Gould's Books

I spoke in parliament recently about the passing of bookseller and social activist Bob Gould. I wouldn't normally use this website to promote a business, but his daughter Natalie Gould wrote to say that she is trying to ensure that Gould's Books survives, and is running a 50% off sale until 14 Aug. So if you're strolling along King St Newtown, do drop in.
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What I'm Reading

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Social Mobility

Tim Soutphommasane's recent philosopher column in The Australian dealt with the underrated issue of social mobility - how far does the apple fall from the tree?

I penned a short letter in response, which the Oz kindly ran on Tuesday.
Dear Editor,

I enjoyed Tim Soutphommasane's article on social mobility. As he correctly points out, it's fundamental to how we think about inequality, since most of us are willing to put up with a bigger gap between rich and poor if the lottery is redrawn each generation than if social position is immutable from birth.

Tim quotes my research as finding that Australia is "among the most socially mobile societies in the world". Not quite. My study found that we are more socially mobile than the US, but less socially mobile than the Scandinavians.

For those who like numbers, a 10 percent rise in a father's income is associated with a 1-2 percent rise in his son's income in Denmark and Sweden, 2-3 percent in the UK and Australia, and 4-6 percent in the US and China.

So it's not as hard to jump from rags to riches in Australia as in some other societies. But we could still do more to ensure that every child - no matter their circumstances - has the opportunities that should be their birthright.

Andrew Leigh
Member for Fraser.
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Tax Forum

The Australian Government's Tax Forum will be held in Canberra on 4-5 October. Expressions of interest opened today for people in several categories: community, business, academics, superannuation, general public, and students.

More details here, with an expression of interest form here.
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Drug Use

A friend emails to draw my attention to the new AIHW statistics on drug use.
Thought you might like to know that the updated population stats on drug use are out today. The media is mostly excited about the illicit side of things but... the following may interest you: smoking is down (to 15% of people aged 14+), preference for 'alcopops' among young people is down, and more than two-thirds of people support increased tax on tobacco products or bans on point of sale advertising.

Lots of positive changes there.
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Crime and the Press

By coincidence, two of my favourite economics commentators today have written up papers that I wrote while an economics professor at the Australian National University.

  • Ross Gittins discusses my paper with Francesca Cornaglia, which finds that crime lowers the mental wellbeing of non-victims (and suggests that the fear effect of crime may even be larger than the direct impact).

  • Peter Martin discusses my study with Joshua Gans, which looked at Australian media slant in the period 1996-2004, and found that the press was mostly pretty centrist until 2004.

The academic publication process being what it is, both are still wending their way through refereeing and revisions.
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Mine the Gap

My AFR article today is on the mining boom and inequality. A big thanks to Parliamentary Library researcher Alan Payne, who painstakingly compiled several of the statistics below (but of course bears no responsibility for any policy conclusions).
Boom Times for the Few, Australian Financial Review, 26 July 2011

In 1978, US economist Henry Aaron described the study of inequality as being like ‘watching the grass grow’. After becoming more equal in the immediate post-war era, inequality in most English-speaking countries had flatlined for decades.

But alas for Aarons, the grass started shooting up as soon as he spoke. Inequality in developed nations has surged over the past generation, with computerisation and deunionisation among the key drivers.

Today, something new is going on. With commodity prices nearly 4 times higher than they were a decade ago, the proverbial pet-shop galah can recite the positive impact of the mining boom on the overall economy. Yet few have stopped to consider the impact of the mining boom on Australian inequality.

Simple economic theory tells us that the mining boom is likely to have concentrated impacts. Few industries are as capital-intensive as mining, so the share of the boom that accrues to workers is significantly smaller than if the boom had been in a labour-intensive sector like education or retail. And with substantial lead-times, a run-up in prices is likely to benefit existing players more than it would in an industry that is easier to enter, like construction or cafes. Given these factors, we should expect that the splash in mining cash will go to the few, not the many.

In the sharemarket, mining stocks now comprise one-fifth of the All Ordinaries index, up from one-tenth a decade ago. In turn, shareholders have rewarded mining bosses generously. From 2003 to 2010, the pay of BHP’s CEO tripled, while CEO pay increased sixfold at both Rio Tinto and Newcrest.

Indeed, what’s happening at the top of the income distribution really is the big story of Australian inequality. According to taxation data, 1849 people had annual incomes over $1 million in 2001-02. In the most recent figures (for 2008-09), there were 6395 people in that income range (indeed, there were 7905 in 2007-08). Not surprisingly, Western Australians now make up a larger share of this group of annual millionaires than they did a decade ago.

The same pattern shows up in figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which divides households into five income groups, and calculates the share of disposable income that each receives. By the end of the noughties, each of the bottom four quintiles had a smaller share than at the start of the decade, while the richest fifth of households had gained about two percentage points. For the first time, the top fifth of Australian households now have twice their share of national income (41 percent), while the poorest fifth of households have about one-third of their proportionate share.

Is the recent rise in inequality due to the mining boom? While it’s hard to be sure, much of the objective evidence points that way. We’re not seeing a growing gap between the poor and the middle – instead, modern Australian inequality is a rising gulf between the middle and the top. This is likely to manifest itself in skyrocketing prices for beachside real estate, escalating fees at elite private schools, and growing attempts to use money to influence political outcomes.

