Throughout the pandemic, the fight against COVID-19 has often been framed in terms of striking a balance between the health of the public and the health of the economy. This leads to the assumption that a trade-off must exist between these two objectives. Countries, therefore, have to decide between lives and livelihoods. However, one year on since lockdowns swept the globe the evidence suggests that the trade-off between sacrificing lives and sacrificing the economy is not necessarily clear cut.

Controlling the virus

Restrictions such as social distancing and lockdowns were introduced in order to minimise the spread of the virus, prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed, and ultimately save lives. However, as these measures are put in place, schools were closed, businesses and factories stopped operating, and economic activity shrank. This would suggest therefore, that society inevitably faces a trade-off between lost lives versus lost livelihoods.

It could be argued, therefore, that in the short run these interventions create a ‘health–wealth trade-off’. The lockdown restrictions save lives by preventing transmission, but they came at the cost of lost output, income and therefore GDP. This would also imply that the trade-off works in reverse when the lockdown restrictions are eased. As measures are relaxed, the economy can begin to recover but at the cost of an increased threat of the virus spreading again.

What are the costs?

In order to work out if a trade-off exists and what costs are involved, there must be a monetary value placed on human life. While this may seem unethical, governments, civil courts, regulatory bodies and companies do it all the time. The very existence of the life insurance industry is testament to the fact that human lives can be measured in monetary terms. One approach to measuring valuing life, commonly used by economists who conduct cost-benefit analyses, is the ‘value of statistical life’. It measures the loss or gain that arises from changes in the incidence of death, by eliciting people’s willingness to pay for small reductions in the probability of death, or their willingness to accept compensation in exchange for tolerating a small increase in the chance of death. (see the blog Lockdown – again. Is it worth it?)

Take the example of a complete lockdown. The potential number of lives saved can be estimated based on infection and fatality rates estimated from epidemiological models. This can then be multiplied by value of statistical life to compute the monetary value of saved lives. If this number exceeds the economic costs of a complete lockdown, then we know that it is desirable.

The trade-off between lost lives versus the economy is often erroneously viewed as an all-or-nothing choice between complete lockdown versus zero restrictions. However, in reality, there is a continuum in stringency of restrictions and it is not an all-or-nothing comparison.

Death rates vs downturns

In order to explore the existence of this trade-off, we can compare the health and economic impacts of the pandemic in different countries. If such a trade-off exists, then countries with lower death rates should have experienced larger economic downturns. However, when comparing the COVID-19 death rates with GDP data, the result is the opposite: countries that have managed to protect their population’s health in the pandemic have generally also protected their economy too. This suggests that there was never a simple binary trade-off between the two factors. Those countries that experienced the biggest first wave of excess deaths, also had the biggest hits to the economy.

The UK was the hardest hit of similar countries on both measures within the G7 group of industrialised countries. The shape of the recession in the UK from the pandemic and lockdowns was extraordinary and historic. However, it was also unique as there was a very sharp fall followed by a rapid rebound. Over 2020, GDP saw the largest hit in three centuries; larger than any single year of the Great Wars or the 1920s Depression.

Studies of the declines in GDP contradict the idea of a trade-off, showing that countries that suffered the most severe economic downturns, such as Peru, Spain and the UK, were generally among the countries with the highest COVID-19 death rates. There are countries that have experienced the reverse too; Taiwan, South Korea, and Lithuania all experienced modest declines in economic output but have also managed to keep the death rate low.

It should also be noted that some countries that had similar falls in GDP experienced very different death rates from each other. When comparing the USA and Sweden with Denmark and Poland, they all saw similar declines in the economy with contractions of around 8–9%. However, the USA and Sweden recorded 5–10 times more deaths per million. This therefore suggests that there is no clear trade-off between the health of the population and the health of the economy.

There will be many different factors that impact on the death rate for each individual country and by how much the economy has been affected. Such factors will even go beyond the policy decisions that have been made throughout the pandemic about how best to suppress the transmission of the virus. However, from the data available, there is no clear evidence to suggest that a trade-off between the health and the economy exists. If anything, it suggests that the relationship works in the opposite direction.

