Both luck and good management: a review of Ian McLean’s Why Australia Prospered

The passing of Ian McLean in May 2021 reminded me that his 2013 book on Australia’s economic history had been on my ‘to read’ list for a long time.

An epigraph to the last chapter of Why Australia Prospered quotes the Greek poet Archilochus that ‘the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’ (popularised by Isaiah Berlin).

McLean was a fox, with this nicely undogmatic book looking at the many factors that can influence economic growth both in general and in Australia, rather than seeking one big theory to explain it all. It takes sceptical looks at theories that might claim too much policy wisdom (post-WW2 Keynesian economics, 1980s & 1990s ‘economic rationalism’), and too little, that Australia was just a ‘lucky country’, as Donald Horne famously put it.

Australia was and is lucky in its natural endowments. These were the earliest source of its economic comparative advantage, as the wool industry developed in the first half of the 19th century. Sheep grazing land was taken without paying for it – whether the wronged ‘owners’ are taken as the Indigenous people who had traditionally lived on it or the Crown as represented by the governor of the colony – and the mild climate made winter housing for sheep unnecessary. Combine these capital savings with cheap convict labour and Australian wool was very competitively priced on international markets.

Continue reading “Both luck and good management: a review of Ian McLean’s Why Australia Prospered”

The symbiosis of capitalism and democracy

(This review is cross-posted at Goodreads.)

Theorists of the left and the right argue that there are tensions if not contradictions between democracy and capitalism. Left-wing theorists argue that business has undemocratic power, buying influence through political donations and altering policy by threatening to invest elsewhere. Right-wing theorists argue that democratic majorities vote for taxes and regulations that weaken incentives and undermine the efficiency of capitalist enterprises.

Judged by the normative standards of these theorists, these critiques have something to them. But judged by some other standard, such as elected governments maintaining capitalist economic systems with widespread high living standards over long periods of time, the ‘advanced capitalist democracies’ discussed in Democracy and prosperity: reinventing capitalism through a turbulent century, look very successful compared to other political and economic combinations.

democracy and prosperity


One contention of the book’s authors, Torben Iversen and David Soskice, is that a symbiotic relationship between democracy and capitalism contributes to the success of these countries. Although business and rich people may, at least initially, resist the increased taxes that democracies impose for social policy programs, often in the long run these programs contribute to economic success.

For example, education is electorally popular and provides business with the highly-skilled workforces they need. Government unemployment, health, and retirement programs reduce workers’ uncertainty about their future welfare, reducing short-termist behaviour and industrial conflict. Workers are less dependent on their employers.

In turn, key constituencies in advanced capitalist democracies depend on a successful economy for their own jobs and the tax revenues that support social programs. They support political parties that competently deliver economic growth, limiting the political potential of parties that would damage the capitalist economy. The rejection of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in Britain is an example. Continue reading “The symbiosis of capitalism and democracy”

The renewable energy industry as another popular burden on taxpayers

Australian public opinion has long been protectionist, with majorities agreeing with statements such as ‘Australia should continue to use tariffs to protect its industry’. But some Essential Research polling published today partially qualifies this finding.

Q. Thinking about Australian industries and the ways in which the Government can give them assistance and support – which forms of assistance and support do you think the Government should give to the following industries? (multi-response) Continue reading “The renewable energy industry as another popular burden on taxpayers”

Do unis contribute to business innovation?

While in Sydney for the Mont Pelerin Society meeting last week, I was the commenter on a Shaken and Stirred dinner talk by Terence Kealey, VC of the University of Buckingham, the UK’s only private university. He’s profiled in today’s Higher Education Supplement.

Kealey is unlike most VCs. The first thing that strikes you is his personality – an extrovert among introverts. The second thing that strikes you are his political views – a university leader who spurns government funding in an industry convinced that it should receive large handouts in the ‘public interest’.

I think Kealey is right that the obsession with linking university research to industry and ‘innovation’ is largely misguided. We’ve had at least 20 years of this as a policy priority. In my comments I argued that the results here are as disappointing as Kealey argues they have been elsewhere. Continue reading “Do unis contribute to business innovation?”

Will the David Jones harassment case be bad for business?

Many people, on this blog and elsewhere, think that the David Jones sexual harassment case is commercially dangerous for the company:

The case will definitely have an effect on the DJs brand in the long term, leading brand analyst Richard Sauerman of Brand Alchemy said. …

But Mr Sauerman said he expected some women would show how they felt about the sexual harassment allegations by shopping elsewhere.

He said once this sentiment grew it could have an effect on the company’s bottom line, and then even its share price.

