The NBN is all about productivity improvement – ask CSIRO

For those of you who are not aware, the CSIRO has an incredibly interesting podcast called CSIROPOD. It shows off the range and depth of Australia’s leading scientific research institution. For those of you excited by the possibilities of science, like me, to solve the world’s problems, it is just a treasure-trove. Most people do not realise, though, CSIRO is not only “hard science”. It has soft science areas like economics and social research.

One area which it has tackled recently is the area of Australia’s productivity. Apparently, if you take mining and agriculture out of the mix, Australia ranks about 33 out of 36 in the OECD productivity table. This is in stark contrast to almost every other social and economic indicator where Australia usually rates in the top 3 or 4. This is a disgrace.

This interview outlines the challenge, but also the solution:

http://www.csiro.au/en/Portals/Multimedia/CSIROpod/Uploading-the-economy.aspx

What it clearly explains is that there is a solution to this predicament, but it involves Australia as a nation committing to completing the roll out of the NBN fibre to the home, which the coalition are still holding the line about dismantling. This is crazy. Malcolm Turnbull has more than enough ammunition to fire at the ALP on this area of economic policy. He should not also prevent the solution from being arrived at. It is politics in its worst form.

I still think Turnbull is the best leader for Australia at the moment, but he is dead wrong on this one.

The New Korea?

There have recently appeared two interesting, but very different takes on the behavior of the bizarre North Koreans

A view on the geo-political implications of North Korean behavior http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/time-us-disengage-north-korea-crisis?utm_source=Cato+Institute+Emails&utm_campaign=7a8995a9f8-Cato_Today&utm_medium=email&mc_cid=7a8995a9f8&mc_eid=271f8f78af

and a view on China’s motives:  http://www.businessinsider.com/why-china-supports-north-korea-2013-2

My view is I think it is time the world community came to an historic agreement and closed down this rogue state before they blow us all up. Isn’t it time that China and the US came to a statesman-like agreement about those crazies. Surely they could do a deal whereby in return for US troops withdrawing from the Korean peninsula and being replaced by UN force including Chinese, they could hold fee elections and unite the peninsula. China doesn’t want a nuclear Nth Korea any more than the US does.

In many ways, the first article by Doug Bandow is sort of agreeing with this view, although he took it further by suggesting the US abandons the nuclear guarantees with Japan and South Korea, which may force China in to coming to a wider settlement including a militarily neutral united Korea. It is an interesting thought. It might also bring Russia into play and force it to play a more constructive role than it has hitherto, both in Asia and the Middle East. A US withdrawal from Korea and the removal of the guarantee certainly is high stakes, but may ironically be less risky than the current stale-mate, where the North Koreans seem to think they can thumb their noses at the great powers with impunity. This is a very serious and dangerous position for both great powers to take. Any little tin pot regime who acquires nuclear weapons in the future will think they suddenly will have equal status, and who knows what might happen. It also gives every tinpot dictator every reason to go after the nuclear option because they then will be propped up (unintentionally) by the great powers.

I think in terms of geo-politics the Korean situation is a bigger issue for both great powers than a middle east settlement but there appears to be zero momentum for it.  Withdrawal of the nuclear guarantee may be seen as the ultimate in “real politic” but if it ultimately brings to a head the issues that are bubbling along now and leads to a settlement, it could be Obama’s and the new Chinese regime’s greatest foreign policy achievement. It certainly should be worth considering, and undoubtedly ups the stakes considerably.

Not sure about the view on China’s intentions. I hear what he says about mineral rare earth, but the benefits sort of pale into insignificance when compared to the risk of regional wars with the withdrawal of the US. Personally, I would have thought a democratic, neutral, economically progressive united Korea would be far more beneficial to China than an unstable nuclear armed failed state.

The other point I’d make, is that any unification should be thought about in the light of the German experience. They would be crazy to converge onto a common currency as Germany did to its great cost. Better to have a federation with two currencies, and watch south Korean, Japanese, US and Chinese investment money pour into the North until in 50 years time when the north and south economies are similarly prosperous then they could unite the currencies.

The North is brilliantly positioned to become the new north Asian economic super tiger.Now that would really be to China’s advantage.

The Rapidly Changing Education Model

Further to my piece yesterday, where I suggested the debate around the implementation of the Asia in the 21st Century Report, there is a discussion this morning in the Fairfax Press in “the zone” where Ernst & Young outline the finding of their research into the education sector.

http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/full-transcript-peter-rohan-20121014-27kwz.html

Clearly the revolution is coming, but so are amazing opportunities. Implementing across the country Asia language skills is surely doable over the next 20 years off the back of thesE changes.