Save the economy by saving lives

Given the arguments against the existence of the trade-off, it could be argued that in order to limit the economic damage caused by the pandemic, the focus needs to start and end with controlling the spread of the virus. Experiments that have been conducted across the world definitively show that no country can prevent the economic damage without first addressing the pandemic that causes it. Those countries that acted swiftly in implementing harsh measures to control the virus, are now reopening in stages and their economies are growing. Countries such as China, Australia, New Zealand, Iceland, and Singapore, which all invested primarily in swift coronavirus suppression, have effectively eliminated the virus and are seeing their economies begin to grow again.

China, in particular, stands out amongst this group of countries. The Chinese authorities acted very quickly, and firmly, but also the levels of compliance of the population have been very high. However, it could be argued that few countries possess the infrastructure that exists in China to facilitate such high compliance. The fact that the lockdown in China was so effective reduced both losses to the economy and the need for stimulus measures. China is also one of the few countries that have achieved a “V-shaped” recovery. Countries such as Korea, Norway and Finland also appear to have responded relatively well.

Most of the countries that prioritised supporting their economies and resisted, limited, or prematurely curtailed interventions to control the pandemic faced runaway rates of infection and further national lockdowns. The examples of the UK, the USA and Brazil are often quoted, with many arguing that these countries responded too late and too haphazardly. Both have experienced high numbers of deaths.

Conclusion

Discussions around the responses to the pandemic and what appropriate action should be taken have predominately been about how countries can strike the balance between protecting people’s health and protecting the economy. However, from observing the GDP data available there is no clear evidence of a definitive trade-off; rather the relationship between the health and economic impacts of the pandemic goes in the opposite direction. As well as saving lives, countries controlling the outbreak effectively may have adopted the best economic strategy too. It is important to recognise that many factors have affected the death rate and the impact on the economy, and the full impacts of the pandemic are yet to be seen. However, it is by no means clear that the trade-off between greater emphasis on sacrificing lives or sacrificing the economy is as real as has been suggested. If such a trade-off does exist, it is, at best, a weak one.

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Questions

  1. Define and explain the difference between a substitute and complementary good.
  2. Using your answer to question 1, describe the existence of a trade-off.
  3. Discuss the reasons why the trade-off between health and the economy would work in the opposite direction.

On 10 March, the House of Representatives gave final approval to President Biden’s $1.9tr fiscal stimulus plan (the American Rescue Plan). Worth over 9% of GDP, this represents the third stage of an unparalleled boost to the US economy. In March 2020, President Trump secured congressional agreement for a $2.2tr package (the CARES Act). Then in December 2020, a bipartisan COVID relief bill, worth $902bn, was passed by Congress.

By comparison, the Obama package in 2009 in response to the impending recession following the financial crisis was $831bn (5.7% of GDP).

The American Rescue Plan

The Biden stimulus programme consists of a range of measures, the majority of which provide monetary support to individuals. These include a payment of $1400 per person for single people earning less than $75 000 and couples less than $150 000. These come on top of payments of $1200 in March 2020 and $600 in late December. In addition, the top-up to unemployment benefits of $300 per week agreed in December will now continue until September. Also, annual child tax credit will rise from $2000 annually to as much as $3600 and this benefit will be available in advance.

Other measures include $350bn in grants for local governments depending on their levels of unemployment and other needs; $50bn to improve COVID testing centres and $20bn to develop a national vaccination campaign; $170bn to schools and universities to help them reopen after lockdown; and grants to small businesses and specific grants to hard-hit sectors, such as hospitality, airlines, airports and rail companies.

Despite supporting the two earlier packages, no Republican representative or senator backed this latest package, arguing that it was not sufficiently focused. As a result, reaction to the package has been very much along partisan lines. Nevertheless, it is supported by some 90% of Democrat voters and 50% of Republican voters.

Is the stimulus the right amount?

Although the latest package is worth $1.9tr, aggregate demand will not expand by this amount, which will limit the size of the multiplier effect. The reason is that the benefits multiplier is less than the government expenditure multiplier as some of the extra money people receive will be saved or used to reduce debts.

