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White Elephant Stampede w/ Scott Prasser – EP161

Various projects worldwide have been labeled White Elephants. These projects include the Gold Coast desalination plant and the Berlin Brandenburg Airport, among many others. What exactly is a White Elephant? How can we identify them and how can we stop them from happening in the future? In this episode, Scott Prasser joins show host Gene Tunny to talk about White Elephants. Scott is a former academic and ministerial adviser, and is one of the editors of the new book from Connor Court titled White Elephant Stampede: Case Studies in Policy and Project Management Failures. 

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About this episode’s guest: Scott Prasser

Scott has worked in senior policy and advisory roles in Australian state and federal government public service. From 2013 to 2019 he was Senior Adviser to three federal cabinet ministers covering portfolios of education and training, and regional health, sport and decentralisation. In addition, Scott has held academic positions at five universities across four states and territories, the last at professorial level. Scott gained his undergraduate and master’s degrees from University of Queensland, and his doctorate from Griffith University. Scott’s most recent publication with Helen Tracey was Royal Commissions and Public Inquiries: Practice and Potential (2014); and Audit Commissions: Reviewing the Reviewers (2013). 

Substack newsletter: Policy Insights by Scott Prasser

Links relevant to the conversation

The new book from Connor Court White Elephant Stampede: Case Studies in Policy and Project Management Failures

Criteria for identifying White Elephant projects.pdf

Regarding the cost of the Gold Coast desalination plant, see Brisbane Times article:

The Brisbane Times article reports:

“The controversial $1.2 billion Tugun plant was closed in 2009 after a string of complaints including rusting pipelines  and mothballed from fulltime water production in 2010.

Normally it provides only three megalitres per day to Southeast Queensland’s water grid and costs between $12 million and $15 million a year to operate.”

Time Out article on fixing up the acoustics in the concert hall of the Sydney Opera House

Transcript: White Elephant Stampede w/ Scott Prasser – EP161

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,

Scott Prasser  00:04

The whole thing was driven by politics. Right, rather than by policy. Yeah, that’s the problem.

Gene Tunny  00:12

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 161. On white elephant projects. My guest is Scott Prasser, who is a well known commentator on public policy issues here in Australia. Scott is one of the editors of the new book, White Elephant Stampede, published by Connor Court, please check out the show notes relevant links, including a link to the Connor court website so you can get a copy of the book if you’d like to learn more about white elephants. The show notes also include a clarification that I need to make regarding the cost of operating a white elephant not far from me, a Gold Coast desalination plant. I couldn’t remember the actual cost while chatting with Scott. And I overestimated it. That said, it’s still a costly facility and arguably fits the white elephant definition. Finally, the shownotes contain details of how you can get in touch. Please let me know what you think about what either Scott or I have to say in this episode. I’d love to hear from you. Right now for my conversation with Scott Prasser on white elephants. Thanks to my audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Scott Prasser, welcome to the programme.

Scott Prasser  01:34

Thank you very much.

Gene Tunny  01:35

It’s good to have you here. Scott, keen to chat with you about white elephants. So you’ve recently been one of the editors of a new book that’s coming out from Connor Court on white elephants, White Elephant Stampede case studies in policy and project management failures. So yes, looking forward to speaking with you about that. To kick off. Could you tell us a bit about your background in public policy, please, you’ve got an extensive background. And I think it’d be good to sort of let people know about that. I think it’s, it’s, it’s a really extensive, interesting experience. So if you could tell us a bit about that, please, that’d be great.

Scott Prasser  02:12

Sure. I’ve worked in federal and state governments, in state governments. I worked in state government, Department of Welfare Services, State Development and Premier and Cabinet in Queensland, under the Bjelke-Petersen government , and also under the Beattie government. Okay. So I’ve worked in those roles. I was basically running different policy units inside government. I also got seconded to minister offices in state government, and also in federal government. So immigration Minister’s office, I was Chief of Staff way back in the Fraser government days. And more recently, after serving, running a Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University in Canberra. I work for three different federal cabinet ministers, Christopher Pyne, Simon Birmingham, and Bridget McKenzie, across education in regional services. And so, I’ve been in and out of the public service Minister offices and academia over the last 30 years or so, and writing on all sorts of things about Australian politics, public policy, Royal commissions, inquiries, and those sort of bodies. And I did teach project management at one university, which is how I got interested in white elephant projects because you run across a quite a wide a lot of white elephant projects when you’re teaching project management.

Gene Tunny  03:32

This was it was at University of the Sunshine Coast. Right. Okay.

Scott Prasser  03:36

So I’ve worked at RMIT, University of Sunshine Coast, University of Southern Queensland, Australian Catholic University, and also taught at QUT and University of Queensland. So as a sort of tutor, person, so I’ve done all those sort of things. So I’m interested in really what’s happening in the real world, okay, and how we can, how we can learn from mistakes and not so they don’t happen again.

Gene Tunny  04:01

Absolutely. Okay. So, Scott, can you say about this idea of this concept of a white elephant? Where does this why is it called a white elephant? What’s the story behind that?

Scott Prasser  04:13

Well really, the story really comes from Thailand or Siamese, it used to be called that if you were caught by the king, with your hands in the till, or committing fraud, instead of having your head cut off, or your hands cut off, which is one way of punishing people. The idea in Thailand is a very interesting place, which I like a lot. The king would give you a white elephant and a white elephant is sacred. And it means you’ve got to look after it. You can’t. In Thailand, elephants are work animals, you know, they live logs and things like that. You’re not allowed to make a sacred animal work. So this becomes a very expensive issue for you to have to look after. This gift from the king. You can’t sell the gift. You can’t kill the gift and you gotta maintain it and look after it. So basically bankrupts the person you give the gift to, that’s where the whole term comes from really, white elephant.

Gene Tunny  05:08

Right. And so when we’re talking about government projects, or I suppose any sort of project, we’re talking about a project, which is you can draw an analogy, or you can, it’s similar to this white elephant that the King of Siam would would give to you because it it’s not a good thing to invest in, it costs you money on an ongoing basis is that the idea?

Scott Prasser  05:34

Thats right, the white elephant project, or white elephant policy is something that doesn’t work properly, that something that’s too expensive to maintain, that something that often Looks good, looks good, but doesn’t, can’t, can’t do can’t perform. And it becomes very expensive maintain and therefore gives no return back to the owner or to the originator of it. That’s for a white elephant project, is it a very expensive thing, it costs more to maintain, and it doesn’t serve any utility, any particular function to do that, for the amount of investment you got to put in to keep this thing going.

Gene Tunny  06:10

Okay. And we’re typically talking about public sector projects, are we?

Scott Prasser  06:14

That’s right. We’re talking about public sector projects, there are no doubt in the private sector, white elephant projects and things that go astray. But the shareholder puts up the bill for that. And I don’t really care too much about the shareholders in the sense that I do care about the waste of public money. Since public money is finite, like everything. And I am concerned, in these days of sustainability, how we waste money on projects, and we repeatedly waste money on projects, that self Evon were going to become white elephant projects or are white elephant projects.

Gene Tunny  06:49

Okay, so what types of projects are good examples of white elephants? Scott, you’ve you’re looking at some in this new book, you’re editing the case studies in policy and project management failures, the white elephant stampede, what are some of the examples in that book?

Scott Prasser  07:03

Okay, well one of the examples close to home is the Queensland desalination plant. Okay. So this is rusting way down the Gold Coast there, it cost billions of dollars to do. And it was an overreaction to the drought we had a number of years ago right now. Now, from my point of view, all droughts come to an end, basically, as we are seeing right now. So we built a billion dollar desalination plant, but we haven’t built any dams in Queensland for a long time. And this basically, it was really a bad idea from the beginning. But it’s an example of what governments do when they got to be seen to be doing something. So that’s one example. The other one is close to my heart is the hospital payroll system we had in Queensland, which was going to cost you know, a couple of million dollars and ended up costing a billion dollars, we end up having to have a Royal Commission into this. It was such a monumental mess that should have been avoided. Olympic Games also tend to be white elephant projects, they always run at a loss there is one or two haven’t. They build infrastructure that serves only a short term timeframe. And since we’re in the Olympic game, game at the moment in Queensland, we’re suggesting and we’re seeing the issues about the GABA and the immense costs that this is a this will be a white elephant that’s going to grow before our eyes. So it’s we can grow up with it in the next 10 years.

Gene Tunny  08:36

Yeah, because Brisbane is the Olympic city and 2032 and the GABA at the cricket ground, the Woolloongabba at the GABA, which we abbreviate as the GABA here in Brisbane, they’re talking about just increasing the capacity by what, five or 10,000 people, but it’s going to cost $2 billion or something ridiculous, so they have to revisit that just on the desal plant. I think that’s a really good example and it illustrates how these things can be an ongoing burden because if they’re not using it, they can’t mothball it, you have to keep it in this Hot Standby mode or something. There’s some specific term they have for it you have to keep you have to turn it on every now and then. So the membranes keep fresh or something so they don’t dry out.

Scott Prasser  09:24

You can’t just let it sort of rot away. Yeah. So there’s the issue of a white elephant project that even after it become doesn’t serve its original purpose was not working. You they got to maintain them. That’s the problem. It’s a bit like having a Jaguar Car, its good when its going but not when its in the garage.

Gene Tunny  09:43

You have to get a good mechanic.

Scott Prasser  09:45

So it’s no use having these sort of things. You got to keep maintaining them. Yeah, that’s the problem about these things.

Gene Tunny  09:53

Yeah, exactly. And I remember I went to a presentation maybe five or six or seven years ago with our explaining this Hot Standby mode for the desal plant, I mean, it’s hardly making any contribution to our water reliability or water security. But yet, it’s costing, I don’t know, 50 to 100 million a year, I can’t remember the exact figure. But it’s a significant amount of money and for something that we isn’t really adding to our water security, it rained again. But this goes back to that time when in the 2000s, there was a view that, well, it would have, it didn’t we’d never have the rain we had in the past because of climate change. Tim Flannery was saying that and the government here was panicking about water supply and all of that. So that’s where it came from. It came in a time of crisis. So that’s one way we could get projects that aren’t really sensible. What are some other ways, Scott, that what why do we end up with these projects that are, that are white elephants?

