There’s a new term getting bandied around about Australia’s fiscal situation. It’s ‘structural deficit’, and it means that even though our economy is growing near its long-run average rate, our ratio of taxes to benefits doesn’t add up.
Meanwhile, our government is expanding its future commitments to us. This will cost it money, which ultimately has to come from us one way or another.
I think a lot of the government’s reforms are good. They’re the kind of things you can’t rely on the private sector to provide, and they act as insurance for all of us, saving us from the perils of fortune as we go through our lives. Insurance, of which the NDIS is a fabulous example, is good. One of the things I most like about living in an advanced democracy is that it helps smooth out the highs and lows of our lives.
But not all government spending is good. Two industries cost our federal budget billions every year in ways that do not benefit us and distort and hamstring our economy. Governments of both stripes appear politically powerless to reform these two industries.
But this is a fantasy budget, so I don’t have to worry about that.
If I could write our federal budget, I would smash the housing and medical industries.
On the face of it, both of these are ‘good’ industries, providing services and products that we very much like and want more of. But they have too much political power, and it’s resulted in less than ideal outcomes for all of us.
On housing, I would remove negative gearing on mortgages. This allows people to buy houses worth more than they can comfortably repay, and then shift that repayment responsibility onto the government through tax concessions. We end up subsidising large mortgages and investment properties. And that’s not something we should be doing. It benefits the landed and rich over the young and poor, and feeds housing prices already at historical highs when compared to average incomes.
According to ABS data, negative gearing allows people to avoid paying taxes to the tune of $3 billion a year. That’s money I’d rather went to something else.
I’d also remove all homeowner’s grants. Some of these do good, but this is a market where the problem is inflated pricing. Giving people more money to spend on their housing is not the answer.
When I did that, I would tackle health spending.
Health spending is a huge issue because it takes up a quarter of the budget and that share is growing.
So to save money, I’d work on the premise that if you’re not in financial need, you should contribute to your own healthcare. As a payoff for doing this, you get the NDIS, which will cover the most serious of acquired injuries. It’s a good trade in my opinion.
We currently use more healthcare than we need. Bulk-billing GPs have more patients than they can handle, and many of their patients do not really need to see them.
So here’s the idea: If you don’t have a Healthcare card, you have to pay a minimum of $10 per GP visit.
That’s it for doctors. Next: big pharma.
I’d appoint the driest, most hard-bitten economist I could find to head a body tasked with finding savings in Australia’s pharmaceutical benefits scheme.
First on the radar would be cases like this. The Global Mail recently ran an article about how Novartis, one of the world’s largest drug companies, pedals two drugs that are pretty identical when it comes to treating age-related macular degeneration. The difference? One costs a fortune, and is pushed to Western nations. The other one is cheap.
In economics, this is known as pricing discrimination, and is a way to boost producer surplus (i.e. sell to as many people as possible for the maximum each of those people is willing to pay). When it comes to paying for drugs, the government shouldn’t stand for it.
I’m not sure how much money could be saved from a far tougher stance on pharmaceuticals. But I think it’d be a lot. And given healthcare is such a big part of our government spending, any savings here are big money.
This is inspired by Crikey’s fantasy budget series. Plenty more fantasy budgets are available behind the Crikey paywall.
There’s been a small but quality stream of writing about the role of RSL (Returned Service Leagues) clubs in Australia in recent weeks.
In this piece in the University of Melbourne’s The Citizen, Masters student Jack Latimore writes about how RSL’s are struggling to attract the Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans:
Rod Thompson, the national entitlement officer for the Younger Veterans Outreach Program, said: “When I was involved with the RSL, I was a sub-branch secretary. The attitude was: ‘Don’t rock the boat, the old fellas don’t like change and your membership is welcome but your opinion is not’.
“The RSL is seen as something from the past. There are attitudes, a generational change that has not been embraced.”
That’s the most damning quote from what is overall a thoughtful and, to my eye, balanced piece.
Earlier, there was a good piece in Crikey about the relationship between RSLs and the pokies-filled clubs that bear their name, which isn’t anywhere as clear-cut or as positive as you would presume.
