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Posts Tagged ‘equity’

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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An historic agreement at the Paris climate change conference

After two weeks of negotiations between the 195 countries attending the COP21 climate change conference in Paris, a deal has been reached on tackling climate change. Although the deal still has to be ratified by countries, this is a major step forward in limiting global warming. Before it can formally come into force, it must have been ratified by at least 55 countries, accounting for at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The deal goes much further than previous agreements and includes the following:

  A limit on the increase in global temperatures to ‘well below’ 2°C above pre-industrial levels and efforts pursued to limit it to 1.5°C.
A recognition that the pledges already made ahead of the conference by 186 countries and incorporated into the agreement are insufficient and will only limit global temperature rise to 2.7°C at best.
Countries to update their emissions reductions commitments every five years – the first being in 2020. Such revised commitments should then be legally binding.
A global ‘stocktake’ in 2023, and every five years thereafter, to monitor countries’ progress in meeting their commitments and to encourage them to make deeper cuts in emissions to reach the 1.5°C goal. This requires a process of measurement and verification of countries’ emissions.
To reach a peak in greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible and then to begin reducing them and to achieve a balance between sources and sinks of greenhouse gases (i.e. zero net emissions) in the second half of this century.
Developed countries to provide the poorest developing countries with $100bn per year by 2020 to help them reduce emissions. This was agreed in Copenhagen, but will now be continued from 2020 to 2025, and by 2025 a new goal above $100bn per year will be agreed.
The development of market mechanisms that would award tradable credits for green projects and emissions reductions.
A recognition that the ‘loss and damage’ associated with climate-related disasters can be serious for many vulnerable developing countries (such as low-lying island states) and that this may require compensation. However, there is no legal liability on developed countries to provide such compensation.

Perhaps the major achievement at the conference was a universal recognition that the problem of global warming is serious and that action needs to be taken. Mutual self interest was the driving force in reaching the agreement, and although it is less binding on countries than many would have liked, it does mark a significant step forward in tackling climate change.

But why did the conference not go further? Why, if there was general agreement that global warming should be tackled and that global temperature rise should ideally be capped at 1.5°C, was there not a binding agreement on each country to apply this cap?

There are two reasons.

First, it is very difficult to predict the exact relationship, including its timing, between emissions and global temperature rise. Even if you could make limits to emissions binding, you could not make global temperature rise binding.

Second, even if there is general agreement about how much emissions should be reduced, there is no general agreement on the distribution of these reductions. Many countries want to do less themselves and others to do more. More specifically, poor countries want rich countries to do all the cutting while many continue to build more coal-fired power stations to provide the electricity to power economic development. The rich countries want the developing countries, especially the larger ones, such as China, India and Brazil to reduce their emissions, or at least the growth in their emissions.

Then there is the difference between what countries vaguely pledge at a global conference and what they actually do domestically. Many developed countries are keen to take advantage of currently cheap fossil fuels to power economic growth. They are also still investing in alternative sources of fossil fuels, such as through fracking.

As we said in the previous blog, game theory can shed some useful insights into the nature and outcome of climate negotiations. ‘The global optimum may be for a strong agreement, binding on all countries. The Nash equilibrium, however, may be a situation where countries push for their own interests at the expense of others, with the final agreement being much more minimalistic.’

‘Minimalistic’ may be too strong a description of the outcomes of the Paris conference. But they could have been stronger. Nevertheless, judged by the outcomes of previous climate conferences, the deal could still be described as ‘historic’.

