Sky AM Agenda - 19 December

In a relatively short Sky AM Agenda discussion with Mitch Fifield, we discussed the latest asylum-seeker tragedy and the consular assistance being provided to Julian Assange (I also drew on Michael Fullilove's comparison between News of the World and Wikileaks).

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Holiday Reading

For anyone looking for holiday reading, here are a dozen books I've enjoyed this year. Apologies for the lack of fiction.
1. Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender - A book that helped debunk plenty of my ideas about the role of genes in shaping gender. As

2. Ed Glaeser, Triumph of the City - The man who helped revive urban economics embarks on a romp through the history and value of cities.

3. Tim Harford, Adapt - A succession of splendid tales, tied together by the FT's 'Undercover Economist'. Like Freakonomics, but with more economics.

4. Christopher Hitchens, Arguably - Essays on everything from Afghanistan to poetry, from the late great public intellectual (but if you haven't read Hitch-22, start there first).

5. Abhijit Banerjee & Esther Duflo, Poor Economics - Solving global poverty, one randomised trial at a time.

6. Tyler Cowen, The Great Stagnation - The (in)famous Marginal Revolution blogger combines a neat economic history of the US, plus some concise ideas about where to next.

7. David Remnick, The Bridge - The seminal biography of Barack Obama.

8. Donald Green and Alan Gerber, Get Out the Vote - Most political campaigning books are of the 'I reckon' variety. This one is based on solid evidence from (yes) randomised trials.

9. Nick Dyrenfurth &Frank Bongiorno, A little history of the Australian Labor Party - More emphasis on ideas and big themes, less dwelling on the machinations of bearded men. One of the best histories of our party.

10. Jonathan Weiner, Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality - Will humans ever live forever?

11. Peter Hartcher, The Sweet Spot - A modern-day take on the Lucky Country, from a brilliant and refreshingly uncynical journalist.

12. Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From - Innovative ideas aplenty, told with the wit of a great storyteller.

While we're on the topic, here's a 2010 piece that Mac Duncan and I wrote about what federal politicians were reading, and here's the full spreadsheet of what politicians were reading at the time.

Feel free to use comments to post your recommended holiday reading.
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Vale Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens - one of the world's great public intellectuals - is dead at 62. He knew oesophageal cancer would soon take him, and has thus been in what he called his year of 'living dyingly'.

Early obituaries at the New York Times, Slate and Vanity Fair.
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Sky AM Agenda with George Brandis - 13 Dec 2011

On Sky AM Agenda, I tangled with Liberal Senator George Brandis on a variety of topics, including the recent ministerial reshuffle, climate change, the government's big economic reform agenda (and the Coalition's huge funding shortfall), and Tony Abbott's decision to deny a conscience vote to Liberal MPs who support same-sex marriage.
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Grattan Institute Talk on Merit Pay

On 14 Nov, I spoke at the Grattan Institute about my review paper on teacher merit pay. They've now posted a video, podcast and transcript of the event on their website, so you can enjoy the event using virtually any combination of your eyes and ears.
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Top Incomes - Updated

In 2007, I published a paper with Tony Atkinson that looked at how the income share of top groups (eg. the richest 1%) had changed over time. The analysis is based on crunching tax data, national accounts figures, and population statistics.

We've now updated the analysis with the latest taxation data, which covers the year 2008-09. Unsurprisingly, it shows a slight downtick for that year, which is mostly due to a fall in the non-salary incomes of the rich.

For anyone researching or writing about inequality, the full spreadsheet is available at this link. There is also a writeup by Markus Mannheim in the Canberra Times, and you can podcast my chat today on ABC Radio National's Life Matters with the splendid Richard Aedy.
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Looking for Young Progressive Writers

The Australian Fabian Society is running its 'Young Writers Competition', asking 18-30 year olds to discuss the big policy issues facing progressive politics. More details here. Entries close 30 April 2012.
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Opening of UC Mobile Health Clinic

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of opening a Mobile Health Clinic at the University of Canberra. It's a purpose-built trailer that will travel around the South Coast of New South Wales, staffed by allied health students from the University of Canberra undertaking clinical placements.

[caption id="attachment_2031" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Stephen Parker & I cut the ribbon to officially open the UC Mobile Health Clinic"][/caption]


Vice-Chancellor Stephen Parker and I did the honours of speaking about the clinic (competing to see how many road puns we could incorporate into our respective speeches - just quietly, I think he might have won) and cutting the ribbon to officially open the clinic. The Australian Government contributed $1.9 million in funding for the clinic and it's great being part of a Government that's found a way to combine innovative ways of delivering health care with providing new and different training opportunities for students.

Andrew Leigh MP

Member for Fraser


Allied health students from the University of Canberra will run a new mobile health clinic in NSW South Coast to boost the area’s healthcare services, Member for Fraser Andrew Leigh said today.

Andrew Leigh opened the mobile clinic today on behalf of Minister for Health and Ageing Nicola Roxon.

Based in a large, custom-fitted semitrailer, the health service will provide regular clinics in Moruya, Narooma and Eden. These will be run by allied health students from the University of Canberra, fully supervised by clinical educators.

