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Articles for the ‘Economics 9e: Ch 04’ Category

Nudging mainstream economics

The annual Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, normally known as the Nobel Prize in Economics, has been awarded 49 times since it was founded in 1969. Many well-known economists have been recipients of the award. This year it had been awarded to Richard Thaler for his research in behavioural economics. The award recognises his work in integrating economics with psychology.

Richard H. Thaler has incorporated psychologically realistic assumptions into analyses of economic decision-making. By exploring the consequences of limited rationality, social preferences, and lack of self-control, he has shown how these human traits systematically affect individual decisions as well as market outcomes.

In total, Richard Thaler’s contributions have built a bridge between the economic and psychological analyses of individual decision-making. His empirical findings and theoretical insights have been instrumental in creating the new and rapidly expanding field of behavioural economics, which has had a profound impact on many areas of economic research and policy.

Instead of making the assumption that people are rational maximisers, behavioural economists look at how people actually behave and respond to various incentives.

For example, people may be motivated by concepts of fairness and be prepared to make personal sacrifices for the sake of others. Such concepts of fairness tend to depend on the social context in which choices are made and can be influenced by the way choices are framed.

Also people may not weigh up costs and benefits but use simple rules of thumb, or heuristics, when making decisions. This might be an example of rational behaviour when time or information is limited, but the use of such heuristics often becomes engrained in behaviour and the rules become just habit.

People may also suffer from a lack of willpower or ‘present bias’. They may spend more than they can afford because they cannot resist the temptation to have a product. They may overeat because of the short-term pleasure it brings and ignore the long-term effects on their health.

Understanding how people make choices and the temptations to which they succumb can help policymakers devise incentives to change behaviour to achieve various social goals.

One type of incentive is nudging. A well-known example is people’s choice about whether to become an organ donor in the event of their death. If people are required to opt in to such a scheme, they may never get round to doing so. However, if they are required to opt out if they do not want to participate, many more people would thereby be donors and more organs would become available.

Another form of nudge is making desirable things fun. A well-known experiment here was encouraging people to use the stairs rather than the escalator when exiting a subway by making the stairs like a musical keyboard. See here for more examples.

The UK government set up a Behavioural Insights Team – also known as the Nudge Unit (now independent of government) to find ways of encouraging people to behave in their own or society’s best interests.

But it is not just governments which use the insights of behavioural economists such as Thaler. The advertising and marketing industry is always examining the most effective means of influencing behaviour. A classic example is the loss leader, where consumers are tempted into a shop with a special offer and then end up buying more expensive items there rather than elsewhere.

Firms and advertisers know only too well the gains from tempting people to buy items that give them short-term gratification – such as putting chocolate bars by the tills in supermarkets.

Understanding consumer psychology helps firms to manipulate people’s choices. And such manipulation may not be in our best interests. If we are being persuaded to buy this product or that, are we fully aware of what’s going on and how our tastes are being affected? Would we, by standing back and reflecting, make the same choices as we do on impulse or out of habit?

And governments too can seek to manipulate people in ways that some may find undesirable. Governments may try to influence us to follow their particular political agenda – as may newspapers. Certainly, during election or referendum campaigns, we are being nudged to vote a particular way.

It is important then for us to understand when we are being nudged or otherwise persuaded. Do we really want to behave in that way? Just as it is important, then, for governments and firms to understand individuals’ behaviour, so too it is important for individuals to understand their own behaviour.

Articles
Richard Thaler’s work demonstrates why economics is hard The Economist, RA (11/10/17)
Nobel in Economics Is Awarded to Richard Thaler The New York Times, Binyamin Appelbaum (9/10/17)
The Making of Richard Thaler’s Economics Nobel The New Yorker, John Cassidy (10/10/17)
Nobel prize in economics awarded to Richard Thaler The Guardian, Richard Partington (10/10/17)
Richard Thaler is a controversial Nobel prize winner – but a deserving one The Guardian, Robert Shiller (11/10/17)
What the mainstreaming of behavioural nudges reveals about neoliberal government The Conversation, Rupert Alcock (17/10/17)
This year’s economics Nobel winner invented a tool that’s both brilliant and undemocratic Vox, Henry Farrell (16/10/17)

Questions

  1. For what reasons may individuals not always weigh up the costs and benefits of purchasing an item?
  2. Give some examples of the use of heuristics in making consumption decisions?
  3. Is the use of heuristics irrational?
  4. Explain how people considering that they have behaved fairly is influenced by the social context of their behaviour?
  5. Find out what is meant by the Dictator Game and how it can challenge the assumption that people behave selfishly. How is the ‘dictator’s’ behaviour affected by the possible payoffs?
  6. Thaler suggested that Brexit could be an example of behavioural economics in action. Find out what he meant by this. Do you agree?
  7. Give some examples of ways in which the government can nudge people to persuade them to behave in socially or individually desirable ways.
  8. Find out what is meant by the ‘endowment effect’ and how it influences people’s valuation of items they own.
  9. Why may nudging by governments be undemocratic?
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Studies show that money can buy happiness (but only if you spend on experiences)

Guest post by Hazel Garcia from InvestmentZen

An oft-repeated quote is that money can’t buy happiness. But according to multiple studies, yes, it can. The key is what you spend that hard earned cash on. When researchers asked individuals to reflect on their recent purchases, those who had made experiential purchases i.e. trips, lessons, events, etc. were much happier compared to those who had made material purchases.