As an academic economist, one of the projects that I found most exciting was a coauthored study with Oxford University’s Tony Atkinson, which looked at long-run trends in incomes of top income groups, such as the richest 1 percent. As a politician, I’m naturally drawn towards thinking about policies that provide greater equity without reducing economic growth. One such policy is to shift Australian mining from royalty taxes to a profits-based tax. When prices rise, miners will pay more tax. When prices fall, miners will pay less tax. Due to be legislated later this year, a Minerals Resource Rent Tax will raise more revenue, more efficiently. MRRT monies will be spent on regional infrastructure, boosting retirement savings (particularly for low-income Australians) and cutting company tax rates.

We can see the positive impact of the mining boom in many indicators – from capital investment to GDP growth. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that the boom has probably also affected inequality. The challenge for policymakers is not to stop the boom, but to find policies that are both efficient and equitable, and help create opportunities across the society. As any sailor knows, it’s the rising tide – not the tidal wave – that lifts all boats.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser. At the recent Australian Conference of Economists, he received the biennial award for the best Australian economist under 40.
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Sideshow @ YouTube

The ANU has recently posted on their website the video of Lindsay Tanner speaking about his new book, Sideshow (introduced by Gia Metherell and thanked by yours truly). It's just on an hour long, but well worth watching.

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ABC News 24 Capital Hill with Andrew Leigh and Andrew Southcott

Andrew Leigh and Andrew Southcott debate the price on pollution on ABC News 24 Capital Hill, hosted by Lyndal Curtis.http://www.youtube.com/embed/Rdmc0gtatkI
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The Power of Prices

In his new book, Adapt, economic journalist Tim Harford tells the story of ‘Geoff’, a man who is determined to reduce his carbon emissions. As he goes through his day, Harford shows Geoff making a series of well-intentioned mistakes: going out of his way to wash his dishes by hand rather than use the dishwasher (Harford argues that the dishwasher has a smaller carbon footprint), but then choosing to tumble-dry rather than line-dry his clothes (which uses significantly more carbon). Geoff buys energy-efficient lightbulbs, but then decides not to install them until his existing ones pop (which will cost him more). He switches off his mobile phone charger, but leaves his desktop computer on standby (Harford tell us that the computer uses 100 times as much energy).

The point of Harford’s story is that solving climate change through personal action alone is hard. Even if we had a sophisticated computer program that could tell us the carbon intensity of a particular decision, how many of us would bother to check it?

Thankfully, there’s a simpler solution. The effect of putting a price on carbon is to change prices so that they reflect the carbon emissions embodied in them. Under a carbon price, an environmentalist doesn’t have to know precisely how a product was made – you just need to look at the price tag. By modestly changing prices (overall price impacts will be just 0.7 percent), carbon prices will change consumption patterns. As any marketer can tell you, customers already flock to cheaper brands. With a carbon price, there will be an incentive to choose the low-carbon option.

This incentive will exist for both firms and households. For firms, carbon pricing will encourage them to think hard about how they can reduce emissions. A recent Economist article gave the example of the potato chip firm Walkers, which discovered its carbon footprint was unexpectedly high.

‘It turned out that because Walkers was buying its potatoes by gross weight, farmers were keeping their potatoes in humidified sheds to increase the water content. Walkers then had to fry the sliced potatoes for longer to drive out the extra moisture. By switching to buying potatoes by dry weight, Walkers could reduce frying time by 10% and farmers could avoid the cost of humidification. Both measures saved money and energy and reduced the carbon footprint of the final product.’

With carbon pricing, we can expect to see simple changes like this taking place inside each of the 500 large polluters, as managers and workers look together for ways to reduce emissions. The better companies succeed, the more that business assistance can be used to grow the firm and increase employment.

Changing prices and providing assistance is the Labor way of achieving reform. As Paul Keating pointed out on Lateline, this is precisely why we floated the dollar. But it’s also a simple description of trade liberalisation (which reduced prices of imported vehicles and clothing, and provided industry assistance for textile and car workers), as well as the Accord itself (which kept real wages constant in exchange for improvements in the social safety net).

Unlike previous Liberal Party leaders – and conservative leaders in Britain and New Zealand – Tony Abbott refuses to accept that the market can be used to solve environmental problems. (Perhaps this suspicion of markets isn’t so surprising from a self-confessed admirer of the late BA Santamaria.) What Mr Abbott fails to realise is that a government that won’t use price signals has to fall back on heavy-handed alternatives like regulation, mandates and bans. That’s why the Coalition’s ‘Direct Action’ plan is so much more expensive – and less effective – than the Gillard Government’s Clean Energy Future approach. We’re now in the ‘Bizarro World’ in which Tony Abbott is the proponent of highly interventionist solutions, while Labor favours the market-based approach of pricing carbon.

Little wonder that a poll of members of the Economic Society of Australia, released at last week’s Australian Conference of Economists, found that 79 percent agreed with carbon pricing, while only 12 percent supported direct regulation. When it comes to reducing carbon pollution, a carbon price is the only sensible way to go.

(Cross-posted at the ALP blog)
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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.