Scott Prasser  10:52

I think there’s a number of reasons. One, I think that government is involved in too many areas. Okay, the government tries to do too much. Yeah. And the government is seen as the saviour of so many things. So if government could not be involved in so many things, and it’s focused on on the core business, where it should be, you know, good infrastructure, good roads, and that sort of thing so, government is often called upon to be doing things now politicians reaction to that, is, something’s got to be done. This is something we can do. Right. Okay. And they have no concept of our financial limitations. So governments, often we saw that during the COVID thing, where governments were running around doing all sorts of things, which were completely against the evidence this remember, in Queensland, we were formed by the Chief Health Officer we, and was mandated, we should wear a mask in our car. Think about this, and we should wear a mask walking around a park. Let’s think about this. Now, I didn’t do that, I refuse to follow the law. So that’s an example where governments are going to ratchet up activities to do things. Also, governments love to love to announce iconic projects, you know, I hear the word iconic, I run a mile, okay. This is Danger, danger, or this is going to be a landmark, or they want to have a vision. I don’t want governments to have visions. Thank you very much, especially the wrong ones. And so it’s this thing of meeting the electoral demands to be doing something instead of saying nothing can be done. Okay, that in some cases, is not government’s responsibility to do it. And if we do anything, it doesn’t, doesn’t have any effect. So, you know, it’s like, you know, why does the Commonwealth government spend $5 million on men’s work sheds? I mean, what has that got to do with the Commonwealth Government? There’s like a little mini, a mini white elephant, because they want to be seen to be giving out money for some minority group cause or something. So it’s politics in politics. The other factor is that all the organisational things inside organisations, groupthink happens. Yeah, okay. Now, if you’ve worked in the public bureaucracy like me, it’s sometimes very hard if you if you want to be the lone person who says I think that’s a dumb idea. Yes, right. Yeah, it doesn’t go well with the rest of the team and the hierarchy, which CERN you got to have in the bureaucracy, someone willing to say, No, right. Now, our public services have become politicised, that is people are on short term contracts. They give the government what they want, not what they need. So this sort of Once Upon a Time treasuries would have said, and that’s why under Joh, we had permanent public servants. Okay, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Premier, they were permanent public servants. Queensland didn’t have a zoo. Queensland didn’t own a bank. Okay, Queensland didn’t do all the crazy things that Joh wanted to do because the treasurer, Leo Hilscher and crowd will say, no, Joh, you’re not going to have it right. Now, I don’t think that happens anymore. Because all the senior public servants are on five year contracts. They want to get their contract renewed, they will give into the political will all the time. So that’s one of the issues that helps help throughout why we’re getting more of these things. And why frank and fearless advice is no longer being given. I don’t want to sound too precious, but it is very hard in the bureaucracy, if you’re in the hierarchy, and you want to get a promotion in the future, and you’d write a memo to the premier. This is a really dumb idea. And I have done this myself and I have saved the taxpayer money. I can tell you right here. And that’s because I had a very good director general in the Premier’s department, but it’s hard all those organisational factors, the political factors and government in all the interest group pressures now interest group pressures on wanting to get something from government. Australia has always looked more to government than other countries. You know, we’ve always We founded by government Australia was founded by, you know, sending out convicts here. It was a government thing in America, America was founded by people trying to get away from government, they want to religious freedom. Okay, so there’s a difference. Yeah, sort of context. So all those factors have driving that. Plus, I think, economic theory, modern, modern monetary theory. So it says, oh, spend as much as you want, it doesn’t matter. It All right, you know, there’s no, there’s no limitation on what government can spend. So the idea of balanced budgets being careful, and frugal has sort of gone by the by, if you’d like. So all those factors are contributing to this sort of galloping syndrome.

Gene Tunny  15:45

Well if it was a good infrastructure project, or a good if it was delivering public benefits into the in the long term, then you could make an argument that it may make sense to borrow money to invest in it, it could be good debt. But the problem is, these are such bad projects. They’re, they’re not delivering that return. And they, they’ve got this ongoing cost, for hardly any benefit. And I think this is a point you make, and this criteria for selecting white elephant projects for identifying white elephant projects, which I think is really good. And I’ll put it in the show notes if that’s okay. I think it’s excellent, I think this was something you did for your public policy course at Sunshine Coast, etc. And one of the points you make is that, so while white elephant projects might produce some marginal benefits, the issue is they never cover the project’s real costs, and more often end up costing more, okay, so we’re not saying that these things are completely worth worthless that they don’t deliver some benefits, it’s just that they’re not enough to justify the large costs.

Scott Prasser  16:45

I think you see it in, you know, stadiums or things like that, or opera houses and so on, which you know, do serve a certain public purpose. And there’s a there’s a place for them, but they, they never really will cover their costs. So they’ve got to be subsidised. And the first indication that seems wrong, after things been developed, we need more funding, or we need more to keep it going, right. I’m in the Sydney Opera House, many of you are together as a white elephant, by the way, because A, it was a design that no one knew how to build. Yeah. The technology wasn’t there. It cost phenomenally more than I think 2,000% more than the original costs. Yeah, it costs 150 million bucks a year to keep, to keep going, right cleaning and all that sort of stuff. And acoustically, I’m told, not that I go to opera, everything like that. I’m told that it’s not that all great, you know, the there are better opera houses or sound places around the world and build a lot less cost than the Sydney Opera House. It looks fantastic. No one No one can deny that. It is a landmark. But there’s an example where it still serves some purpose. But okay, it, you’ve got to keep it. You’ve got to keep it up to the mark and only the public taxpayer can keep it up to the mark. No one’s going to buy the Sydney Opera House.

Gene Tunny  18:06

Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Amazing building, though. It is. So I’m trying to remember the issues. Yep. There’s an issue with a concert hall. So I think there’s, there’s the different shells of the Opera House. And I think there’s a there’s the Opera Theatre in one shell. And the problem there is that depending on where you sit, your view can be limited. So if you’re sitting on Yeah, so in some seats, you don’t get to, it’s not a full view. And the problem with the concert hall part of it. Yeah, that’s definitely an acoustic issue. And they’ve tried various fixes over the years to improve that I might put a link in the show notes. Remember, I’m trying to remember they had some some donuts hanging from the ceiling? I’m trying to remember correctly.

Scott Prasser  18:50

That’s right, there’s a book that came out in the 70s called great planning disasters. The Sydney Opera House was listed. Yeah. You know, but no, and as an example, it is it is pretty fantastic when you’re on the ferry to look at and so on. But you have to think, what this is costing you, and there’s lots of things like that all around the place where governments and what happens is a project or something which is developed for purpose x, it doesn’t meet purpose x. So gradually the purpose changes to purpose y. Okay, yeah, it’s not really a great opera house, but it’s a fantastic tourist attraction and you see what I mean. So you sort of transfer the goal from what it was originally to be to as a fantastic tourism attraction. Now how you measure the impact of tourism is pretty hard, as you know, the best of times, so they happen a lot, gold is placement happens a lot with with white elephant projects.

Gene Tunny  19:50

Yeah it’s a hard one because it’s hard to think of Sydney Harbour nowadays without the Opera House, but we know that it is one of the the most magnificent harbours in the world. Also it’s still be, you would expected to still get tourists there regardless of what you put there. You could put something up cheaper. That’s an attraction instead of the opera.

Scott Prasser  20:09

Yeah, look years ago when I was in the premiere department, the Roma street Parkland issue. What should we do with the Roma street parkland, and I read the project team to look at that. And we talked about getting the Smithsonian to try and build something there. We went to America, Premiere Beattie winter America, and we had a committee of the great and famous people of Queensland, I can tell you the great and famous of Queensland. And the trouble was, I could never get them to focus on the purpose of the building of a building and want to build some sort of building, everyone focused on the design of the building. And it was quite exasperating with this committee of great and famous people. And I had to get the Director General to go and actually talk to them in the end, because I couldn’t control him because everyone just came with their pictures of iconic buildings from around the world, you know, Bilbao and all that sort of stuff.

Gene Tunny  21:03

Which is a white elephant. Guggenheim.

Scott Prasser  21:08

Yeah, they all went through the design, but what are we going to put in the building, which was, to me, the important issue, what are we going to use the building for? Is it going to be and to build a proper museum type thing is you’re talking about 300 million bucks. $300 million. Okay. Yeah. And what’s it going to do? And it was impossible to get the great and good committee to look at function as distinct from design of the building. Okay. And it was a very interesting experience. To try. We had museum people in and we had all sorts of people discussing this. But fortunately, it wasn’t, it wasn’t tempted and eventually got dropped.

Gene Tunny  21:45

I need to ask you more about this, because I walk through there practically every day or every second day. I live near the park lands it’s this amazing space. They’ve got this beautiful floral garden there, the spectacle garden, there’s a lake, there’s a Well, I mean, it is a rain forest is part of it. There’s not a lot of rain forests, but there’s a little bit there. And there’s this canopy walk, which is great. I think it’s an amazing attraction. I couldn’t imagine anything else been there. But what ended up happening? Did they just think, Oh, this is all to hard redevelop or?

Scott Prasser  22:15

Smithsonian doesn’t do things outside the United States. That is the crux of the issue. Smithsonian is an American only and the money for the Smithsonian came from an Englishman, by the way, called Smithson, whatever comes from he gave money to America in the 1840s. The American government didn’t know what to do, in gold in gold, by the way, they didn’t know what to do with it. And then the idea was to set up the sort of museums, museums were run by governments in the 19th century to largely be places where you brought back your booty from your colonies. Okay, the English Museum, German Berlin museums. And so the Americans decided to build this museum complex, which anyone been there is fantastic. Because it’s multiple museums in Washington, DC, it’s fantastic place. And that’s what they did. And we brought Smithsonian people out to Brisbane, and all sorts of things to try and see if we could get interesting. We develop some sort of agreement and we develop some sort of interchange of scholars and people, I left the Public Service and that probably didn’t happen. Right. 

Gene Tunny  23:29

Okay, that is very interesting. Now, I had to ask because it’s so close to home. So yeah. Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

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Gene Tunny  24:11

Now back to the show. Okay, let’s go over some of these other criteria. Scott, I think this is a really great list. This was for your students, so they could come up with examples of white elephant projects. And this is when you’re teaching project management. And so first, they do not fully achieve their public stated objectives. So second, white elephant projects usually cost more than was promised or estimated and much, much more. So this whole thing about mega projects is this mega project risk. I think you refer that, the Oxford scholar who’s written a lot on mega projects. So you’re in that’s in your oval, overcoming the white elephant syndrome. Yeah, yeah. Good one. And fourth, they often so yeah, third, they might produce some marginal benefits, but they don’t cover their full real costs. Fourth, though, too often maintain past their use by dates. Okay and fifth, they were perceived as counterproductive in its own time, not merely by hindsight. So you’re talking about so your contention is that a lot of these projects, at the time were criticised as being potential white elephants and politicians went ahead anyway. Is that right?

