A decade after the global financial crisis, we're still not back to normal

Simon Letch Opinion 27th Sept??
Simon Letch Opinion 27th Sept??

Talk about a slow burn. It's 10 years since the beginnings of the global financial crisis, the greatest economic collapse any of us will ever see. Things ought to be back to normal by now, but they aren't.

The world is still picking through the wreckage, deciding what should be kept and what dispensed with. What needs to be done differently to restore normality and ensure there's never another disaster like that one.

A lot of people were surprised the retribution didn't happen at the time: bankers sent to jail, famous economists and their theories discredited, presiding politicians pushed out to pasture, their reputations in tatters.

For a long time, it looked as though the same people who brought us the disaster were kept on to clean up the mess. "Sorry about that. Poor execution. Nothing wrong with the basic policies, of course. Won't let it happen again."

Now, however, there's a revolt by disillusioned and angry punters evident in many developed countries: the Americans voting in an outsider oddball like Trump, the Brits voting to quit the European Union then knackering the government trying to arrange it, the French electing a president from neither of the two main parties, the Germans re-electing Mummy Merkel, but only after reducing the combined vote of her party and the main alternative to their lowest share since the war.

It's a similar story in Oz, where last year's election saw one voter in four avoiding the two main parties and the resurrection of One Nation to scourge the establishment.

Fancy footwork by the Rudd government at the time allowed us to escape the GFC with only a few scratches. Turns out it's not that simple. The economy's been below par ever since and, for the past four years, our growth in wages has been as weak as in the other advanced economies.

This Punters' Revolt is prompting a belated reassessment of the "neoliberal" policies that caused the financial crisis. Policy changes are happening, with a lot more to come, as the established parties fight off the challenge from the radical fringe.

Trouble is, when the pressure for change comes from the grassroots rather than frank admission of failure on the part of the policy elite, the great risk is that we'll flip to populism - policies that are popular because they sound like they'd make things better, when they wouldn't really because they misunderstand the deeper causes of the problem.

Much of the discontent has centred around globalisation - the breakdown of barriers separating countries.

Globalisation is a popular target because it can be blamed for the fall in jobs in manufacturing as well as the admission to our country of people who look different and have strange habits. Are they taking our jobs or just taking over our country?

But though it's true that some of the jobs lost in manufacturing have shifted to other countries (providing employment and income to people much poorer than any of us), our compulsive fear of foreigners blinds us to the much greater role played by automation.

As Dr Andrew Leigh, federal Labor's shadow assistant treasurer and a former economics professor, writes in a new book for the Lowy Institute, Choosing Openness, advances in technology have been shifting jobs from the farm to the cities, and now from manufacturing to the services sector, continuously since Australia became a federation.

This means attempting to "make Australia great again" by restoring protection - reducing our openness to the world - can't work. We'd have trouble establishing many new factories, and those we did would employ a lot more machines than workers.

What restoring protection would do, however, is raise the prices of all the goods we protected - starting with cars, clothing and footwear - worsening the cost of living of all working people.

It's too easy to forget the benefits of globalisation along with the costs.

Apart from being a bit too late, trying to return to White Australia would rob us of greater human links with rapidly developing Asia, where we all know our best hope of future prosperity lies.

Overall, we've gained more than we've lost from the successive waves of new technology, as well as from the way we opened our economy to the world in the 1980s. Trying to re-erect the shutters would be a costly mistake.

Overall, employment has just kept growing - which is not to deny that many less-skilled men formerly employed in manufacturing have not been able to find satisfactory employment.

The sensible conclusion is that there have been losers as well as winners, but little has been done to help the losers - with the winners required to do more to kick the tin.

"The chief challenge," Leigh says, "is to deal with the inequality that can accompany technological change and economic openness.

"This is not just a matter of fairness; it is also essential if we are to deal with the political backlash against openness.

"A spate of studies in economics and psychology have shown that humans exhibit loss aversion [we prefer to avoid losses more than we prefer making gains] and are more conscious of headwinds than tailwinds.

"Open markets require egalitarian institutions," Leigh concludes.

He's right. This is the key principle of reform we lost sight of after the departure of Hawke and Keating.

Ross Gittins is the Herald's economics editor.

This story A decade after the global financial crisis, we're still not back to normal first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.