The broader context for all this is in Amber Jamieson’s excellent Crikey series on mental health in the military. RSL clubs are meant to be a form of support. Many young vets aren’t getting anywhere near the help they need, she found. The military probably bears more blame for this than RSLs, but it’s worth keeping in mind.
Photo: North Sydney RSL sub-branch club in the 1940s
1) Strong fridge magnets
At my parents’ house, most of our fridge magnets are either gimmicky tourist trappings or have been sent to us by politicians/local businesses.
There must be a conspiracy by the makers of such magnets to prevent similar-strength magnets being sold anywhere else, forcing you to rely on advertising for that necessary sticking power.
Every magnet I find is either weak, tiny, or ugly. Usually all three.
Which is weird, because everyone needs fridge magnets right?
2) Old lady shopping carts
These have a real name which I can’t remember right now. But basically, I don’t have a car, which means I need some sort of cart to drag my shopping home after me if I’m going to buy groceries for more than two days.
In Melbourne, everyone has these things. But I have no idea where they got them. I asked a few people and they’d look confused and say they got them ‘from Target or something’. Well, I checked, and that’s a lie.
I finally struck gold at a news agency below IKEA in Richmond. And by ‘gold’, I mean I found two styles. Oh well, beggars can’t be choosers.
3) Good bins that don’t cost a fortune
So, bins are such a big deal. You chuck all this stuff into them and if they aren’t up to it they end up stinking out your kitchen.
Bins need to be big, somewhat odour-proof, and durable. They can’t start sagging when I pack stuff in.
When I first moved out, I bought a few cheap bins. Bad idea. I went from $5 to $15 to $50 bins, and am considering upgrading again.
If there’s a bin megastore somewhere in inner-city Melbourne, let me know.
Just two years ago, several Australian universities banded together to fund The Conversation, an online opinion and analysis website.
The content model was this: editors and journalists would contact academics encouraging them to write their thoughts on the day’s news. This content would then be journalistically edited and tightened, before being posted under a creative commons license. This license meant it could be reposted, with attribution, in any other publication.
The Conversation proved a boon for Australia’s editors. If you need a quick, intelligent analysis you can republish with few strings attached, The Conversation is your place to go.
All this meant added exposure for The Conversation, which, according to one of their recent emails, is now Australia’s most-read independent news website. In an editorial, the editor boasted it was bigger than both Crikey or Business Spectator. Now, the comparison isn’t entirely fair (Crikey and Business Spectator both have niche audiences, and Business Spectator, now owned by News Limited, cannot be considered ‘independent’), but it does illustrate how far The Conversation has come in just two short years.
The current plan is to expand in the United Kingdom. Then, I suppose, the world.
The articles on The Conversation are good. But on average, I don’t think they’re so much better than what you can read elsewhere. Instead, I think their success can be largely attributed to their creative commons ownership model.
Everyone reads The Conversation because its content is everywhere.
At a time when most publications are thinking about paywalls, The Conversation is letting you take its content for free. It’s writers, the academics, do so as part of their day job. It’s journalists have to be paid, and it seems the revenue to do so will in the long term come from its job classifieds.
From what I can surmise, the universities involved in The Conversation’s founding have no intention of paying all, or even the majority, of the costs. It’s pretty clear The Conversation has a business model. Here’s what I think it is: The Conversation will aim to be a mass-audience website that makes money to sustain its operations by charging for ads for professional job openings. People are free to take its content, as long as they link back to it, boosting its Google rankings and increasing its exposure. This exposure also helps it’s other revenue model: donations.
The Conversation isn’t relying, strictly speaking, on page-view advertising. But, like everyone else, it does need eyeballs to be successful. It’s just reaching these eyeballs in a different way.
It’s refreshing to see a publication with such a unique and counter-intuitive strategy. So far, it seems successful. It’ll be fascinating to see how it goes in the UK.
A few days ago, I attended a session at the eCommerce conference in Melbourne.
In it, I listened to Peter Cobb, the founder of American online bag retailer eBags, go through all the little things his company does to make sure it’s email mailouts are relevant to its audience.
I wrote a feature on it. eBags’ operation is pretty amazing.
It got me thinking about how screwed up it is that I’ve never come across anything nearly as sophisticated in journalism.