Scott Prasser  25:27

Yeah. Politics like to say we’re doing it. Okay. Yeah, we’re gonna do it. Right. Peter Beattie was very big into we’re doing it sort of syndrome. And they don’t want to have a back down, because that’s a political embarrassment. Right. Okay. So I used to have a superior in the public service. And his slogan used to be let’s do it. And my slogan was, let’s think about it. This cause conflict, okay. I said, Why are we doing this crazy project sort of thing and that was also my view. And so I’ve and I’ve worked in ministerial offices in Canberra, why, Minister are we doing this project? You know, is this a good idea? And so, once this things gets going, it’s really, really hard despite all the contrary evidence that happens. Now, sometimes that evidence could be inaccurate and wrong. And that’s when judgement is required. We know and Prince Albert was building the Crystal Palace in England for the Great Exhibition, everyone said it was going to be a white elephant, and there’s going to be a disaster and people are gonna die. That Her Majesty Queen Victoria stuck by him and it got built in it was an exhibition was a financial success, you know, it built a whole stack of things afterwards, not for the money, the profit went. So, but you know, what is interesting is, is governments do not like to admit they’ve made a mistake. Yes, right. That’s now I think, it’s sometimes we can say sorry for lots of thing. But we don’t want to say sorry for the sort of mistakes. And we I mean, the other who want to see lots of mistakes is Defence projects, phenomenal amount. And helicopters that don’t fly. Tanks that are too heavy for our bridges, and so on, so forth, frigates that we don’t know where they’ve worked or not. Submarines, and we still don’t have, and so on and so forth. It just goes on and on.

Gene Tunny  27:19

So this submarine debacle or whatever you want to call it. This was intensely political, wasn’t it?

Scott Prasser  27:27

It was about saving Liberal Party seats in South Australia. Right. That’s the story. That’s really it. We, we could have bought, the German Germans have had pretty good experience of u-boat type things, okay. And we could have bought the German programme. And if we bought the German product, they were knocked down form, they would have cost $12 billion. The Germans would have come out and train people as they tend to do. Yeah. Okay. And they will now be operational. Right. We then went down, we then retrofitted nuclear French submarines, put diesel engine in because we can’t have nuclear power. Why we would want to build diesel submarine is beyond my comprehension. Yeah. And then to prop up the liberal seats in South Australia. Then we went down this track. And so here we are, in 2022. We still haven’t got a single submarine. And by the way, the Collins submarines have also been a bit of a disaster, too, in terms of their they’ve had to get refitted with lots of problems with them, and so on. So I don’t know it’s a real, it’s a real problem. And there’s an example where we really the whole thing was driven by politics. Right? Rather than by policy. Yeah, that’s the problem.

Gene Tunny  28:45

Yeah. So we were trying to get manufacturing jobs in South Australia for political reasons. So we were either we are, we were building submarines here, or what was it retrofitting French submarines. Yeah. And then we ended up having a change of course, a couple of years ago, because we signed this ORCAS agreement with the US and UK. Fair enough, but that’s upset the French.

Scott Prasser  29:10

Yeah, I think what we should have done is gone and bought a couple of nuclear submarines from America or, I’m sure had a couple lying around somewhere or and gone ahead with the debt. That’s what we could have done. So that’s an issue.

Gene Tunny  29:24

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Okay, six, there were feasible alternative courses of action available. In short, the project chosen did not have to be adopted or take the particular form it did to tackle a perceived problem. Okay and certainly in that water crisis, when we went ahead and built that expensive desalination plant, a better option was possibly well, if we’d built dams in the past.

Scott Prasser  29:47

Just remember that the Goss government came in and canceled the Wolffdene dam. Dum dum, okay. against the advice of the coordinator General Affairs Department at the time. Um, so you know how during the drought, remember, there was all this incentive of buying, getting tanks in your backyard tanks, I didn’t buy a tank, because I have this very odd view that since I pay rates in water rates, I expect the government to supply me with water. Okay, it’s not my job to go and spend 10,000 bucks on a tank to be in my backyard. And so its the same with solar panels, we could use the same analogy. So the government’s don’t often sit down properly and say, how could we tackle this issue in a different way they jump to the obvious, most visible idea, right. The big project, the big deal, we’re doing this, we’re going to save everyone, if we go ahead of this big problem, when they’re often alternatives. And look, you know, this and I know this, most public policy problems are really caused by people’s behaviour. Okay. Okay. Why are there car accidents? Because a lot of people drink too much. Okay. Right. Okay. Why do people get sick lots? Because they have lousy diets and have bad lifestyle. Okay, hospitals pick up the residual. Now, we can’t change people’s behaviour, except by all sorts of incentives and so on things like that. But governments don’t really sit down. It’s like freeways. I mean, do we have to keep building freeways when maybe you have completely different urban development or you have different timescales for people to work and go home and all sorts of stuff. And you don’t have to go down the big spending alternative and sit down and think about, look, you’re hearing this in education at the moment. Ah, you know, we’ve got to we’ve been spending more money on education, by the way, by quite a large amount and our results are declining in Australia in a big way. Federal government more than the states, the federal government is actually now the biggest single spender on schools. Okay. Right. Okay. And where did that where did the money go? Largely goes in teacher salaries? Yeah. Because we got smaller classrooms. Okay. So is that really the appropriate thing to do? Or should we be thinking about? What are teachers? How are teachers properly trained? And things like that, you know, what’s, what’s the way to do it? Aboriginals have a poor education, but you talk to people, a lot of the problem is that they don’t attend school, right. The people don’t attend school, then there’s the problem. There it is. And they’re very hard things to tackle. But governments just jump to the obvious so often, and don’t end as in because of rushed decision making gotta be seen to be doing something. And the media, piling it on. What are you doing about this? What are you doing about this? This, like, when you see an accident, train accident or something? There’s some poor person, you know, dragging themselves to the train or the poor ambulance service dealing with people. What’s the government going to do about this. You know, give us a give us a bribe. And what I found is government rush too many things. rushed to meet the media agenda. Yes, yeah. Then yeah. The policy agenda.

Gene Tunny  33:30

Yeah. Right. So yeah, and this is where this is how we get white elephants. They want something iconic. I mean, you’re talking about. No, thankfully, that Smithsonian thing never went ahead. But they ended up with this idea of a there has always been this idea of a landmark or an iconic building in Brisbane, I think it probably will come up again with the Olympics. So we wanted something to sort of excite the world or make Brisbane distinctive. To an extent I think that GOMA, that Gallery of Modern Art that was they were trying, I think that one intention of that was that it could serve as a building that

Scott Prasser  34:07

Yeah, well, the art world is very big on that, mainly because so much art shown is so terrible. They’re got to have something good outside to look at.

Gene Tunny  34:15

Yeah, oh, yeah. Some of it’s difficult…

Scott Prasser  34:18

I’m obviously a Philistine. I don’t understand.

Gene Tunny  34:21

Some it is. It’s difficult to comprehend really, but but they’ve had some great exhibitions at GOMA. They had a great David Lynch exhibition many years ago.

Scott Prasser  34:31

I think Southbank which is basically developed by the National Party government, essentially, for the expo 88 is quite a successful sort of precinct in a sense. Yeah, without being too grand. The art gallery is a reasonable size, there’s the Queensland library we’re one of the few places that actually have a State Library, not everyone is very keen on those things. So there’s a lot of good things about the South Bank, I think it was developed and the government would push through and got that done. And there is a bit of style about it without it being over the top, over the top, not that it’s not a Guggenheim by any stretch of the imagination. So it’s, if you go over there, it’s pretty busy in this kid’s swimming and what sort of stuff. It’s got some things going for. But yeah, there’s one example where it’s at a scale that is confit in Brisbane, say where I mean, the, the iconic thing of, of Brisbane is the climate. That’s the iconic thing. And unfortunately, don’t build houses to suit the climate. We build houses of air conditioning systems, designed in Melbourne. Yeah, that’s another story.

Gene Tunny  35:41

Yeah. Yeah, coming back to the white elephant. So the last criterion that you specified, the decision to proceed with a policy or project should be that of a group, not an individual ruler. So all case study selected involves some form of collective decision making process in a democratic environment, not by tyrants, dictators or in authoritarian regimes. That’s because we just assume dictators will do crazy things.

Scott Prasser  36:13

Starling, yeah, you know, Hitler, and those sort of people. North Korea, you can look at lots of those sort of, yeah, sort of buildings, they can make it happen. Sometimes it’s, you know, it’s great. I mean, I suppose you could say Adolf gave us the German highways, which were brilliantly designed and, and still are pretty brilliant to drive on. They’re much better than American highways. But you know, that’s a big cost to pay. But I think all the things we’re talking about, were decided in this democratic system. That is there’s a so called independent public service, there was some sort of parliamentary approval, there’s some sort of accountability, there’s some sort of openness about them. They, I mean, Mr. Beattie, might have been a very powerful Premier, but he still had to get approval from his cabinet. One assumes for the things that went ahead, yeah, so we can’t just blame the premier, you know, the premier was part of a government. Yeah, therefore, we say, and we have a reasonable, you know, free press to comment on things. So that’s what we’re saying that you can’t just blame, you know, one person in our solar system. Our white elephants have been collective fair decisions, if you like, right, we’ve tried to point out.

Gene Tunny  37:29

So we’ve got to look out for them as, as citizens, or if we’re in government, then we should be looking out for these things. And because they’re not really, what’s your view on whether they’re actually politically sensible or not? Like if you’re if you’re just looking at completely politically? Do you think these things? Do politicians get a benefit from them, when they open? When they open the desal plant, or they open a new school that ends up running under capacity or a new hospital?

Scott Prasser  37:58

They think they do. Now, that’s politicians, I often have arguments in with politicians about grants and things, you know, why are we involved in giving out this grant of $5,000 to x project so the local member can hand over this check? Do which gets a tiny article in the local paper. Do you really, really, think, minister, that this is going to get votes for the government? Yes, Scott, you don’t understand politics. I do understand the politics. I’m saying it’s not very good politics.

Gene Tunny  38:33

Yeah. Okay. So as an advisor, you’ve got made a push back. Yeah. Okay.