Why is this the case? According to a 20 year study at Cornell, our excitement from new purchases fades quickly over time. That new watch you bought quickly becomes a part of your everyday life. This is what psychologists call the “hedonic treadmill,” which describes the way we return to our normal state of happiness after a momentous occasion. However, buying a new chair will return you much quicker to that state than an adventure across the Rocky Mountains.

Researchers identified several key reasons why this is the case. One reason is that an object is just an object and can never become a part of your identity (at least, not a healthy one), whereas experiences shape us over time. In addition, because by definition unique experiences are only short-lived, we don’t adapt to them the way we might with a new phone or watch. They do not become part of the routine and as such are usually viewed in a special light.

Interestingly, researchers found that even a negative experience could be rated more highly than purchasing a luxury good. In the study, participants were asked to describe a bad experience they had recently and a few weeks later, they were asked again about it. Over the course of just a few weeks, most people’s opinion of that moment had changed.

This is because the human brain has a tendency to reduce the impact of stressful situations. In fact, a significant portion of those polled even stated that in the end, they were happy to have had the negative encounter as it gave them a fresh way to look at things. When similar questions were asked to those who had purchased a high-end item, their levels of happiness were consistently lower as time went on.

So when it comes to the age old question of “Does money buy happiness?” the answer is a resounding yes – provided you spend it on the right things. But of course, you should still aim to make every dollar go as far as possible in pursuit of great experiences. Take a look at the infographic below to see a visual summary of the research on money and how it can buy happiness.

If you want to be happy, spend money on experiences, not things

Blog
If You Want To Be Happy, Spend Money On Experiences, Not Things InvestmentZen news, Hazel Garcia (23/1/17)

References
Why You Should Spend Your Money On Experiences, Not Things Forbes, Travis Bradberry (9/8/16)
The science of why you should spend your money on experiences, not things Fast Company, Jay Cassano (30/3/15)
To feel happier, talk about experiences, not things Cornell Chronicle, Susan Kelley (29/1/13)
The way we shop now: the revolution in British spending habits The Guardian, Katie Allen and Sarah Butler (6/5/16)
Just do it: the experience economy and how we turned our backs on ‘stuff’ The Guardian, Simon Usborne (13/5/17)

Questions (by JS)

  1. Why does buying material goods not buy happiness? Does this apply to all material goods?
  2. What is different, in terms of happiness, about buying experiences? Does this apply to the consumption of all services?
  3. Is the consumption of experiences subject to diminishing marginal utility (a) for specific experiences; (b) for experiences in general? Explain.
  4. Why do we seem not to care as much about the “Jones’” vacation as about their income or possession of material goods?
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How behavioural economics can help you stick to New Year’s resolutions

Many or us make New Year’s resolutions: going on a diet, doing exercise, spending more time studying. But few people stick to them, even though they say they would like to. So how can people be motivated to keep to their resolutions? Well, the experiments of behavioural economists provide a number of insights into the problem. They also suggest various incentives that can be used to motivate people to stick to their plans.

Central to the problem is that people have ‘time inconsistency’. They put a higher weight on the benefits of things that are good for them in the future and less weight on these benefits when they have to act now. You might strongly believe that going to the gym is good for you and plan to go next Monday. But when Monday comes, you can’t face it.

Another part of the time inconsistency problem is the relatively high weighting given to short-term gratification – eating chocolates, watching TV, spending time on social media, staying in bed. When thinking about whether you would like to do these things in, say, a couple of days’ time, you put a low weight on the pleasures. But thinking about doing them right now, you put a much higher weight on them. As the well-known saying goes, ‘Hard work often pays off after time, but laziness pays off now’.

So how can people be motivated to stick to their resolutions? Behavioural economists have studied various systems of incentives to see what works. Some of the findings are as follows:

•  People are generally loss averse. To get us to stick to New Year’s resolutions, we could devise a system of penalties for breaking them, such as paying 20p each time you swear!
•  Given people’s time inconsistency, devising a system whereby you get treats after doing something you feel is good for you: e.g. watching TV for 30 minutes after you’ve done an hour’s revision. Rewards should follow effort, not precede them.
•  Having simple clear goals. Thus rather than merely saying ‘I’ll eat less’, you devise a meal plan with menus that meet calorie and other dietary goals. Rather than saying, ‘I’ll exercise more’, you commit to going to the gym at specific times each week and doing a specific amount of each exercise.
•  Ritualising. This is where you devise a regime that is feasible to stick to. For example, you could always write a shopping list to meet your dietary goals and then only buy what’s on that list; or you and your flatmates could have a rota for household chores.
•  Social reinforcement. This is where people have a joint plan and help each other stick to it, such as going to the gym at specific times with a friend or group of friends, or joining a support group (e.g. to lose weight, or give up drinking or smoking).
•  Avoiding temptation. For example, if you want to give up chocolate, don’t have any in the house.
•  Using praise rather than criticism. People generally respond better to positive incentives than negative ones.