“The mobile clinic was launched at the University in Canberra today and will literally bring new, low-cost professional services to the South Coast — including pharmacy, midwifery, physiotherapy, dietetics and psychology,” Andrew Leigh said.

“The mobile clinic will spend alternating fortnights in Moruya and Narooma and, for two days each fortnight, it will be in Eden. The concept has been warmly embraced by the coastal communities and by their local medical professionals.

“The new service means that the university’s allied health students will get to ‘road test’ their work in a variety of community settings, complementing traditional models of health care.

“As a result, we will have more broadly-experienced professionals. Ultimately, that will drive better care for patients across our region,” he said.

The mobile clinic was built by the university as part of a $1.9 million project funded by the Australian Government under its $90 million Innovative Clinical Teaching and Training Grants program.

The University of Canberra project was one of 35 funded across the country to increase clinical training opportunities.
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Measuring Wellbeing

I have a column today in the SMH on the new Lateral Economics/Herald Wellbeing Index.
Putting a figure on inequality adds to strength of statistical spotlight, Sydney Morning Herald, 9 December 2011

New numbers are to the press as shiny bottle caps are to magpies. Statistics have the power to shape a debate or provide oxygen to an issue. From a major bank's survey of consumer confidence to a political party's targeted release of ''internal polling'', numbers are often used to bring publicity to a company or a cause. When even condom manufacturers use surveys to get publicity, you know what the new maxim must be: statistics sell.

With the Herald/Lateral Economics Wellbeing Index, Fairfax has shone a statistical spotlight onto the issue of wellbeing. This is good. As all economics students learn on their first day of class, economics is about maximising utility, not money.

Yet it turns out that while national income is the wrong measure of wellbeing, it tracks the ''right measures'' extremely well. For example, country rankings on the United Nations Human Development Index create a splash whenever they're released. What the commentators won't tell you is that rankings of HDI and gross domestic product are almost perfectly correlated.
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When it comes to happiness, things get more controversial. In 1974, University of Southern California professor Richard Easterlin suggested that when incomes rise above a certain threshold, more GDP doesn't buy more happiness. Yet Easterlin's conclusions were based on data from fewer than 15 countries. More recently, University of Pennsylvania duo Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers have analysed happiness surveys conducted in 132 countries. Stevenson and Wolfers show that far from fading out, the impact of economic growth on happiness continues right across the income distribution. There is no Easterlin paradox.

For example, on a 0-to-10 life satisfaction scale, respondents in Mali and Ethiopia place themselves between 3 and 4; residents of Egypt, South Africa and Portugal put themselves between 5 and 6; and people in Australia, the US and most other developed countries place themselves between 7 and 8. A 10 per cent increase in GDP buys as much additional happiness in a rich country as a poor one.

Strikingly, the relationship also holds for other metrics of wellbeing. People in countries with higher incomes are more likely to experience enjoyment and love, and less likely to experience pain and boredom. That's right, Paul McCartney, money can buy love - at least on average.

But just because GDP is a reasonable measure of aggregate wellbeing, that shouldn't stop us from looking at other measures of national wellbeing. One aspect of the Wellbeing Index that I particularly like is its inclusion of inequality. While the methods remain controversial, few would quibble with the basic proposition that another dollar brings more happiness to a pauper than to a millionaire. And a discussion of inequality also reminds us that a growing gulf between rich and poor risks splitting us into ''two Australias'', occupying fundamentally different realms, and rarely coming into contact with one another.

Another important part of the index is that it uses a measure of real incomes, thereby accounting for inflation. In an environment in which mischievous politicians sometimes claim that the cost of living is skyrocketing it helps to look at the figures. Inflation over the past year has been modest by historical standards. Indeed, prices have fallen for bread, milk, shoes, appliances, pharmaceuticals, cars, computers and toys.

What's missing? Given that an average Sydneysider with a full-time job spends the equivalent of 13 days each year commuting, a measure of travel time would be good - particularly one encompassing the enormous social harm of traffic congestion. As Lateral Economics notes, the available travel time estimates aren't great, but it would be worth including them nonetheless.

When measuring incomes, it would be better to have per-person measures, which account for population growth. In the educational arena, the measures seem surprisingly volatile. On the health side, I'd like to see the index take better account of disability - a yardstick by which we can judge initiatives such as the national disability insurance scheme. And in terms of social capital, I think the authors undervalue the importance of community groups and civic trust.

It is an old policy maxim that you shouldn't try to target more variables than you have policy levers. For example, since the Reserve Bank controls one big thing (interest rates), we shouldn't hope that it can achieve a dozen policy goals. But in this case, the opposite principle applies. There are a plethora of ways that governments can affect the Wellbeing Index. So I hope that Fairfax will avoid the temptation to put too much emphasis on the speedometer, and keep telling us about all the different things that are going on under the bonnet. In this instance, the sum of the parts really is more than the whole.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser (ACT). His most recent book, Disconnected, looks at how community connectedness has changed over past decades.
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Appearance on Sky News 'Showdown' program

Peter van Onselen hosted me on his 'Showdown' program on Sky News earlier this week. We talked about the Government's plan to return to surplus, as well as other issues as diverse as the ALP National Conference and gay marriage.
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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.