Scott Prasser  38:40

I’m very proud that on a couple of things. There was one crazy idea going on in one office, about a moving government testing body to somewhere in the country. And the public servants said to me, Scott, this is going to cost $50 million to do . That is what it’s going to cost, what can we do? I said, we’re going to slow it down. And we slowed it down. And got so slow down, it didn’t get to cabinet, and it was too late for the election. Right. We didn’t do it. Okay. How are we all happy.

Gene Tunny  39:18

Right. Okay, so, going back to your book, just before we wrap up the white elephant stampede. We talked about the desal plant. You talking about the payroll system debacle here in Queensland, the state of Australia, we’re in other what other examples are there in this book? Are there international examples too?

Scott Prasser  39:42

Yes, there is one. Paul Hooper talks about airports. He’s basically, a what do you call him a transport economist? Yeah. And PhD has worked in, worked overseas. And he looks at how new airports often become phenomenal, disasters in one in Berlin became a disaster, one in Thailand. And he looks at how airports often develop with little thought about what it really gonna cost and how effective it will be. So, there’s when he looks at those sort of things, I think that’s a really good one to look at. So in his national one, if you like, the Olympic Games and looks in other Olympic Games, as we’ve talked about, so we’ve talked about those, the other one I like is the COVID Safe App, which people may remember in the Commonwealth Government, the COVID Safe App. Okay. And I had come in, I refused to join, join it, by the way, as I did on anything, I never tried to join and link up with government. And that’s been a complete waste of time and effort. Yeah. Right. And, again, the government rushing into it and sometimes technology makes government think, Oh, we can use this new technology for something. And again, that wasn’t wasn’t thought thought through. So there’s a very recent example, which is in the book being discussed by Professor Schwartz, who used to be Vice Chancellor of Macquarie University and so on and is an extremely bright person. There’s an example of that very, it didn’t cost a lot of money, but it still cost some money and took up a lot of time. And and expectations were just never met, it eventually just faded away.

Gene Tunny  41:35

That’s completely useless. So what was it it was an app on the phone at work through Bluetooth and if you passed, every time you pass someone who also had the app on and Bluetooth was enabled, there would be a communication that you you’d register that you were in close proximity one and a half metres within one and a half metres of this person. And therefore if they tested positive for COVID, you would then get notified or you are in close proximity of someone who had COVID and that was supposed to allow us to manage goes better.

Scott Prasser  42:07

Appalling, appalling authoritarian government scenario going on I mean, fact that it was it was a liberal so called Liberal government brought tortures up. Is even m ore repulsive. What’s the next bright idea coming from the powers that be in Canberra land?

Gene Tunny  42:25

Yeah, well.

Scott Prasser  42:26

I mean, Canberra is a white elephant by the way, the whole thing. That’s another story.

Gene Tunny  42:31

I know that it was in the top 10 policy mistakes public policy mistakes for Australia that the Institute of Public Affairs put out. I forget how many years.

Scott Prasser  42:43

Redfern post office or something was the other one where all the mail went through Redfern and Sydney exchange and got stuck if there was a strike. Means all the mail in Australia got stuck on something like that. I think it was Redfern, one of those sort of things. And see the other thing is government often put all their eggs in one basket. Yeah, another issue. And this is why a federal system of government is good because you can have different baskets going on. And if you over over capitalised, you turn over capitalise in your house, you have interpreters in your car, or government going over capitalising in spending money. Yeah, and they put all their eggs in this, this is the solution for the problem. And of course, you ought to have a couple of horses in the race rather than just one horse in the policy race. If you’re lying. There are many ways to policy heaven, I say. Yeah, so we all be careful about adopting just one thing as the magic solution.

Gene Tunny  43:46

I was just thinking, does anyone talk about is there a chapter on public transport projects in there?

Scott Prasser  43:51

No, not Not really. But that might be next book we what we’re wanting to do is, is have a series, another book coming out and have an annual White Elephant award. Yeah, that’s what we want to do. And we’re going to link up with project management institute and Master Builders Association, those sort of bodies, Master Builders, of course, I’ll build anything they sell me. They’ll build anything, downside, people pay, they’ll knock down as long as people pay. They don’t question the value of what they’re doing. If you give me money, we’ll build it. No matter how stupid and how bad the design will be. We’ll build it. That’s not our decision. Okay.

Gene Tunny  44:29

Yeah. Well, I was just thinking public transport because there’s a bit of a question about whether this new subway project we’re building here in Brisbane is economically viable, particularly now as the cost of it’s blowing out. It’s one of these mega projects Cross River Rail.

Scott Prasser  44:45

That’s right, blowing out. The Sydney light rail project is one that’s been very expensive and very disruptive and took longer and so on and so forth. And given that what we’ve learned from COVID. What have we learned about how lot of people can work from home. We don’t really need all these offices and buildings running around the place. And so Heaven has arrived, in a sense, you can work from home. And given that, you know, a lot of our people workforce works in white collar office type jobs, then that’s possible. When I was in the public service, it was very hard to work from home. Okay, it was very hard to let one of your staff work from home, there’s all sorts of forms that had to be filled out. And sometimes some staff could work more effectively at home, you’re not being interrupted by, you know, coffee halls, and I would let staff work from home sort of unofficially. And, okay, you got three days, I want, all I want to see is the paper at the end of the three days, and had that person stayed in the office, it probably would have taken two weeks, because of all the disruptions and meetings and, and rubbish that goes on. So now we can work more from home. So we need to think about, you know, when people travel, why they travel? And do we need a lot of the infrastructure, you know, coming into the city? For what purpose? And for how many?

Gene Tunny  46:13

Yeah, so I’m just thinking, what’s the how do we fix this? I mean, can we actually fix it? Or is it just a feature of our democratic system is, we’re always gonna have politicians being political. Could should our journalists be challenging the politicians to give us the to provide the cost benefit analysis before us bill? Should there should be rigorous scrutiny of that cost benefit analysis? Should we have competing cost benefit analyses? So you’re not just getting the view from Deloitte or the view from whoever that this is a great project and I mean, the government’s paid them a tonne of money tax, right.

Scott Prasser  46:48

That’s right, I certainly wouldn’t trust those people. Well, we’ve done this, haven’t we in other areas of government, I mean, the Productivity Commission. And it’s for run, the industries Assistance Commission, which which came out of the Whitlam government period, are examples where if you set up a process, and you have public reporting, and I’m not totally in favour of everything the Productivity Commission has recommended, but we know, don’t we, that if you want to keep x industry going, it is going to cost you $15,000 per employee to keep x industry going. You didn’t know that before. And now I’m, I’m all in favour of that information being in the public arena. But I’m also in favour of governments making democratic political decisions about keeping in industry costing $15,000. But I think the taxpayer ought to know what it’s costing in the trouble of so many of our projects, and especially state governments, which tend to be more secretive, is that we often are not told the truth about the cost of a project. It’s fuzzy, fuzzy figures. Don’t you worry about answers. Yeah. Okay. So in public policy, we often talk about speaking truth to power, that is, advisors, telling the leader, the King, the minister, the truth about what’s going on, highly admirable, if you don’t want to get shot or deported or whatever. The King of Prussia, Frederick the Great, he was a very hardworking king, he was absolute king. He worked from four in the morning till midnight, he had ministers, and they would have to report to him once a year of annual report. And but he did allow his ministers to tell him the truth, the one he put into jail for six months, he didn’t cut his head off. But he was telling him that the King’s idea was really a bad idea. And he released him because he said he was right. But I think the other problem we’ve gotten our democracy is that governments don’t talk truth to the people. We have so much political pallava going on. And we’re seeing it now, with the Albanese government over the defence projects, I’ll blame the previous government. Well, how about we have a real valuation of projects properly, rather than just jumping into the blame game sort of process all the time. How about telling us what the real alternatives that you came to government? You said that you could decrease energy costs that we need to spend more money on these things? Or how are we going to do it? How are we going to do it? And I think I would like some processes set up in Queensland, I’ve often recommended there should be a state priorities commission. And it should operate a bit like the Productivity Commission, we sort of have one. And anytime a government wants to do saying it should go to this body and it should release a Cost Assessment in the public arena. Yes, right. Yes. Yeah. It’s got to be independent, truly independent, not filled with political hacks or whatever, and then the government, then the government can make a decision, we’re still going to go ahead with the project because we think this is in the wider public interest. Yeah. So that’s what I think should happen. You’ve got to have processes. And you’ve got to insulate some of the advisory systems from the interference in the public. We’ve seen from Royal Commission, the Royal Commission to overseas doctors, in 2005, highlighted how the Premier’s department interfered in the release of quality reports about health. There was fixing of the hospital waiting list. Okay. This is all down to politics by the public. We had all we had all the body we had health Commission’s we had ombudsman, we had all sorts of rules that they weren’t insulated from political interference. I believe the biggest problem Australia’s got is not climate change is the politicisation of our public service, our judiciary, and our universities, where we people are appointed because of their political allegiances, not because of their competence. And because of that people are showing their allegiance to the governor of the day, and they’ll do what the government wants them to do.

Gene Tunny  51:20

Right. And that’s both sides of politics.

Scott Prasser  51:25

Newman missed a great opportunity in not fixing the problem. And his government was marked by just as many bad cases of cronies getting positions.

Gene Tunny  51:37

Right. Okay. Okay. Yep. There’s a lot of politicisation for sure. And that’s behind these white elephants. Absolutely. Okay. So any final points? Scott, what did you think? Were some of the highlights of this book? What are you most happy about with this, this edited volume?

Scott Prasser  51:58

Well, I think it was interesting how easily we got people to find examples. And then there was an as we could have been twice the size, okay. We didn’t think initially we would have a lot of interest. But a lot of people we’ve sent a flyer to, and we’re going to have a launch in November, in Brisbane and one in Canberra that there’s tremendous interest in this. And our job is to try and make people aware, what we want, we want we’re not against public funding. We want public funding spent more effectively. And if you’re talking about sustainability and the environment, surely we shouldn’t be wasting money on projects that are consuming resources and causing pollution in the construction or whatever it may be. When there are alternatives in the way, things could be done. That’s what we’re really on about. And we’re sort of surprised that the universities are letting us down on not being critical commentators on these sorts of things. There’s there’s very few people in universities writing about these sorts of matters.