Videos
With landmark climate accord, world marks turn from fossil fuels Reuters (13/12/15)
COP21 climate change summit reaches deal in Paris BBC News (13/12/15)
COP21: Paris climate deal is ‘best chance to save planet’ BBC News (13/12/15)
COP21: Climate change deal’s winners and losers BBC News, Matt McGrath (13/12/15)
The Five Key Decisions Made in the UN Climate Deal in Paris Bloomberg, video: Nathaniel Bullard; article: Ewa Krukowska and Alex Morales (12/12/15)
The key factors in getting a deal in Paris BBC News on YouTube, Tom Burke (13/12/15)

Articles
COP21 agreement: All you need to know about Paris climate change deal Hindustan Times, Chetan Chauhan (13/12/15)
COP21: Paris agreement formally adopted Financial Times, Pilita Clark and Michael Stothard (12/12/15)
Let’s hail the Paris climate change agreement and get to work Financial Times, Jeffrey Sachs (12/12/15)
COP21: Public-private collaboration key to climate targets Financial Times, Nicholas Stern (13/12/15)
Paris climate change agreement: the deal at a glance The Telegraph, Emily Gosden (12/12/15)
Climate Accord Is a Healing Step, if Not a Cure New York Times, Justin Gillis (12/12/15)
Paris Agreement Ushers in End of the Fossil Fuel Era Slate, Eric Holthaus (12/12/15)
Paris Agreement: the reaction Business Green, James Murray and Jessica Shankleman (12/12/15)
World’s First Global Deal to Combat Climate Change Adopted in Paris Scientific American, David Biello (12/12/15)
COP21: Paris climate deal ‘our best chance to save the planet’, says Obama Independent, Tom Bawden (13/12/15)
Grand promises of Paris climate deal undermined by squalid retrenchments The Guardian, George Monbiot (12/12/15)
Paris Agreement on climate change: the good, the bad, and the ugly The Conversation, Henrik Selin and Adil Najam (14/12/15)
COP21: James Hansen, the father of climate change awareness, claims Paris agreement is a ‘fraud’ Independent, Caroline Mortimer (14/12/15)
Paris climate agreement: More hot air won’t save us from oblivion Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Hartcher (15/12/15)

Draft Agreement
Adoption of the Paris Agreement United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (12/12/15)

Questions

  1. Could the market ever lead to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions? Explain.
  2. What are the main strengths and weaknesses of the Paris agreement?
  3. Is it in rich countries’ interests to help poorer countries to achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions?
  4. How might countries reduce the production of fossil fuels? Are they likely to want to do this? Explain.
  5. Is a ‘cap and trade’ (tradable permits) system (a) an effective means of reducing emissions; (b) an efficient system?
  6. What is the best way of financing investment in renewable energy?
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A changing climate for a deal?

The Paris Climate Change Conference (COP21) is under way. At the opening on November 30, 150 Heads of State gathered in Paris, most of whom addressed the conference. With representatives from 195 countries and observers from a range of organisations, the conference is set to last until 11 December. Optimism is relatively high that a legally binding and universal agreement will be reached, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C – what is generally regarded as a ‘safe’ limit.

But although it is hoped that a successor to the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 will be put in place, there are many problems in getting so many countries to agree. They may all wish to reduce global warming, but there is disagreement on how it should be achieved and how the burden should be shared between countries.

There are several difficult economic issues in the negotiations. The first is the size and impact of the external costs of emissions. When a country burns fossil fuels, the benefits are almost entirely confined to residents of that county. However, the environmental costs are largely external to that country and only a relatively small fraction is borne by that country and hardly at all by the polluters themselves, unless there is a carbon tax or other form or penalty in place. The problem is that the atmosphere is a common resource and without collective action – national or international – it will be overused.

The second problem is one of distribution. Politicians may agree in principle that a solution is necessary which is equitable between nations, but there is considerable disagreement on what is meant by ‘equitable’ in this context. As the third Guardian article below puts it:

The most important hurdle could be over whether industrialised countries like the US, UK and Japan, which have contributed the most to the historical build-up of emissions, should be obliged to cut more than developing countries. India, on behalf of many poor countries, will argue that there must be “differentiation” between rich and poor; but the US wants targets that are applicable to all. A collision is inevitable.

A third problem is that of uncertainty. Although there is general agreement among scientists that human action is contributing to global warming, there is less agreement on the precise magnitude of the causal relationships. There is also uncertainty over the likely effects of specific emissions reductions. This uncertainty can then be used by governments which are unwilling to commit too much to emissions reductions.

