Intellectual pass the parcel

Sometimes ideas can take circuitous routes into the mass media. Back in 2004, I posted on the mummy party/daddy party thesis about the different roles played by political parties, which I sourced to George Lakoff’s 1996 book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. In late November last year, Andrew Leigh mentioned the idea again, attributing it to my 2004 post. Andrew L’s post prompted Don Arthur to explain the idea further at Club Troppo. Don was the one holding the parcel when the music stopped for the last time, and on Monday got credit for it in the SMH:

One theory, proffered by the commentator Don Arthur, is that the left-right divisions of Australian politics have been replaced. Instead, voters see Labor as the caring and nurturing party, better suited to state issues such as health and education, while the Liberals are seen as the strict father, best put in charge of the nation’s finances and defence and border protection. If such a political climate change has occurred it will tilt the odds of federal success against Labor.

Don’s very good at tracing the sources of ideas, and he gave the history of the mummy party/daddy party thesis in his post. But those who clearly explain ideas can come to own them as much as the people who think of them in the first place.

Buying students

When students buy their way into public universities through full-fee places it is described as an ‘inequity’, but when public universities buy students – as many of them are busy trying to do now with scholarships – it is reported by newspapers without negative comment and I suspect with very little tut-tutting among readers.

The SMH tells the story of former North Sydney Girls High student Jie Gao who, because she received 99.95 as her Year 12 score,

was offered a $10,000 annual scholarship by the University of Sydney and the University of NSW, a $4000 annual scholarship from Macquarie University and a $13,000 scholarship – funded by business – to attend the University of Technology, Sydney.

Yet which practice is really more objectionable? The full-fee students don’t make anyone worse off – indeed they generally make life better for other students by easing the financial pressure on universities and (usually) by giving up a HECS place in their second preference course. But the main effect of the scholarships is to provide further reward to people who are already very fortunate simply by virtue of their academic ability, and many of whom will also come from the privileged backgrounds that tend to produce very high school results. Though many universities have donations and endowment income that they have to spend on scholarships anyway, surely need would be a better basis for distributing it? And if the money comes out of general revenue, scholarships deprive cash-starved teaching activities of much-needed resources.

‘Merit’ scholarships are offered because of status competition between universities, as status partly comes from enrolling the best school leavers. But scholarships probably aren’t highly effective in doing this. As Jie Gao sensibly says:

she would make her decision according to which university and course she preferred.

I’d guess her choice is between UNSW and Sydney, which offer identical scholarship packages. So the scholarship will be a neutral factor, as it will be for other very bright students. Both universities, and their other students, would be better off if they had never started this status competition and instead spent the money on something that would make a difference.

Only UTS really has anything to gain by trying to push its way into the NSW higher education status game, and this is presumably why it is out-bidding UNSW and the University of Sydney. But how prestigious can you be if you have to pay bright students to attend? Isn’t this just a relationship of convenience, like the ugly but rich old guy with the attractive young woman who is really only after his money? And if the student is ambitious, what makes more sense – an extra $3,000 a year (less tax) or being with other very bright students at UNSW or Sydney, where the long-term networking could be worth much more than the added scholarship?

Perhaps the better measure of prestige is not 99.95 students, but how much the full-fee students are prepared to pay. If students are willing to pay top dollar, universities know they have something that people really want.

The rise of political familism

As a single and childless male I know an election year won’t be good for me. On both right and left, the trend is toward political familism, with the interests of people with kids put above those without.

On the right, the main trend has been toward income transfers. This year the Howard government plans to spend a staggering $28 billion on financial assistance to families with children. It’s the second-largest item in the federal budget after the aged pension, and does not include indirect benefits such as schools and health care. This largesse has helped make the Howard years exceptionally good for people with kids. In the latest NATSEM study Ann Harding calculates that real disposable income has increased by 29% for couples with kids over the last decade, for single parent families by 26%, for couples without kids by 23%, and for single households by 15%. This of course isn’t just government benefits; rising real wages and increased labour force participation are important too. But family benefits payments have undoubtedly skewed the income distribution further away from the childless. Everyone pays unnecessarily high taxes, but only those with kids get money back.

On the left, the main trend is toward advocating further intervention in the labour market in the interests of families. Kevin Rudd has enthusiastically embraced this agenda. In his first speech to Parliament as Labor leader, he said: [restored from NLA website]

…families are such a basic social institution that they deserve special protections. When you instead have a set of laws which says that you can be told to work at any time of the day, at any place and for virtually whatever rate of pay, that it can include weekends or whatever and that you can have your shifts and rosters changed at a moment’s notice, just pause for a moment. Let us think through where that all goes in terms of the impact on working families.

