunny  39:18

Sorry, the Green Deal. I’ve heard of the Green New Deal in the US, but that’s not been implemented. There’s just some sort of wish list from AOC and people of that sort of persuasion, but you mentioned a Green Deal.

Wayne Visser  39:44

Yep. EU Green Deal. It’s effectively Europe’s strategy on climate change. It’s very, very comprehensive and very ambitious. And it touches everything. It’s got a Farm to Fork area which touches agriculture. It’s got a mobility area, around electrification of mobility. It’s got a circular economy element. It’s got a finance element. It’s a very, very strong policy. In some ways, America is trying to copy that with the New Green Deal. Yes, policy helps with the coherence piece.

Then you’ve got creativity, which we’ve talked about a little already. For things to change, for all living systems to change, they need innovation. And that happens through diversity. Again, there’s something we’re working very hard on, but we are living in an age of innovation, no doubt about it. In many of our most difficult problems, we are seeing some amazing solutions coming. If we just pick on one, for example, we know electric cars. I’ll leave that alone, but just remember that that is changing much faster than people think. Norway is burning fossil fuel cars by 2025. That’s just around the corner. In most other countries, UK, it’s 2030. Within 10 years, it’ll really be something to watch.

But take food, for example. There’s a whole movement of course around going more plant based. That makes sense from a health perspective, because 20% of mortality can be reduced just by going more plant based, but also from a climate perspective, and a biodiversity perspective, and of course an animal welfare perspective. But here we see innovation. You’ve seen the Beyond burger and the Impossible burger. These are really engineered to look and taste like the real thing. I know that may be a hard sell in in Australia, but on blind tests, actually, they’ve done extremely well.

Not only that, but we’ve got cultured meat coming. This is grown in labs meat, essentially grown fermented, grown in fat, like you do for insulin. And this is this is going to completely change everything, because again, you don’t have the input of land and water. You have much lower energy input, and you’re not killing anything. You’re literally just taking cells, live cells from a cow, for example, and you’re creating that. In Singapore, you can already go to a restaurant that sells cultured chicken. This is innovation happening very fast. Massive amount of investment going into this.

Gene Tunny  42:41

Sorry, by cultured chicken, do you mean lab grown, do you?

Wayne Visser  42:46

Yes, lab grown.

Gene Tunny 42:48

Wow.

Wayne Visser 42:48

That’s the popular—

Gene Tunny 42:49

In Singapore.

Wayne Visser 42:50

For everything, for steak, and you can literally grow it how you want to try, so lean or however you want it. It is real meat. It’s just that it’s grown from cells rather than the living cow that you have to slaughter or chicken you have to slaughter. And it’s very sustainable, not only in terms of those impacts, but literally, if I remember the numbers correctly, if you’ve got a factory that’s making this, every two days that meat replenishes itself. It grows back. You’ve just got this endless supply of meat that is growing much faster than a cow that you have to grow for months and months, or years. It’s just an example of innovation happening. That’s the creativity piece of the underlying science.

You’ve got a really interesting one, which is convergence. Convergence is very linked to innovation. It’s really the perfect storm. It’s when things reinforce one another. We call this in the science, positive feedback loops. And this is what creates tipping points. And here again, if you look at what’s happening, there are many of these positive reinforcing tipping points. When you were asking do we need more policy, do we need more market forces, what do we need, this is where we’re seeing the convergence because in fact, what we’ve got are the breakthrough technologies, which are starting to scale, plus the policy, which has really been a huge amount of policy reform in the last five years. We’ve just had the UN agree, for example, now to also create a plastics treaty globally, similar to the climate treaty, which countries will need to sign up to. That will happen by 2024. A lot happening on the policy front. Plus the market forces are kicking in. The likes of a Tesla or an Ørsted, which many people don’t know the name, but used to be a fossil fuel company in Denmark, completely transformed to a renewable company and now is one of the largest offshore wind companies in the world. We’re seeing this kind of transformation really happening very quickly.

And then, in addition to that, so we’ve got the policy force, we’ve got the technology force, we’ve got the market force, and then you’ve got the social movements that are kicking in. This is whether it’s the climate strike movement, or the Black Lives Matter movement, or the Me Too movement, or the extinction rebellion, these are very, very significant, with millions and millions of people, especially younger generations of people, who are just starting to say, “We want a different world. We don’t want our future sold out.” All of these are reinforcing one another.