A very interesting comment buried in the narrative is “that both political parties have beenengaged and thoroughly understand what is coming in Education” what does this mean? It means that this criticism of the Asia White Paper by the Opposition is yet another one of Abbott’s scare campaigns. You would have though there would be a rethink by now in the Coalitionthat they need to switch the debate to one based on policy difference rather than their knee jerk negative reaction.

The coming together of two visionary ideas…..

As regular readers of this blog will realise, I am a great admirer of the Federal Government’s NBN policy – one of the most visionary policies I believe from the Federal Government in recent memory and one which has the potential to greatly change the way we operate as a society for the better.

Some of you also may not realise that I am “an old Asia hand” ie someone who has lived and worked in Asia for almost a decade in my career, so I was delighted to see the Government initially commissioning their “Asia and Australia in the 21st century” White Paper, and releasing it so competently over the weekend. Having now read it thoroughly, I think the authors have done a great job, and deserve due consideration on both sides of politics, as well as in academia and the media.

Imagine my horror today, when listening to the ABC at lunchtime, when the government has allowed themselves to be marginalised by the vested interests on this issue, particularly on their commitment to Asian languages and the line from the opposition “it means nothing without extra funding”.

This is a nonsense. The extra funding comes from the NBN. Sometimes I wonder whether the Government even realises what a revolution they have started in this area.  They certainly did not explain it as they should, something they also have  a habit of doing in other areas of policy.

It started off this morning in “The Age” with one Professor Adam Chen suggesting the commitment to Asian languages “will cost billions”. This was followed up during the morning by the usual procession of vested interests with their hands out (of which as usual the Teachers Unions are the most vocal with their baseless breast beating about class sizes echoed by the Federal Opposition).

Education is the sector, along with Health, which will be most profoundly affected by the NBN. In 10 years’ time, when the NBN will be fully implemented, education will be profoundly changed.  Teaching at universities will be largely done online, when the most important things  for them will not be the size of their campus, but the quality of their teaching and the prestige of their Brand. The NBN will provide virtually unlimited capacity to teach. Rather than a university lecturer being limited to the student numbers dictated by the size of the lecture theatre, it will be restricted by the size of the demand as these services will be delivered via a limitless capacity on the internet.

As with universities, the same will apply to schools. An excellent teacher of Mandarin, rather than being restricted to a classroom, will be able to take regular classes with unlimited capacity via a very fast broadband. It will revolutionize schools, and greatly improve teaching standards to all sectors of society in all subject areas.

It is possible the Federal Labor Government would prefer to take “stick” from the Opposition, than to have to explain this fact to their constituency in the Union movement, most of whom do not appear to understand this profound change (along with most of the Press). Nevertheless, it is coming down the track, and will greatly expand the policy options for government in all sort of areas, not least Education.

In my view, it will be a revolution even more profound than the internet itself.

The Real Tony Abbott…

For all those who are interested in interesting debate, good governance, and for Australia to continue as a tolerant, inclusive, civilised society, I highly recommend you read this article…

http://m.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/a-thirst-for-power-lies-at-the-heart-of-abbotts-agenda-20121022-2818x.html

Written by ex diplomat, senior public servant, and political insider Bruce Haigh, it gives an insiders view of Abbott dating back to his undergraduate days right through to his present persona. It explains more clearly than I have seen elsewhere why Abbott behaves as he does, and why he is incapable of modifying his current self destructive ways.

It also spells out very specifically why we must all work (on both sides of politics) to ensure Abbott never becomes Prime Minister.

Overseas Graduates – yet another great chance for Australia

Everyone is aware of the devastation which the GFC and now the euro crisis (s) have brough on Europe. These are dramatically illustrated by the trends in youth unemployment across Europe, particularly since Lehmann’s collapse. In most European countries, graduates make up between 20-30% of youth unemployed. Similarly in the US. Unemployment amongst college graduates is the highest in half a century.

What does all this mean for Australia? It means yet another incredible opportunuity.

Australia, through its good fortune to be one of the strongest economies in the OECD, has an unprecendented opportunity to attract the best and the brightest graduates from countries with high education levels and high graduate unemployment rates ie countries like Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Greece and the US. Without wishing these countries mis-fortune, the fact is they have some very smart young people bereft of opportunity and many will become “the lost generation”. Australia desperately needs skilled people to provide the energy and drive for the future. Although a properly structured program would be quite expensive, in the longer term it would pay off handsomely, and would be a sensible way to spend any future surplus to set the country up as a brain driven environment to drive innovation, creativity and wealth creation.