Gene Tunny  53:12

Okay. Scott Prasser, thanks so much for your time chatting about white elephants has been terrific. Really enjoyed it. Okay, that’s the end of this episode of Economics Explored. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please tell your family and friends and leave a comment or give us a rating on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to contact@economicsexplored.com and we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye

Credits

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

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Podcast episode

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

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

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

LinkedIn profile: Robert Sobyra

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

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

Data mentioned by Gene:

Trend Deck 2021: Urbanisation (UK Government)

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

World Urbanization Prospects 2018 (United Nations)

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

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

Gene Tunny  00:01

Coming up on Economics Explored.

Robert Sobyra  00:04

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

Gene Tunny  00:20

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

Robert Sobyra  01:30

Hi Gene. Thanks for having me.

Gene Tunny  01:32

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

Robert Sobyra  01:39

Thanks, you and my mum.

Gene Tunny  01:41

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

Robert Sobyra  03:02

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

Gene Tunny  04:04

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

Robert Sobyra  04:09

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

Gene Tunny  04:34

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

Robert Sobyra  04:53

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

Gene Tunny  06:13

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

Robert Sobyra  06:26

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

Gene Tunny  07:04

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

Robert Sobyra  07:35

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

Gene Tunny  07:39

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

Robert Sobyra  07:50

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

Gene Tunny  07:57

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

Robert Sobyra  08:09

Rocky as it was last year. 

Gene Tunny  08:13

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

Robert Sobyra  08:34

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

Gene Tunny  10:21

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

Robert Sobyra  10:44

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

Gene Tunny  11:35

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

Robert Sobyra  11:54

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

Gene Tunny  13:47

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

Robert Sobyra  14:00

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

Gene Tunny  14:55

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

Robert Sobyra  15:12

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

Gene Tunny  16:10

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

Robert Sobyra  16:46

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

Gene Tunny  17:49

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

Robert Sobyra  18:33

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

Gene Tunny  18:51

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

Robert Sobyra  19:17

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

Gene Tunny  20:10

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

Robert Sobyra  20:54

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

Gene Tunny  21:30

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

Robert Sobyra  23:13

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

Gene Tunny  24:28

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

Robert Sobyra  24:56

Bundaberg

Gene Tunny  24:59

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

Robert Sobyra  25:28

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

Gene Tunny  25:57

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

Robert Sobyra  26:51

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

Gene Tunny  27:08

Was it Armadale ?

Robert Sobyra  27:09

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

Gene Tunny  28:10

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

Robert Sobyra  28:27

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

Gene Tunny  28:43

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

Robert Sobyra  29:37

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

Gene Tunny  29:47

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

Robert Sobyra  29:53

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

Gene Tunny  31:26

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

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Gene Tunny  32:00

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

Robert Sobyra  33:02

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

Gene Tunny  33:52

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

Robert Sobyra  35:33

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

Gene Tunny  36:11

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

Robert Sobyra  36:46

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

Gene Tunny  38:29

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

Robert Sobyra  39:56

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

Gene Tunny  40:51

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

Robert Sobyra  42:44

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

Gene Tunny  43:22

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

Robert Sobyra  44:25

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

Gene Tunny  45:07

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

Robert Sobyra  45:56

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

Gene Tunny  46:01

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

Robert Sobyra  46:10

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

Gene Tunny  46:17

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

Credits

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

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

GDP & the National Accounts: What they are and why they matter w/ Brendan Markey-Towler – EP153

The National Accounts are a huge intellectual achievement and an incredibly useful set of data, including GDP and its components. Chatting about the National Accounts with Economics Explored host Gene Tunny is fellow economist Dr Brendan Markey-Towler, author of the Substack newsletter Australian Economy Tracker. Brendan explains how the National Accounts help us track the current state of the economy as well as longer-term trends, such as shrinking manufacturing sectors and growing services sectors in many advanced economies.

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

Brendan’s Australian Economy Tracker Newsletter

Brendan’s post discussed in this episode

Planet Money episode on Simon Kuznets

Australian Financial Review article (pay-walled, alas) which reported “Federal government business generated $1.7 billion in revenue for the big four accounting and consulting firms over the past five years – though the government has a different take on the contract value of that business.”

Transcript: ROI of education: how economists estimate it + US economic update – EP152

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.

Brendan Markey-Towler  00:04

So, that’s where we get the view that Australia is less and less a country that makes things and builds things. Construction, manufacturing declining as a share of GDP.

Gene Tunny  00:16

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 153 on GDP and the National Accounts. What they are and why they matter. 

Chatting about the national accounts with me this episode, is my good friend and fellow economist, Dr. Brendan Markey-Towler, who started a new sub stack newsletter, Australian Economy Tracker. Brendan explains how the national accounts help us track the current state of the economy, as well as longer term trends, such as shrinking manufacturing sectors and growing services sectors in many advanced economies. 

In the show notes, you can find relevant links and any clarifications. Please send any comments or questions to contact@economicsexplored.com. I’d love to hear from you. I’ve been very grateful for all the comments on recent episodes. Your comments really helped me figure out the issues that you’re interested in, and the types of guests that you’re interested in hearing from. So, please keep the comments coming to me.

Right oh! Now for my conversation with Brendan Markey-Towler on the national accounts. Thanks to my audio engineer, Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Brendan Markey-Towler, welcome back to the program.

Brendan Markey-Towler  01:43

Gene, it’s always a pleasure to be here. Sorry, I’m a bit husky today, but I’ve bruised my throat. I’d like to pretend that it was under heroic circumstances, but it was not.

Gene Tunny  01:52

Okay, well, thanks for participating. I understand it’s not damaging your throat, you’re able to talk, you’ve been talking all day. And you’re still happy to talk.

Brendan Markey-Towler  02:01

I could talk under wet cement, mate. So, a bruised throat isn’t going to stop me.

Gene Tunny  02:07

Well, you know, now, you can get a job as a rugby league commentator, possibly?

Brendan Markey-Towler 02:14

That’s true. I’m more of a union man. Yeah, but I will go with league. That’s good. 

Gene Tunny  02:18

Right oh, okay. So, the topic of today, national accounts, what it is, why it matters? You’ve started a sub stack and one of your first pieces that came out on the sub stack was on the national accounts. And you displayed a level of enthusiasm for the national accounts that is very rare. And it actually reminded me of just how marvelous the set of data – the national accounts are, and what a superb intellectual achievement. 

So, going back to the work of Simon Kuznets, and Colin Clark, who, was it Stone as well, Richard Stone, who formulated the methodology financial accounts, and then it was like a system a toss by the UN. So, I think, what your note did was it really helped us; well, it really reminded me of just how impressive those national accounts are. So, could you just tell us first, what you were trying to do in that note? And what’s your sort of general take on the national accounts, please, Brendan? Why do you think they’re so important?

Brendan Markey-Towler  03:28

Partly to justify why I had no friends at school. Because I get excited about nerdy stuff like this. But look, when you actually know what the national accounts are, they’re extremely interesting. And what they really do is they aim to provide a snapshot of the activity within an economy over a set period of time. So, in Australia, and throughout almost the world, I’m not sure of any country that doesn’t do it this way. It gives you a snapshot of all the activity that went on in an economy over the previous quarter. And the central number that depicts that activity is the number that we call gross domestic product. And gross domestic product is a measure of how much wealth was added to the economy, how much production, how much activity, and under the three great categories production, exchange, and income, or earning. That’s what the national accounts do. And they add that up into a single number, GDP. And that tells you how much activity went on in the economy over that quarter. 

Now, where it gets really interesting, is that number not alone would be kind of cool. And we talk about the GDP growth rate. That’s what we mean when you hear on the news that people say economic growth or the economy grew by, that’s what they meant that GDP number increasing or decreasing. But where it gets really interesting is that we approach GDP in three ways. And you can think of this as looking at the economy as the same thing, but from three different directions. And that changes the way that you interpret that number. So, we call these GDP I, or at least I call them GDP I, GDP O, and GDP E. That is, GDP expenditure, GDP income and GDP output. 

And what those numbers are doing are adding up GDP, the activity in the economy, looking at that activity from one to three ways: as a production, as an expenditure, and as an income, right. So, if you think about it this way, when you go down and you buy something that’s dear to our heart, here in Queensland, you go down into buy your coffee, there’s three things going on, there’s three ways that they get that same transaction gets measured and add to GDP. From the expenditure side, the expenditure that you make, when you buy that coffee goes into GDP E, and we add all of those up together, and we get GDP. That expenditure becomes income from the perspective of the person behind the bar. And that gets added up into GDP income. 

And there’s also an interesting concept of gross value add, which is how much value has been produced by that transaction. The way that we measure that in GDP O, is we take the value of the output that was sold and subtract the value of the inputs that went into it. And that by definition, that’s the value that was added. 

So, that’s the three ways that we add up GDP and we get an interesting view of the economy from that. A little bit further breaking that down, obviously, you can break that down to the level of the individual transaction. But the you know, you don’t get a huge amount of information that you get so much information, you have no information. So, we categorize at a high level, these different activities to get a sense of what’s driving GDP. So, within GDP E, the expenditure, which is the most popular and most focused on of the national accounts measures of GDP, we break down expenditure by consumption, investment; in Australia, we break down by housing, as well, government expenditure, both consumption and investment, and net exports.

Gene Tunny  07:34

And by investment, we mean capital investment, we mean expenditure on capital goods. So, we mean, new housing developments, or we mean, new, non-residential buildings, new schools, new factories, new capital equipment that’s purchase.

Brendan Markey-Towler  07:55

That’s right. Yeah. So, in Australia, we call it gross fixed capital investment, which is at the addition to the capital stock of the country in the capital stock of the country is; in Australia, again, we trade a little, perhaps, oddly, that we add housing into that. But factories, equipment; we actually add intellectual property as well. So, science and technology research get added into that figure. And so that’s what we that’s, that’s the way that we break down the economy. 

So, when we break down GDP E that way consumption, investment, government spending net exports, we get a sense of which sector of the demand side of the economy is pulling the economy along. Is it household consumption? Is it buying new houses or building new houses? Is it businesses investing? Is it government consuming, spending money? Or is it government investing? Or is it coming from the international sector? And that gives us a lot of information about the activity within a country, it also gives us information about what might be dragging economic growth as well. So, that’s expenditure. 

Another really interesting measure, well, I mean they’re all interesting, but the second measure GDP O – GDP output, sometimes called GDP gross value add, gives us a sense more of the supply side of the economy. 

