An Economy That Works for People

by Jim Stanford

The new Commonwealth government is hosting a major Jobs Summit in September 2022, bring together representatives from a range of stakeholder groups to discuss the challenges facing Australia’s labour market, and how to achieve strong employment, job quality and security, and better skills and training opportunities.

In preparation for the Summit, the Australian Council of Trade Unions is publishing a series of discussion papers to spark dialogue over key issues that will be discussed at the event. The first of these papers, on the failures of past macroeconomic policy and the need for better approaches, was prepared with input from Jim Stanford, Director of the Centre for Future Work.

The 23-page report, titled An Economy That Works for People, first reviews the legacy of the last decade of one-sided macroeconomic and labour market policies from former Coalition governments. Boosted by government actions to reduce taxes, labour costs, and regulations, corporate profits have swelled to the highest share of GDP (almost 30%) in history. But that profit has not translated into investment or innovation: at present just 37 cents of each dollar in profit is reinvested in new projects. Meanwhile, the share of GDP going to workers has never been lower since records have been kept: falling to just 45% in 2022. This redistribution of income from workers to businesses is not just a moral failure. The impact of swelling profit margins on inflation, and the drain in spending power arising from uninvested profits, are holding back Australia’s economy considerably.

An Economy That Works for People

The paper discusses the causes and consequences of the current surge in inflation in detail, providing conclusive evidence the problem did not arise in the labour market. To the contrary, labour costs have servedto reduce inflation: nominal unit labour costs grew only 2.1% over the last 12 months (below the RBA inflation target), while unit profit margins surged (by over 14%).

The paper also reviews statistical evidence on Australia’s productivity growth, and in particular on the failure of productivity growth to be reflected in rising real wages. Real put per hour of work has increased 13% over the past decade: not outstanding, but still positive and steady. Real wages, in contrast, have gone nowhere — and are now falling rapidly in the face of accelerating inflation. Rather than risking an economy-wide recession with rapid interest rate hikes (which impose the worst burden on workers and indebted households), the paper calls for a more multi-dimensional and targeted approach by government (supplementing actions by the RBA) to gradually bring inflation down without causing mass unemployment.

The paper makes 6 specific recommendations for macroeconomic reforms to ensure working Australians share fairly in the benefits of future growth. The first is to elevate full employment in decent jobs as the central goal of macroeconomic policy, and to ensure that all policy interventions (including from the RBA, the Commonwealth government, and other regulatory agencies) are consistent with that top goal.

Release of the paper generated extensive media coverage and public debate (which was its goal!): including stories in The Guardian, the ABCThe Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian Financial Review, and The Australian. In this feature interview with 2CC Radio host Leon Delaney, Dr Stanford discusses the main recommendations of the report, and whether it is really such a ‘radical’ idea to make full employment the top goal of economic policy:

Full report