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Articles for the ‘Economics 9e: Ch 10 (8e: Ch 10)’ Category

Finish at 3.30?

There are countless people who work 12-hour days – some get rewarded with huge salaries, while others are paid peanuts. A key question is: are these people happy? With 24 hours in a day for both rich and poor, the more hours we work, the fewer hours we have for leisure time. So, how do we choose the optimal work-life balance?

In economics, we often talk about the concept of diminishing marginal utility and this concept can be applied to working life. For many people, each additional hour worked is tougher or adds less to your utility – we get tired, bored and the job may seem more unpleasant the more hours you work. The typical day of work is around 7-8 hours, but across Sweden, some offices are now closing at 3.30, with a 6-hour working day, but with salaries remaining the same. It’s not a new idea in Sweden and trials of this shorter working day concept have proved successful, with higher reported profits, better service to customers (or patients) and happier, more productive staff.

This shorter working day is not a common occurrence across Sweden or other countries, but it’s a practice that is certainly garnering media attention. Companies will certainly be keen if this means an increase in productivity, but one key concern will be the potential loss of business from companies who do keep working after 3.30 and expect phones to be answered.

It would certainly be an attractive prospect for employees and perhaps is a good way of ‘poaching’ the best staff and hence of boosting worker productivity. With more free time, perhaps an employee’s happiness would also increase, which could have significant effects on a range of variables. The following article considers this shorter working day.

The truth about Sweden’s short working hours BBC News, Maddy Savage (2/11/15)


  1. Explain the concept of diminishing marginal utility with respect to hours worked. Can this be used to explain why overtime often receives higher rates of pay?
  2. Using indifference analysis, explain how a change in the number of hours worked might affect an individual’s happiness.
  3. Why might a shorter working day help to increase a firm’s profits?
  4. If a shorter working day did increase happiness, what other factors might be affected? Does this explain why other countries are so interested in the success of this initiative?
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The best news in the world: but just how good is it?

According to a an article in The Guardian, The best news in the world, by the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, there has been a dramatic fall in global poverty over the past two decades. The number of people in extreme poverty is projected to fall this year to below 10% of global population for the first time. This has been made possible, he claims, by unprecedented economic growth, especially in China.

But this raises three questions.

The first is whether, in the face of falling growth rates, progress in poverty reduction can be maintained.

The second is whether the World Bank is measuring extreme poverty in the right way. It is now defined as living on less than US$1.90 a day in 2011 prices – until a few weeks ago is was $1.25 in 2005 prices. As a result of this rebasing, global poverty falls from 14.5% of the world’s population (or 1011 million people) under the old method to 14.2% (or 987 million) under the new.

The third question is whether countries can improve their data collection so that a truer estimate of poverty can be made.

As far as the first question is concerned, Kim states that to stimulate growth, ‘every dollar of public spending should be scrutinised for impact. Every effort must be made to improve productivity.’ What is more, three things must happen:

Economic growth must lift all people. It must be inclusive.
Investment in human beings is crucial – especially investing in their health and education. Malnourished and poorly educated children will never reach their full potential and countries, in turn, will fall short of their economic and social aspirations.
We must ensure that we can provide safety nets that prevent people from falling back into poverty because of poor health, economic shocks, or natural disasters.

As far as the second question is concerned, there are many who argue that $1.90 per day is far too low a measure of the extreme poverty threshold. It is a purchasing-power parity measure and is equivalent to what $1.90 would buy in the USA in 2011. But, according to the Jason Hickel article linked below, ‘the US Department of Agriculture calculates that in 2011 the very minimum necessary to buy sufficient food was $5.04 per day. And that’s not taking account of other requirements for survival, such as shelter and clothing.’ Peter Edward of Newcastle University, claims Hickell, ‘calculates that in order to achieve normal human life expectancy of just over 70 years, people need roughly 2.7 to 3.9 times the existing poverty line.’

But even if living on below $1.90 a day is defined as extreme poverty, it is important not to see the problem of poverty as having been solved for people who manage to achieve an income slightly above that level.

The third question is how to improve data. There is a paucity and unreliability of data in many developing countries. According to Kim:

Our report adds that data is sparse and inconsistent across the region and globally. Some 29 countries around the world had no poverty data from 2002 to 2011, so they could not track their progress. Another 28 had just one survey that collected poverty data during that time.

