Two crazy ideas for the asylum seeker problem

Asylum seeker boat arrivals – fairly inconsequential in real terms – are a major political problem.

Last night on QandA a Labor minister indicated that the “journey” would not be “re-opened” for asylum seekers, indicating a maniacal desire to “stop the boats” is a bipartisan ambition.Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 11.13.20 am

The racist pandering to Western Sydney inherent in “stopping the boats” was always called out as the bullshit it was. Until the video of the drownings of asylum seekers on the coast of Christmas Island in 2010. Suddenly it was possible to say preventing asylum seekers from arriving in Australia by boat was a moral imperative.

That’s an extreme idea, requiring the sort of broad view of morality that would also support fencing off Australia’s surf beaches to prevent drownings. Most people would say imperative #1 is to not harm people with your actions.

One year ago I wrote about how powerless and ineffective I feel when faced with asylum seeker policy. What’s changed is that the extreme nature of the “solution” – including laws preventing reporting of child abuse – permits a broader range of alternatives that might previously also have been seen as “extreme.”

So is it possible to solve the boat arrivals “problem” without spending billions and becoming a police state? It must be. Lets think outside the box.

1. Make a queue

People are always fighting about queue jumpers, and whether there is a queue. What if we made an actual queue on the shores of Indonesia, where the boats are leaving from?

Asylum seekers get on a boat because that’s how they imagine they can get into Australia. What if we let them get into Australia without getting on a boat?

Could we rent some space from the Indonesians, bring it inside the migration exclusion zone and process refugee claims up there?

Budget impact score: 9/10. No more detention centres, less need to police the seas for boat arrivals, etc.

Political acceptability score: 5/10. Should diminish boat arrivals so long as the applications are processed swiftly.

Direct morality score: 8/10. Assuming they are able to live in the community in Indonesia, there need be no imprisonment.

Indirect morality score: 9/10. No more drownings between Indonesia and Christmas Island.

2. Open slather.

Embrace boat arrivals. Stop turnbacks, Close off-shore detention; close on-shore detention; visas to live in the community while refugee applications processed.

This is about stopping boat arrivals from being a political problem. If you wanted to change the narrative on boat arrivals, you’d have to own the arrival of each boat. Get a video crew, translators and a government minister onto each boat as it arrives, so we can see them shaking hands with the asylum seekers, chatting and smiling. Interview the people, find out their stories and their names. Publish lists of asylum seekers, their smiling photos, and key quotes from them. Humanise not dehumanise. Let’s hear about their desire to live in Australia, their interest in what they’ve heard about us, their qualifications and jobs in their home countries, what they’re fleeing, what skills they bring, etc. This would absolutely freak everyone out for a while but the rate of repetition and the volume of boat arrival footage might eventually make boat arrivals very very boring.

(I think this approach could be helped along by some sort of non-government work to try to humanise asylum seekers. Greenpeace made us care about whales by having little inflatable boats out there and video cameras showing what was happening. Can we do the same with Asylum seekers? Could Sea Shepherd open up a northern Australia branch, for caring about humans? )

Budget impact score: 10/10. This is cheap.

Political acceptability score: 2/10 in the short-term as boat arrivals will go up up up.

Direct morality score: 10/10 (No more taxpayer-funded imprisoning of innocent people)

Indirect morality score: 5/10. (Some drownings still likely).

I’d be very interested to hear any other crazy ideas people have. Please share them below!

Should businesses get compensation when policy changes?

Do businesses really think policy never changes?

The way they act when a change is proposed makes you think they never realised democracies worked like that.


The mining industry would have us believe a mining tax on surging profits was impossible to anticipate.

The car lease industry feign they never dreamed the law might remove their favourable tax treatment.

The steel makers pretend charging for carbon was completely inconceivable.

The tunnel-makers insist they couldn’t foresee a world in which their tunnel wasn’t wanted.

Businesses who stand to lose from policy changes kick up a fuss about how they’ve been blind-sided.  All too often we are taken in by their sob stories. And we retreat from making policy changes we want.

Is this pretending part of the cut and thrust of political debate? It surely is. And yes, we can still make change over the sounds of protest when we really, really need to. For example, the government reintroducing fuel excise levy indexation.