As yet, it is unclear exactly how this might translate into policy. Late last week, Julia Gillard floated the idea of pressuring employers of people with kids under six years of age to permit part-time work without the disadvantages often associated with it, such as less training. Barbara Pocock’s book The Labour Market Ate My Babies, cited by Rudd in his CIS speech, proposes that:

…Australian labour law should be amended to increase the time autonomy of workers, especially those with care responsibilities. …within a framework that restricts long working hours … [including] new capacities for changes in working hours that are initiated by employees…all parents [to have] an opportunity to take up to two years out of paid work with income support on the birth of a child.

Obviously making half a million people a year eligible for income support (250,000 births times two parents) has fiscal implications, and means higher taxes for others or less spending on other things. But this kind of labour market intervention also has significant implications for other workers, who must fill the gaps left by people who decide, without reference to others, to vary their hours of work. Inevitably, the childless or empty nesters will pick up most of the slack, lacking the ‘childcare centre shuts at 5.30pm’ and other excuses of workers with kids.

The basic concerns behind political familism have been widely accepted, even if the major political parties do not have the same policy responses. But these concerns do not seem to me to be compelling enough to warrant the redistributions of time and money occurring or being proposed.

As the NATSEM research shows, families with kids have higher incomes than other kinds of households, receiving about $250 a week more on average than the next most affluent household type, couples without kids. In my article on ‘big government conservatism’ I report research from the mid-1990s showing that at that time people with kids had above average satisfaction with their financial situation. Yet for all the spending, it is hard to see any significant trends in the basic family statistics except for increased use of formal childcare.

Obviously parents need time to look after their kids, and many surveys have shown at least a large minority of people perceive some conflict between work and family. But this in itself is not a policy, as opposed to personal, problem. For most people, there are more things they could do with their time than there are hours in the day or days in the year. Inevitably, trade-offs need to be made between competing uses of time. But the ‘right’ trade-offs cannot be set in Canberra or by academics. They depend on a wide range of personal, family, and work circumstances, which will vary greatly from household to household and within households over time.

For example, in the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes about a third of respondents said they would like to spend less time in their paid job and 70% said they would like to spend more time with their families (implying some other activity ought to be reduced). But only 10% agreed that they would rather ‘work fewer hours and earn less money’, with twice as many saying they would rather ‘work longer hours and earn more money’. So while in a constraint-free world we would have more of everything, in the real world of trade-offs work is more preferred than it might appear if we just looked at questions about work and family. In the kids interviewed for Pocock’s book about their parents’ work hours the same pragmatism is on display. Many would like to spend more time with their parents (particularly boys with their fathers), but they also accept that their parents need to work, often for money but also because they enjoy it.

People also adjust without intervention from above. In an analysis based on HILDA data, between Wave 1 and Wave 2 (about a year) about 30% of those described as ‘conscripts’ to long hours (50 hours a week or more) went to shorter hours, along with about a quarter of those described as long hours ‘volunteers’. There are several ways this can occur: the long hours were just a spike in work which went away, employers take on more people to reduce hours (when demand increases, employers often work existing staff harder and take on more workers only when they are confident the higher demand will last), or workers change jobs. There is also considerable movement (about a fifth of each group) moving between ‘volunteer’ and ‘conscript’, showing changing preferences for hours worked but not the fact of long hours.

It’s far from clear to me that blunt rules imposed by policymakers can improve on this dynamic process of trade-off and adjustment. Prohibiting long hours might help ‘conscripts’ to reduce work. But it would be bad for those who enjoy their work, or need the money, or both. There would also be flow-on effects for those who rely on the work done by long-hours employees. These will be worst in occupations where there are existing labour market shortages, and no spare workers to make up for the hours not worked. With such shortages widespread in health professions, much longer waits to see medical professionals may not seem so ‘family friendly’.

Political familism doesn’t just disadvantage single people to provide added assistance to families who do not necessarily have greater needs. It is an attempt to replace individual judgments made by people in and out of families with collective judgments made by social critics and politicians. Liberals – small ‘l’ and large, welfare and classical – should resist these intrusions into the private sphere.

Living standards under WorkChoices

According to the Newspoll on WorkChoices, a third of workers think that it will make them personally worse off. But another question from the same Newspoll, reported by The Australian yesterday, suggests that this is not spilling over into general perceptions of how people think their living standards are trending.