Behavioural economists test these different incentive mechanisms to see what works best and then to see how they can be refined. The testing could be done experimentally, with volunteers being given different incentives and seeing how they respond. Alternatively, data could be collected on the effects of different incentive mechanisms that people have actually used, whether at home or at work.

The advertising and marketing industry analyses consumer trends and how people respond to pricing, quality, display, packaging, advertising, etc. They want to understand human behaviour so that they can ‘direct’ it in their favour of their clients. Governments too are keen to find ways of encouraging people to do more of things that are good for them and less of things that are bad.

The UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team looks at ways people can be ‘nudged’ into changing their behaviour, see the blog A nudge in the right direction?

But back to New Year’s resolutions, have you made any? And, if so, have you thought about how you might stick to them? Have you thought about the incentives?

Podcast
Dan Ariely talks “Payoff” WUNC 91.5: North Carolina Public Radio, Dan Ariely talks to Frank Stasio (3/1/17)

Articles and blogs
50 New Year’s Resolution Ideas and how to Achieve Each of Them Lifehack, Ivan Dimitrijevic (31/12/16)
5 New Year’s Resolutions You Can Keep (With The Help Of Behavioral Science Research) Forbes, Carmen Nobel (3/1/17)
The science behind keeping your New Year’s resolutions BT, SNAP PA (30/12/15)
The Guardian view on New Year resolutions: fitter, happier, more productive The Guardian, Editorial (3/1/17)
The Behavioral Economics of Your New Year’s Resolutions The Daily Beast, Uri Gneezy (5/1/14)
The psychology of New Year’s resolution The Conversation, Mark Griffiths (1/1/16)
Apply Behavioral Economics for a Better New Year Wharton Blog Network, William Hartje (16/1/14)
The Kardashians Can Help Your New Year’s Resolutions Huffington Post, John Beeby (29/12/16)
Using economics to score with New Year resolutions The Hindu, Venky Vembu (4/1/17)
Be It Resolved The New York Times, John Tierney (5/1/12)

Goal-setting site
stickK ‘Set your goals and achieve them!’

Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by time inconsistent behaviour. Is this the same as giving future costs and benefits a lower weighting than present ones (and hence having to discount future costs and benefits)?
  2. Give some examples of ways in which your own behaviour exhibits time inconsistency. Would it be accurate to describe this as ‘present bias’?
  3. Would you describe not sticking to New Year’s resolutions as ‘irrational behaviour’?
  4. Have you made any New Year’s resolutions, or do you have any plans to achieve goals? Could you alter your own personal incentives and, if so, how, to make it more likely that you will stick to your resolutions/goals?
  5. Give some examples of ways in which the government could ‘nudge’ us to behave in ways that were more in our own individual interests or those of society or the environment?
  6. Do you think it’s desirable that the advertising industry should employ psychologists and behavioural economists to help it achieve its goals?
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Using incentives to affect throwaway behaviour

Can behavioural economics be applied to the case of Sweden? The Swedish government is trying this out by changing government policy in a way that may encourage its residents to change their behaviour.

People in many countries in the world live in what is often called a ‘throwaway society’. If something breaks, it’s often easier and cheaper simply to get rid of it and buy a new one. But with changes in government policy, including VAT cuts on repairs to white goods, the objective is to encourage consumers to repair their goods, rather than buying new ones. This is also contributing towards the wider objective of sustainable consumption, which is being promoted by the Swedish government.

Per Bolund, who is one of Sweden’s six Green Ministers, spoke about this policy commenting that:

“Consumers are quite active in changing both what they buy and how they buy in Sweden … We believe that getting lower costs for labour is a big part in making it more rational to repair rather than just to buy cheap and throw away …If we don’t change the economic incentives the change will never come.”

Whether or not this policy works will take some time to see, but it’s certainly an interesting test of how changing incentives affect consumer behaviour. You can read about other examples of nudging in the following blog A nudge in the right direction?.

Articles
Waste not want not: Sweden to give tax breaks for repairs The Guardian, Richard Orange (19/9/16)
Can Sweden tackle the throwaway society? BBC News (20/9/16)
Trendy now, trash tomorrow Huffington Post, Kirsten Brodde (29/9/16)
Hong Kong needs a strategy quickly for dealing with waste South China Morning Post (27/9/16)

Questions

  1. If VAT on repairs falls, how will this affect consumer behaviour?
  2. Do you think there would be an income and a substitution effect from this change in government policy? What would they be?
  3. How is the Swedish government using incentives to change consumer behaviour?
  4. If it is cheaper to buy a new white good, then is it rational to buy a new one rather than repair an existing one?
  5. How effective do you think this policy would be in encouraging consumers to change their behaviour?
  6. Find some other examples of how people might be nudged to behave in ways that are in their own interest or that of society.
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What the market will bear? Secondary markets and ticket touts

If you want a ticket for an event, such as a match or a concert, but the tickets are sold out, what do you do? Many will go to an agency operating in the ‘secondary market’. A secondary market is where items originally purchased new, such as tickets, company shares, cars or antiques, are put up for sale at a price that the market will bear.