This is a situation that must change to improve the world’s ability to tackle poverty. In fact, we can’t accomplish our goal if we do not have enough information to know whether people are actually lifting themselves out of poverty. For that we need to address huge data gaps. We need robust data.

The best news in the world: we have made real progress towards ending extreme poverty The Guardian, Jim Yong Kim (3/11/15)
Could you live on $1.90 a day? That’s the international poverty line The Guardian, Jason Hickel (1/11/15)
Making international trade work for the world’s poorest The Guardian, Jim Yong Kim and Roberto Azevêdo (30/6/15)
Global Poverty Will Hit New Low This Year, World Bank Says Huffington Post, Lydia O’Connor (23/10/15)
The international poverty line has just been raised to $1.90 a day, but global poverty is basically unchanged. How is that even possible? World Bank blogs, Francisco Ferreira, Dean Mitchell Jolliffe and Espen Beer Prydz (4/10/2015)
Why Didn’t the World Bank Make Reducing Inequality One of Its Goals? World Bank blogs, Jaime Saavedra-Chanduvi (23/9/13)
$1.90 Per Day: What Does it Say? Institute for New Economic Thinking, Rahul ​Lahoti and Sanjay Reddy (6/10/15)

Reports and papers
The Role of Trade in Ending Poverty WTO and World Bank (2015)
Poverty in a Rising Africa World Bank (1/10/15)
Ending extreme poverty and sharing prosperity: progress and policies World Bank, Marcio Cruz, James Foster, Bryce Quillin and Philip Schellekens (October 2015)


  1. Explain how the World Bank calculates the extreme poverty line.
  2. Why, if the line has risen from $1.25 per day to $1.90 per day, has the number of people recorded as being in extreme poverty fallen as a result?
  3. Why has the number of people in extreme poverty been rising over the years and yet the percentage of people in extreme poverty been falling?
  4. What policies can be adopted to tackle poverty? Discuss their practicality?
  5. Are reduced poverty and increased economic growth consistent policy goals? (See the blog post Inequality and economic growth.)
  6. What are the inadequacies of using income per day (albeit in ppp terms) as a measure of the degree of poverty? What other indicators of poverty could be used and how suitable would they be?
  7. How could international trade be made to work for the world’s poorest?
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Increased proportion of jobs paying below the living wage (update)

In a recent post, we looked at the rising number of people being paid less than the (voluntary) living wage. The Living Wage Foundation has just published the latest annual update to the living wage. This brings it to £9.40 per hour in London and £8.25 outside London – well above the statutory National Minimum Wage of £6.70 for those aged 21 and over. Even when employers are required to pay at least the so-called National Living Wage (NLW) of £7.20 per hour from April 2016 to those aged 25 and over, the NLW will still be well below the living wage.

Read the earlier post and then answer the questions in the light of the new living wage rates and the new linked articles.

Living wage rate increased by 40p an hour BBC News (2/11/15)
London ‘living wage’ rises to £9.40 an hour Financial Times, Sarah O’Connor (2/11/15)
Living Wage now £8.25 across the UK and £9.40 in London Independent, Jon Stone (2/11/15)
Special report: The Living Wage and its impact on workers and businesses Manchester Evening News, Adam Jupp (2/11/15)
Living Wage: Number Of Employers Paying It Doubles In A Year, While Six Million Workers Still Go Without Huffington Post, Jack Sommers (2/11/15)
Living wage rate increases announced as campaigners call for more businesses to go beyond legal minimums Living Wage Foundation (30/10/15)

Data and Reports
Estimates of employee jobs paid less than the living wage in London and other parts of the UK ONS (12/10/15)
Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings ONS
Living wage rates: the calculation Living Wage Foundation
National Minimum Wage rates GOV.UK


  1. By referring to the Living Wage Foundation site, explain how the living wage is calculated. If you were defining the living wage, would you define it in this way? Explain.
  2. Distinguish between low pay and poverty. Does pay give a good indication of poverty?
  3. For what reasons has the number of jobs paying below the living wage increased? Does marginal productivty theory provide an explanation?
  4. Is it best to base statutory minimum wages on median earnings, mean earnings or the cost of living? Explain.
  5. If more 6 million jobs pay below the living wage, does this mean that 6 million people, more than 6 million people or fewer than 6 million people receive average hourly wages below the living wage? Explain.
  6. For what reasons might firms volunteer to pay the living wage to their employees? Is doing so consistent with the aim of profit maximisation?
  7. Why are more women than men paid wage rates below the living wage?
  8. Why does the proportion of people being paid the living wage vary from one part of the UK to another? Is this likely to be purely a reflection of differences in the cost of living?
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A ‘comfortable’ position for Osborne?

