Announcing the decision by the Fair Pay Commission, that deliciously Orwellianly-named institution, Emeritus Professor Ian Harper (Emeritus? He looks about 37) impressed upon people his desire to soften the blows of the recession against the poor, claiming that his overriding concern was to prevent further cutbacks in hours, which would be caused by the $21 rise requested by the ACTU — or even a lousy fifty per cent of it.
Harper got something of a bad wrap when he was appointed, critics suggesting that his specific field was financial services, his labour market research and expertise virtually nil, and his whole approach informed by his evangelical Christian faith, instantly detectable in the god-botherers’ uniform — real hair that manages to look more fake than a fibreglass wig.
Sydney Uni political economist Evan Jones (who has a more interesting than usual googleblog*), argued that the Christian stuff was central to Harper’s appointment — even conservative labour market specialists could not be relied upon to deliver the parsimony that Howard wanted, what with their knowledge of how complex labour market inputs actually are. What was needed was someone with an adamantine sense of what was right — i.e. that really there shouldn’t be minimum wage rates at all, save as a political fig leaf for WorkChoices.
As m’esteemed colleague Keane notes, even Harper failed to deliver the simple conservative deathblow Howard wanted — another example, as with Donald McDonald at the ABC and Greg Melleuish and others at the History Curriculum commission of the rodent being disappointed by people who decided to take their role seriously, rather than act as political handmaidens.
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But has the long death march through the institutions finally borne some fruit? Is Harper really turning off the tap because of overwhelming evidence that a minimum wage rise would affect hours and employment levels? Or because his Christianity shapes his idea of how recovery should proceed? Does he have a moral objection to spending our way out of recession, even if that can be shown to work?
As Mark Bahnisch pointed out earlier, there is ample evidence from the US that minimum wage rises may be neutral or even positive with regard to hours and employment, for the simple reason that in a recession the poor are pushed so far down on the bones of their arse that they literally have no disposable cash. The process — in poor communities — is deflationary, because spending goes down and the bloke who ran the corner store dips below a level at which it’s worth opening up, and the woman who does dog grooming can’t run a van anymore. The ten bucks a week a part-time minimum wage worker gets may be all the difference.
Indeed in the fast-food industry this is called “round the front” money — the observation being that minimum wage kids who get a rise aren’t going to put it into stocks and bonds, or even sensible groceries — they’ll probably buy a super-size meal from a different fast food chain than the one they work at, on the way home.
There are arguments the other way, of course, but given the inconclusive nature of the findings wouldn’t it have been, well, fairer to err on the side of slinging the minimum-waged another 50 cents an hour?
That’s where Harper’s cosmology may come in. Most instructive is his paper a few years back for the Christian National Heritage Association (?) called the “Christian Foundations of Economic Development in Australia”. The paper’s treatment of Australia’s economic history is by turns sweetly naive, batty and pernicious, with a strong role for literal Providence in shaping the nation — God wanted this lump of rock to be a Christian outpost.
The important bit comes at the end:
Going forward, Christian values can continue to counterweigh the seductive appeal of materialism — indeed, must do so, since an economic system based on nothing but selfishness and greed (“the empty display and false values of the world”, as the Anglican prayer book has it) will eventually implode.
Moreover, in calling people to a life of service and humility, following the example of Christ himself, Christianity seeks to fill and re-fill our wells of virtue in community. No humanly devised ordering of society can survive long without a critical mass of virtuous citizens. Our prosperity must be moral as well as material or it is no prosperity at all.
Eventually implode? That sort of language, coming from the likes of Clive Hamilton, usually gets you a guernsey in The Oz‘s Cut and Paste sheltered workshop. But this is the good austerity — the one you impose on the powerless.
The trouble for a Christian capitalist in the 21st century is that it’s no longer possible to run an economy on protestant abstemious lines — if we stop buying flat screen TVs for 15 minutes we’re all fucked. Thus injunctions, from Dubya, Rudd etc, to go out an shop, in response to any national emergency.
Harper lives that contradiction as does the whole of the Christian right – by not acknowledging it. But has this view shaped his determination that one consequence of this recession might be the creation of a moral poor, once again reminded of first things by the simple fact that they can’t afford the stuff they want to buy — the “empty materialism” of Harper’s elitist moralising? And has he used his last go as FPC commissioner to insert that?
And how does he do that with his hair?
*Googleblog — a life story made up from by googling someone, including everything and working out how their life fits together. Thus Evan Jones’s interest in nationalist radical economics has clearly been spurred by his decades of writing poetry in a mythical and questing mode at Melbourne University, and both clearly influenced the screenplay he wrote for the recently rereleased classic Wake In Fright — though the role of his Jamaican heritage is yet to be explained.