This plays to one of the over-riding but unstated tenents of our immigration policy post While Australia i.e. although the policy is non-discriminatory from race, religions and sexuality, it definitely favours the better educated on the basis it is education which is the biggest driver of assimilation and job security. In an environment where our universities are bursting at the seams, and we can’t get enough of graduates, particularly those related to the sciences, why wouldn’t we take the best and the brightest from abroad. Much cheaper than financing additional Phd places, although that should be done as well.

A related issue to this, it was dissappointing to see that there has been a considerable tightening up on criteria for entrepreneurs from abroad immigrating here. Somewhat short sighted I would have thought.

The inevitable shift in Australian politics

In June I predicted that:

  1. Tony Abbott will not lead the LNP to the next election, and the blood letting that will preceed his removal will make the defence of Julia Gillard during Kevin Rudd”s recent challenge look like a walk in the park;
  2. Abbott will be replaced by Turnbull; and
  3. Gillard will be replaced by Bob Carr.

Whilst i am not now as confident about Carr replacing Gillard, the tide has turned against Abbott six months earlier than I expected. Admittedly, Gillard has improved her performance considerably in the last three months, and the inate contradictions of Abbott’s relentless negativity has been exposed so the electorate now seems to be waking up to it.

To me the turning points in this process have been:

  1. Leigh Sales demolition job on Abbott on 7.30 when he simply could no longer get away with the blatant lies he had been peddling during and after the last election campaign;
  2. David Marr’s latest political epistle in the Quarterly Essay, this time on Tony Abbott (Marr has form; his effort before this was on Kevin Rudd and many in the Labor Party see that piece as the event which lead directly to Rudd’s removal);
  3. the non-event which was the introduction of the Carbon Tax. Voters now realise the sky has not fallen in, and the exaggeration which has accompanied Abbott’s campaigning against it has been exposed as a sham. They are now asking how much of the rest of his overall scare campaign is as equally unreliable; and
  4. the squabbling internally has broken out big time in the coalition about economic policy. The dries, lead by Joe Hockey, and the wets lead by the agrarian socialists which is most of the National Party, as well as the DLP rump lead by Abbott are at each other throats on this. This is where I believe Abbott will ultimately lose it. He is almost illiterate when it comes to economics, and when he does act it tends toward protectionism and picking winners. This is the last thing that the more economically literate on both sides of politics want, as well as the vast majority of the business community.  Once the polls turn inevitably more decisively against him, this will be the weakness which undoes him.

Ride on Malcolm Turnbull. If he gets a chance, he will win in a canter, to the great relief of three quarters of the population. We can only hope!

Europe – what a mess

In retrospect, it was a big mistake to think that the Euro could work across diverse economies, without fiscal and monetary union. But that in itself was impossible because of the very diverse ideas in Europe about economic responsible economic management and fiscal discipline. Indeed, the formation of the Eurozone encouraged all the member economies that they could have German style living standards, but without the disciplined, focussed and skilled German workforce and economy, and without the economic management which has charactarized the German government, at least for the last 10 years.

Many countries, led by the French, have believed they could run economies with very generous social benefits without the hard economic management and decision making which so charactarizes successful economies. For instance, when the last president of France hesitatingly tried to instigate mild economic reforms such as raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 there were howls of protest which forced him to back down. This does not even go near economic distorting policies like the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), exorbitant pension and social welfare provisions, industry subsidies, and unaffordable internal and external deficits. In spite of the fact that the IMF, ECB, World Bank, and Germany have been handing out enormous bail outs to many broke countries in southern Europe, nearly all of them have been unable to fully implement them because their electorates will simply not wear them.

The only way is for the market to force it on them ie leaving the euro zone and issue their sovereign currencies. How might this work? Take Greece. Greece in the current circumstances will never pay back its debts. It will be saddled with such stringent provisions that it could remain in recession for 20 years. Time for a change in direction.

If Greece, without warning, announced that henceforth the Greek currency would be in drachma, and all international debts would be written off,  then there would be short term pain, but eventually the market would kick in (probably 18 months to 2 years), and the Greek economy would begin to recover. There would undoubtedly be a 50% plus devaluation against the euro, which would make Greek exports cheaper, and imports more expensive. It would also allow the Greek central bank to recapitalise the Greek Banks by printing more Drachmas. This, though, would all end in disaster if it were not accompanied by drastic economic reforms to the social welfare system, collection of taxes and other charges, removal of distorting government subsidies of various kinds, reform of the legal system and a crackdown on the corruption which so distorts the efficient running of the Greek state.