And if I throw in one last one, finally, finances come on board, coming out of the Glasgow climate agreement. From November last year, there was something called the GFANZ. It’s now the Global Financial Alliance. This is $130 trillion of assets under management that is lined up now from the 450 largest financial institutions in the world, top 10 banks in Europe, top 10 banks in America, all committed now to fund this transition to net zero carbon. Now, practically what that means is they have to go back now to their corporate clients and say, “Show me your plan to get to net zero not only by 2050, but how you’re going to halve your emissions by 2030.” It starts to put massive pressure right through the value chain. All of these things are reinforcing one another, which is why the change is speeding up and why I think on many of these issues, we’re getting to these positive tipping points.

Gene Tunny  47:03

You’ve got a lot of great examples in your book. I would recommend, if you’re listening in the audience, and this sounds interesting, then yeah, please, you should get a copy of the of the book. There’s lots of great examples in there.

I wanted to go back. You mentioned palm oil. That’s something of great interest to me. I’ve done a little bit of work with Indonesian ministries, and palm oils are a major commodity in Indonesia. And if you go to, I think it’s in Bogor, just south of Jakarta, if I remember correctly, there’s a botanic gardens near the presidential palace, and there’s an extraordinary thing. There’s a monument or a statue or a tribute to a palm oil tree I think it is, because it’s such an important crop in Indonesia. I think it was first they imported it to Indonesia from elsewhere in the world, maybe from Africa. I can’t remember correctly. But they tested it in Indonesia, in that the gardens there. There’s a large amount of deforestation, I think in Borneo, due to it. But you mentioned Unilever is now committed to, is it renewable palm oil? Is that right? Is that having a practical impact on deforestation?

Wayne Visser  48:35

Yeah. A couple of things happening there. And you’re absolutely right, I think Indonesia maybe supplies 60 or 70% of the world’s palm oil, along with Malaysia, which provides another 20 or so. It has been absolutely devastating for forests. Indonesia has the third of the world’s largest tropical forests, and that’s really under threat. So we’re destroying these lungs of the earth for commercial interests, because the demand is there. And often the demand is from us in the West, isn’t it, the rich countries, because palm oil is in one in 10 products that we buy, everything from detergents to food. It’s very, very useful.

Yes, quite some time ago now, they set up something called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. This has a way of growing palm that doesn’t have the impact that the old commercial approach does, and doesn’t have the deforestation but also the biodiversity impact. Companies can get certified and supply chains can be certified to that RSPO standard. All the big players are on board, whether it’s Nestle or Unilever or Procter and Gamble. They’ve all committed to go 100% to that. It takes a bit of time, but there are large parts of the sector that are still not committed to that, and so it’s a partial solution right now.

But again, here you start to see the value of policy. Part of the EU Green Deal, one of the most recent things they’ve done in the last few weeks, they have a law being drafted now that they will refuse any export or import of commodities, of which palm oil is one, that can’t prove that they haven’t caused deforestation. The onus is on the supplier. If you’re Indonesia, and you can’t prove that this is palm oil that’s deforestation-free, you’ve just lost Europe as a market. This is going to have huge impacts. It’s not just palm oil, it’s coffee, it’s tea, it’s timber, and several others. This is how change really happens.

Gene Tunny  50:58

Yeah. One of the technologies you talk about in the book is blockchain. Can blockchain help us with traceability, with understanding the origins of or the history of the products that we consume?

Wayne Visser  51:16

Yes, blockchain has massive potential, and is one of those ones, it’s an early stage technology, which still has unfortunate unintended consequences. The upside is traceability. And there are companies using that, to show the sustainability of supply chains. A company called Provenance in the UK is a good example. They track and trace a whole value chain for fish or for gold, and they can show, in a very secure way, every step of that process. Another example is a company called Circularise that does this for plastics and can track all the… They actually even use artificial DNA, which they put into the plastic so that just by scanning it, you can tell at every stage of the supply chain, exactly what is in that plastic and how it needs to be recycled. That’s the upside.

The downside is the blockchain, like cryptocurrencies, takes massive amounts of energy. Until we can solve the energy problem—it helps of course if it’s 100% renewable energy—but so long as it’s largely fossil fuel energy, it’s just adding to the problem of climate change.

Gene Tunny  52:34

I’ll have to look up artificial DNA. I wasn’t aware of that. That sounds fascinating. I’ll put a link about artificial DNA in the show notes. Okay. Before we wrap up, Wayne, I want to ask you about a passage in your book. Now, you talk about economics. This is an economic show. I need to ask about this passage, because I’m not sure I entirely agree with it, but that’s fine. Look, I’m trying to be open-minded on this show.

You write that, “Contemporary economics is degenerative. It systematically disregards ecological limits and fails to ensure that fundamental human needs are met. Economy is good at creating jobs, product services and technologies, but what is the quality of these outputs? Do they create more harm than good? The impacts of economic activity are explained away as negative externalities, as if environmental integrity and social justice exist in some realm outside of the economy, but that is not true. Everything is interconnected.”