With $3tr representing some 9% of GDP, this should easily fill the estimated negative output gap of between 2% and 3%, especially when multiplier effects are included. Also, with savings having increased during the recession to put them some 7% above normal, the additional amount saved may be quite small, and wealthier Americans may begin to reduce their savings and spend a larger proportion of their income.

So the problem might be one of excessive stimulus, which in normal times could result in crowding out by driving up interest rates and dampening investment. However, the Fed is still engaged in a programme of quantitative easing. Between mid-March 2020 and the end of March 2021, the Fed’s portfolio of securities held outright grew from $3.9tr to $7.2tr. What is more, many economists predict that inflation is unlikely to rise other than very slightly. If this is so, it should allow the package to be financed easily. Debt should not rise to unsustainable levels.

Other economists argue, however, that inflationary expectations are rising, reflected in bond yields, and this could drive actual inflation and force the Fed into the awkward dilemma of either raising interest rates, which could have a significant dampening effect, or further increasing money supply, potentially leading to greater inflationary problems in the future.

A lot will depend what happens to potential GDP. Will it rise over the medium term so that additional spending can be accommodated? If the rise in spending encourages an increase in investment, this should increase potential GDP. This will depend on business confidence, which may be boosted by the package or may be dampened by worries about inflation.

Additional packages to come

Potential GDP should also be boosted by two further packages that Biden plans to put to Congress.

The first is a $2.2tr infrastructure investment plan, known as the American Jobs Plan. This is a 10-year plan to invest public money in transport infrastructure (such as rebuilding 20 000 miles of road and repairing bridges), public transport, electric vehicles, green housing, schools, water supply, green power generation, modernising the power grid, broadband, R&D in fields such as AI, social care, job training and manufacturing. This will be largely funded through tax increases, such as gradually raising corporation tax from 21% to 28% (it had been cut from 35% to 21% by President Trump) and taxing global profits of US multinationals. However, the spending will generally precede the increased revenues and thus will raise aggregate demand in the initial years. Only after 15 years are revenues expected to exceed costs.

The second is a yet-to-be announced plan to increase spending on childcare, healthcare and education. This should be worth at least $1tr. This will probably be funded by tax increases on income, capital gains and property, aimed largely at wealthy individuals. Again, it is hoped that this will boost potential GDP, in this case by increasing labour productivity.

With earlier packages, the total increase in public spending will be over $8tr. This is discretionary fiscal policy writ large.

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Questions

  1. Draw a Keynesian cross diagram to show the effect of an increase in benefits when the economy is operating below potential GDP.
  2. What determines the size of the benefits multiplier?
  3. Explain what is meant by the output gap. How might the pandemic and accompanying emergency health measures have affected the size of the output gap?
  4. How are expectations relevant to the effectiveness of the stimulus measures?
  5. What is likely to determine the proportion of the $1400 stimulus cheques that people spend?
  6. Distinguish between resource crowding out and financial crowding out. Is the fiscal stimulus package likely to result in either form of crowding out and, if so, what will determine by how much?
  7. What is the current monetary policy of the Fed? How is it likely to impact on the effectiveness of the fiscal stimulus?

In his March 2021 Budget, Rishi Sunak announced the setting up of eight freeports in England. These will be East Midlands Airport, Felixstowe & Harwich, Humber, Liverpool City Region, Plymouth and South Devon, Solent, Teesside and Thames. The locations were chosen after a bidding process. Some 30 areas applied and they were judged on various criteria, including economic benefits to poorer regions. Other freeports are due to be announced in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Scottish government is stressing their contribution to the green agenda and will call them ‘green ports’.

Unlike many countries, the UK in recent years chose not to have freeports. There are currently around 3500 freeports worldwide, There are around 80 in the EU, including the whole or part of Barcelona, Port of Bordeaux, Bremerhaven, Cadiz, Copenhagen, Gdansk, Luxembourg, Madeira, Malta, Plovdiv, Piraeus, Riga, Split, Trieste, Venice and Zagreb. The UK had freeports at Liverpool, Southampton, the Port of Tilbury, the Port of Sheerness and Prestwick Airport from 1984, but the government allowed their status to lapse in 2012.