So, expenditure gives us a view of what’s driving the economy on the demand side. GDP O gives us a view of what’s driving the supply side. So, we get GDP in Australia, broken down by industry. And that’s where it gets really interesting because we can see which industries are adding the most to GDP. So, that’s cool. We can say, oh, mining adding more? Or how much is mining adding to GDP and how much is it driving or dragging on GDP? Ditto for professional scientific and technical services is another one that we use, agriculture and fishing, public administration safety; how much are these sectors adding to GDP and how much are they dragging or driving GDP. And then finally, the GDP I number. This is typically not quite as informative as the others, which is kind of ironic because it’s the easiest to add up because we just look at the tax returns. GDP I, breaks down GDP by income. And in Australia, we do it by what we’d call the greatest states of Australian society. So, wage earners, non-financial corporations, financial corporations, and government. And we can get a view of who’s earning the income within GDP. How what of that GDP that’s expended and outputted. Where is the income from that activity accruing to? Is it accruing to wages? Is it accruing to company profits? If it’s an accruing company profits, is it occurring to financial or non-financial companies? So, that’s some of the really interesting stuff that we get from GDP, it gives us this, really, especially in Australia, because our accounts are quite amazing.

Gene Tunny  11:05

Yeah, we’ve got some of the best in the world for sure. 

Brendan Markey-Towler  11:09

They really are and we get a really rich view of what’s driving and dragging the Australian economy. What’s creating the wealth in our economy and what’s potentially dragging on the wealth of our economy. And kind of, we get a sense as well, where it’s going.

Gene Tunny  11:26

Okay, so the few things I want to talk about there, Brendan. Okay, so you mentioned that GDP; well, is it an approximation of the addition to wealth? Let me think about this. I mean, part of it is in addition to wealth, to the extent that you’re increasing the capital stock, but then part of it is consumed, and then part of the investment is consumption of fixed capital. So, I mean, it’s national income really, isn’t it? I mean, it’s related to wealth. Yes. So, it’s certainly related to that. It gives us a picture of our national income. I think national income was the original term for it, wasn’t it?

Brendan Markey-Towler  12:11

Yes, although national income gets a little trickier because the we focus on GDP, because it’s really limited to the geographical definition of the country. And that distinction was made early on in the development of the methodology, because national income is a bit fuzzier because it’s typically added up by nationals, rather than by where the activity occurred. So, that’s why the classic example that we give in an economics course, is that national income for a country like Luxembourg is, I think, Ireland, sorry. National income for a country like Ireland is actually much higher than its GDP, because a lot of its nationals live overseas. So, there’s few distinctions that we make within it. But really, what it’s giving you is a view of the activity that’s occurred in the economy, the economy being that system of human behavior, why we produce and exchange stuff that we need for everyday life. And so obviously, that adds to the stock of wealth in the economy, because some of that gets consumed and taken out and other elements of it gets allocated to the national wealth. 

So, yeah, it’s a flow metric in the classic distinction between stocks and flows. It a reflection of the consumption and investment activity in an economy during a particular period.

Gene Tunny  13:40

Yes, it was developed during, well; the need for it became obvious during the 30s, when they were trying to quantify the extent of the Great Depression, I think Kuznets produced a report for the US federal government that strangely became a best seller. I mean, it was the first time someone had produced numbers like this. There’s a great planet money episode on that. I’ll try and find it and link to it in the show notes.

Brendan Markey-Towler  14:09

Well, that’s a good point, right? Because before then everyone kind of knew when times were good, or times were bad. And so, you could tell there were panics and manias and crashes as Charles Kindleberger famously said, but before the national accounts were developed, we never really were able to quantify what that was. And a lot of this was crystallized by John Maynard Keynes, his famous book, The General Theory of Interest, money and employment. I’ve got that wrong, interest money I think I got three. I’m one of the few in my in my generation, I think who actually read the book, which is, which is why it’s embarrassing I can’t remember the name because we always refer to it as the general theory.  And what Keynes was trying to do there was give a theory of why we experienced these manias, panics and crashes, you know, boom and bust. And the problem was that when he wrote it, he was dealing with a lot of abstract thoughts and that needed to be measured. And I’ll actually give a little plug here for our home state of Queensland because Queensland was at the forefront of this, currently the building out at UQ, which houses the School of Economics, the University of Queensland, the School of Economics there is housed in the Colin Clark building, which is kind of ironic because Colin Clark didn’t become an academic at UQ until much later in life, I think around the 1980s. But Colin Clark was at the forefront of developing the methodology, not only for what the national accounts are, but how you actually design the surveys that add up those numbers and find out what the numbers are. 

Gene Tunny  15:49

And he’s quoted in Keynes’s book because Keynes used his estimates of consumption spending for Great Britain, if I remember correctly, in the general theory. 

Brendan Markey-Towler  16:01

And it’s kind of funny. So, Colin Clark who came out here to Australia and did a tour of Australia and he was the hotshot wizkid political economist from Cambridge. And he met with all of the premiers because back in those days, we understood the constitution. So, the premiers were much more powerful than the prime minister. And when he came up here to Queensland, the premier at the time William Forgan Smith, which the alumni of UQ will know, is that is the main building at the University of Queensland. Kind of, a nice little coincidence. Forgan Smith basically said to him, look, do you want to come and be my adviser on all things economics? As Forgan Smith was a great reformer and trying to develop the Queensland economy, he needed to be able to measure the size of the Queensland economy: what was driving, what was dragging, what was causing development, what was dragging on development. And there’s a famous letter that Colin Clark writes back to Keynes to say, I’ve been offered a job to basically become the shadow premier of Queensland. I’m not going to turn that down. And Keynes, I think said something to the effect of where is Queensland. So, then, Colin Clark came out, join the Queensland Statistical Bureau and, he was instrumental in the development of the national accounts and as a point to why the national accounts are so important. While Colin Clark was doing that, he’s obviously thinking about what goes into an economy? What is an economy? What exactly does it mean to say an economy? Because when you actually; we all kind of know what it is, is the economy stupid?

Gene Tunny  17:44

It’s an abstraction, isn’t it? 

Brendan Markey-Towler  17:47

But it is an abstraction. And so, he had to think about, Okay, what does it actually mean? What is an economy, what counts as economic activity? And this is becoming very pertinent again, in these days, where we’re talking about things like Facebook and Amazon and Google where a lot of the activity that goes on there, we sort of think of as economic but it doesn’t measure it. But what happens as a result of Colin Clark thinking through these questions, is he’s starting to develop views of how economic development occurs. So, he ends up writing a large book, which sort of became a classic and development economics on how economies develop, what the basis for economic development are, what the settings for economic policy should be to encourage development. Particularly important question here in Queensland, which was a quite underdeveloped economy at the time.

And as a result, he became a very close adviser to Bob Santamaria, who those diehard fans of Australian politics will know was instrumental in the foundation of the Democratic Labor Party. So, this is the guy who invented a lot of the methodology behind the national accounts. So, when you understand something at that level, when you understand what an economy is, when you know how to measure it, imperfect as that measure may be, you get really rich insights into how an economy is tracking over time. And you get really rich insights as a result that develop over a long period of time of working with these things of what drives economic growth. You can situate those numbers in a history that tells you why the economy is growing, or why it’s not.

Gene Tunny  19:32

Yeah. Where do you get that Colin Clark story from? Is that in that book you keep talking about by, was it Millmow?. 

Brendan Markey-Towler  19:38

Yeah. Alex Millmow, A History of Australasian Economics Thought. I think that’s where I got it from. Yes, it is where I got it from. It’s a really good book because Alex points out that a lot of Australia’s economic contributions to economic thought came from really practical questions like this. How do we measure?

Gene Tunny  19:57

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

Female speaker  20:07

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Gene Tunny  20:36

Now back to the show. Okay, now, I did want to go back to the point you made about the difficulty of well, the issues around the modern economy and the India head, etcetera. There was a great lecture that John Quiggin, who’s a professor at UQ. And if any Australian economist is going to win a Nobel Prize, it’d be John. I mean, he’s one of the most cited academic economists that Australia has. I mean, maybe, Warrick McKibben could win one. So, but yeah, certainly, John is;

Brendan Markey-Towler  21:11

I always like for John Foster personally.,

Gene Tunny  21:15

Well, John Quiggin, is incredibly distinguished economist and his view at the this lecture he gave was that the problem with GDP is that it’s gross, its domestic and its product. Okay, so we’ve already talked about the domestic issue. So, the fact that you could have a lot of production, but if all your incomes remitted overseas, okay, because it’s just foreign mining companies producing and sending profits home, and then you may not see all of that benefit. But the point he was making is it because its product, and it’s measured at market prices, what you could be missing out on is consumer surplus, you’re not necessarily measuring the benefit to consumers, because all of these products are provided for, well, a lot of them for free. But yet, the foreign company makes money out of you in some other ways, because it’s monetizing your attention, isn’t it?

Brendan Markey-Towler  22:11

Yeah. And so, this is a debate that’s been really reopened, it’s been a perennial debate in economics, and there’s a lot of interesting ideas floating around, inspired by it, which is that when we talked about, you know, how GDP is added up, we talked about the exchange, okay. But the only way that we really observe and exchange is by the exchange of money, right? So, the price multiplied by the quantity of goods or services sold. Now, the problem merges; what happens in a world full of freemium models? What happens in a world where the price of a Facebook membership is zero? That sort of kind of, well, I don’t particularly like Facebook. So, you know, I would challenge just how much consumer surplus is creating, but there’s, you know, many people would argue that there is a value added.

Gene Tunny  23:11

I think TikTok is creating the most at the moment. Especially among the younger generation..

Brendan Markey-Towler  23:16

Massively, yeah. the only thing that shows up in the national accounts from Facebook, Google, TikTok, Instagram, is the data sales. That’s the only thing that shows up in the national accounts. I mean, apart from the marketplace exchanges that go on as well in the Facebook marketplace, and so on like that. But really, it’s ultimately the advertising for Google the sales of data from all of them. That’s the only thing that shows up in the national accounts. So, but there’s more than that, as well. Another problem, And Peter Thiel has recently raised this issue.

Gene Tunny  23:53

Oh, the billionaire? Right.

Brendan Markey-Towler  23:57

The chap who founded PayPal, he thinks that we’ve actually had no economic growth or very little economic growth in the past 70 years. And the reason he says that is because he contends that what is observed as economic growth in the past 70 years, is actually just us bringing production and exchange; valuable production exchange that used to happen in the home, into markets. So, cooking, cleaning, keeping the house in order, gardening; all this stuff gets done on marketplaces, rather than in the home. And that’s a bias in GDP. It doesn’t measure that stuff because it’s not on a marketplace. It can’t be observed. So, that’s another argument. 