The equilibrium price in a secondary market is where supply equals demand and the actual price will approximate to this equilibrium. In the case of tickets, this equilibrium price can be much higher than the original price sold by the venue or its agents. The reason is that the original price is below the equilibrium.

This is illustrated in the figure (click here for a PowerPoint). Assume that the total supply of tickets is Qs. Assume also that the official box office price is Pbo and that demand is given by the demand curve D. At the box office price demand exceeds supply by QdQs. There is thus a shortage, with many fans unable to obtain a ticket at the official price. Many of you will be familiar with having to be as quick as possible to get hold of tickets where demand considerably outstrips supply. Events such as Glastonbury sell out within seconds of coming on sale.

If you buy a ticket and then find out you cannot go to the event, you can sell the ticket on the secondary market through an online site or agency. Such agencies could be seen as providing a useful service as it means that otherwise empty seats will be filled. But if the equilibrium price is well above the original ticket price, there is the potential for huge gain by the agencies, who may pay the seller considerably less than the agency then sells the ticket to someone else.

What is more, the difference between the original price and the equilibrium price in the secondary market makes ticket touting, or ticket ‘scalping’, highly profitable. This is where people buy tickets with no intention of using them themselves but in order to sell them at much higher prices on the secondary market. Such ticket touting has been illegal for football matches since 1994 and was illegal for the 2012 London Olympics, but it is legal for plays, concerts, festivals and other events.

Ticket touts are often highly organised in obtaining tickets at official prices by buying early and using multiple credit cards and multiple identities to avoid systems that restrict the number of tickets issued to a card. They often use internet bots to mass purchase tickets the moment they go on sale.

Those in favour of ticket touting argue that the high price in the secondary market is just a reflection of demand and supply (see the IEA article below). Ticket touting allows tickets to be directed to people who value them most and will get the greatest benefit from it. What is more, banning ticket touting, so the argument goes, would simply drive it underground.

Those against argue on grounds of equity. Ticket prices set below the equilibrium are designed to give greater equality of access to fans. Rationing on a first-come first-served system, either on the internet or by a queue, is seen to be fairer than one by ability/willingness to pay. A poor person may be just as keen to go to an event as a rich person and gain just as much enjoyment from it, but cannot afford the high equilibrium price. What is more, non of the profit from the higher prices reaches the event organisers or the artists or players. Yet the mark-up and hence profit made by ticket touts can be massive, as the first Observer article below shows.

Various measures are being tried to prevent ticket touting. One is the use of paperless tickets, with the number of tickets limited per person and with people having to show their ticket on their phones along with ID at the door or gate. If a person cannot attend, then the solution is a system where they can give the ticket back to the box office (perhaps electronically) which will re-sell it for them at the official price.

A government-backed investigation, the Waterson review reported in May 2016 and recommended that touts should be licensed and that there should be harsher penalties for firms that flout consumer rights law as applying to ticket sales. Whether this would be sufficient to bring secondary market prices down significantly, remains to be seen. In the meantime, organisers do seem to be trying to find ways of beating the touts through smarter means of selling.

Articles
MP Nigel Adams calls for secondary ticket marketing to be reformed Music Week, James Hanley (14/9/16)
Iron Maiden go to war with ticket touts BBC News, Mark Savage (22/9/16)
The new age of the ticket tout BBC World Tonight, Andrew Hosken (25/5/16)
Government urged to help music industry tackle ticket touts The Guardian, Rob Davies (13/9/16)
Ticket touts face licensing threat The Guardian, Rupert Jones (26/5/16)
How the ticket touts get away with bleeding fans dry The Observer, Rob Davies and Rupert Jones (15/5/16)
What sorcery is this? A £140 ticket for new Harry Potter play now costs £8,327 The Observer, Rob Davies and Laurie Chen (14/8/16)
Ticket touts made $3m from the last Mumford & Sons tour. $0 went back to the music industry. Music Business Woldwide, Adam Tudhope (6/9/16)
This is tout of order – join the Daily Mirror campaign to beat rip-off ticket resales Daily Mirror, Nada Farhoud (19/9/16)
Ticket touts: A muggle’s game The Economist (20/8/16)
Can We Fight Back Against The Robot Touts Ruining Live Music? Huffington Post, Andy Webb (6/9/16)
In defence of ticket touts Institute of Economic Affairs, Steve Davies (25/2/15)

Report
Consumer protection measures applying to ticket resale: Waterson review Department for Business, Innovation & Skills and Department for Culture, Media & Sport 26/5/16)