Freeports are treated as ‘offshore’ areas, with goods being allowed into the areas tariff free. This enables raw materials and parts to be imported and made into finished or semi-finished products within the freeport area. At that stage they can either be imported to the rest of the country, at which point tariffs are applied, or they can be exported with no tariff being applied by the exporting country, only the receiving country as appropriate. This benefits companies within the freeport area as it simplifies the tariff system.

The new English freeports will provide additional benefits to companies, including reduced employers’ national insurance payments, reduced property taxes for newly acquired and existing land and buildings, 100% capital allowances whereby the full cost of investment in plant and machinery can be offset against taxable profits, and full business-rates relief for five years (see paragraph 2.115 in Budget 2021).

Benefits and costs

Freeport status will benefit the chosen areas, as it is likely to attract inward investment and provide employment. Many areas were thus keen to bid for freeport status. To the extent that there is a net increase in investment for the country, this will contribute to GDP growth.

But there is the question of how much net additional investment there will be. Critics argue that freeports can divert investment from areas without such status. Also, to the extent that investment is diverted rather than being new investment, this will reduce tax revenue to the government.

Then there is the question of whether such areas are in breach of international agreements. WTO rules forbid countries from directly subsidising exports. And the Brexit trade deal requires subsidies to be justified for reasons other than giving a trade advantage. If the UK failed to do so, the EU could impose tariffs on such goods to prevent unfair competition.

Also, there is the danger of tax evasion, money laundering and corruption encouraged by an absence of regulations and checks. Tight controls and thorough auditing by the government and local authorities will be necessary to counter this and prevent criminal activity and profits going abroad. Worried about these downsides of freeports, in January 2020 the EU tightened regulations governing freeports and took extra measures to clamp down on the growing level of corruption, tax evasion and criminal activity.

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Rishi Sunak delivered his 2021 UK Budget on 3 March. It illustrates the delicate balancing act that governments in many countries face as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic persist and public-sector debt soars. He announced that he would continue supporting the economy through various forms of government expenditure and tax relief, but also announced tax rises over the medium term to begin addressing the massively increased public-sector debt.

Key measures of support for people and businesses include:

  • An extension of the furlough scheme until the end of September, with employees continuing to be paid 80% of their wages for hours they cannot work, but with employers having to contribute 10% in July and 20% in August and September.
  • Support for the self-employed also extended until September, with the scheme being widened to make 600 000 more self-employed people eligible.
  • The temporary £20 increase to Universal Credit, introduced in April last year and due to end on 31 March this year, to be extended to the end of September.
  • Stamp duty holiday on house purchases in England and Northern Ireland, under which there is no tax liability on sales of less than £500 000, extended from the end of March to the end of June.
  • An additional £1.65bn to support the UK’s vaccination rollout.
  • VAT rate for hospitality firms to be maintained at the reduced 5% rate until the end of September and then raised to 12.5% (rather than 20%) for a further six months.
  • A range of grants for the arts, sport, shops , other businesses and apprenticeships.
  • Business rates holiday for hospitality firms in England extended from the end of March to the end of June and then with a discount of 66% until April 2022.
  • 130% of investment costs can be offset against tax – a new tax ‘super-deduction’.
  • No tax rises on alcohol, tobacco or fuel.
  • New UK Infrastructure Bank to be set up in Leeds with £12bn in capital to support £40bn worth of public and private projects.
  • Increased grants for devolved nations and grants for 45 English towns.

It has surprised many commentators that there was no announcement of greater investment in the NHS or more money for social care beyond the £3bn for the NHS and £1bn for social care announced in the November Spending Review. The NHS England budget will fall from £148bn in 2020/21 to £139bn in 2021/22.

Effects on borrowing and GDP


The net effect of these measures for the two financial years 2020 to 2022 is forecast by the Treasury to be an additional £37.5bn of government expenditure and a £27.3bn reduction in tax revenue (see Table 2.1 in Budget 2021). This takes the total support since the start of the pandemic to £352bn across the two years.

