Mainstream Economics

It is important to note as a first step that mainstream economics is divided into two streams of theorising: macro and microeconomics. Macroeconomics is the study of the behaviour of the economy as a whole. It studies such things as aggregate trends in national income, unemployment and inflation. Microeconomics takes a bottom-up view of economic activity, abstracting from the institutional framework within which the economy operates and attempting to study the demand for goods and services, the formation of prices and the allocation of resources. It provides one of the central intellectual underpinnings for economic fundamentalism and its worship of markets.

Economic fundamentalism has influenced macro and micro policy—for example, influencing the willingness of governments to run budget deficits and to finance infrastructure investment through borrowings, the degree of independence given to monetary authorities, the policy emphasis given to monetary stability over full employment and the heed paid to the views of the financial industry and financial journalists on policy settings more generally. Perhaps the most pernicious recent influence of economic fundamentalism in Australia has been in the area of microeconomic policy, where it has motivated a wholesale restructuring of our institutional arrangements under the mantra of microeconomic reform.

The mainstream economist might ask what I am complaining about given that the Australian economy has been performing very well lately. It is important to acknowledge the enormous economic growth and improvement in material living standards achieved in developed countries and some developing countries in living memory and more broadly since medieval times. Economic fundamentalists are quick to attribute our recent good performance to the impact of their favourite microeconomic reforms. The current Secretary to the Treasury, Ken Henry, recently claimed that this much better performance was due overwhelmingly to the numerous economic reforms that were implemented progressively in response to the policy failures of the 1970s.[3] Henry points in particular to what he believes to have been the importance of flexible labour markets. He goes on to suggest that reforming the supply side of the economy will remain an enduring feature of Treasury advice. The question that these claims gloss over is whether Australians and their families want to be the servants of ‘the supply side of the economy’, and whether the claimed benefits of flexibility translate into real improvements in social welfare—properly conceived and measured. Furthermore, are any so-called efficiency benefits more important to Australians than fairness, stability and leisure?

There have been other things going on that have probably been much more influential, including the biggest mineral boom in our history. In the past 50 years, we have witnessed the extraordinary growth of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and more recently China and India. As these countries are the major markets for our commodity exports, Australia has benefited enormously from that growth. Along with the rest of the Western world, Australia has also witnessed extraordinary change in educational attainment, health standards and the movement of women into the paid workforce. In addition, we have witnessed extraordinary technological changes in recent decades.

Then there has been the relatively successful record of the Reserve Bank in managing monetary policy after the Keating recession of the early 1990s, which finally killed the inflationary psychology of the previous two decades. That relative success in the face of its limited policy instruments has enabled low inflation and continued growth despite, in particular, the Asian meltdown. In addition, there have been positive influences from the numerous recent pragmatic departures from economic fundamentalist policy prescriptions; and there has been some benefit from the progressive removal of tariff protection in encouraging a more competitive economic environment. Those tariff policies were, however, particularly badly designed in the first place—being entitlement policies directed towards import replacement rather than export-driven growth. Their failure was inevitable given the lack of even a minimum commitment to strategic planning or enforceable industry investment commitments. The consequence was the development of production capabilities that lacked internationally competitive scale and were unsustainable in the long run.

In short, in my view, our recent good economic growth results from a complex of factors and good luck, and cannot be sheeted home solely or primarily to economic ‘reform’.

That relatively good growth record has helped blind us to the costs involved in specific policies—particularly the costs of increased economic insecurity throughout the community, the increased intensity in our working lives, the heavy environmental costs and the uneven distribution of the benefits, often as a result of the abuse of market power, but also as a result of the reluctance of governments to invest in public goods. Recent research has demonstrated that most Australians want a reversion to regular working hours.[4] Further, while it is a cause for rejoicing, it is questionable whether Australia’s current relatively low unemployment rate is a record low. More significantly, little attention is paid to the particularly tight definition of unemployment used in the headline unemployment rate—a definition that conceals the true level of unemployment and underemployment.

Our recent relatively good record has also blinded us to the opportunities that have been forgone as a result of our under investment in infrastructure and education and our reluctance to embrace more active and effective innovation and industry policies. Preferring the mantra of the level playing field, recent Australian governments have refused steadfastly to learn from history and, in particular, the recent strong growth of the Asian Tigers and a number of smaller European countries. That history has demonstrated the benefits of more effective coordination of economic activity through a partnership between the public and private sectors. Rather, we have pursued a utopian dream of separating roles and trying to perfect markets in the image of the neoclassical idealisation of those markets under the positivist illusion that doing so will maximise welfare—instead of the more sensible, practical task of learning how to compete and prosper in the very imperfect, fallible world of contemporary, oligopolistic, mercantilist capitalism with high levels of coordination by the State.

Let me emphasise the point. Policies that would optimise resource allocation in the perfect, static, predictable, mechanical, fantasy world of neoclassical economics have little to do with competing successfully or maximising real welfare in the very imperfect, uncertain, dynamic, oligopolistic and somewhat dishonest, manipulative and thuggish real world. Furthermore, self-flagellation over past policy failures—including industry-policy failures—provides no substitute for serious policy analysis and policy learning. In a world of Knightian uncertainty, such failures are inevitable and are to be planned for and learned from, not commiserated over. Relatively rich though we might be, why would we not want to improve real general welfare still further? Why would we be satisfied with crude national income and growth estimates as a measure of real welfare? And why would we not want to share that good fortune nationally and internationally? In this regard, Donald Horne warned us in 1964 against the complacency that our good fortune had bred—a warning we have largely failed to heed. I have already expressed my concern about the increasingly selfish nature of our society and the associated adulation of consumption, wealth and selfishness legitimised by economic fundamentalism and the excessive focus on economic values at the cost of other, more important values. It is no accident that Business Sunday has replaced Divine Service on our Sunday television sets.