One of the most controversial policy changes being made by the Conservative government relates to the tax credit system. For many years, the tax and benefits system in the UK has come in for significant criticism. It has been described as overly complex, a system that doesn’t reward work and yet a system that doesn’t provide sufficient incentives to move off benefits and into work.

The changes that the government is proposing are wide-ranging and focused in part on reducing the deficit. With changes to tax thresholds, the introduction of the National Living Wage (NLW) and changes to the thresholds at which tax credits are available, the Treasury suggests that £4.5 billion will be saved per year. It also says that most working families will be made better off. However, the IFS suggests that some families could lose up to £1000 per year following the changes.

In addition to these changes, the amount of tax-free childcare is also set to increase, helping those households with young children

Tax credits are designed to help low income families and working tax credit, in particular, is aimed to encourage people to move into work. A key change to this tax credit will see the threshold at which the recipient’s payments of this benefit begin to decline move from £6420 to £3850. The withdrawal rate – the rate at which the benefit is withdrawn – will also be increased.

The idea is that this will help to target the benefit more tightly – make it more vertically efficient. But, the concern is that this will also mean that low-income working households are worse off, despite the introduction in April 2016 of the National Living Wage. The Chancellor suggests that anyone who is working full time will be better off following these changes and that as such the changes will actively encourage work and lead to an increase in the supply of labour. This, the government argues, is a good policy for the working population, tax payers and for the wider economy.

This policy will remain controversial, with changes set to come in from 2016 and then 2017. It is certainly difficult to assess the impact of these changes on households and part of that stems from the complexities of the existing system, which mean that some households are eligible for some benefits, whereas others are not.

The final impact, if such changes are approved, will only be known once the tax credit changes are implemented. The House of Lords will vote on whether to ‘kill’ the tax credit cuts and Mr. Osborne, despite some concerns from Conservative back-benchers has said he is ‘comfortable’ with the policy and that the House of Lords should respect the views of the other house. Until we see the results of the vote and, even then, the impact of the changes on households, both sides will continue to produce data and estimates in support of their views.

Tax credit changes: who will be the winners and losers? BBC News, Brian Milligan (20/10/14)
Tax credit cuts: Osborne ‘comfortable’ with plan despite pressure from fellow Tories The Guardian, Rowena Mason and Heather Stewart (22/10/15)
George Osborne insists he signalled tax credit cuts before the election Independent, Jon Stone (22/10/15)
George Osborne: I am “comfortable” with tax credit cuts The Telegraph, Steven Swinford (22/10/15)
Commons Speaker warns Lords not to block tax credit cuts The Guardian, Patrick Wintour (21/10/15)
Tax credits: George Osborne ‘comfortable’ with ‘judgement call’ BBC News (22/10/15)
Osborne stands firm despite tax credits unease Financial Times, George Parker and Ferdinando Giugliano (22/10/15)
Austerity was a political choice. Now it’s starting to look like a bad one The Guardian. Heather Stewart (25/10/15)


  1. What are tax credits?
  2. How do they aim to affect the supply of labour?
  3. Using indifference analysis, explain how the income and substitution effects will work, following a change to tax thresholds.
  4. What is meant by vertical efficiency and the targeting of benefits?
  5. Why would the changes to tax credits help those in full-time work more than those in part-time work?
  6. What are the main arguments for and against the changes to tax credits?
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Increased proportion of jobs paying below the living wage

In 2014, 19% of jobs in London and 23% of jobs outside London paid less than the living wage. This is according to figures just published by the Office for National Statistics. The figures compare with 17% and 22% respectively in 2013. The problem is that while the living wage rises with the cost of living, median wages have not kept pace with prices: in other words, in real terms median wages have fallen.