According to the OBR, this will result in public-sector borrowing being 16.9% of GDP in 2020/21 (the highest since the Second World War) and 10.3% of GDP in 2021/22. Public-sector debt will be 107.4% of GDP in 2021/22, rising to 109.7% in 2023/24 and then falling to 103.8% in 2025/26.

Faced with this big increase in borrowing, the Chancellor also announced some measures to raise tax revenue beginning in two years’ time when, hopefully, the economy will have grown. Indeed, the OBR forecasts that GDP will grow by 4.0% in 2021 and 7.3% in 2022, with the growth rate then settling at around 1.7% from 2023 onwards. He announced that:

  • Corporation tax on company profits over £250 000 will rise from 19% to 25% in April 2023. Rates for profits under £50 000 will remain at the current rate of 19%, with the rate rising in stages as profits rise above £50 000.
  • Personal income tax thresholds will be frozen from 2022/23 to 2025/26 at £12 570 for the basic 20% marginal rate and at £50 270 for the 40% marginal rate. This will increase the average tax rate as people’s nominal incomes rise.

The policy of a fiscal boost now and a fiscal tightening later might pose political difficulties for the government as this does not fit with the electoral cycle. Normally, politicians like to pursue tighter policies in the early years of the government only to loosen policy with various giveaways as the next election approaches. With Rishi Sunak’s policies, the opposite is the case, with fiscal policy being tightened as the 2024 election approaches.

Another issue is the high degree of uncertainty in the forecasts on which he is basing his policies. If there is another wave of the coronavirus with a new strain resistant to the vaccines or if the scarring effects of the lockdowns are greater, then growth could stall. Or if inflation begins to rise and the Bank of England feels it must raise interest rates, then this would suppress growth. With lower growth, the public-sector deficit would be higher and the government would be faced with the dilemma of whether it should raise taxes, cut government expenditure or accept higher borrowing.

What is more, there are likely to be huge pressures on the government to increase public spending, not cut it by £4bn per year in the medium term as he plans. As Paul Johnson of the IFS states:

In reality, there will be pressures from all sorts of directions. The NHS is perhaps the most obvious. Further top-ups seem near-inevitable. Catching up on lost learning in schools, dealing with the backlog in our courts system, supporting public transport providers, and fixing our system for social care funding would all require additional spending. The Chancellor’s medium-term spending plans simply look implausibly low.

Articles and Briefings

Official documents and data

Questions

  1. Assess the wisdom of the timing of the changes in tax and government expenditure announced in the Budget.
  2. Universal credit was increased by £20 per week in April 2020 and is now due to fall back to its previous level in October 2021. Have the needs of people on Universal Credit increased during the pandemic and, if so, are they likely to return to their previous level in October?
  3. In the past, the government argued that reductions in the rate of corporation tax would increase tax revenue. The Chancellor now argues that increasing it from 19% to 25% will increase tax revenue. Examine the justification for this increase and the significance of relative profit tax rates between countries.
  4. Investigate the effects on the public finances of the pandemic and government fiscal policy in two other countries. How do the effects compare with those in the UK?
  5. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation looks at poverty in the UK and policies to tackle it. It set five tests for the Budget. Examine its Budget Analysis and consider whether these tests have been met.

We rely on the natural environment as a source of food and raw materials, for recreation and health and as a dump for waste. Yet, too often, little or no monetary value is placed on the environment. GDP, the standard measure of economic success, is based on market values; and the market undervalues the environment. The prices of the goods we buy bear little relationship with the environmental costs of their production. And yet we all bear the costs (some more than others) as the planet warms, as rain forests are cut down, as seas become polluted and as biodiversity is destroyed.

A major study commissioned by the UK government has just been published. The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review looks at how we need to rethink the value we attach to nature and embed that within economic decisions. As the Review begins by saying, ‘We are part of Nature, not separate from it’. Nature is an asset on which we all depend and yet is is hugely undervalued. The Amazon rainforest is seen by developers as valuable only for clearance for cattle, soy or mining. In these terms, Amazon the company, valued at over US$1 trillion, is worth more than the Amazon rainforest. As page 2 of the Headline Messages states:

Nature’s worth to society – the true value of the various goods and services it provides – is not reflected in market prices because much of it is open to all at no monetary charge. These pricing distortions have led us to invest relatively more in other assets, such as produced capital, and underinvest in our natural assets.
 