Look, I agree everything’s interconnected. My view is you’re probably being a bit unfair on economists. I think contemporary economics is trying to embrace the environment more. There’s a discipline of environmental economics, as I’m sure you’re aware, and even ecological economics, although that’s really sort of a minor discipline. My view would be that economists are increasingly conscious of these issues. I think externalities is an incredibly powerful concept. And it can help us think about potential policy solutions. My concern is that we’re not going to be able to get to net zero globally, because to do so you really need some sort of carbon tax. You need a carbon price of some kind. But to do that properly, you need to have that agreed internationally and you have to have it applying internationally, to the same extent. I just think that we’re just not going to get that international cooperation to be able to do that by 2050. I’m a bit pessimistic on that.

I just wanted to note that, that as an economist I probably… That was the one thing in the book I really reacted to. I’m not negative about the book because of that. But I just wanted to get an understanding of where you’re coming from there. Do you really think contemporary economics is really that bad?

Wayne Visser  55:19

Let me start by saying that I’m not anti-economics, I did a major in economics in my business degree. And I studied environmental, ecological and resource economics in my master’s degree. Economics is a tool that we use to better understand the world and to help manage our economies.

What I think we have to look at is what kind of economics system we’ve had, and what kind of behaviour it’s promoted. Certainly, since the neoliberal economics really took off, since the 1970s, and alongside that, the push for deregulation, it’s been a disaster for the environment. There’s just no other way to say that. It has externalised a lot of the costs. It’s gone for production in places where the environmental standards are the worst, where the social standards of the worst, labour standards are the worst. It has resulted in modern day slavery. We have more people in slavery today than we had when it was officially abolished in the 1700s. That’s all kinds of forced labour. It really hasn’t managed to create a system that is consistently good for all people and for the planet on which we depend. That’s the issue. It’s created an economy that is linear, that take make waste economy, where many of the resources are simply not priced right, they’re just too cheap. If you look at Virgin plastic, for example, it’s just too cheap. It doesn’t take into account those social and environmental costs that we have.

I do think the concept of externalities can be effectively applied to remedy some of this. If we do have taxes on carbon, for example, or on poor social labour standards, this can certainly start to rectify that. But we just have to ask whether those are strong enough.

I actually do believe that we will get a carbon price. It may not emerge as one global price, but I think it’s emerging in different places all around the world, lots of emission trading schemes popping up, lots of companies providing their own internal carbon pricing. I think a consensus will start to emerge on what that price is, and governments will start to impose it in different ways. They have to, because they can’t get to their net zero targets without imposing that restriction on companies and on citizens. It’s definitely coming.

Of course, we don’t get to net zero only by changing production. We also need to invest in nature. That’s the way that you also can draw down some of the carbon to make up… It’s a kind of a Pareto rule, like 80% you need to reduce directly from your lifestyle or your operations or your value chain, and then the remaining 20—or some say it needs to be more like 10%—should be in actually restoring nature, which makes up the balance.

I think all of those things are happening and will happen. I do think there is a brand of economics or a new understanding of economics that can get us there. If you look at Doughnut Economics, which you’re probably familiar with, Kate Raworth and her book, I think that’s the best coherently argued alternative to what would be more conventional economic thinking. All it’s really doing is saying, how do we better build and the ecological limits, or what we sometimes call the scientific planetary boundaries beyond which the whole system is in danger of collapse, and how do we build in those social foundations, the minimum requirements that people need. Economics has been dabbling with those things, but just hasn’t been very effective if you look at some of these trends we’ve been talking about. It’s just how do we improve economics and have a new version that is more effective than we have at the moment.

Gene Tunny  1:00:09

Wayne, you’ve written a really fascinating book with lots of great examples of what business and what communities around the world are doing to try to tackle these challenges to improve sustainability. Is there anything you’d like to say to wrap up, to conclude? This has been a great conversation, and we’ve gone over a lot. I could talk to you for another few hours, but we’ll probably have to wrap up for now. Is there anything you’d like to say in conclusion?

Wayne Visser  1:00:46

Yeah, let me just mention two things, and then I’ll have a cheeky suggestion. One is that there is a chapter on the book specifically on business and how business needs to integrate thriving, the practicalities of how they do that, and there’s six steps to that. That’s based on work that I do with companies, big companies like Johnson and Johnson, where we take them through these steps of integrating. It touches on all kinds of things, on how you consult with stakeholders, how you relook at your values, how you relook at your strategic goals, how you build in new and different metrics, how you redesign your portfolio of products and services. Just be aware that there is, if you’re coming from the business world there, besides all the innovation examples, there’s also this very practical, how do I do this on Monday morning.