A fourth difficulty arises from the intertemporal distribution of costs and benefits of emissions reductions. The costs are born immediately action is taken. Carbon taxes or charges, or subsidies to renewables, or caps on emissions, all involve higher energy prices and/or higher taxes. The flows of benefits (or lower costs), however, of reduced emissions are not likely to be fully experienced for a very long time. But governments, whether democratic or dictatorships, tend to have a relatively short time horizon, governed by the electoral cycle or the likelihood of staying in power. True, governments may not be solely concerned with power and many politicians may have genuine desires to tackle climate change, but their political survival is still likely to be a major determinant of their actions.

Of course, if there is strong public opinion in favour of action to reduce emissions, governments are likely to respond to this. Indeed, all the expressions of public support for action ahead of the conference from all around the world, do give some hope for a strong agreement at the Paris conference. Nevertheless, there is still widespread scepticism in many countries over the relationship between human action and climate change, and many argue that the costs of policies to tackle climate change exceed the benefits.

Game theory can shed some insights into the difficulties ahead for the negotiators. The global optimum may be for a strong agreement, binding on all countries. The Nash equilibrium, however, may be a situation where countries push for their own interests at the expense of others, with the final agreement being much more minimalistic.

There do, however, seem to be more reasons to be cheerful at this summit that at previous ones. But negotiations are likely to be hard and protracted over the coming days.

Videos and webcasts
Paris Climate Conference: The Big Picture Wall Street Journal on YouTube, Jason Bellini (30/11/15)
Why is the Paris UN climate summit important? PwC, Leo Johnson (14/10/15)
Paris climate change summit 2015: ‘the near impossible task’ Channel 4 News on YouTube, Tom Clarke (30/11/15)
COP21: Rallies mark start of Paris climate summit BBC News, David Shukman (29/11/15)
With climate at ‘breaking point’, leaders urge breakthrough in Paris Reuters, Bruce Wallace and Alister Doyle (1/12/15)
COP21: Paris conference could be climate turning point, says Obama BBC News (30/11/15)
Leaders meet to reach new agreement on climate change BBC News, David Shukman (30/11/15)
Poll: Growing Doubts Over Climate Change Causes Sky News, Thomas Moore (30/11/15)
Paris climate protesters banned but 10,000 shoes remain The Guardian (29/11/15)

Articles
COP-21 climate deal in Paris spells end of the fossil era The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (29/11/15)
Is there an economic case for tackling climate change? BBC News, Andrew Walker (28/11/15)
World Leaders in Paris Vow to Overcome Divisions on Climate Change Wall Street Journal, William Horobin and William Mauldin (30/11/15)
Experts discuss how to build a carbon-free energy industry The Guardian, Tim Smedley (25/11/15)
Africa could lead world on green energy, says IEA head The Guardian, Anna Leach (11/11/15)
Climate change talks: five reasons to be cheerful or fearful The Guardian, John Vidal (30/11/15)
The Paris climate change summit, explained in 4 charts The Washington Post, Philip Bump (30/11/15)
Why This Goal To Curb Climate Change ‘Is Not Ideal’ Huffington Post, Jacqueline Howard (30/11/15)
Paris climate change talks: What the different groups attending expect from these crucial meetings Independent, Tom Bawden (29/11/15)
UN Climate Change Conference: World Leaders Call For Price On CO2 Emissions Despite Uphill Battle At Paris Summit International Business Times, Maria Gallucci (30/11/15)
World Bank, six nations call for a price on carbon SBS (Australia) (1/12/15)
Uruguay makes dramatic shift to nearly 95% electricity from clean energy The Guardian, Jonathan Watts (3/12/15)

Questions

  1. Why is COP21 considered to be so significant?
  2. For what reasons is there hope for a binding agreement to limit global warming to 2°C?
  3. What would be the effect on global warming of the commitments made by more than 180 countries prior to the conference?
  4. What market failings contribute towards the problem of global warming?
  5. Why, if all countries want to achieve a binding agreement at the Paris conference, is it likely to be so difficult to achieve?
  6. Explain what is meant by a ‘Nash equilibrium’ and how the concept is relevant to international negotiations.
  7. Why is China investing heavily in solar power?
  8. Could Africa lead the world in green energy?
  9. Is a ‘cap and trade’ (tradable permits) system (a) an effective means of reducing emissions; (b) an efficient system?
  10. What is the best way of financing investment in renewable energy?
  11. How does the structure/order of the Paris conference differ from previous COPs? Is such a structure more likely to achieve substantial results?
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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.