Guide
#Toutsout MMF & FanFair Alliance September 2016

Questions

  1. Why can ticket touts sell tickets above the equilibrium price shown in the diagram?
  2. In what ways could ticket touts be said to be distorting the market?
  3. How do ticket touts reduce consumer surplus? Could they reduce it to zero?
  4. Why may allowing ticket touting to take place result in empty seats at concerts or other events?
  5. Would it be a good idea for event organisers to charge higher prices for popular events than they do at present, but still below the equilibrium
  6. How does the price elasticity of demand influence the mark-up that ticket touts can make? Illustrate this on a diagram similar to the one above.
  7. Is it in ticket touts’ interests to adjust prices as an event draws closer, just as budget airlines adjust seat prices as the plane fills up? Could organisers sell tickets in the primary market in this way with prices rising as the event fills up?
  8. Discuss the various ways in which the secondary ticket market could be reformed? To what extent do these involve reforms in the primary ticket market?
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A nudge in the right direction?

Behavioural economists study how people’s buying, selling and other behaviour responds to various incentives and social situations. They don’t accept the simplistic notion that people are always rational maximisers. As the Livemint article below states, “According to behavioural economists, the human brain neither has the time nor the ability to process all the information involved in decision making, as assumed by the rational model.” Instead, rationality is bounded: people use simple rules of thumb in making decisions – rules they have developed over time in the light of experience.

So can people’s behaviour be altered by understanding their limited rationality? Advertisers are only too well aware of a number of psychological ‘tricks’ to change people’s purchasing behaviour. For example, wanting to be approved of by your friends is used by advertisers to sell various fashion products and toiletries. Often, people need only a relatively small ‘nudge’ to change the way they behave.

And it is not just advertisers who are using the insights of behavioural economics. Governments are increasingly trying to find ways of nudging people to behave in ways that are better for themselves or for society.

In 2010, David Cameron set up a ‘Nudge Unit’, formally know as ‘The Behavioural Insights Team‘. It has produced a number of academic papers on topics as diverse as tax compliance, incentives for university attendance, charitable giving in the workplace and using SMS reminders to reduce missed hospital appointments. The academic evidence can then be use as the basis for policy.

Another nudge unit has been set up in Australia (see second article below). The USA, Singapore and various other countries are increasingly using the insights of behavioural economics to devise policy to affect human behaviour.

Two recent pieces of work by the UK team concern ways of discouraging doctors from over-prescribing antibiotics and using encouraging text messages to FE students to reduce dropout rates. Another nudge has been used by the tax authorities (HMRC) who have been sending out texts to remind people to pay their taxes on time and to make them aware that they are being monitored. The message read, “Most people pay on time to avoid penalties”.

The articles below look at these recent initiatives and how human behaviour can be changed in a relatively low-cost way. In most cases this involves a simple nudge.

Articles
Nudge-unit trials reveal best ways to prod people Sydney Morning Herald, Nick Miller (29/8/15)
Government ‘nudge unit’ to attempt to change people’s behaviours Sydney Morning Herald, Nick Miller (15/9/16)
New frontiers of human behaviour Livemint, Biju Dominic (15/9/16)
Doctors ‘nudged’ into prescribing far fewer antibiotics New Scientist (15/9/16)
GPs handing out fewer antibiotics after warning of over-prescribing, says study BT (15/9/16)
Study of colleges shows ‘encouraging’ texts dramatically cut dropout rates FE Week, Paul Offord (22/7/15)
The text messages getting teenagers better grades BBC Today Programme, David Halpern and Fiona Morey (15/9/16)
Ping! Pay your tax now or face a penalty. HMRC sends out ‘threatening’ SMS texts to taxpayers The Telegraph, Christopher Hope (15/9/16)

Publications of Behavioural Insights Team
Publications list BIT
The Behavioural Insights Team’s Update Report: 2015–16: overview BIT (15/9/16)
The Behavioural Insights Team’s Update Report: 2015–16 BIT (15/9/16)
Blog BIT

Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by bounded rationality.
  2. Give some examples from your own behaviour of decisions made using rules of thumb.
  3. Should we abandon models based on the assumption of rational maximising behaviour (e.g. attempts to maximise consumer surplus or to maximise profit)?
  4. Find out some other examples of how people might be nudged to behave in ways that are in their own interest or that of society.
  5. How might people be nudged to eat more healthily or to give up smoking?
  6. To what extent can financial incentives, such as taxes, fines, grants or subsidies be regarded nudging? Explain.
  7. Why, do you think, the message by an Australian hospital, “if you attend, the hospital will not lose the $125 we lose when a patient does not turn up” was successful in reducing missed appointments by 20%, while the message, “if you do not attend, the hospital loses $125″ was not as effective?
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Is personalised pricing possible?

A number of famous Business Schools in the UK and US such as MIT Sloan, NYU Stern and Imperial College have launched new programmes in business analytics. These courses have been nicknamed ‘Big Data finishing school’. Why might qualifications in this area be highly valued by firms?