Furthermore, change is costly. If we changed the rules every five minutes, that would make life hard for everyone. There has to be a balance.

But the pace of change in our society could be too slow if we take every business complaint at face value. Many business models depend on the status quo. This graph is a mock-up of why they might defend that status quo, and why that might be less than ideal for society at large.

costs of change
The horizontal axis shows rate of change. Think of that as bills passing the Senate. The vertical axis shows the payoff.

This graph shows a world in which policy change happens too slowly if we let businesses with an investment in the status quo drive policy.

So how do we bridge this gap? We want businesses to invest based on the current laws. But we also want the freedom to change those laws as soon as they are no longer useful.

I think there is a case for policy change insurance. That way if a law is changed that puts a business in the red, they can be compensated, but the taxpayer doesn’t have to be on the hook for it. If they don’t buy policy change insurance? Well they obviously weren’t too worried about that particular law!

Policy change insurance would be cheap to come by for laws that are rock solid. $0.01 a year would buy insurance against the government appropriating your land.

But if your business depends on something else, like funding for dodgy vocational education courses, then your insurance will be much more expensive.

tax reform constipation
An insurance company’s worst nightmare?

Prices in the insurance market would signal to firms what laws are more likely to change. Insuring against a one percent change in tax rates would be expensive. Insuring against a 20 per cent change would be cheaper.

That price signal should mean much less complaining when dubious programs are axed, and also signal to government which laws business honestly thought were steady. It makes both sides more honest.

The existence of this market should allow society to change its laws more often, if it wanted. In some ways I can’t believe it doesn’t already exist.  You can buy Sovereign Risk insurance if you operate in especially heinous jurisdictions, but there seems to be nothing for Australia.

(Perhaps it doesn’t exist because there’s no actual demand? That’d suggest we put even less stock in the bleating of ACCI et al.)

Further savings would come to businesses because they could sack their lobbyists. Of course, the ultimate lobbyists in this new model would be the insurers. They would become the most conservative institutions in history. Every law change would rip money straight from their pockets Strict laws against political donations from insurers would have to be enacted. Laws would also have to ban former MPs from ever working for insurers, etc.

Does this model make sense? Are there any reasons why policy change insurance wouldn’t work? Or reasons why it doesn’t exist already? Is it just simpler for government to pay compensation instead? Is my basic thesis that the pace of change is too low completely wrong? Please share your thoughts below!

Time to start getting ready for when the robots take our jobs.

When the federal Department of Industry starts investigating when robots will be taking our jobs, you know the possibility has gone from remote to real.

A lot of jobs are at risk – half a million, according to the article – and they’re not “bad” jobs.

“The challenges presented by more automation are not limited to low-skilled positions, as robots are increasingly replicating the tasks of medium and high-skilled workers.”

job automation
Source: Department of Industry

I’ve written before about what will eventually happen to employment after the Robot Revolution. I think new skill-sets will rise to the top: people-skills and creative skills. The inspiration angle and the emotion angle will be our edge when robots are doing the physical and routine thinking work.

In the mean time, automation will make things cheaper. More and more goods will be like water.


Water is cheap. So cheap we don’t even think about it. Water is plentiful. You can easily get more than you could ever use.

Its abundance makes it easy to forget that it is incredibly important. And many other goods and services are much like water. Energy, definitely. You no longer need to pay a fortune for firewood and paraffin. Electricity comes into the house at far less than our willingness to pay.

You could argue clothing and food have already gone that way too. At certain very popular stores, you could buy a complete outfit, including shoes, for under $40. You can meet your daily energy needs for a couple of dollars.

We don’t talk much about how awesome this is. But it is incredible. It’s why absolute poverty doesn’t exist in the same way any more. Being poor is still a huge disadvantage, but has more to do with access to other needs like healthcare and housing and opportunity and with the challenges that poses to decision making, than simple starvation.

When people complain, saying things becoming cheap strips them of their value, they don’t realise the alternative.

Indulge me for a moment longer, let’s imagine prices going the other way – from free to expensive – and instead of using water as our example, let’s use air.