And indeed social attitudes surveys show that this kind of consumer behaviour takes place. The ABS General Social Survey 2006 found that over a twelve months period a quarter of those surveyed had ‘boycotted or deliberately bought products for political, ethical or environmental reasons’.

On the other hand this isn’t the first time in recent years that David Jones has been accused of sexual impropriety. In 2006 the Australia Institute accused it of ‘corporate paedophilia’ because David Jones allegedly used sexualised images of children in its clothing catalogues. Continue reading “Will the David Jones harassment case be bad for business?”

Investing in students

I’m hoping to soon get started on a paper about reforming Australia’s shambolic student loans system, so I was interested in a Marginal Revolution link to Lumni human capital financing.

Lumni invests in students in exchange for a share of their future earnings. Joe Clark wrote a Policy article on this a few years ago. From a student’s perspective, it has these differences from our HELP scheme:

1. With Lumni, the graduate provides an agreed % of his or her income for a fixed period of time rather than a fixed % of his or her income until the debt is paid off or the graduate dies. Successful graduates could end up paying much more under Lumni, while unsuccessful students will have their debts written off more quickly.

2. Lumni will only invest when it believes a return is likely – so presumably it will not invest in risky students (eg older students, those with weak prior results) or low-return qualifications (eg Arts). HELP will lend to anyone regardless of risk. As Joe points out in his article, one advantage of seeking a return on investment is that there will be more research into the prospects of different degrees, institutions, and types of student. This could help guide students even if they don’t take out a loan. Continue reading “Investing in students”

Melbourne’s disappearing milk bars

Last Saturday, as I have almost every Saturday over the last decade, I went into the milk bar at the corner of Barkly St and Canning St in Carlton to buy the papers. On the verge of tears, the owner told me that this would be the last time I’d do so. Not by choice, they were closing down.

milkbar resave
The cnr Barkly St and Canning St milk bar on its last trading day, 20 December 2009
Continue reading “Melbourne’s disappearing milk bars”

Politician admits wasting billions of dollars

Ok , an ex-politician. But even among ex-politicians, how many admit to being partly responsible for wasting billions of taxpayers’ dollars, as former Hamer and Kennett government minister Rob Maclellan does in The Age his morning?

The sources of this waste are Alcoa aluminium smelters near Geelong and in Portland, a Victorian coastal town. By the time current contracts expire The Age estimates that these smelters will have received $4.5 billion in electricity subsidies.

As Maclellan now concedes, ever agreeing to this arrangement was a ‘collective moment of insanity’ around the cabinet table. There are many such moments, but at least Maclellan is, albeit far too late to do anything about it, admitting to this one.

Why aren’t political beneficiaries declared?

Over the last few days, the SMH has run a good series of stories on the dodgy deals that have enriched taxi licence holders like Reg Kermode.

The taxi industry is based on an anti-competitive licence system that restricts the number of cabs on the road, and delivers windfall profits to people who bought licences in the past. This is all well-known (I have complained about it before, as have several people associated with the CIS and many others.) The SMH scoop – or at least I never knew about it before – is that Kermode was given about $20 million worth of licence plates for free. It also reports that:

[The Rees government] has continued to keep secret the list of taxi plate owners who trade their licences on a market worth as much as $2.2 billion.

The SMH quite appropriately points out that Kermode is a generous donor to the NSW ALP.

But the secret licence system shows the real hole in the political disclosure system. The problem is not that $1,000 donors pose a threat to the integrity of the policymaking system, as the federal government believes. It is that information about who benefits from special government deals is often very hard to get. Unlike political donors, there is no central registry of political beneficiaries. Though their identities can – with exceptions like the taxi licence holders – generally be discovered, it often takes a lot of digging around, and in this case investigative journalism. Continue reading “Why aren’t political beneficiaries declared?”

Why pay more at Borders?

This week if you download a coupon you can get 30% off a full-priced book at Borders. They regularly offer similar kinds of specials.

So far as I know, this is a novel strategy for booksellers in Australia: not discounts on a particular book, and not discounts across-the-board, but one discount on a book the customer chooses (is there a unique barcode for each coupon which protects against fraud?). If the strategy is to get people into the store it is a clever one. It allows all books to attract customers rather than just the specials, but unlike across-the-board discounting it increases the yield on additional purchases.

What Borders don’t tell you is that sometimes you need a coupon for shopping at Borders to make sense. My weekly notice from Borders, which I received yesterday, advertises Colm Toibin’s new novel Brooklyn for $36.50. A Toibin novel is likely to be worth $36.50, but there is no need to pay this much. Other bookstores are selling it for the publisher-recommended price of $32.99.
Continue reading “Why pay more at Borders?”