Why don’t online news sites tailor the content they push out to readers depending on what those readers have read in the past? Why don’t we ditch the five-clause subject lines and focus on the most relevant thing for our audience? Why aren’t we optimising our emails for mobile? Why don’t we make it possible, by default and without requiring browser plugins, for people to send articles to themselves to read later? Why aren’t we making it easy for readers?
In my view, most news organisations hire too many journalists and not enough developers. With such low margins, the money goes towards keeping things afloat, and not towards planning for the future. But this has a cost. For our savvier readers, it’s blindingly obvious we’re five years behind in how sophisticated our online operations are. That wonderful blend of journalism and technological innovation that won a Pulitzer for the New York Times this year is far beyond the skills of any established news presence in Australia, at least from what I can see.
This means no matter how good the journalism, we’re at worst annoying our readers, and at best, not making it easy and enjoyable for them to read our websites and receive our newsletters. Which means they have even less reason to stay.
I used to read so many books. Polarising books, without even realising it. Like Jung’s autobiography and Ann Coulter’s ‘How To Talk To A Liberal’. I picked them up and flicked them open, and if I kept reading after a page or so, I borrowed them. If I had come across them online, I would have looked them up and made assumptions. I might have still read the books. But I would have been burdened by the weight of the world’s opinion. As it was, I made up my own mind.
The delay was part of it as well. I’d get so excited knowing that I wouldn’t read the books for a few hours, but that they were waiting for me. When I got home, I would devour them, one after the other. Over the holidays I would spend days doing nothing but reading in my room. My family might see me at dinner.
But as I grew up, I rationalised my borrowing. I picked a few books, saying if I liked those I would come back for more. I didn’t read them, so next time I picked one. Then none. By the time I got to uni I hardly ever came home with a pile of books any more.
I’ve now lived in Melbourne for two years, and haven’t even joined a public library yet. I buy books online, after reading a few reviews. I always know what and who I’m reading before I start. If I’m going to devote time to reading, I think, it better be good. After all, I could be spending this time playing videogames.
I pick books I think I would enjoy, and thus cement those preferences further.
But every now and then, I miss not knowing what I’m getting.
A couple of weeks ago, I went along to a session with three Arabic female journalists put on by the Australian Arab Emerging Leaders dialogue.
The session was broadly a discussion of their respective countries, and how they were using their journalism to make things better. They had different pet issues.
Wafa’ Abdel Rahman is the founder of Filastiniyat, a feminist news agency in occupied Palestine. Her deal was showing how the occupation affected women. She ended her talk with a heart-felt plea for Western journalists to learn a thing or two about the people they write about when they go to the Middle East. Things aren’t always as they seem, she said, giving examples of where Western reporters had gotten the story completely wrong for a lack of cultural understanding.
Another journalist at the session was Rana Husseini, a Jordanian journalist. Her speciality is honour killings. Through her work exposing the crime, she helped Jordan enact far tougher anti-honour killing statutes. She made it impossible to be ignored.
I’ve gone into their histories to demonstrate how these women have done more to make their countries better than most. But the questions many in the audience put to them were hardly gracious for this sacrifice.
Instead, they were asked what they were doing about child marriage? What they were doing about the plight of Syrian refugees? What they were doing about helping Westerners understand not every Arab was Muslim?
Rahman had quite a knack for deflecting these questions with grace. But she shouldn’t have had to.
I don’t understand the mindset of these questioners. It’s like they see female journalists passionately and selflessly fighting for a cause in patriarchal societies with little history of a free press, and they think, ‘hey, I care a lot about this issue, maybe she should give up her time to make that better too?’
No one ever has any responsibility to take up your cause. It’s like men’s rights activists who go on feminist websites and cry about how if those women really cared about equality, they’d look at how custody disputes discriminate against men. Or women who expect every high-profile women to care about the number of women on boards. In both cases, it’s wrong and selfish to expect as much. If you care about something, fix it yourself. Just because someone is doing some good in the world, doesn’t mean they have to do your job too.
Even Jesus didn’t and couldn’t address every injustice in the world. It’s high time we stopped expecting it of every women with a cause.