Air is abundant and cheap, and we barely think about it. Should we charge for it? Would that make people value it? Charging for air would be great for GDP. The whole population would be customers of the various air providers. Maybe they’d pre-pay, maybe they’d be on a plan (don’t go over your cap!). The government would set up a means-tested scheme to provide free air for certain groups. Still, it would be a big bump to the economy, and there’d be a lot of jobs in it. Jobs! Given how politicians love to promise jobs, I’m surprised charging for air isn’t on their radar.

So I hope I’ve convinced you, via these examples, that cheaper goods and fewer jobs is not necessarily bad. It can be good, in part.

But it will not be uniformly good for social outcomes. Here’s how the Department of Industry sees it.

“The comparative advantages of being human — the ability to solve problems intuitively, improvise spontaneously and act creatively — as well as the unlimited needs and wants of humans suggest that the displacement of jobs due to automation is unlikely to be long term.”

Note their use of the words “long term.”

The advance of the robots will not be uniform, and there will be times when lots of people get put out of work all at once. At these times, the returns to capital will be higher, and the returns to labour will be lower. In these times, panic will rise. Even though a future where humans are all out of work is laughably implausible, it might not seem that way if you and everyone you know just got the sack.

We will need policy settings that will help at these times.

The policies could try to prevent the robots from taking the jobs, but that means forfeiting the benefits in terms of cheaper goods. It would also be incredibly hard to implement.

So what is the best way to make sure we’re ready for a bump in unemployment? What’s the best way to make sure people are ready to get back into the workforce?

I’d argue there are two big things we should do:

1. Invest in education now. Education protects against long-term unemployment according to the data,  probably by making people ready to re-learn. This is not the time to be making university educations more expensive. Quite the reverse. It’s also the time to be investing in making sure nobody falls through the cracks. Proper implementation of needs-based school funding, in the manner suggested by David Gonksi, would be a good way to make sure that people are adaptable when the time comes.

2. Stop starving the beast. The federal deficit is growing, and since the government has failed to implement a range of spending cuts, and is opposed to tax hikes, it will probably keep growing. In the future, we may need to exploit the federal government’s ability to provide Keynesian stimulus via the  “automatic stabilisers” that are welfare payments. Bulking up the budget is necessary, and we probably need to push up the tax-to-gdp ratio. It may seem like an economically sensitive time to be lifting taxes, but that’s not the case if you put land tax on the agenda. Unlike taxes on income and companies, land taxes are not a tax on productive activity, plus they tend to be progressive (rich pay more, poor pay less).

With these policies in place, we should be much better placed to welcome the robots as our servants, not our rivals.

a+b=c. Algebra can save a poor black kid’s life.

Doubling the amount of time poor kids in Chicago spent studying algebra in grade nine led to an 8 per cent increase in their high school graduation rate, and an 11 per cent increase in college enrolment.

That’s the finding of a terrific new paper out of the US National Bureau of Economic Research.

Given that US high school dropouts die earlier than graduates by 3-5 years and make up 7 out of 10 prisoners in the US, it is fair to argue that for thousands of these kids, algebra has saved their life.

The paper exploits a natural experiment whereby students in the Chicago Public School System were placed into double dose algebra classes (largely replacing music or art classes) if they scored below the national median on an eighth-grade math test. The researchers compare kids just above and below the cut-off. 


Barack Obama in Chicago in 1995. Photo By Mark Pokempner

The numbers of students in the algebra courses is substantial, because maths skills are thin on the ground in the 73 public high schools studied. In the US, just 20 per cent of hispanic students, 13 percent of black students, and 17 per cent of students poor enough to qualify for free lunches are rated proficient in maths. In the Chicago Public School System 90 percent of students are black or Hispanic.

“In the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the focus of this study, roughly half of high school freshmen fail at least one course, with the highest failure rates in math courses”

Schools assigned weak students to a back-to-back lesson in Algebra with the regular algebra teacher, and gave the teachers professional development, permitting them to use different instruction methods, including working in small groups, solving problems verbally, and having students set problems for each other.


The impact on test scores was modest. But the impact on the students lives was not.

“…the test score impacts of this policy dramatically understate its long-run benefits as measured by educational attainment.”

The effect of double dosing in the first year of high school remained over time. Students who were in the program were 9.3 per cent more likely to pass algebra in that year. But they are also 7 per cent more likely to still be in school in the fourth and final year of high school.