The living wage has been calculated annually since 2003 for London by the London Mayor’s Office and since 2011 for the rest of the UK by the Centre for Research in Social Policy (CRSP) at Loughborough University for the Living Wage Foundation.

According to the London Mayor’s Office:

The London Living Wage is an hourly rate of pay, calculated according to a combination of the costs of living in London and 60% of the median wage. This gives the wage rate needed to give a worker in London enough to provide their family with the essentials of life, including a cushion against unforeseen events. Unlike the compulsory national minimum wage, the London Living Wage is a voluntary commitment made by employers, who can become accredited with the Living Wage Foundation.

As the Chart 1 illustrates, the living wage is above the National Minimum Wage. Since November 2014, the living wage in London has been £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the UK. It is due to be uprated at the beginning of November 2015. From 1 October 2014 to 30 September 2015, the National Minimum Wage (for people aged 21 and over) was £6.50. It rose to £6.70 on 1 October 2015.

Note that the (voluntary) living wage is different from the compulsory ‘National Living Wage’ announced by the Chancellor in his July 2015 Budget, which will come into effect in April 2016 as a top-up to the National Minimum Wage (NLW) for those aged 25 and over. This will be only 50p above the National Minimum Wage and thus considerably below the living wage, although the Chancellor has pledged to increase the NLW to 60% of median wage rates for those aged 25 and over by 2020. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, “the NLW will rise from £7.20 in April 2016 (equivalent to around 55 per cent of estimated median hourly earnings for employees aged 25 and over) to around £9.35 in April 2020 (reaching 60 per cent of expected median hourly earnings for that group) in steps that imply the rise relative to median hourly earnings is a straight line.”

The percentage of people being paid below the living wage varies by occupation, location of jobs (see map in Chart 2 – click to enlarge), sex and age and whether the job is full or part time. For example, in accommodation and food services, in retail and in sales and customer services, more than half the jobs paid less than the living wage. A greater percentage of women than men were paid below the living wage (29% and 18% respectively outside London). As far as young people are concerned, 48% of 18–24 year olds were paid less than the living wage in London and 58% outside London (see Chart 3). In London 45% of part-time jobs paid less than the living wage; in the rest of the UK the figure was 43%.

As The Guardian article linked below reports:

A spokesman for the Living Wage Foundation, which sets the figure each year, said despite ‘significant progress’ in many sectors, more jobs than ever were below the voluntary rates.

“These figures demonstrate that while the economy may be recovering as a whole, there is a real problem with ensuring everyone benefits, and low pay is still prevalent in Britain today,” he said.

The following articles look at the evidence presented by the ONS and examine the incidence of low pay in the UK.

More jobs paying below living wage BBC News (12/10/15)
A fifth of UK jobs pay less than living wage – ONS Financial Times (12/10/15)
The proportion of workers not being paid the living wage is rising Independent, Jon Stone (12/10/15)
Almost 30 per cent of women are paid below the living wage Independent, Jon Stone (12/10/15)
More UK jobs fail to pay a living wage The Guardian, Hilary Osborne and Damien Gayle (12/10/15)
Six million jobs pay below the living wage Full Fact, Laura O’Brien (19/10/15)

Data and Reports
Estimates of employee jobs paid less than the living wage in London and other parts of the UK ONS (12/10/15)
Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings ONS
Living wage rates: the calculation Living Wage Foundation
National Minimum Wage rates GOV.UK


  1. By referring to the Living Wage Foundation site, explain how the living wage is calculated. If you were defining the living wage, would you define it in this way? Explain.
  2. Distinguish between low pay and poverty. Does pay give a good indication of poverty?
  3. For what reasons has the number of jobs paying below the living wage increased? Does marginal productivty theory provide an explanation?
  4. Is it best to base statutory minimum wages on median earnings, mean earnings or the cost of living? Explain.
  5. If 6 million jobs pay below the living wage, does this mean that 6 million people, more than 6 million people or fewer than 6 million people receive average hourly wages below the living wage? Explain.
  6. For what reasons might firms volunteer to pay the living wage to their employees? Is doing so consistent with the aim of profit maximisation?
  7. Why are more women than men paid wage rates below the living wage?
  8. Why does the proportion of people being paid the living wage vary from one part of the UK to another? Is this likely to be purely a reflection of differences in the cost of living?
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Stiglitz, Hilton and Gessen

You may be used to these types of blogs by now … On my commute to work on the 18th May, I listened to Start the Week on BBC radio 4 and happened upon a fascinating discussion on inequality.