In response to the question

Do you believe your standard of living in the next six months will improve, stay the same, or get worse?

17% of respondents thought it would get worse. It’s not exactly the same sample – only people with jobs were asked about WorkChoices’ personal effects. But though in the total sample 47% thought that WorkChoices would be bad for the economy, it confirms that WorkChoices has not triggered any substantial degree of pessimism about their own living standards. Though 17% thinking their living standards will decline is higher than the 12% recorded in December 2004, that was lowest level Newspoll has yet found. In the more than twenty years Newspoll has been asking this question, only half a dozen times has the public been less pessimistic than now, and most of those polls were in the two years from June 2003 to June 2005. And the 17% of pessimistic respondents in the December 2006 poll is lower than the 21% found in the June 2006 poll.

As The Australian’s report noted, the main reason for the decline over the last 6 months is that Labor supporters are less pessimistic. There is a long history of partisan pessimism in response to this question. Supporters of the Opposition party tend to be more negative than supporters of the government (though presumably partly because people who think their living standards are declining are less likely to support the government). That’s still true here, but there has been a significant change since June last year – Coalition living standards pessimists went up from 12% to 14%, but Labor living standards pessimists went down from 31% to 19%. Though an election is more than six months away, perhaps the positive start to the Rudd/Gillard leadership has Labor supporters feeling better about the world.

Could WorkChoices affect the 2007 election?

In the Newspoll on WorkChoices, more people think that it will be bad for the economy than think it will have bad effects on them personally. Which opinion is more important? In arguing the case for the electoral significance of this polling, Fred Argy and Robert Corr argue that (in Fred’s words):

people are not guided only or even principally by self-interest when they vote

It’s certainly possible to find evidence in issue polling that people are guided by the concerns of others. I made just such an argument in my analysis of pre-Workchoices industrial relations polling. But showing that such concerns have an influence on voting is much more difficult.
Continue reading “Could WorkChoices affect the 2007 election?”

Mobilising the base on industrial relations

Public opinion on WorkChoices is remarkably stable. Another Newspoll reported in The Australian this morning shows that despite a multi-million dollar propaganda campaign by the government, a huge scare campaign by the unions and Labor, and some objective labour market data, overall responses to Newspoll’s questions have changed only modestly since they were first asked in October 2005. The same situation is evident in the work of other polling organisations.

The biggest changes are to questions about the overall economy and about job creation. Since the first Newspoll, the proportion of people saying that the changes are bad for the economy has increased from 40% to 47%. This change was evident by the April 2006 survey and is essentially unaffected by anything that has happened since. Those saying WorkChoices is good for the economy are also up, but by a lesser margin – 31% to 34%. This peaked at 38% in December 2005. Some previously uncommitted people are now offering opinions.

On job creation, the proportion saying WorkChoices is bad has gone from 39% to 45%, and good from 30% to 33%. The answer that is most likely to be correct, ‘somewhat good’, is given by 21% of respondents.

The most stable response is on personal impact. While people tend to be over-pessimistic about their employment prospects, they are more realistic about their own situation than that of others. Since the first Newspoll, those saying they will be better off has increased from 11% to 14%, and those saying they will be worse off has increased from 32% to 33%. Those saying it won’t affect them has increased from 44% to 48%.

It’s only by digging deeper into the results that we can see a possible larger effect of the propaganda efforts on each side. For example, in Newspoll’s first survey 19% of Labor supporters thought that WorkChoices would be good for the economy. By the latest survey, that was down to 13%. Among Coalition supporters, the proportion thinking it would be good for the economy increased from 49% to 62%. At the aggregate level, partisan belief in WorkChoices being bad for the economy is up 3% on the Coalition side to 22%, and up 7% among Labor supporters to 69%. But among Labor supporters there is a change in opinion intensity, with those rating it as ‘very bad’ up from 38% to 50%. To a lesser extent, the same effect can be seen in the job creation question on the Labor side: a change in aggregate results (up 7%) and a larger change in strength of opinion, with ‘very bad’ up from 29% to 39%.
Continue reading “Mobilising the base on industrial relations”

Do we have too many science students?

An article in this morning’s Australian reports complains that, at some universities, the cut-off score for a course in Chinese medicine is higher than for a traditional ‘Western’ science degree. This has Education Minister Julie Bishop suggesting that we need to encourage more students to study science ‘to ensure the future needs of the nation are met’ and International Organisation for Science and Technology Education chairman Dr Terry Lyons worrying that ‘low levels made science even less attractive to students’.