The students who got the most out of the instruction were ones with poor reading skills. They end up passing three more subjects in high school on average, after taking the double dose, creating a 13 per cent increase in the number of poor readers who complete enough subjects to pass high school. The researchers suggest that the focus on using verbal methods to solve maths problems may explain this result.

Black students who got the double dose  also saw a dramatic effect, with a 15 per cent increase in college enrolment. For the double-dose population at large, the increase was 11 per cent. The effect can be seen in this chart:


For some of these student, the impact of these classes – which their 14 and 15 year old selves no doubt dreaded – will be dramatic over their life times.

How to make athletes pay for their training and still bring home Gold! Gold! Gold!

As Aussie athletes make a name for themselves in Sochi, we can look forward to another four years of seeing their smiley faces shilling for products on our TVs. No athlete steps up onto that podium without making their agent’s phone ring off the hook.

That’s why the idea of a HECS system for athletes is very tempting.

(For the international readers, a quick primer: HECS is a TOTALLY AWESOME student loan system. Zero real interest rates and no need to pay any of it back until you earn above $51,309. Meanwhile Australia’s Institute of Sport spends millions training athletes without seeking any recompense.)

The Australian Sports Commission (which funds the Insitute of Sport) spent $310 million last year, and that’s before counting the various state institutes of sport. (The VIS is boasting today about an athlete that finished 61st in cross country skiing).

Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 11.32.00 am

But there are a few very intriguing twists to this tale that will require policy makers to work hard to stick their landing.

Problem 1. Athletes are So Poor.

We have a sample bias. The athletes we see the most are the athletes that earn the most. Thorpey. Cadel. T-Brizzle (Australia’s favourite Mormon!) Clarkey.

BRW tells us our top athletes are earning over $10 million a year. But the best need the rest to make their performances stand out. Their glory is made out of trampling coulda-beens, duds, ones with questionable work ethic, journeymen and hacks. The ones who make no coin.

Solution 1. The way an athletes HECS scheme works needs to be different to the student system. Most people are not going to pay off. But some will pay off in spades.

It’s not a low-risk low return game like training people in nursing or accountancy. It’s a high risk, high return set-up. That means you need to more than fully recover the cost of training from the few big winners. If Clarkey got $30,000 of support from the Cricket Academy, you need to get $300,000 back from him to cover all the guys who also got $30,000 but made a string of ducks and no cash. The debts should be 10 times the investment, and recovered progressively.

Problem 2. Sports skills are just not useful.

If the AIS trains you to be the best white-water canoeist you can be, in the hope of bringing home Olympic gold, and you don’t, but then years later you go on to found an IT consultancy and you invent a really quite terrific database that makes you a lot money, should the AIS be able to ping you for cash?

It hardly seems fair.

Solution 2. If athletic earnings could be kept separate from non-athletic earnings, that would be ideal, but I fear such a system is ripe for being gamed.

ATO: “Pay up, Clarkey.”

Clarkey: “Sorry ATO, no dice. Swisse Vitamins paid me this money because I’m a good-looking Aussie dude, they didn’t even know I played a spot of cricket!”

ATO: *curses*

A simpler idea might just be a time limit on AIS debt so it expires at about the time any sporting career ends. Ten years for gymnasts. 25 years for long-distance runners, or five years after any career-ending injury.

Problem 3. Some sports are cash cows, some are not.

The AIS supported 1233 athletes in the most recent year. This includes weightlifters. Pole vaulters. Badmintoners. These guys could be reigning nine-times world champion and spokesperson for the globe’s top shuttlecock brand and still need to pull shifts driving a forklift at a logistics company to pay their way.

Solution 3. This one is easy. Set the bar for repayment at $50,000 and the earners in these lesser sports will never trouble the threshold.

The Clifton Hill under 12s have as much profile as the Australian badminton team.

The reality is that sport is luxury. These are frivolous games to play and our national pursuit of Olympic “glory” is also a simple distraction.

When taxpayers lay the groundwork for a handful of golfers, cricketers, basketballers and boxers to own homes in Miami and St Tropez, there is a moral issue at stake. Sports training can fund itself using the above principles, and by god it should!

