Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A name for Australia's bloody bewdy economy?

Do we have a name for the unprecedented period of uninterrupted growth that Australia has experienced since the Hawke/Keating era, which now spans longer than two decades? I can't find one. We need a name for it.

Paul Krugman and others talk a lot these days about a New Gilded Age, referencing the first Gilded Age in America during the last decades of the 19th century, and with French economist Thomas Piketty's new book on inequality there are more mentions of the Belle Époque covering a similar timeframe in France leading up to World War I. Both of these eras were characterised by solid economic growth based on technologically-driven resources booms combined with massive inequalities between rich and poor - something the world is seeing a lot of at the moment, but particularly in Australia where we haven't experienced a recession since 1991 and we have to put up with the political meddlings of the nouveau supérieur-riche like Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer.

The first Gilded Age was built on the back of the advent of corporatisation, industrialisation and the development of a middle class through the actions of entrepreneurs dominating new markets acting in organised oligarchies. The gild in the Gilded Age was the rich enjoying the fruits of others' labour in highly disproportionate amounts, enabled by a corrupt system. The Belle Époque was the last Indian summer of the imperial era in Europe, only ended by the final death throes of 19th century-style colonial empire in WWI. The époque was truly belle only for the rich, who did very little to uplift the poor as the bohemians enjoyed opulence previously confined to French royalty.

Australia's period of economic glory has not been sullied by nearly as much inequality, but it does share the resources boom element - albeit that the demand has not been domestic as the boom only came because we were able to act as China's quarry while they engineered their way out of agrarianism. We had a gold rush back in the 1850s, and the notion that Australia has been riding "on the sheep's back" through wool exports surfaced as early as 1894, apparently. The current long boom was started by Keating's reforms in floating the dollar and promoting competition in export industries, and policies to support productivity and competitiveness have been continued through governments of both stripes through a bipartisan commitment to sound Keynesian management of the economy that continues to this day (which supporters of Tony Abbott are only just now discovering).

"NSW disease" - the sort of cynical, closed-shop, oligarchic corruption that the Fitzgeralds and ICACs of the world periodically bust - continues on at a state level across Australia, and has done so since the Rum Rebellion. At a federal level, though, the reforms that Keating started have served the country well for more than two decades. It would be tempting for a leftist like me to name the era after him, but that wouldn't stick and would elevate his role higher than it deserves, given how many fingerprints were on the blueprints that he and others implemented.

I feel a sporting reference here would be most appropriate, and the sport that unites all parts of Australia like no other is cricket. People say of a person who died at an old age that they had a good innings, and while there will undoubtedly come a time when Australia's economic run feast does come to an end and we finally hole out to cow corner after spanking the aggot about the park with gay abandon to our heart's content... for a long time now, it has been a Good Innings.

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