Our ‘smart’ overlords need to get out of the bubble and into the food court

The geniuses guiding the national economy have lost track of reality, writes Matthew Abraham.

Dec 01, 2023, updated Dec 01, 2023
Reserve Bank Governor Michele Bullock. Photo: Darren England/AAP

Reserve Bank Governor Michele Bullock. Photo: Darren England/AAP

Sitting butt naked on a sunny back porch for a haircut is one of life’s simple pleasures.

It’s not for everyone, of course. You need a back porch, for starters, and good fences.

And the black nylon hairdressing cape provides an element of modesty.

My wife cuts my hair.

The style has remained unchanged for decades. Not a short back and sides. Just short.  A number four comb on the Wahl clippers in winter, and a number three for the “summer cut”.

As the grey locks tumble softly down the cape and onto the brick paving, it’s a time to contemplate the universe and some of its eternal questions.

The haircut question for this week is: How can smart people sound so dumb?

We shall get to the freshly-minted Reserve Bank Governor, Michele Bullock, in just a sec.

But first, Kelly Bayer Rosmarin, who until just a couple of weeks ago was the CEO of the Australian telecommunications outfit, Optus.

She quit in the wake of the telco’s sensational 14-hour outage of phone and internet services, her failure to quickly tell Optus customers what was going on and a bruising Senate grilling about the fiasco.

Rosmarin left the Senate precinct flanked by cops, described as “poor optics” by spin doctors, or “dumb” as normal people put it.

In her exit statement days later, she said that “having now had time for some personal reflection, I have come to the decision that my resignation is in the best interest of Optus moving forward”.

Rosmarin holds a Master’s degree in management science and industrial engineering from Stanford University, according to her LinkedIn profile. So she’s a smart cookie.

But Jared Lynch, The Australian’s technology editor, wrote earlier this month that she was “known for being one of the smartest people in the room but not necessarily the best to read that room”.

Sound familiar? We will get to Ms Bullock, shortly. Promise.

Before the internet gave the world the gift of the Social Media Pile-On, people who were smart, rich, powerful or generally famous, or all four, didn’t have to worry about “reading the room”.

This involves the art of being aware of, and sensitive to, how the rest of the community, or the planet in the case of Elon Musk, hear your words or view your actions.

They could get away with just about anything. They still can, but it’s getting much harder, particularly for stupendously-paid bankers, CEOs and public service departmental chiefs whose decisions affect millions of people.

Successful politicians don’t need to be the smartest people in the room, but they need to know how to read the room, combining experience, polling and rat cunning.

Instead of asking the banks how Australian households are going, how about getting out of the Sydney banker bubble.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese may not be the sharpest HB in Labor’s pencil case – and that’s fine – but it becomes a problem for his party if voters start seeing him as a Mister Magoo in The Lodge.

Even his own MPs are reportedly getting jumpy with a leader struggling to show he understands the collective pain of interest rate hikes, an immigration-driven rental crisis and repeated cost-of-living shocks.

Monday’s Newspoll shows both the ALP and the Albanese numbers nose-diving. The primary vote is down four points to 31 per cent, trailing the Opposition on 38 per cent, up one.

The crucial two-party preferred vote is 50-50.

The PM’s approval rating has fallen 12 points since July, now sitting on 40 per cent.

But the most telling Newspoll numbers are in the 39 to 49-year-old bracket, with 60 per cent of those surveyed saying they and their families are worse off now compared to two years ago.

These are the voters who wait for governments on election day, tapping their baseball bats.

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It seems the “optics” of a Prime Minister backslapping world leaders and boogying in Tuvalu has gone off like a potato shoved up a Magna’s exhaust pipe in Australia’s mortgage-belted suburbs.

Which really does bring us to new Reserve Bank Governor, Michele Bullock.

A brainiac, she was elevated to the top job from within the central bank after her former boss, Philip Lowe, seemed to be living in a different time and space continuum to ordinary folk.

After the low point of Lowe, all she needed to do was at least pretend to be sensitive to the millions of her fellow citizens doing it tough. You know, by not annoying them. It’s not off to a good start.

First, speaking to a wallet of rich economists in Sydney, she blamed stubborn inflation on “domestic factors”, a stand at odds with the Albanese Government’s cute excuse of fingering global pressures, particularly petrol prices.

“Hairdressers and dentists, dining out, sporting and other recreational activities – the prices of all these services are rising strongly,” Bullock said.

“This reflects domestic economic conditions and is an indication that aggregate demand is sufficiently greater than aggregate supply to sustain these price increases. The cost of these services is also typically driven by the price of domestic inputs.”

By getting my hair cut at home, I’m doing my bit to fight inflation by ensuring aggregate demand is sufficiently lower than aggregate supply.

If enough of us do this, it will send hairdressing salons broke. The army of unemployed hairdressers won’t have money to spend on “aggregate demand”, so more small businesses will shut their doors, again swelling the jobless numbers.

This is what the RBA smarties want.

In a previous speech as deputy governor, Ms Bullock argued that rising unemployment helps bring down inflation.

Hands up anyone who thinks there must be a better way to run an economy?

Just a few days ago, Ms Bullock told an elite talkfest of central bankers in Hong Kong that the Reserve Bank’s interest rate hikes had generated “a lot of political noise and a lot of noise from the general public”.

Noise? Is that the sound we make when opening our electricity bills? That noise is called weeping.

“What I’d like to highlight here is despite that noise, households and businesses in Australia are actually in a pretty good position, their balance sheets are pretty good,” she said.

Of the many households coming off low fixed mortgage rates, she said “all the indications from the banks is these households are doing fine”.

“So actually, from a financial stability perspective, this all looks rather good,” she told her audience.

From a reality perspective, this all looks rather crazy. Instead of asking the banks how Australian households are going, how about getting out of the Sydney banker bubble.

Be a devil, fly economy to Adelaide. Get a taxi to take you from the airport to the Colonnades Shopping Centre at Noarlunga, or Hollywood Plaza at Salisbury Downs, or the shops at Castle Plaza at Edwardstown, Tea Tree Plaza at Modbury, Marion Shopping Centre, Arndale at Kilkenny or the Port Canal. Or visit them all.

Talk to blokes and sheilas in white vans. Ask the shoppers and small business owners you bump into if, from a financial stability perspective, things all look “rather good”, if their balance sheets are “pretty good” and if their households are “doing fine”.

Buy yourself something nice from the discount rack at Millers. Have a schnitty and Pepsi Max in the food court. Get a cut and colour. It’ll drive up aggregate demand but you might learn something.

If you can’t read the room, at least try not to ignore the elephant in the room.

Matthew Abraham is InDaily’s political columnist. Matthew can be found on Twitter as @kevcorduroy. It’s a long story.

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