Articles
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)

Data
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)

Questions

  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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The labour cost

In the UK, we take it for granted that if you need to see a doctor, you go and give little, if any thought, to the cost. It may be petrol costs, time off work or the cost of a prescription, but beyond that, receiving treatment is free at the point of use. Funded through a progressive tax system, the NHS is seen as being one of the more equitable health care systems.

When a mother gives birth, the main thing she will have to worry about is the labour – and not whether to have certain painkillers or stay an extra night, because of the cost.

The International Federation of Health Plans (IFHP) looked at data on the cost of giving birth, based on insurance company payments. For someone living in the UK, the figures make for quite astonishing reading. In the USA, a normal delivery will cost $10,000, while a caesarean totals $15,000, meaning that giving birth in the USA is the most expensive place in the world. The article linked below takes the case of Mari Roberts, whose total delivery bill came to over $100,000. The insurance did cover it, but that’s not always the case. Medical bills in the United States are one of the leading reasons for bankruptcy and with these types of figures, perhaps it’s hardly surprising.

Other countries also see high costs for delivery, where expectant mothers really do need to give consideration to the length of their stay in hospital and perhaps even whether they are willing to forgo a pain-relieving drug and save some money. There is often said to be an efficiency–equity trade-off in the area of healthcare, with countries offering a free at the point of use service delivering an equitable system, but with a lack of responsiveness to the demands of the patients. In the UK, you don’t pay to see a doctor but, with a ‘free’ service, demand is understandably very high, thus creating a shortage and waiting lists. In countries, such as the USA, a higher price for treatment does limit demand, creating more inequity but a responsive system.

There are certainly lessons that can be learned from all health care systems and living in a developed country, we should certainly consider ourselves lucky. There are many countries where access to even the most basic health care is a luxury that most cannot afford. So, where does have the best health care system? I’ll leave that to you.

Video and article
How much do women around the world pay to give birth? BBC News, Mariko Oi (13/2/15)

Report
Research for Universal Health Coverage, World Health Report 2013 World Health Organisation August 2013
Health Systems Financing: The Path to Universal Coverage, World Health Report 2010 World Health Organisation August 2010

Questions

  1. Using a demand and supply diagram, explain why there may be a trade-off between efficiency and equity.
  2. If there is over-consumption of a service such as health care, does this suggest that the market fails?
  3. What are the main market failures that exist in health care?
  4. Is the concept of opportunity cost relevant to mothers in labour? Think about the country in question.
  5. How would you go about ranking health care systems if you worked for an organisation such as the OECD or WHO?
  6. Pick a country whose health care system you are familiar with. What changes have occurred to the way in which health care is organised and financed in this country? How has it affected the key objectives that formed part of your answer to question 5?
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Paying for a public good: will it Wash?

Much of the east coast of England is subject to tidal flooding. One such area is the coastline around the Wash, the huge bay between Norfolk and Lincolnshire. Most of the vulnerable shorelines are protected by sea defences, usually in the form of concrete walls or earth embankments, traditionally paid for by the government. But part of the Norfolk shoreline is protected by shingle banks, which require annual maintenance.

Full government funding for maintaining these banks ended in 2013. According to new government rules, only projects that provide at least £8 of benefits for each £1 spent would qualify for such funding to continue. The area under question on the Norfolk cost of the Wash does not qualify.