Employees who have the skills to collect and process Big Data might help firms to successfully implement a pricing strategy that approaches first-degree price discrimination.

First-degree price discrimination is where the seller of a product is able to charge each consumer the maximum price he or she is prepared to pay for each unit of the product. Successfully implementing this type of pricing strategy could enable a firm to make more revenue. It might also lead to an increase in economic efficiency. However, the strategy might be opposed on equity grounds.

In reality, perfect price discrimination is more of a theoretical benchmark than a viable pricing strategy. Discovering the maximum amount each of its customers is willing to pay is an impossible task for a firm.

It may be possible for some sellers to implement a person-specific pricing strategy that approaches first-degree price discrimination. Firms may not be able to charge each customer the maximum amount they are willing to pay but they may be able to charge different prices that reflect customers’ different valuations of the product.

How could a firm go about predicting how much each of its customers is willing to pay? Traditionally smaller sellers might try to ‘size up’ a customer through individual observation and negotiation. The clothes people wear, the cars they drive and their ethnicity/nationality might indicate something about their income. Second-hand car dealers and stall-holders often haggle with customers in an attempt to personalise pricing. The starting point of these negotiations will often be influenced by the visual observations made by the seller.

The problem with this approach is that observation and negotiation is a time-consuming process. The extra costs involved might be greater than the extra revenue generated. This might be especially true for firms that sell a large volume of products. Just imagine how long it would take to shop at a supermarket if each customer had to haggle with a member of staff over each item in their supermarket trolley!! There is also the problem of designing compensation contracts for sales staff that provide appropriate incentives.

However the rise of e-commerce may lead to a very different trading environment. Whenever people use their smart phones, laptops and tablets to purchase goods, they are providing huge amounts of information (perhaps unconsciously) to the seller. This is known as Big Data. If this information can be effectively collected and processed then it could be used by the seller to predict different customers’ willingness to pay.

Some of this Big Data provides information similar to that observed by sellers in traditional off-line transactions. However, instead of visual clues observed by a salesperson, the firm is able to collect and process far greater quantities of information from the devices that people use.

For example, the Internet Protocol (IP) address could be used to identify the geographical location of the customer: i.e. do they live in a relatively affluent or socially deprived area? The operating system and browser might also indicate something about a buyer’s income and willingness to pay. The travel website, Orbitz, found that Apple users were 40 per cent more likely to book four or five star hotel rooms than customers who used Windows.

Perhaps the most controversial element to Big Data is the large amount of individual-level information that exists about the behaviour of customers. In particular, browsing histories can be used to find out (a) what types of goods people have viewed (b) how long they typically spend on-line and (c) their previous purchase history. This behavioural information might accurately predict price sensitivity and was never available in off-line transactions.

Interestingly, there has been very little evidence to date that firms are implementing personalised pricing on the internet. One possible explanation is that effective techniques to process the mass of available information have not been fully developed. This would help to explain the growth in business analytics courses offered by universities. PricewaterhouseCoopers recently announced its aim to recruit one thousand more data scientists over the next two years.

Another possible explanation is that firms fear a backlash from customers who are deeply opposed to this type of pricing. In a widely cited survey of consumers, 91% of the respondents believed that first-degree price discrimination was unfair.

Articles
Big data is coming for your purchase history – to charge you more money The Guardian, Anna Bernasek and DT Mongan (29/5/15)
Big data is an economic justice issue, not just a Privacy Problem The Huffington Post, Nathan Newman (16/5/15)
MIT’s $75,000 Big Data finishing school (and its many rivals) Financial Times, Adam Jones (20/3/16)
The Government’s consumer data watchdog New York Times, Natasha Singer (23/5/2015)
The economics of big data and differential pricing The Whitehouse blog, Jason Furman, Tim Simcoe (6/2/2015)

Questions

  1. Explain the difference between first- and third-degree price discrimination.
  2. Using an appropriate diagram, explain why perfect price discrimination might result in an economically more efficient outcome than uniform pricing.
  3. Draw a diagram to illustrate how a policy of first-degree price discrimination could lead to greater revenue but lower profits for a firm.
  4. Why would it be so difficult for a firm to discover the maximum amount each of its customers was willing to pay?
  5. Explain how the large amount of information on the individual behaviour of customers (so-called Big Data) could be used to predict differences in their willingness to pay.
  6. What factors might prevent a firm from successfully implementing a policy of personalised pricing?
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City life

Two surveys have been released looking at the quality of life in cities and the levels of happiness of their residents. The first is a three-yearly Eurobarometer survey by the European Commission focusing on 83 European cities/conurbations. This survey finds that, despite growing concerns about immigration, terrorism and stagnant real incomes, levels of satisfaction have remained stable since the 2012 survey. In all except six cities, at least 80% of respondents say that they are satisfied to live in their city. The highest scores (above 98%) are in the north of Europe.