You know that GDP doesn’t measure the actual value that’s being created. Now, the problem ultimately is, this goes back to a problem of micro economic theory, which is what is utility? And what is consumer surplus? And actually, from my perspective, why I ultimately say, look, let’s stick with GDP. It’s the worst measure we have, except for all the other things. Some countries have toyed with measuring gross national happiness. You know, New Zealand is toying with that at the moment, Bhutan famously measured it. The UN uses the Human Development Index, which is a weighting of GDP per capita literacy rates and life expectancy, I think.

Gene Tunny  25:31

All of which are highly correlated, aren’t those?

Brendan Markey-Towler  25:33

Yeah, and so, that was a March Ascends Brainchild, Jagdish Bhagwati famously said, well, yeah, they’re correlated. So, what are we talking about here? So, all those debates over replacing GDP ultimately, were reduced to a deep, deep philosophical problem, which economists are not well placed to solve, which is, what is value? What is good, what is true, what is beautiful? And I got some views on that. But as an economist, I ain’t got nothing to say about that. And so, when economists start dabbling in it, you kind of go, I used to be a fan of the happiness literature. But now I read and go, ah, this is, you know, it’s very simplistic. We’re going to use subjective wellbeing measures to add up Gross National Happiness. Okay, fine, that’s a really subjective and not very tangible measure. Whereas I can look out the window and see the cranes on the skyline here in Brisbane and see that’s an objective, measurable thing.

Gene Tunny  26:37

Well, it stood the test of time, hasn’t it? So, we’ve been using it for decades now. And there’s a general feeling that it does capture the state of the economy reasonably well. I mean, there are going to be people who grumble about it from time to time, but generally well, in Australia, at least when we had the recession, I mean, I always remember the 91 recession, because I was in high school at the time. And like, things just look bleak for anyone who was in high school and wanted to get a job. But then that was the period when retention rates at high school really ramped up. So, it was it was telling us something important there and it tends to; like it could give false signals, there’s a big debate at the moment over what’s happening in the US. But then look, the economy’s looks like it is slowing to an extent. There’s the impact of the Federal Reserve hikes. So, let’s wait and see how it all plays out. I mean, my feeling is, it’s generally a pretty good indicator of the state of the economy. 

Brendan Markey-Towler  27:38

I look bad, I’m a Queenslander first, Australian second, and as a result, I do have a bias which is towards tangible reality. Right, feelings are very ephemeral. And feelings are important, right? They are very important, but they’re really difficult to measure. And they’re very subjective, and they can be easily manipulated. Now, GDP can be manipulated as well, depending on how you count things up. But at the end of the day, it’s stuff that’s being produced stuff that’s being consumed. And it’s tangible, observable goods and services. So, insofar as I really have a criticism of GDP, my major criticism is that it really; I agree with Peter Thiel largely, biases us away from realizing the value that is produced in a house. 

And look, I’ve got a young, I’ve got a four-month-old son now so and my wife is at home, taking care of that. And I tell you what, that is incredibly mind blowing valuable work that she’s doing; doesn’t show up anywhere in GDP. Now, that doesn’t negate GDP. Because I think the solution to that is really, let’s just realize what GDP is actually measuring. Now, that does work in a political debate, because in politics and the way that the media works, you need a number and you need that number to be growing, otherwise, elections get lost, and so on and so forth. But when you’re, you know, when you’re doing grown up analysis instead of politics, I think the solution is to look at what GDP is actually measuring. It’s not a measure of value and if you think of it that way, then you’re wrong. Stop thinking of it like that. Think of it as it’s a measure of the production of stuff and the exchange of stuff within the economy, within the market that we can observe. Don’t try and start thinking about as a measure of all of the economic activity that ever happens in an economy. Just recognize the limitations, it doesn’t measure this stuff that goes on the household and that’s incredibly important.

Gene Tunny  29:51

Yeah, fair enough. That’s a good point. I’ll have to come in another episode to this issue of what’s in GDP? What’s out? What does it all mean? I’ll try and have that discussion in a future episode because there is a couple of other things I wanted to pick up on from your note; your note reminded me of a couple of things. And it’s the fact that this system is so beautiful, I mean, we end up getting from two different directions, possibly two different sets of data. I mean, we can look at what spend on consumption goods, final consumption goods, now, we have to be careful, we’re talking about final consumption goods and final investment goods, because what we’re trying to do is avoid double counting, we’re trying to get; because there are a lot of business to business transactions, businesses selling to other businesses inputs, so you have to take care of all that and make sure you’re not double counting title output, you want the expenditure on final goods and services. 

So, if you look at that, that ends up telling you what GDP is, once you add exports, subtract imports, because, well, if you import something, then you don’t have to produce it here. So, there could be stuff that shows up a consumption spending or an investment spending that’s imported, and we didn’t produce it here. So, you have to subtract it. And likewise, if we’re exporting something, well, we produced it here, we know we produced it here, then that adds to our output. But then, you look at spending data, on the other hand, you can look at income data. So, you are saying, look at the wages data, look at the profits data. And yeah, I guess it is coming from the ITR. I’m not sure exactly where the IBS gets it from. But I mean, that’s a likely source. I do surveys of businesses.

I’d have to check exactly how much they’re using ATO data, but I know they do surveys of businesses to get that information. They’ve got a household expenditure survey, they’ve got surveys of, well I guess they got their business server; I’d be looking at what they spending on capital goods. Looking at what they’re earning. And so, they build up this picture of earnings that way, and also the gross value added in the business. Which as you described, is their revenue less their production costs, and wages are part of the value added to. So, wages plus the gross operating surplus, is your value added in the business?

Brendan Markey-Towler  32:21

Yeah, it’s a very slippery definition, because it’s not quite profits. But it’s, you know, the value of inputs minus the value of outputs. And that by definition has to be the value that is added by that business to the economy, insofar as we can measure it.

Gene Tunny  32:35

This is because we’re talking about gross domestic product. So, we haven’t subtracted for the depreciation of capital stock, because some of the investment that occurs is just replacing existing capital stock. So, the building wears out and we have to replace it.

Brendan Markey-Towler  32:52

Too hard. We set that aside. Depreciation is very funny thing to talk about.

Gene Tunny  32:56

Right? Yeah. Well, we’ll leave that for now. You got time just to chat about your great quote? I should have brought it in earlier. You use these different perspectives on GDP to provide a really nice summary of what’s been happening in Australia. I thought this was very good. Exactly. Okay, so after you analyze where the growth has occurred, and you know, it’d be good if you could explain this at the moment. You concluded this; to put it somewhat tribally, Australia is less and less a country that derives its wealth from making and building things. Still a country that makes its wealth by digging stuff out of the ground and renting houses, and more and more a country that consults and cares. Could you please explain how you came to that conclusion, Brendan?

Brendan Markey-Towler  33:53

Well, you so what I did there, this is one of the most informative aspects of the national accounts I’m very interested; everyone focuses on the demand side of the economy, because we’re all Keynesian.

Gene Tunny  34:07

What we’ve been heavily influenced by Keynes, yes. There’s no doubt about that, whether we’re Keynesian. So, that’s another question. You can go ahead. Yes.  

Brendan Markey-Towler  34:13

We are all Keynesians. But the supply side of the economy is super interesting. See which sectors of the economy are generating the wealth. Now, the way that you can do that is by looking at gross value add, right. So, then you take the gross value added by each industry divided by the total GDP and you get the share of GDP, economic activity, economic value that is being created by that industry. And you can track that over time. Now, the problem with that data why almost no one really uses it? Some people do, but almost no one does. And you’ve used it, Gene, is that there’s a lot there, the ABS breaks the economy down by I think its 20 sectors. possibly 25. So, you’ve got to kind of cut it down to get some useful insights from it. 

So, the way I did it was alright, let’s cut out everything that’s less than 5% of the economy and look only at things that produce more than 5% of Australian GDP. Now, no sector really produces more than about 15. But there’s a clear standout. And there are clear standout trends once you do that, and you clean the graph up by eliminating all the Martin “minor sectors”. And you see some very strong trends. 

Trend number one that’s quite striking, and I should emphasize, this is all by real data. So, we hold prices constant to see what’s going on at the volumetric level in each of these sectors. So, we hold P constant, and we look at what’s changing in Q. Q is for quantity. And so, there’s benefits and costs to doing that. But it’s valuable as an exercise as long as you’re aware of the limitations of doing that. First interesting thing, manufacturing and construction are in decline in Australia. They’re not producing as much value add. In volumetric terms, they’re not producing as much value add anymore. They’ve been declining for the past 10 years as a share of GDP. So, that’s where we get the view that Australia is less and less a country that makes things and builds things; construction, manufacturing declining as a share of GDP.

Gene Tunny  36:30

So, with manufacturing, we had a car industry once, we subsidized a car industry, we tried to buy ourselves a car industry, and it just could not be viable on its own. And there wasn’t any more money we could throw at it to keep it open. 

Brendan Markey-Towler  36:48

And you look at somewhere like Maroubra or Ipswich. Which would you know, once kind of manufacturing ish areas in Queensland. Maroubra main manufacturing now is government contracts, building bullets for the Australian Army.

Gene Tunny  37:03

And do they build trains, still?

Brendan Markey-Towler  37:06

They do now. Yes, Maroubra now has a trains contract to build trains for the Queensland Government as well. And I think Ipswich still has a little bit of a train industry as well. But really not too much, by the way of price manufacturers. It’s not to say that it doesn’t exist, and it’s not to say that it’s very valuable. Queensland, for instance, has very vibrant medical manufacturing sector. That’s kind of grown up on the back of our extremely good hospitals and medical research. But generally, across Australia, the story is one of the car industries; we don’t really make stuff anymore. It’s just not competitive to build stuff. And so, that number is reflecting something that you see a lot when you go down to Fortitude Valley here, which, you know, the state would like to think Silicon Valley. Yes. Anyway, it’s Fortitude Valley, Queensland Silicon Valley, you see that a lot of the companies there just want to grow big enough that they can afford to offshore their manufacturing elsewhere. And the classic one is, I think Trivium, the electric car battery manufacturer, which is, as soon as they got big enough, they got a loan from the Queensland Government and then went to build factories in Tennessee.

Gene Tunny  38:17

Is that right? Is that a good use of taxpayers’ money?

