In addition to our 2022 Prime Minister’s Summer Reading List, our 2022 “Wonks’ List” highlights some of the year’s best technical policy reads, for anyone who wants to take a deeper dive. This year, we’ve included a link to a relevant podcast, for those who like to listen as well as read during their summer break.
Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People
Judith Brett’s essay is justifiably renowned for its clear-eyed and meticulous analysis of Robert Menzies’ touchstone speech, Forgotten People. The essay was first published 1984, and the speech itself was made in 1942. The essay was republished in Brett’s 2021 collected writings on public life, Doing Politics, and its themes resonate with events of 2022.
In opposition, in wartime, Menzies used his weekly radio address to carve out a new political base. He called out to women, to the not-particularly-rich, to those living in the outer suburbs. These people may not actually have felt forgotten, but by defining them so, Menzies created a base from which to form the Liberal Party. He spoke to people as individuals rather than classes, reminding them of the (then) recent experience of the Depression, and their pre-war aspirations for a better life.
Brett sees the speech as worthy of attention for its political language, some of which is still part of our discourse today. She notes Menzies’ paradoxical language – praising his forgotten people as independent while reminding them how dependent they are, for example. But paradox was Menzies’ key to success: his audience heard aspects of their experiences acknowledged, and felt understood, not forgotten.
‘Forgotten’ voters may be one explanation for the record low primary vote share for major parties at the 2022 federal election. Perhaps it’s time to revisit Menzies: not for his ideas, but for the art of political language.
Streets of Gold: America’s untold story of immigrant success
Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan
Views on migration policy are often based on shared myths. Approving stories about migrants working their way to the top coexist with suspicious stereotypes of migrants undermining local culture. These stories, and the feelings they evoke, make migration a divisive issue.
In Streets of Gold, Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan aim to inspire better-informed and more constructive conversations about migration policy. They use American data, but their work is a case study on the gap between dangerously simple narratives and reality.
Making novel use of data sources such as Ancestry.com, the authors track the lives of American migrants, their children, and grandchildren over a century and a half. Detail on income, location, and jobs is paired with well-chosen personal stories that bring the numbers to life.
Abramitzky and Boustan find that intergenerational patterns are remarkably unchanged through time. Recent migrants, their children, and their grandchildren are no less likely to embrace American culture than earlier migrants. And a key component of migrant success is mobility – migrants are more likely to chase economic opportunities, while locally-born citizens are more likely to be geographically tethered.
Streets of Gold is a technically impressive but accessible piece of analysis, enriched with personal stories. It’s highly readable, makes a complex topic accessible, and busts a few myths along the way.
The Economics of Immense Risk, Urgent Action, and Radical Change: Towards new approaches to the economics of climate change
Nicholas Stern, Joseph Stiglitz, and Charlotte Taylor
Global efforts to combat climate change require answering two questions: what should our targets be? And how do we best achieve them?
Since the earliest years of global co-operation, integrated assessment models (IAMs) have been used to answer both questions. IAMs bring together energy technology models with economic and climate models to evaluate different development pathways, including population growth, economic restructuring, and technological innovation. The results have underpinned global agreements and national plans.
IAMs have always had their critics, but in this paper, three heavy-hitting climate economists argue the models have outlived their usefulness. IAMs aren’t good at dealing with deep uncertainty, extreme risk, intergenerational equity, or rapid technological change – all of which are critical to current policy debates.
Climate change is an example of a phenomenon we certainly want to avoid, but we find it hard to quantify exactly the benefits of avoiding – just like pandemics and wars. In these situations, governments set goals and constraints for policy, and economic analysis centres on the best way to achieve the goals within the constraints.
Stern, Stiglitz, and Taylor call this a ‘guardrails’ approach. It might just be what economists need to influence climate and energy policy.
Governing Artificial Intelligence in the Public Interest
Josh Entsminger, Seb Krier, Mariana Mazzucato, and Marietje Schaake
Artificial intelligence (AI) is a front-runner to be the defining general purpose technology of the 21st Century. The technology is developing fast, and holds huge potential for good, and for ill.
But governance, laws, and policies are struggling to keep up. In this paper, researchers from University College London and Stanford University argue that governments need to be more proactive in shaping the direction of AI innovation.
Governments need to upskill themselves, so they understand what they are (or are not) regulating. They need to improve access to the data they hold, and access to computing power to make the most of that data. They also need to put more effort into stopping bad actors from making malicious use of AI; and keep an eye on the data being used to train AI systems. As the saying goes: garbage in, garbage out.
Australia is often behind the curve when it comes to governing and regulating technology. If we want to make the most of AI to create more efficient workplaces and more equitable societies, we shouldn’t let AI become a tool accessible only to large commercial interests. Small and medium businesses, educators, researchers, innovators, and our public systems can all benefit if we get AI right.
The Quants in the Room: How much power do economists really have?
In this review essay for Foreign Affairs, Barack Obama’s former chief economic adviser Jason Furman responds to a new book by Elizabeth Popp Berman, called Thinking Like an Economist: How efficiency replaced equality in US public policy. Berman’s book chronicles the role of economists in US policy making, a role that, until recently, was mostly tangential. In her view, economists have now come to hold too much power.
Furman, a former White House insider, disagrees. Numbers may seem cold and brutal, he says, but when trade-offs are inevitable, they are a tool for tremendous good. When politicians and policy makers fudge or wish-away these trade-offs, we all pay.
Furman argues that policy makers are more likely to use economics and economists to support their existing ideas and rationalise decisions they’ve already made. Economists, meanwhile, too often do a poor job of evaluating political reality, and persist in pushing for the perfect, but untenable, policy. Furman singles out carbon pricing in the US as an example, one which echoes here in Australia.
Economics is not the only tool for evaluating policy, but the debate would be poorer if it were left in the drawer.
Hear Elizabeth Popp Berman discuss the book with Mark Blyth, Executive Director of the Rhodes Center for International Economics and Finance at Brown University.
While you’re here…
Grattan Institute is an independent not-for-profit think tank. We don’t take money from political parties or vested interests. Yet we believe in free access to information. All our research is available online, so that more people can benefit from our work.
Which is why we rely on donations from readers like you, so that we can continue our nation-changing research without fear or favour. Your support enables Grattan to improve the lives of all Australians.
Danielle Wood – CEO