Of those discussing the issue, one certainly needs no introduction: Joseph Stiglitz, a prominent economist, author and commentator on economics, in particular on inequality. He was joined by Steve Hilton, who has worked for David Cameron for many years in providing advice on a range of issues, including inequality and strategy and has written on existing institutions and their effectiveness. The final panellist was Masha Gessen, who has written extensively on Russia and in particular on the journey of the infamous Boston Bomber.

Though the discussion covers a variety of areas relevant to economics, one key area that is addressed is inequality and the policies that are being used to address the causes and the symptoms. You can access the 45-minute discussion at the link below.

Joseph Stiglitz and Steve Hilton on inequality BBC Radio 4 (18/5/15)


  1. How would you measure inequality?
  2. Why is it important to distinguish between the causes and symptoms of poverty when designing government policy?
  3. To what extent do you believe that education is an essential requirement for growth and development?
  4. Why has inequality grown in some of the most developed nations?
  5. How is it possible that inequality in the developed world has grown, while global inequality has fallen?
  6. Why does the report argue that the reforms they suggest would help boost growth?
  7. Do you agree that existing institutions are not suitable for society today?
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The North Sea

The Budget takes place on 17th March 2015 and as always there is much speculation as to what it will and won’t include. One industry that is eagerly awaiting Osborne’s Budget is the North Sea oil and gas industry. Tax cuts and rises may well play a key role in the Budget, but this is one sector where a possibly large tax cut is expected.

The tax paid by this industry is very high compared to others, potentially reaching 80%. The tax rate was increased some years ago and it is now thought that it may come back down. One key factor is oil prices: with such huge decreases in the price of oil relative to when the tax on the industry was increased, the industry is now asking for these tax rises to be reversed. The industry has suggested that a 10% tax cut is a possibility and this would make a big difference for the industry.

Danny Alexander, the chief secretary to the Treasury, said:

“We’ve been very clear that the direction of travel for tax in the North Sea needs to be downwards … And that needs to be even stronger given the low oil price we see at the moment. We want people to have the confidence to invest for the long term future of the North Sea … And so George Osborne and I have been listening very carefully to what the industry has been saying …People will have to wait and see what we say on Wednesday [Budget day], but I hope very much that it will give the North Sea that confidence that we all want to see for one of Britain’s most important industries.”

We may also see further changes for this industry, such as allowances to encourage further investment, as costs of investment are extremely high and this has led to many years of under-investment. These changes are hoped to regenerate this industry. Any change in tax allowances or tax rates will have an impact on tax revenue and it is not necessarily the case that an increase in tax will lead to a rise in revenue or a fall in revenue. The relationship between tax rates and tax revenues can be very complex. The following articles consider this particular issue and what the Budget will do for this industry.

North sea oil groups set for tax breaks in budget Financial Times, Christopher Adams and George Parker (16/3/15)
What does the Budget 2015 mean for the North sea oil industry? The Telegraph, Andrew Critchlow (16/3/15)
Britain needs oil tax cuts to attract North Sea Investment Reuters, Karolin Schaps and Claire Milhench (16/3/15)
Treasury paves way for major tax cut for North sea BBC News, Kamal Ahmed (16/3/15)
Home of Brent Oil benchmark seeks help as investment slumps Bloomberg, Firat Kayakiran (17/3/15)


  1. If a tax is imposed on an industry, what type of effect might this have on costs of production? Use a diagram to support your answer.
  2. In the BBC News article, North Sea Oil is referred to as a cash cow. What does this mean?
  3. If taxes are cut for the North Sea Oil industry, how will this affect its costs and what might it doe for investment?
  4. What will happen to tax revenues if taxes are cut? Use the Laffer curve to help your answer.
  5. How has the North Sea Oil industry been affected by falling oil prices? Does this offer a justification for a tax cut?
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More and more zeros

In a post last August we looked at the rising number of workers employed on ‘zero-hours’ contracts. These are contracts where there are no guaranteed minimum hours. Such contracts give employers the flexibility to employ workers as much or as little as suits the business. Sometimes it benefits workers, who might be given the flexibility to request the hours that suit them, but usually workers simply have to take the hours on offer.