The second is the 2016 Quality of Life Survey (an annual survey) by the consultancy firm, Mercer. This looks at cities worldwide, particularly from the perspective of employees of multinational companies being placed abroad. The survey found that the top ten cities by quality of life include seven in Europe, and that the five safest cities in the world are all in Europe.

So what is it that makes the quality of life so high in many European cities, especially those in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Scandinavia? Is it that income per head is higher in these cities? In other words, is the quality of life related to GDP?

The answer is only loosely related to GDP. What seems more important is people’s income relative to other people and whether their income relative to other people is rising.

But people regard the quality of life in cities as depending on other factors than simple relative income. One factor common across all cities is household composition. People are least happy if they live on their own.

Other factors include: a feeling of safety; how well integrated different ethic and social groups are felt to be; the quality of public transport; the cleanliness of the city; health care provision and social services; the quality of schools and other educational establishments; sports facilities; cultural facilities; parks and other public spaces; the quality of shops, restaurants and other retail outlets; the quality and price of housing; the ease of getting a job; trust in fellow citizens; environmental factors, such as air quality, noise, traffic congestion and cleanliness; good governance of the city. The top three issues are health services, unemployment and education and training.

Although cities with higher incomes per head can usually afford to provide better services, there is only a loose correlation between income per head and quality of life in cities. Many of the factors affecting quality of life are not provided by the market but are provided publicly or are part of social interaction outside the market.

Articles
Happiness in Europe The Economist (25/2/16)
Happiness in Europe: What makes Europeans happy? It depends on where they live The Economist (27/2/16)
Rating Europe’s Most and Least Happy Cities CityLab, Feargus O’Sullivan (9/2/16)
Europe’s Nicest Cities Aren’t Its Happiest Ones Bloomberg, Therese Raphael (2/2/16)
Vienna named world’s top city for quality of life The Guardian, Patrick Collinson (23/2/16)
Vienna named world’s best city to live for quality of life, but London, New York and Paris fail to make top rankings Independent, Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith (23.2.16)
The world’s most liveable cities: London and Edinburgh rank in top 50 The Telegraph, Soo Kim (23/2/16)

Reports
Quality of Life in European Cities 2015 Flash Eurobarometer 41 (January 2016)
Quality of Life in European Cities 2015: Individual Country Reports Flash Eurobarometer 41 (January 2016) (This may take a short while to download.)
Quality of life in European Cities 2015: Data for Research Flash Eurobarometer 41 (January 2016)
2016 Quality of Living Rankings Mercer (23/2/16)
Western European Cities Top Quality of Living Ranking Mercer, Press Release (23/2/16)

Questions

  1. Why, do you think, is the quality of life is generally higher in (a) most northern European cities than most southern and eastern European ones; (b) most European cities rather than most north American ones?
  2. To what extent is (a) absolute real income per head; (b) relative real income per head an indicator of quality of living in cities?
  3. Why, do you think, are Italians less satisfied with the quality of life in their cities than residents of other western European countries?
  4. What factors affect your own quality of living? To what extent do they depend on the city/town/village/area where you live?
  5. Look at the list of factors above that affect quality of life in a given city. Put them in order of priority for you and identify any other factors not listed. To what extent do they depend on your age, your background, your income and your personal interests and tastes?
  6. Identify a particular city with which you are relatively familiar and assume that you were responsible for allocating the city’s budget. What would you spend more money on, what less and what the same? Provide a justification for your allocation.
  7. Discuss the following passage from the Bloomberg article: “What is striking is that there appears to be a correlation between those who report high levels of satisfaction and those who view foreigners in their city as an advantage. Conversely, respondents who complained loudest about transportation, public services, safety and other issues tended to view the presence of foreigners far less favorably.”
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Peak stuff

As most developed countries continue to experience low rates of economic growth, governments and central banks struggle to find means of stimulating aggregate demand. One explanation of sluggish demand is that people on higher incomes have enough of most things. They have reached ‘peak stuff’. As the Will Hutton article linked below states:

Around the developed world consumers seem to be losing their appetite for more. Even goods for which there once seemed insatiable demand seem to be losing their lustre. Last week, mighty Apple reported that in the last three months of 2015 global sales of the iPhone stagnated, while sales of iPads tumbled from 21m units in 2014 to 16m in the same three months of 2015. In the more prosaic parts of the economy – from cars to home furnishings – there are other warnings that demand is saturated.

People on lower incomes may still want more, but with income inequality growing in most countries, they don’t have the means of buying more. Indeed, a redistribution from rich to poor may be an effective means of increasing aggregate demand and stimulating economic growth.

It’s important to clarify what is meant by peak demand for such products. It is not being said that people will stop buying them – that future demand will be zero. People will continue to buy such products. In the case of durables, people will buy replacements when products such as furniture, fridges and cars wear out; or upgraded versions as new models of televisions, smartphones or, again, cars come out; or new music tracks or films as they become available for download, or clothing as new fashions appear in shops. In the case of foodstuffs, concerts, football matches and other consumables, they too will continue to be purchased. The point is, in the case of peak demand, the demand per period of time is not going to grow. And the more products there are that reach peak demand, the harder it will be for companies and economies to grow.

