The Productivity Commission wants wage bargaining shifted further in favour of employers



What’s conspicuously absent from all the bemoaning of the slowdown in our rate of productivity improvement, is any acknowledgement that there’s also been a huge fall in the rate of the flow-through to real wages of what improvement we are achieving.

Until that’s fixed – until the capitalist system goes back to keeping its promise that the workers will get their fair share of the benefits of capitalism – Australia’s households have no rational reason to give a stuff about what’s happening to productivity.

Back to the point. Productivity improves when you produce the same things with fewer inputs of labour or capital, or produce more – either more quantity or better quality – with the same inputs.

And the report is exactly right to say that steadily improving our productivity is the key to improving the nation’s material standard of living. The rich world has more than two centuries of proof of that truth.

The first of the report’s five priority areas is achieving a “highly skilled and adaptable workforce”. Dead right. This is economics 101. Economists have known for yonks that investing in “human capital” is the obvious way to increase productivity.

(And it’s the better educated and trained workers who can most easily adapt to the changing demand for labour that the digital revolution and other technological advance will bring.)

But the commission long ago stopped pointing this out, while state and federal governments put their efforts into quite different objectives. The Howard government, for instance, spent hugely on expanding parents’ choice of private school.

“I’m a Callithumpian, and I’d like to send my kid to a Callithumpian school, where they won’t have to mix with sinners.” Next, we had the limited success of the Gonski-inspired push to fund schools based on student need rather than entrenched privilege and religion.

And then we wonder why school results have got worse and so many kids leave school with inadequate numeracy and literacy. How they’ll be advancing our prosperity in an ever-changing world I hate to think.

Which raises a recent “learning” by economists, that doesn’t seem to have reached the commission: if you ignore what your “reforms” are doing to the distribution of income between the top and the bottom, don’t be surprised if your productivity goes off.

For some inexplicable reason, growth in the number of the downtrodden makes the average look worse.

Meanwhile, with universities, the highest priority of successive federal governments – Labor and Liberal – over the past 30 years has just been to get them off the budget.

Until the capitalist system goes back to keeping its promise that the workers will get their fair share of the benefits of capitalism – Australia’s households have no rational reason to give a stuff about what’s happening to productivity.

The feds have made them hugely dependent on attracting overseas students and charging them full freight. One way they’ve coped is by making university teaching by the younger staff part of the gig economy.

Apart from putting the public unis (but not the few private unis) on a starvation diet during the lockdowns, the Morrison government’s last effort to punish what it saw as a hotbed of socialism was a hare-brained scheme to encourage students to choose courses that made them “job-ready” by, among other things, doubling the tuition fees for a BA.

Fortunately, this failed to discourage the students, but did make the humanities a far more profitable product for the unis to push.

To be fair, another recent “learning” does seem to have got through to the commission. It’s third priority for attention is “creating a more dynamic and competitive economy”.

Research by Treasury has found strong empirical evidence that our economy has become less dynamic – less able to change and improve over time. Fewer new firms are being created, and fewer workers are being induced to change their jobs pursuing higher pay.

Our industries have become more oligopolised – allowed by our permissive takeover laws – and, not surprisingly, their profit margins (“markups,” in econospeak) have been creeping up.

No official will admit it, but it seems pretty clear that the reason the Reserve Bank has been raising interest rates so far and so fast – despite falling real wages – is the part that oligopolistic pricing power is playing in our high inflation rate.

And now further Treasury research has confirmed that our high degree of industry concentration (markets dominated by a few huge firms) has given employers greater power to limit the rise in wages.

All this makes it unsurprising that our rate of productivity improvement has weakened. It also helps explain why, over the past decade, virtually none of what improvement in the productivity of labour we have achieved has been passed on to real wages.

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