Moreover, aspects of Nature are mobile; some are invisible, such as in the soils; and many are silent. These features mean that the effects of many of our actions on ourselves and others – including our descendants – are hard to trace and go unaccounted for, giving rise to widespread ‘externalities’ and making it hard for markets to function well.
 
But this is not simply a market failure: it is a broader institutional failure too. Many of our institutions have proved unfit to manage the externalities. Governments almost everywhere exacerbate the problem by paying people more to exploit Nature than to protect it, and to prioritise unsustainable economic activities. A conservative estimate of the total cost globally of subsidies that damage Nature is around US$4 to 6 trillion per year. And we lack the institutional arrangements needed to protect global public goods, such as the ocean or the world’s rainforests.

The Review urges a complete rethinking of environmental value. We need to recognise that we are embedded in Nature and that biodiversity has intrinsic worth – perhaps even moral worth. Only this way can correct economic decisions be made.

To detach Nature from economic reasoning is to imply that we consider ourselves to be external to Nature. The fault is not in economics; it lies in the way we have chosen to practise it.

Policy recommendations

The Review highlights some specific policies that can be adopted to attach value to the environment. It makes three major recommendations.

  • Ensure that our demands on Nature do not exceed its supply, and that we increase Nature’s supply relative to its current level. This involves countries and their citizens accepting that they are stewards of the land, seas and atmosphere. This means making conservation central to decision making in areas such a food production, raw material extraction, energy generation and recycling. A range of policy instruments can be used, including taxes and subsidies, laws and regulations, public investment and provision of services.
     
  • Change our measures of economic success to guide us on a more sustainable path. This would involve amending measures, such as GDP, to include environmental degradation (-ve) and improvement (+ve) and national wealth to include all natural assets, such as biodiversity and land, air, sea and water quality. This would involve ‘natural capital accounting’. This, in turn, would be helped by global standardised presentation of data and modelling approaches, and the provision of data on the environment by statistical agencies.
     
  • Transform our institutions and systems – in particular our finance and education systems – to enable these changes and sustain them for future generations. Institutional arrangements should be put into place that allow the pooling of environmental information at local, national and global levels. Then there will need to be international subsidies to countries with environments that should be protected for the global good (e.g. rainforests) and international charges for the use of global common resources, such as oceans and the atmosphere. ‘What is ultimately required is a set of global standards underpinned by credible, decision-grade data, which businesses and financial institutions can use to fully integrate Nature-related considerations into their decision-making, and assess and disclose their use of, and impact on, Nature.’ But this must also be backed up by education so as to encourage people to be more conservationist in their behaviour and attitudes.

It is hoped that the Review will be a major focus of two upcoming United Nations conferences: on Biological Diversity (COP15) in Kunming, China in May 2021 and on Climate Change (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2021. The authors of the Review hope that these conferences will set new environmental commitments and establish the necessary institutional arrangements to ensure such commitments are met. This will involve changing the approach to economic decision making at all levels in society.

As Sir David Attenborough states in his foreword to the Review,

Economics is a discipline that shapes decisions of the utmost consequence, and so matters to us all. The Dasgupta Review at last puts biodiversity at its core and provides the compass that we urgently need. In doing so, it shows us how, by bringing economics and ecology together, we can help save the natural world at what may be the last minute – and in doing so, save ourselves.

Articles

The Dasgupta Review

Questions

  1. To what extent is the Dasgupta Review an updated version of the Stern Review of 2006?
  2. Draw a diagram to illustrate how the existence of negative externalities will lead to production levels above the social optimum.
  3. To what extent is Nature a public good?
  4. What is meant by the ‘tragedy of the commons’? How is it relevant to the exploitation of Nature?
  5. How could market incentives be changed by governments so as to halt the loss of biodiversity?
  6. Following an international agreement to protect the natural environment, what sanctions could be imposed on countries or companies which violate the agreement? How effective would they be?