If peak demand has generally been reached, it is likely that the demand for material resources will also have peaked. Indeed, we could expect the demand for material resources to be declining as (a) there has also been an increase in the efficiency of production, so that a lower volume of material inputs is required to produce any given level of output and (b) there has been a general switch towards services and away from physical goods. The graph shows domestic material consumption in the UK in millions of metric tonnes. Domestic material consumption is defined as domestic extraction of resources minus exports of resources plus imports of resources. As you can see, domestic material consumption peaked in 2004.

But, although peak demand may have been reached in some markets, there are others where there is still the potential for growth. To understand this and identify where such markets may be, it is important to step back from simple notions of consumption to satisfy materialistic demand and focus on the choices people might make to increase their happiness or wellbeing or sense of self worth in society. Thus while we might have reached peak red meat, peak sugar, peak cars, peak furniture and even peak electronic gadgets, we have not reached peak demand for more satisfying experiences. The demand for education, health, social activities, environmental conservation and a range of fulfilling experiences may have considerable potential for growth.

There are business opportunities here, whether in the leisure industry, in building networks of like-minded people or in producing niche goods that satisfy the demands of people with specific interests. But without greater equality there may be many fewer business opportunities in the mass production industries producing standardised goods.

This is not a world in which goods and services are produced at scale as conventionally measured, but a honeycomb economy of niches and information networks whose new dynamics we barely understand, even if we have a better grasp of its values.

If having more no longer satisfies us, perhaps we’ve reached ‘peak stuff’ The Guardian, Will Hutton (31/1/16)
Steve Howard, Ikea Exec, Says The World Has Hit ‘Peak Stuff’ Huffington Post, Zi-Ann Lum (20/1/16)
We’ve hit peak home furnishings, says Ikea boss The Guardian, Sean Farrell (18/1/16)
Peak stuff: the ‘growth’ party is over. So what next? The Ecologist, Bennet Francis and Rupert Read (22/1/16)
Have we reached peak ‘stuff’? The Mancunion, Tristan Parsons (22/2/16)
Ikea senses room to grow amid ‘peak stuff’ Financial Times, Aliya Ram and Richard Milne (18/1/16)
Peak Stuff ifs insights, Janet Hontoir (21/2/16)
UK retail sales soar as Brits splash their cash on ‘fun stuff’ The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (19/2/16)
How less stuff could make us happier – and fix stagnation The Guardian, Katie Allen (26/4/16)

Questions

  1. What are the implications of countries reaching ‘peak stuff’ for (a) the marginal utility of mass produced goods; (b) the marginal propensity to consume and the multiplier?
  2. Give some examples of goods or services where peak stuff has not been reached.
  3. If peak stuff has only been reached for certain products, does this mean that there may still be considerable potential for stimulating aggregate demand without a redistribution of income?
  4. Would it be in the interests of companies such as Asda to make a unilateral decision to pay their workers more? Explain why or why not.
  5. Why may we be a long way from reaching peak demand for housing, even without a redistribution of income?
  6. Make out a case for and against tax cuts as a way of stimulating (a) economic growth and (b) a growth in wellbeing? Do your arguments depend on which taxes are cut? Explain.
  7. The Ecologist article states that “Attaining one-planet living will probably involve in due course achieving degrowth in countries such as ours: building down our economy to a safe level.” Could such an objective be achieved through a mixed market economy? If so, how? If not, why not?
  8. Does the Telegraph article suggest that peak stuff has not yet been reached as far as most UK consumers are concerned?
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The Economics of Good and Evil: Tomas Sedlacek

Economics, but not as we know it. As the introduction to this programme on BBC radio 4 suggests, there has been criticism and concern about the way in which we think about economics. About, how it’s taught; the lessons we learn and whether we need to have a re-think. Tomas Sedlacek is a Czech economist and has a different way of thinking about this subject.

Humanomics is certainly a new way of thinking about economics and considering how it links and can be applied to a wide range of areas: the Bible; movies such as Fight Club and the Matrix. This 30 minute discussion between Evan Davies and Tomas Sedlacek provides some interesting insights and thoughts on some of the current challenges facing this subject and some novel insights into how we could change our thinking.

Tomas Sedlacek: The Economics of Good and Evil BBC Radio 4 (25/01/16)

Questions

  1. How do we define and measure value? Is this always possible? Can you think of some things where we cannot assign prices or numbers to values?
  2. How could economics be relevant Adam and Eve?
  3. Think about the marriage market. How would you apply the model of demand and supply to this most unusual of markets?
  4. What insights does Tomas Sedlacek provide about the ancient business cycle and this might affect our thinking about debt and assets?
  5. Do you think that refugees are of benefit to a country? If you don’t think they are of benefit, does this mean that countries should not accept them?
  6. If we did find out that corruption or crime and terrorism were of benefit to the GDP of a country, would you encourage it? Or would you place the morality issue above the actual figure of contribution?
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