Between 2013 and 2015 the work on the shingle banks is being paid for by the local council charging levies. After that, the plan is for a partnership-funding approach, where the government will make a (small) contribution as long as the bulk of the funding comes from the local community. This will involve setting up a ‘community interest company’, which will seek voluntary contributions from local residents, landowners and businesses.

Sea defences are a public good, in that it is difficult to exclude people benefiting who choose not to pay. In other words, there is a ‘free rider’ problem. However, in the case of the Wash shoreline in question, one borough councillor, Brian Long, argues that it might be possible to maintain the flood defences to protect those who do contribute while ignoring those who do not.

Not surprisingly, many residents and businesses argue that the government ought to fund the defences and, if it does have to be financed locally, then everyone should be required to pay their fair share.

Radio podcast
Holding back the sea BBC Radio 4, David Shukman (19/11/14)

Articles
What is the price of holding back the sea? BBC News, David Shukman (19/11/14)
Firms will have to pay towards cost of sea defences between Heacham and Wolferton in West Norfolk EDP24, Chris Bishop (1/8/14)
Businesses between Snettisham and Hunstanton will have to pay for flood defences. EDP24, Chris Bishop (19/11/14)
Wash and west Norfolk sea defence repairs now under way BBC News (13/12/13)

Consultation document
Managing our coastline Borough Council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, Environment Agency

Questions

  1. What are the two main features of a public good? Are sea defences a pure public good?
  2. Is there a moral hazard if people choose to live in a coastal area that would be subject to flooding without sea defences?
  3. Who is the ‘public’ in the case of sea defences? Is it the whole country, or the local authority or just all those being protected by the defences?
  4. What are the problems with relying on voluntary contributions to fund, or partly fund, sea defences? How could the free-rider problem be minimised in such a funding model?
  5. Discuss the possible interpretations of ‘equity’ when funding sea defences.
  6. If ‘flood defences could be built or maintained to protect those who do contribute while ignoring those who do not’, does this mean that such defences are not a public good?
  7. Find out how sea defences are funded in The Netherlands. Should such a funding model be adopted in the UK?
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A 50p top tax rate: more or less money for the government?

The UK Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, has announced that, if Labour is returned to power in the next election, it will bring back the 50% top rate of income tax (see also). This will apply to incomes over £150,000.

But will this raise more tax revenue? The question here concerns incentive effects. Will the higher rate of income tax discourage work by those earning £150,000 or encourage tax avoidance or tax evasion, so that the total tax take is reduced? The Conservatives say the answer is yes. The Labour party says no, claiming that there will still be an increase in tax revenue.

The possible effects are summed up in the Laffer curve (see The 50p income tax rate and the Laffer curve). As the previous post stated:

These arguments were put forward in the 1980s by Art Laffer, an adviser to President Reagan. His famous ‘Laffer curve’ (see Economics (8th edition) Box 10.3) illustrated that tax revenues are maximised at a particular tax rate. The idea behind the Laffer curve is very simple. At a tax rate of 0%, tax revenue will be zero – but so too at a rate of 100%, since no-one would work if they had to pay all their income in taxes. As the tax rate rises from 0%, so tax revenue would rise. And so too, as the tax rate falls from 100%, the tax rate would rise. It follows that there will be some tax rate between 0% and 100% that maximises tax revenue.

As Labour is claiming that re-introducing the 50% top rate of income tax will increase tax revenue, the implication is that the economy is to the left of the top of the Laffer curve: that, at current level of income, the curve is still rising.

Work by HMRC, and published in the document The Exchequer effect of the 50 per cent additional rate of income tax, suggested that the previous cut in the top rate from 50% to 45% would cut revenue by around £3.5 billion if there were no incentive effect, but with the extra work that would be generated, the cut would be a mere £100 million. This implies, other things being equal, that a rise in the rate from 45% to 50% would raise only a tiny bit of extra taxes.

However, the HMRC analysis has been criticised and especially its assumptions about the incentive effects on work. Then there is the question of whether a rise in the rate from 45% to 50% would have exactly the reverse effect of a cut from 50% to 45%. And then there is the question of how much HMRC could reduce tax evasion and avoidance.