Latest figures published by the Office for National Statistics show that zero-hours contracts are on the increase. In 2014 quarter 4, 697,000 workers were recorded as being on zero-hours contracts. This represents 2.3% of people in employment. Ten years ago (2004, Q4) the figures were 108,000 or 0.4%: see chart. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

Around one third of the 697,000 people on zero-hours contracts wanted more work if they could get it and most wanted it in their current job rather than having to move jobs. These people wanting more work can be classed as underemployed. They also include those not on a zero-hours contract who would like to work more if they could.

According to the ONS:

‘People on zero-hours contracts are more likely to be women, in full-time education or in young or older age groups when compared with other people in employment. On average, someone on a zero-hours contract usually works 25 hours a week.’ (See section 4 of the report for more details.)

As we saw in the earlier post, many public- and private-sector employers use such contracts, including many small and medium-sized enterprises and many well-known large companies, such as Sports Direct, Amazon, JD Wetherspoon and Cineworld. It gives them the flexibility to adjust the hours they employ people. It allows them to keep people in employment when demand is low. It also makes them more willing to take on staff when demand rises, as it removes the fear of being over-staffed if demand then falls back.

As we also saw, zero-hours contracts are not the only form of flexible working. Other examples include: ‘self-employed’ workers, contracted separately for each job they do for a company; people paid largely or wholly on commission; on-call working; part-time working, where the hours are specified in advance, but where these are periodically re-negotiated; overtime; people producing a product or service for a company (perhaps at home), where the company varies the amount paid per unit according to market conditions.

The extent of zero-hours contracts varies dramatically from one sector of the economy to another. Only 0.6% of workers in the Information, Finance and Professional sectors were on zero-hours contracts in 2014 Q4, whereas 10% in the Accommodation and Food sectors were.

The flexibility that such contracts give employers may make them more willing to keep on workers when demand is low – they can reduce workers’ hours rather than laying them off. It also may make them more willing to take on workers (or increase their hours) when demand is expanding, not having to worry about being over staffed later on.

However, many workers on such contracts find it hard to budget when their hours are not guaranteed and can vary significantly from week to week.

lmost 700,000 people in UK have zero-hours contract as main job The Guardian, Phillip Inman (25/2/15)
UK firms use 1.8m zero-hours contracts, says ONS BBC News (25/1/15)
Zero-hours contracts jump in UK Financial Times, Emily Cadman (25/2/15)
Zero-hours contracts ‘disturbingly’ hit 1.8 million in 2014 International Business Times, Ian Silvera (25/2/15)
Zero-hours contracts a reality for almost 700,000 UK workers, ONS figures show Independent, Antonia Molloy (25/1/15)

Contracts with No Guaranteed Hours, Zero Hour Contracts, 2014 ONS Release (25/1/15)
Supplementary LFS data on zero hours contracts – October to December 2014 ONS dataset (25/2/15)
Analysis of Employee Contracts that do not Guarantee a Minimum Number of Hours ONS Report (25/1/15)


  1. Distinguish between open unemployment, disguised unemployment and underemployment?
  2. Distinguish between functional, numerical and financial flexibility? Which type or types of flexibility do zero-hours contracts give the firm?
  3. In a ‘flexible’ labour market, what forms can that flexibility take?
  4. Why does the Accommodation and Food sector have a relatively high proportion of people employed on zero-hours contracts?
  5. What are the benefits and costs to employers of using zero-hours contracts?
  6. If a company introduces a system of zero-hours contracts, is this in accordance with the marginal productivity theory of profit maximisation from employment?
  7. What are the benefits and costs to employees of working on zero-hours contracts?
  8. Why has the use of zero-hours contracts risen so rapidly?
  9. Using the ONS data, find out how the use of zero-hours contracts varies by occupation and explain why.
  10. Identify what forms of flexible contracts are used for staff in your university or educational establishment. Do they benefit (a) staff; (b) students?
  11. Consider the arguments for and against (a) banning and (b) regulating zero-hours contracts.
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Keeping it in the family

An article in the February 2015 issue of the Economic Journal, ‘Intergenerational Wealth Mobility in England, 1858–2012: Surnames and Social Mobility’ by Gregory Clark and Neil Cummins, looks at the persistence of wealth within British families across the generations. The article shows, ‘using rare surnames to track families, that wealth is much more persistent than standard one-generation estimates would suggest. There is still a significant correlation between the wealth of families five generations apart’.

