So we’ve decided to build twelve submarines in Adelaide, a decision which:

  • contradicts the only idea that economists unanimously endorse — free trade;
  • ignores opportunity cost i.e what else might be done with $50 billion of labour, capital and managerial talent;
  • had no apparent operational budget constraints, with the number of vessels determined by the need to create continuous construction and;
  • makes little sense in terms of industry policy; there is no hope of developing an industry exporting bespoke ships.

Perhaps the comprehensive failure of economics to achieve any traction in this debate could be understood (and forgiven) by simply observing that the decision was the inevitable result of Senate politics. But that would let the guardians of rational economists — particularly the Departments of Treasury and Finance — off too lightly. The all-too-common failure of economics in policy debates is its penchant for analytical purity. Economists promote economically uncompromising solutions. But there is no point in pushing pure-economics arguments that can’t fly politically. In the face of irrefutably-rational economic arguments, the politicians reply: ‘We all know what we should do: we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we have done it.’ 

Last week I reviewed Concrete Economics by Stephen Cohen and Brad De Long, who address this political economy dimension.  They see the essence of good economic policy as requiring governments to play a major role in determining the structure of the economy and setting broad direction, so they can’t be accused of being laissez-faire, free market ideologues. The authors also support the sort of dirigist economics pursued by East Asian economies, so they have no objection to industry policy as such. They approve of protecting domestic industry while subsidising exports (by whatever means, including an artificially competitive exchange rate), in order to obtain the scale economies needed to compete on global markets. Above all, they accept the need to step outside the narrow world of economic analysis in order to develop a political consensus. This consensus will involve compromise; placating and neutralising vested interests while accepting second-best outcomes, provided that the core economic component makes some sense.

While mainstream economics is often a poor fit with political realities, there is plenty of alternative economic analysis relevant for political economy synthesis. Three decades ago Paul Krugman analysed the benefits of alternatives to free trade, and got a Nobel Prize for his efforts.  Industry policy designed to promote specialisation could achieve economies of scale in sectors with increasing returns (the bigger the scale of production, the lower the per-unit cost). Comparative advantage, the lynch-pin of the simple free-trade case, can be over-ridden if comparative advantage can be changed over time through dynamic restructuring. This can justify protecting the domestic market from foreign competition and subsidising exports. But of course the industry has to be chosen on economic rather than political criteria: there has to be some prospect that the output can be sold globally.

Even if the political imperative is to manufacture submarines (rather than some more promising product) in Adelaide, economic advocacy might at least have headed off the prime minister’s open-ended commitment to make everything possible in Australia. This autarchy is a nineteenth century notion of production. The modern supply chain draws its components from whichever country can produce them efficiently. The supermarkets are full of goods ‘made in Australia from imported ingredients’. In the same way, during the great mining boom of 2004-2008, half the investment expenditure was on imports because components could be made cheaper and better in South Korea or Singapore and towed into place. In other areas of defence production such as aircraft, ‘offset agreements’ allow purchasing countries to participate efficiently in complex supply-chain manufacture.

But what about jobs? Don’t we need to make everything here (especially in Adelaide) to keep people employed? Overall, the economy is currently operating with a level of unemployment that matches the best periods in recent history. Within this aggregate, major transitions are underway, particularly to adjust to the end of the mining boom. This involves painful disruption, of the same kind which allowed the successful transformation of the Australian economy from its early agricultural base and then, over the past four decades, to restructure out of manufacturing in response to the inexorable rise of international competition. Adelaide was given the opportunity to be the exception to the inevitable decline of manufacturing: the eventual demise of the long-cosseted automobile industry and the dismal narrative of the Collins submarines are the result. While many across Australia go through painful transition, politics dictates that Adelaide should be protected. But if submarines have to be made in Adelaide, they should at least draw on the efficiency of the global supply chain.

Australia is likely to pay a heavy price for this failure to develop a political-economy solution, certainly in terms of cost of the submarines and, based on past experience with the Collins construction, in terms of the fitness-for-purpose of the finished product. As a small country with a limited defence budget in a world which may become more threatening, we can’t afford to leave sensible economics out of the decision.

This post has focused on the failure of economics to contribute effectively to a synthesis of politics and economics. But the main blame should go to the politicians of the two major parties, who have watched this state-based blackmail evolve over recent years. There is universal agreement that blackmailers’ demands should never be met, for fear of encouraging even larger demands. With the election pending, however, the major parties arrived at a formula for total surrender to the blackmail: both parties have been competing to make sure the other didn’t offer South Australia a more favourable deal. A bipartisan solution, in contrast, could have countered the blackmail. Both parties could have offered the same deal: build the submarines in Adelaide, but with a requirement to call international tenders for components.  This approach would have recognised the special requirements of South Australia within the Federation, while creating the competitive manufacturing environment that State needs if it is to succeed.

If the economics was lamentable, the politics has been abysmal.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library