Brendan Markey-Towler  38:21

Well, I’m completely agnostic on that. So, that’s what’s that number is reflecting. Similarly, construction,  this runs a bit counter to the crane index that we’re seeing in the city at the moment, but construction has been adding less and less to the economy. It’s not just large construction projects, but construction is declining as a share of GDP. 

Gene Tunny  38:48

Well, I’ll have to look at this. But I think what could be explained is 10 years ago, we had that massive project up in Gladstone at Curtis Island where we built the three LNG terminals or what are they? Refrigeration or liquification facilities. They turn the methane that comes from the coal field, the coal seams to liquefy it so, they can put it on a boat economically and ship it to Japan or Korea. And that was like $70 billion.

And it basically doubled the level of capital expenditure in Queensland at the time. It’s absolutely extraordinary.

Brendan Markey-Towler  39:31

There’s a huge effort on part of government corporations to get that going. 

Gene Tunny  39:35

And then in the southern states, maybe a few years later, I can’t remember the time; we had that big apartment construction boom. So, that could be explained. I’ll have to look at the data but go on. 

Brendan Markey-Towler  39:48

And that’s what’s really good about the national accounts is kind of counter to what you’re seeing if you’re walking around, particularly, Brisbane at the moment. The number of cranes in the sky is astounding, but this is why statistics are important because what’s local loss to a particular area is not necessarily true of the entire country. And what’s even true of a particular sector of construction, residential construction, government construction is not necessarily true, it might mean that we’re not building that many mines, which ties into the second point, which is, although it has declined in volumetric terms, the mining sector is still the single biggest contributor to Australian real GDP. And it’s not close, it’s way up; I forget the exact number, but it’s well up towards 10% of the entire Australian economy value added is produced by the mining sector. 

So, that’s, you know, digging stuff out of the ground, selling it to various countries around the world.. Behind that really interesting sector is, is the rental sector. So, a lot of value added in the Australian economy. It’s the only sector that holds candle to mining is the rental sector where people are building houses and renting them.

Gene Tunny  41:03

Okay. So, when you analyzed that, did you look at the industry, is it rental services? Or did you look at what’s in the national accounts as; there’s rental income, isn’t there? What do they call it? Trying to remember what the label is in the national accounts, but they impute rent for owner occupied dwellings as well, in that sector. If I remember correctly.

Brendan Markey-Towler  41:29

Rental services. I’m pretty sure is the exact name of the sector.

Gene Tunny  41:33

Looking at it by industry. Okay. Yeah.

Brendan Markey-Towler  41:36

So, that’s an important point, right? Because rent to also shows up as an income segment as well. Not nearly as big there. But the value add is quite large. And so that’s saying, you know, the Australian economy is very much one that is dominated at the moment, by digging stuff up out of the ground, and then sending it offshore, and providing housing for people. Those are the two biggest sectors of the Australian economy. And then, finally, the very long-term trend, we come to the third part of that bond ma that you so ably quaffed, which is, surprisingly, the sectors that are growing fastest as a share of the Australian economy are; you’ll have to double check me on this, but I’m pretty sure it’s called health care and social assistance.. And professional scientific and technical services. Those have gone quite strongly over the last few years as a share of GDP. 

Scientific and Technical Services is obvious enough, right? That’s the IT department and you know, the lab.

Gene Tunny  42:45

There’s professional too. 

Brendan Markey-Towler  42:49

Yeah. Professional Services is the big one. So, this is your consultancy lawyers. So on and so forth, right. It’s Eagle street, the consulting firms along Eagle street.

Gene Tunny  42:58

Where we are in Brisbane, in the top end of town, would you call it the big end of town? You’re sitting in water from place to the moment and the offices of Hopko Gannon, thanks, again for allowing us to use.

Brendan Markey-Towler  43:13

And so this area is growing really strong. I forget where the legal services are counted among professional service.

Gene Tunny  43:18

But I think I would be Yeah, sure.

Brendan Markey-Towler  43:21

They might be under administration, administrative services. But professional, scientific and technical services, basically, scientific and technical can kind of be in house. But a huge majority of that professional services is consulting, right? So, Australia is doing a lot more consulting as a share of GDP.

Gene Tunny  43:40

And this is business to business, typically? Business-to-business consulting services or business to government.

Brendan Markey-Towler  43:47

Business to government is the big one, especially here in Queensland right now. That’s not backed by a number. But that’s you know, that’s kind of;

Gene Tunny  43:58

There are numbers for the Australian Government. I’ll put them in the show notes, because I looked at what the Australian government has spent on the Big Four consulting firms like KPMG and PwC. And it’s hundreds of millions a year, right? It’s big money. 

Brendan Markey-Towler  44:12

And then, you go step below and the state governments will probably be even bigger again, because every consulting project by the Department of Public Works now gets a cut benefit cost analysis written by one of the big firms, right. So, just because of the procurement rules around that, so professional, scientific and technical services really growing as a segment of GDP, but also health care and social assistance. And so that I would posit is really a reflection of the ageing population. Ageing population, you need more health care and social assistance, certainly. That sector is growing very strongly – aged care.

Gene Tunny  44:49

Yeah. Which is NDIS too, the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Brendan Markey-Towler  44:53

Absolutely massive, huge boom. You throw a stone in Brisbane and you hit NDIS provider, which is really not good, you shouldn’t do that because that’s naughty. And that getting on the back of Yeah, health departments are in Queensland; Queensland Health is the largest single employer in the state. That’s a massive sector. It’s a $20 billion in the state budget. That’s a big number, right? And we’re always trying to spend more on it. So, very big sector that. So, those are the two real growth sectors in the Australian economy. And again, I should stress by volumetric measures, right? So, notice that that kind of cuts against the mining booms like us, and that goes to the difference between real and nominal GDP. Real being a volumetric thing where we’re trying to hold prices constant, and the reason we do that is because nominal GDP could be growing because the actual underlying productive capacity of the economy is growing, or because inflation is growing. And real GDP tries to say, what’s the underlying volumetric productive capacity of the economy? How’s that growing and contracting. And in that measure, you really see the big growth sectors, mining is actually declining as a volumetric share of GDP as a share of real GDP, but it’s still the biggest by far professional, scientific and technical services, and healthcare and social assistance really, really growing. Yeah, that’s where the saying, that’s where my little trite way of putting it came from. Australia is less and less a country that makes things and build things. It’s still very much a country that digs stuff out of the ground and provides housing, but it’s more and more something of a white collar economy.

Gene Tunny  46:43

Oh, yeah. It’s postindustrial. We’re moving more to services. Yeah.

Brendan Markey-Towler  46:49

Natural I mean, with the natural resources sector.

Gene Tunny  46:52

Yeah. that’s right. And I mean, because the world wants to buy our resources. And for the last year or so, they’ve been paying ridiculously high prices for them. It’s an open question over whether we want to sell it. Right. Well, yes. I mean, there’s the big issues there of course that we don’t have time for.

You’ve been very generous with your time, Brendan

Brendan Markey-Towler  47:22

You are very generous letting me on the podcast to talk to people again, Gene.

Gene Tunny  47:27

You’re a great talker. Always enjoy having you on.

Brendan Markey-Towler  47:30

Even with the bruised throat? Like I told you, I could talk through a wet cement.

Gene Tunny  47:35

Very good. So, any final points before we wrap up?

Brendan Markey-Towler  47:39

No, it just ends up on I ended up with the note of circling back to where we started, which is don’t underestimate the national accounts. They’re a really, really, really interesting data set. They give us such a rich view. We didn’t even talk tonight about how in Australia, they break down by state as well, so, we can get an even richer view of how the different states are doing because you know, Australian economy tracker – my blog.

Gene Tunny  48:06

Okay, right. On Sub stack, is it?.

Brendan Markey-Towler  48:09

Yeah, on Sub stack. Please subscribe and contribute to the Markey-Towler retirement fund. It’s founded on two points, which is that one, the perfect graph says more than a doctoral thesis and two, there’s no such thing as an Australian economy. There’s actually six different city state economies and two territories. So, the national accounts in Australia are amazing, not just because of the depth of analysis, they allow us on the supply side of the economy, but on the demand side as well. We get some really, really rich version. So, a plug to remember has to diehard nerds who didn’t have friends at school, but now we have the national accounts.

Gene Tunny  48:53

I’m sure you had friends at school, Brendan. Brendan Markey-Towler, that’s been terrific. I really enjoyed talking to you about the national accounts. 

Brendan Markey-Towler  

I really enjoyed talking to you, Gene. Thanks for having me. 

Gene Tunny  

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

Credits

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

Aussie reopening, Kiwi inflation, oil and petrol prices, and Bitcoin news – livestream from 22 October 2021

Economics Explored host Gene Tunny’s latest Friday livestream for 22 October 2021 covered:

  • accelerating NZ inflation and the implications for interest rates of accelerating inflation in advanced economies more broadly;
  • the great Australian reopening and booming job vacancies (i.e. as noted by the National Skills Commission “Nationally job advertisements are up by 36.2% (or 60,800 job advertisements) compared to levels observed prior to the pandemic”); and
  • the extraordinary Bitcoin narrative which is being reinforced by the introduction of Bitcoin-exposed Exchange Traded Funds.

You can download Michael Knox’s excellent note on the oil price which was mentioned in the livestream here:

Biden’s oil and gas lease pause

Also, check out this great note (also quoted in the livestream and which was likely written by Pete Wargent) in the BuyersBuyers newsletter from yesterday:

Yields creeping higher

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com. Economics Explored is available via Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

Categories
Podcast episode

EP96 – Managing Government Budgets

Rachel Nolan, a former Queensland Government finance minister, speaks with Economics Explored host Gene Tunny about how government budgets are developed and just how much flexibility governments actually have.

Rachel Nolan is Executive Director of the McKell Institute and is an honorary Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Queensland. Rachel was a member of the Queensland Parliament for eleven years from 2001, when she was elected as the youngest woman ever. She is a former Minister for Finance, Transport, and Natural Resources and the Arts. Rachel was a member of the Queensland Government’s central budgetary decision making body, the Cabinet Budget Review Committee.

Links relevant to this episode include:

Budget of the U.S. Government

The Federal Budget in Fiscal Year 2020: An Infographic

Economics Explored EP31 Paying for the Coronavirus rescue measures with Joe Branigan (Note we’ve changed the name of the show since we recorded this episode so it doesn’t clash with a popular YouTube channel)

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com. Economics Explored is available via Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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