It concludes that down the generations the main determinant of wealth is inheritance, despite all efforts to improve social mobility. The intergenerational elasticity of wealth inheritance is found to be 0.70–0.75 throughout the years 1858–2012. In other words, people’s wealth on average will be between 70% and 75% of that of their parents. Thus a large proportion of each person’s wealth depends on the wealth of their parents and a relatively small amount depends on other factors. As Clark and Cummins conclude:

The implications of this model are that wealth will be surprisingly persistent in families across multiple generations. This is what allows rich rare surnames to still remain rich on average even four generations later. It also implies that wealth differences between racial, religious and ethnic groups will also be highly persistent across generations.

So it is just inherited wealth in terms of money or property that gets passed from generation to generation? Or are their other factors, such as education, social class and social contacts, that cause people’s wealth to depend heavily on that of their parents? Clark and Cummins consider this question.

What is the latent variable that underlies the inheritance of wealth? Evidence in other work we have done on the inheritance of education status in England suggests that families can be conceived of as having an underlying social competence, which is highly persistent across generations. This social competence generates their outcomes on all dimensions of social status but with random components on each one. In this case, social mobility between generations measured on any single aspect of status will be much greater than mobility on a more general ranking of families’ overall social status, that averages earnings, wealth, occupation, education, health and longevity.

So does this mean that attempts to create greater social mobility and greater equality are futile? The authors maintain that although it is difficult to achieve greater social mobility, income and wealth can nevertheless be redistributed through the tax and benefits system.

News articles
Inheritance: how Britain’s wealthy still keep it in the family The Observer, Jamie Doward (1/2/15)
How the rich stay rich: social status is more inheritable than height ZME Science (25/11/14)
This is the proof that the 1% have been running the show for 800 years Quartz (23/11/14)

Journal article
Intergenerational Wealth Mobility in England, 1858–2012: Surnames and Social Mobility The Economic Journal, Gregory Clark and Neil Cummins (February 2015) (To read this article you will need to log in via Shibboleth using your university username and password.)


  1. What would be the implication of an intergenerational wealth elasticity (a) of 1; (b) of 0; (c) >1; (d) <0?
  2. For what reasons might there be a high intergenerational wealth elasticity?
  3. What is the likely relationship between the intergenerational distribution of wealth and the intergenerational distribution of income?
  4. What difficulties are there is using rare surnames as a means of establishing the intergenerational distribution of wealth?
  5. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of (a) a much higher rate of inheritance tax (in the UK it’s currently 40% on the value of a person’s estate above £325,000 when they die); (b) capping the amount that can be left to any individual from an estate, with anything above this taxed at 100%; (c) capping the total amount that can be left (other than to charity), with the rest taxed at 100%.
  6. What measures could be adopted to increase social mobility?
  7. What problems would arise from using the tax and benefit system to reduce inequality? (In 2012/13 the gini coefficient of original income was 0.52 and that of both gross income (i.e. income after benefits but before tax) and post-tax-and-benefit income in the UK was 0.37: see Table 27 of The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, 2012/13.)
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The rich discuss poverty

The World Economic Forum has been holding its annual meeting in the up-market Swiss ski resort of Davos. Many of the world’s richest and most powerful people attend these meetings, including political leaders, business leaders and representatives of various interest groups.

This year, one of the major topics has been the growth in inequality across the globe and how to reverse it. According to a report by Oxfam, Wealth: Having it all and wanting more:

The richest 1 per cent have seen their share of global wealth increase from 44 per cent in 2009 to 48 per cent in 2014 and at this rate will be more than 50 per cent in 2016. Members of this global elite had an average wealth of $2.7m per adult in 2014.

Of the remaining 52 per cent of global wealth, almost all (46 per cent) is owned by the rest of the richest fifth of the world’s population. The other 80 per cent share just 5.5 per cent and had an average wealth of $3851 per adult – that’s 1/700th of the average wealth of the 1 per cent.