Within five years, the Greek economy will recover, the debts will be written off, and the competitive advantages of Greece will start to kick in in a much more  growth friendly environment than before. The low growth, deficit cutting and low investment environment which ios the consequences of the European bailouts, will be delivered via a market mechanisms and will not therefore be the subject of the political vastitudes currently underway in Greece.

No-one though sees this as pain free. It is not. It will be very painful indeed, but in the medium term it will be less so than 20 years of recession, and it will give hope to a population sadly lacking in it, especially the young. It is somethingthe population and government can galvanise around, and on which it could build a prosperous future.

It is also something the other southern European governments such as Spain, Italy and Portugal would also likely copy once the benefits become apparent. The French, well they will remain French, and keep their heads buried in the sand, even though the economy distorting welfare state, government subsidies, the CAP, and unreformed labour, capital and distribution markets are worse than almost anywhere in the EU, and France’s economic performance reflects that. They should also take the economic medicine, and return to the Franc. But they won’t of course!

What is Gina Reinhardt Up To?

The acquisition of the Fairfax stake by the  wealthiest woman in the world, and a paid up member of the extreme right wing  “crazies club”, Gina Reinhardt, should be a concern for everyone, not only in Australia, who values pluralist democracy, and who has an inate belief in the civic reasonableness of our society. It is a perversion, that someone who acquires obscene wealth, not from her own endeavors, but from that of her father, can use that wealth to pervert the “balance” of what in many ways is an extraordinarily success society. And why is it successful? Because it is well educated, well informed, tolerant, funny, happy, and progressive. I can’t think of any one of these categories for which Reinhardt qualifies. But it is a devilish dilemma.

Those of us who believe in free markets, who believe in efficiency, and believe in best practice, are caught in a bind here. Markets work because the regulation is about openness and information. But from what we can see, Reinhardt is advocating the opposite of that. She wants to dictate the information from the Fairfax papers to be a mouthpiece of her personal financial interests. So in a way, she is breaking a fundamental markets rule generally addressed by such organs as a Trades Practices Act. In a media sense, she is being anticompetitive. Some insiders believe this is not an investment in media, but a play to drive the Fairfax mastheads into the ground, thereby eliminating a pesky, and annoying instruments for Reinhardt getting untrammelled power.

Now we hear that she wants three board seats (out of 8), wants to be Deputy Chairman, and wants a veto over who is appointed Editors of the Fairfax papers. Why is this not anticompetitive in terms of information? The problem is what can be done about it? The last thing we need is for governments to be dictating who can, and cannot, open newspapers, whether online, or in print. But how do you stop Reinhardt from using her wealth to dictate what rest of us are allowed to read?

Actually, the solution may be in the changes in technology which is presenting this opportunity to Reinhardt  in the first place. There will be many extremely talented journasts out of work as a result of these changes. These same changes present an unprecedented opportunity to write new media. After all, all you need now to write an online newspaper are talented journalists, an internet connection, some internet skills, and a burning desire to succeed. I can’t think of a better environment for these out of work journos to get to work. And we may find we end up with a far more diverse media than we have now, and Rindhardt will have wasted her money (not that she worries about that – she has other agendas).It would make the rest of us feel good though….

The devilish dilemma which is the Euro zone.

It seems to be going from bad to worse in Europe, not necessarily in the economic conditions, but with the political impasse which is accompanying them. The EU basically has two options as a way out of this self imposed mess: the breaking up of the Eurozone and a return to individual currencies, or further and complete economic and political union.

The first is really not an option at all. Just to give you one example of what this would cause. In Greece, as a microcosm of the breakup, individuals and firms are taking their money out of banks and either putting then abroad, or literally hiding their euro notes under their beds. They would be doing this for rational economic reasons. If Greece left the Euro zone, the country would convert back to the drachma , with an almost certain immediate devaluation of at least 50%.  For those who had left their wealth in euros this means a doubling of their wealth in equivalence in drachmas.  But what about those who cannot do that: those on social security, those who own property in Greece, those who own businesses. They will all suffer a substantial, perhaps fatal, loss when compared to the rest of the world. Let alone the rash of writs which undoubtably will occur as people and firms seek to cover their losses in the courts.

These effects would be multiplied 100 times if the break up occurs all over Europe, leading to a worldwide depression even worse than that in the 1930s.

The second alternative is futher economic and political union. The problem with this is that voters are simply not buying it. In all democratic tests of this throughout the euro zone over the last two years, the voters in all countries are living in denial. The economic and political medicine they need to take for their survival simply is unacceptable.

God help us all if there does not emerge a sense of reality very soon, because everyone will be affected, even in prosperous, “bullet-proof “Australia.