When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, some of the world’s top economists were in “shocked disbelief” that the market-liberalising era known as ‘globalisation’ could have been built on such shaky foundations.
Just like left-wing economists picking through the ruins of the Soviet Union in 1991, they were forced to reassess some of their core beliefs.
But that process is incomplete. Eight years on, much of that reassessment has not filtered through to public debate.
Take, for instance, the controversy stirred by industrial relations consultant Grace Collier on this week’s Q&A on the ABC.
She set the panel of luminaries abuzz with a statement that this columnist would have had little trouble supporting before 2008: “Nobody has an entitlement to a job.”
She added: “There’s one person in the world who can guarantee a happy future for you, and that person stares at you in the mirror every morning … Everyone has something that they’re good at … you work out what you’re good at and you try and make a career out of that.”
Times have changed
To quote a famous Ernest Hemingway line, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
In fact, things are pretty ugly in the post-GFC global economy. What we have learned since 2008 is that the employment scrapheap is not made up of people who never took the time to figure out what they were good at.
It is increasingly home to people who did everything right: studied and trained hard, worked hard for employers or started their own businesses.
Their reward has been to find their jobs or businesses made unviable by the chicanery of Wall Street, or by the distinctly non-market forces of currency manipulation and anti-competitive behaviours by our trading partners.
At the end of his famous 1942 ‘forgotten people’ speech, Bob Menzies praised “the strivers, the planners, the ambitious ones” and warned that “we shall destroy them at our peril”.
But he wrote that decades before China’s extended period of yuan devaluation, which along with the US Federal Reserve’s belief in the power of limitless debt, set the scene for 2008.
That’s why his famous ‘leaners vs lifters’ slogan, revived by Joe Hockey in 2014, has lost its potency. Lifters, just as much as the handful of real leaners, are presented with a rigged, one-sided deal.
No matter how hard you lift, there is a growing risk of losing your job to trade-distorting decisions in Washington or Beijing, by the currency debasement of central banks, or by the excesses of financial whiz-kids back up to their pre-2008 tricks.
Rise of the extremists
It’s no wonder that the extreme correctives offered by Donald Trump, the UK Independence Party, France’s Front National, Australia’s One Nation or Germany’s Alternative for Germany party are being taken seriously.
What centre-right (and centre-left) thinkers need to understand, and quickly, is that the official unemployment rate is disguising growing underemployment – a mismatch between people and available work.
And Ms Collier’s suggestion, that if you can’t find a job you should start a business, isn’t much help.
Failed small business owners are a part of the two million people classified by the Roy Morgan jobs survey as unemployed or underemployed – in sectors such as mining services, the auto-manufacturing supply chain or, in the near future, in firms supplying the apartment construction boom.
A report released this week by the Australian Council of Social Services, underlines that trend. It found that three million Australians meet the OECD definition of living below the poverty line, including 730,000 children.
To the overwhelming bulk of those people a political leader needs to articulate the lessons of the post-2008 world.
In it’s shortest form, it reads: “Hell yes, you’re entitled to a job.”
To read more columns by Rob Burgess click here.