Currently, the richest 85 people in the world have the same amount of wealth as the poorest 50% of the world’s population. It might seem odd that those with the wealth are talking about the problem of inequality. Indeed, some of those 85 richest people were at the conference: a conference that boasts extremely luxurious conditions. What is more, many delegates flew into the conference in private jets (at least 850 jets) to discuss not just poverty but also climate change!

Yet if the problem of global inequality is to be tackled, much of the power to do so lies in the hands of these rich and powerful people. They are largely the ones who will have to implement policies that will help to raise living standards of the poor.

But why should they want to? Part of the reason is a genuine concern to address the issues of increasingly divided societies. But part is the growing evidence that greater inequality reduces economic growth by reducing the development of skills of the lower income groups and reducing social mobility. We discussed this topic in the blog, Inequality and economic growth.

So what policies could be adopted to tackle the problem. Oxfam identifies a seven-point plan:

Clamp down on tax dodging by corporations and rich individuals;
Invest in universal, free public services such as health and education;
Share the tax burden fairly, shifting taxation from labour and consumption towards capital and wealth;
Introduce minimum wages and move towards a living wage for all workers;
Ensure adequate safety-nets for the poorest, including a minimum income guarantee;
Introduce equal pay legislation and promote economic policies to give women a fair deal;
Agree a global goal to tackle inequality.

But how realistic are these policies? Is it really in the interests of governments to reduce inequality? Indeed, some of the policies that have been adopted since 2008, such as bailing out the banks and quantitative easing, have had the effect of worsening inequality. QE drives up asset prices, particularly bond, share and property prices. This has provided a windfall to the rich: the more of such assets you own, the greater the absolute gain.

The following videos and articles look at the problem of growing inequality and how realistic it is to expect leaders to do anything significant about it.

Videos and podcasts
Income inequality is ‘brake on growth’, Oxfam chief warns Davos France 24, Winnie Byanyima (22/1/15)
Davos dilemma: Can the 1% cure income inequality? Yahoo Finance, Lizzie O’Leary and Shawna Ohm (21/1/15)
Richest 1% ‘Will Own Half The World’s Wealth By 2016′ ITN on YouTube, Sarah Kerr (19/1/15)
The Price of Inequality BBC Radio 4, Robert Peston (3/2/15 and 10/2/15)

Richest 1% will own more than all the rest by 2016 Oxfam blogs, Jon Slater (19/1/15)
Global tax system can cut inequality The Scotsman, Jamie Livingstone (23/1/15)
A new framework for a new age Financial Times, Tony Elumelu (23/1/15)
The global elite in Davos must give the world a pay rise New Statesman, Frances O’Grady (22/1/15)
New Oxfam report says half of global wealth held by the 1% The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Ed Pilkington (19/1/15)
Davos is starting to get it – inequality is the root cause of stagnation The Guardian, Larry Elliott (25/1/15)
Inequality isn’t inevitable, it’s engineered. That’s how the 1% have taken over The Guardian, Suzanne Moore (19/1/15)
Why extreme inequality hurts the rich BBC News, Robert Peston (19/1/15)
Eurozone stimulus ‘reinforces inequality’, warns Soros BBC News, Joe Miller (22/1/15)
Hot topic for the 1 percent at Davos: Inequality CNBC, Lawrence Delevingne (21/1/15)
Global inequality: The wrong yardstick The Economist (24/1/15)
A Richer World (a compendium of articles) BBC News (27/1/15)

OECD Income Distribution Database: Gini, poverty, income, Methods and Concepts OECD
The effects of taxes and benefits on household income ONS


  1. Why has inequality increased in most countries in recent years?
  2. For what reasons might it be difficult to measure the distribution of wealth?
  3. Which gives a better indication of differences in living standards: the distribution of wealth or the distribution of income?
  4. Discuss the benefits and costs of using the tax system to redistribute (a) income and (b) wealth from rich to poor
  5. Go through each of the seven policies advocated by Oxfam and consider how practical they are and what possible objections to them might be raised by political leaders.
  6. Why is tax avoidance/tax evasion by multinational companies difficult to tackle?
  7. Does universal access to education provide the key to reducing income inequality within and between countries?
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