Demand for science courses does seemed to have declined over time, though it is hard to say by exactly how much, since IT courses were classified under science in applications data before 2001. But adding together science and IT, numbers were higher in the 1990s than now. As a share of total applications science itself been fairly steady since then, with 6.79% in 2001 and 6.53% in 2006. But Dr Lyons seems to be wrong about low cut-off scores deterring good students. As the AVCC’s analysis of applications data shows, science attracted 10.9% of students with ENTER scores of 90 or above. Students are driven more by their interests than the status obsessions that afflict academics.

Though applications are holding up, science is one of the few disciplines in which first-preference demand is consistently below supply. Given there are other disciplines in which supply is significantly short of demand and which lead to professions with labour market shortages it would seem sensible to move places from science into other disciplines. But would this threaten, as Bishop worries, the ‘future needs of the nation being met’?

The answer to that is almost certainly no. Except in low-paid professions like teaching, there is no evidence of shortages in scientifically qualified personnel. Unlike several other graduate occupations, they don’t appear in skills shortages lists and science graduates in some fields have more difficulty than other graduates in finding full-time work. And with over 8,000 people enrolled in science PhDs there are plenty of potential researchers working their way through the system.

Rather than worrying about hypothetical shortages of scientists in the future, we should be more worried about existing shortages in a wide range of health-related fields. If the normal pressures of supply and demand had been allowed to operate, the system would have re-balanced itself years ago – solving, along the way, the ‘problem’ of low ENTER scores for science courses. But as centrally controlled systems are prone to doing, we are producing too much of things people don’t want and too little of what they do want.

Contrasting takes on Lebanese migrant policy in 1976

Crackdown as Lebanese refugee program gets out of hand

THE Fraser cabinet decided to crack down on Lebanese immigration after being advised by officials based in Cyprus that it had become difficult to check the refugee claims and there was a possibility that terrorists and criminals were using the civil war as a cover to enter Australia.

Documents presented to cabinet by immigration minister Michael MacKellar said the Lebanese refugee program had “got out of hand and the department was scraping the bottom of the barrel with regard to quality”.

Notes prepared by the head of the community affairs branch and attached to cabinet submission “860” said: “There are regular reports of deliberate dishonesty and misrepresentation by applicants and their agents.” …

At the time immigration authorities had more than 10,000 applications for residency from Lebanese. With the number of arrivals jumping at the rate of 150 a week, cabinet decided to tighten the conditions for entry, which had been relaxed by the Whitlam government and extended by the Fraser government.

The Age
, 1 January 2007.

Fraser was warned on Lebanese migrants

IMMIGRATION authorities warned the Fraser government in 1976 it was accepting too many Lebanese Muslim refugees without “the required qualities” for successful integration.The Fraser cabinet was also told many of the refugees were unskilled, illiterate and had questionable character and standards of personal hygiene.

Cabinet documents released today by the National Archives under the 30-year rule reveal how Australia’s decision to accept thousands of Lebanese Muslims fleeing Lebanon’s 1976 civil war led to a temporary collapse of normal eligibility standards.

The emergence of the documents raises the question of whether the temporary relaxation might have contributed to contemporary racial tensions in Sydney’s southwest, which exploded a year ago into race-based riots in Cronulla.

In September 1976, as a humanitarian response to the civil war raging at the time between Lebanese Christians and Muslims, cabinet agreed to relax rules requiring immigrants to be healthy, of good character and to have a work qualification.

and at paragraph 27, on a different page of the paper:

Cabinet agreed with Mr MacKellar and authorised him to issue a press release attributing the decision on curbing the intake to concerns about a lack of work opportunities for the migrants.

The Australian, 1 January 2007.

This morning’s papers provide a good example of how differing political agendas between newspapers can lead to very different interpretations of the same story – in this case, the release of the 1976 Cabinet documents. The Australian seems most guilty of spin here – unless you read right to the end of their lead story you would not realise that the Fraser government had realised there was a problem with refugees from Lebanon, and tightened eligibility criteria after an earlier relaxation. Indeed, I did not pick up on this important element of the story until I subsequently read The Age‘s very different take on the Cabinet papers. But The Australian wanted to draw a link with contemporary problems among the Lebanese, and probably have another go at Fraser, and so let the initial relaxtion of migration rules dominate the story. I’m not usually a fan of The Age, but here they have shown the value of media diversity.