If there are any other clever features such a program should have, or if you think I’m totally wrong, leave a comment below!

How Fairfax helped kill car-making.

Toyota is going. And yet the government is barely sweating. They stand at the dockside, waving their hanky, thinking of something else. Not even a crocodile tear in their eye.

This, in an environment of rising unemployment, is politically shocking. How has it happened the populace apparently no longer wants this key industry saved? The answer is not that the Australian people have suddenly swallowed an Economics 101 textbook. It is just in the “national mood.”

And that mood is still shaped by the media…

One could trace the beginning of the end of support for Australian car manufacturing to 2011. The economics editor of the Australian newspaper was a man called Michael Stutchbury. A man with ambition. Fiery and with salt and pepper sideburns, “Stutch” put his hand up for a new job that was going across town.

He wanted to be handed the editorship of the Australian Financial Review – Australia’s only business daily. A paper loved and feared in decision-making circles. 

The top echelons of Fairfax considered the CV of the man. He was a man of strong views, sure, but the Fin Review had floundered under middle-of-the-road helmsmanship, so perhaps that was not just desirable, but necessary.


Source: The Australian

Stutch arrived at the Fin amid a surge of excitement, armed with a two-word slogan: Agenda-Setting.

“I think we can turn it into a growth story by reinvigorating the journalism, concentrating on news breaking, going back to setting the agenda,” he told ABC business reporter Ticky Fullerton at the time of his appointment. The move to agenda-setting came with an advertising campaign too, that made the odd choice of appropriating some classic communist propaganda tropes.

The newspaper proceeded to take a far sterner line in deciding what was and wasn’t news. But it went a step further than that. The paper made some things into big news. 

Stutch’s sharp news-sense, formed at the Fin Review but forged in the right-wing foundries of The Australian, combined with his purist views of the government’s role in the economy, meant the car industry was a prime topic. I personally spent hours camped out front of Toyota’s Altona factory getting soundbites from workers, hours trawling through the car statistics to find an Australian manufacturing angle, hours looking into the history of government assistance to the industry.

I even interviewed motor-racing legend Dick Johnson about the possible end of the Falcon, a story idea I was told came from the very top. (Johnson said: “Australians have an affinity with a front-engine, rear-drive car [and] a medium to large body size . . . But it may only be my generation that sees that.” The paper printed the story and a picture.)

Anything with a car industry assistance angle was easy to get past the mid-level editors and into the paper, because they knew Stutch would love it. So he didn’t have to personally demand every single story that the Fin published. The car industry was hot, and everyone knew it.

The Melbourne Bureau, 2013.

Not long after Stutch got the job, Tony Abbott announced cuts to car subsidies. 

Would the government keep this risky promise? The issue remained firmly on the agenda. I wrote at least ten stories on the topic, (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10) and I was perhaps only the fourth reporter in line to write car stories, behind Mark SkulleyPeter Roberts, and Lucille Keen

(Three of the four reporters listed above no longer work at the Fin.)

But once set, the agenda doesn’t stay inside just one newspaper. If the Fin is in a lather about the car industry, then the Age gets a bit of froth on it too, as do the Sydney Morning Herald, the Herald Sun and the Advertiser. The tone of coverage nationwide took a subtle turn.

Now, newspapers can push barrows without getting anywhere. What gave the AFR barrowload so much momentum was the political gradient. Labor was clearly sliding out by 2013, and the Coalition was ascendent.

Stutch’s steadfast campaign was given legs because it coincided with a Productivity Commission report and a bright new political day (not to mention political capital in the shape of dozens of one-term backbenchers).

Newspaper editors are powerful people. The Abbott Government is emboldened to make the decisions it is making – decisions its predecessors were unwilling or unable to make – because the prevailing climate is one in which they can expect some media support for the decision. Neither national paper is going to crush the government for cutting the funding which kept car manufacturing here.

I can’t help wondering how Stutch feels today, with the end of Australian automotive manufacturing a reality.

Perhaps I am naive but I can’t quite imagine champagne corks popping. I prefer to imagine him slightly frightened. As in, “Jeez, I can’t believe I just did that!” Like the start of a superhero movie. In that context, here’s a quote I think worth remembering for newspapers editors everywhere: “With great power, comes great responsibility.”