There’s a chapter on leadership, because that is really crucial. We are seeing a different brand or a different type of leadership emerging, that is able to tackle these big challenges and turn them into breakthroughs and into thriving. I look at the different characteristics that those leaders have, obviously, with lots of examples.

The cheeky suggestion to end with—I’ve started to do this even in keynote speeches—is to end with a poem, since as you mentioned, I’m not only a professor, but a poet. I just find that it taps into a different part of the brain. With your indulgence, I might just end with one of those.

Gene Tunny  1:02:19

Please. Thank you.

Wayne Visser 1:02:21

I’ll do the one which actually opens the book. It is a poem called Thriving. It even has a stanza that is really all about markets and economics, so you should like it. But see what you think of this. Thriving.

Our life is so much more than a duty or a chore of merely getting by without a why or what for, the law of tooth and claw, the struggle to exist, to rally and resist against life’s slow decay, the way of entropy of living just to see another day, to stay, to endure and survive. No. Life is meant to thrive. In nature, all things grow from seed to tree. We know the cycle of living through giving of reap and so, the flow. Things come and go. The cycles of grooming from sprouting to blooming of stretching for the light, the bright palette of hope, the diverse ways to cope, to cherish and flourish, bursting forth and alive, for nature means to thrive. Society lives too. A melting pot we brew from cultures and crises with spices for flavour and kindness to savour, ideas for conceiving and goals for achieving, that stretch us and bind us, that find us together in all kinds of weather, wanting what’s fair, to care, longing to love and strive for society to thrive. The markets live and breathe in complex webs we weave. The synapses of trade have made the things we need, each deed a chance to lead. While tech is getting smart, yet still it needs a heart, a compass as a guide to tide us through the storm and find a better norm. A breakthrough to renew an innovation drive. Yes, markets too can thrive. All life is meant to rise, to reach up for the skies, to move beyond the edge, to fledge with hopeful cries. Life tries until it flies. It shakes and spreads its wings and trills each note it sings. While given time and space, the race of life is run, full powered by the sun, on land, in seeds, like bees’ sweet nectar from the hive. All life is made to thrive.

Gene Tunny  1:04:57

Very good. Excellent. Professor Wayne Visser, this has been terrific. I really enjoyed our conversation and your poem at the end and fully agree. All life and society and nature and markets are meant to thrive. What a great message to the end on. I’ll put links to all your social media and your website for the book in the show notes. This has been terrific. I really, really value your time and your thoughts and all the great insights in your book. Well done and thanks so much. Hopefully I’ll look forward to your future work. I’d really look forward to chatting with you in the future. That’s been great, learned so much. Thanks again, Wayne.

Wayne Visser  1:05:54

Thanks so much for having me on. Of course, I’m always happy to find an excuse to visit you down under. I used to teach also in Melbourne, and love it down there. I look forward to those opportunities. Just also to say for people, there are different ways to access the book, so not only e-book and hardback, but also an audiobook version, so whatever takes your fancy. Delighted actually that it’s already hit Amazon bestseller status, so really looking forward—

Gene Tunny 1:06:33

Wow.

Wayne Visser 1:06:34

That’s in its first week, and number one on the new titles in various categories, including several economics categories. I’m delighted with that. Just thanks very much for having me on. I love the conversation and I hope your listeners do too.

Gene Tunny  1:06:51

Oh, very good. I’m sure they will. Thank you, Wayne. Really enjoyed it.

Wayne Visser  1:06:55

Thanks a lot. Bye now.

Gene Tunny  1:06:57 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

Big thanks to my guest Dr Wayne Visser and to the show’s audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing the episode. 

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

EP88 – Evolutionary Economics with Brendan Markey-Towler

In Episode 88, Dr Brendan Markey-Towler returns to Economics Explored to speak with host Gene Tunny about the important insights of Evolutionary Economics, a sub-field of economics which owes a lot to Joseph Schumpeter’s perspective on economic growth emphasising creative destruction. Brendan is the co-author of the 2020 book Economics of the Fourth Industrial Revolution Internet, Artificial Intelligence and Blockchain, published by Routledge. He has a PhD in Economics from the University of Queensland.

Links relevant to the conversation

What is evolutionary economics – Brendan’s Medium article

Books with chapters on Schumpeter:

Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius

The Great Economists

The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers

Nelson and Winter’s 1982 classic:

An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change

Veblen’s article:

Why is Economics not an Evolutionary Science?

Please send through any questions, comments or suggestions to contact@economicsexplored.com and Gene will aim to address them in a future episode.

Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950)
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