The following article from the Institute for Fiscal Studies examines the effects. However, the authors conclude that:

… at the moment, the best evidence we have still suggests that raising the top rate of tax would raise little revenue and make, at best, a marginal contribution to reducing the budget deficit an incoming government would face after the next election.

But there is also the question of equity. Putting aside the question of how much revenue would be raised, is it fair to raise the top rate of tax for those on high incomes? Would it make an important contribution to reducing inequality? This normative question lies at the heart of the different views of the world between left and right and is not a question that can be answered by economic analysis.

50p tax – strolling across the summit of the Laffer curve? Institute for Fiscal Studies, Paul Johnson and David Phillips (Jan 2014)

Questions

  1. Distinguish between tax evasion and tax avoidance.
  2. How would it be possible for a rise in tax rates to generated less tax revenue?
  3. Could policies shift the Laffer curve as opposed to merely resulting in a move along the curve?
  4. What is meant by ‘taxable income elasticity (TIE)’? What are its determinants?
  5. Is the taxable income elasticity at the top of the Laffer curve equal to, above or below zero? Explain.
  6. Why did the Office for Budget Responsibility chairman, Robert Chote, conclude that, whatever the precise answer, we were ‘strolling across the summit of the Laffer curve’?
  7. Explain why ‘there is little additional evidence to suggest that a 50p rate would raise more than was estimated by HMRC back in 2012′.
  8. What contribution can economists make to the debate on the desirability of reducing inequality?
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The end of the American dream?

Growing inequality of income and wealth is a common pattern throughout the world. In the boom years up to 2008, the rich got a lot richer, but at least those on low incomes generally saw modest rises in their incomes. Since 2008, however, the continually widening gap between rich and poor has seen the poor and many on middle incomes getting absolutely poorer.

The problem is particularly acute in the USA. Indeed, in his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama said that it was the ‘defining issue of our time.’

No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.

The good news for the poor in the USA is that at last their incomes have stopped falling, thanks to stronger economic growth. But their share of the growth in GDP is tiny. As The Economist article states:

The main message is a grim one. Most of the growth is going to an extraordinarily small share of the population: 95% of the gains from the recovery have gone to the richest 1% of people, whose share of overall income is once again close to its highest level in a century. The most unequal country in the rich world is thus becoming even more so.

Apart from the ethical question of whether it is desirable for a society, already highly unequal, to become even more so, there is the question of whether this growth in inequality threatens economic recovery. Joseph Stiglitz argues that the rich have a low marginal propensity to consume and that this is threatening recovery.

Then there is the question of investment. Because most Americans have not seen any significant rise in incomes, it is easy for them to believe that the country cannot afford to invest more. And certainly it is difficult to persuade people that higher taxes are warranted to fund education, infrastructure or research.

The following articles consider the problem and its implications and look at various policy alternatives.

Articles and videos
Inequality: Growing apart The Economist (21/9/13)
What is income inequality, anyway? CNN, John D. Sutter (29/10/13)
Inequality is literally killing America Press TV (22/11/13)
It’s Economic Inequality Stupid – What to Do About the Biggest Crisis Facing America Huffington Post, Robert Creamer (14/11/13)
US Inequality Now Literally Off the Chart Truthout, Salvatore Babones (8/6/13)
Inequality moves to the front line of US politics Financial Times, Richard McGregor (20/11/13)
Is wealth inequality slowing growth? BBC News, Linda Yueh (21/11/13)
American Inequality in Six Charts The New Yorker, John Cassidy (18/11/13)
Income Inequality ‘Profoundly Corrosive’ Wall Street Journal, Larry Summers (19/11/13)
21 Charts On US Inequality That Everyone Should See Business Insider, Gus Lubin (12/11/13)

Data, information and reports
Income inequality in the United States Wikipedia
Inequality Data & Statistics Inequality.org
Income Main United States Census Bureau
World of Work Report 2013: Snapshot of the United States ILO
World of Work Report 2013 ILO
StatExtracts OECD (Search for Gini)

Questions

  1. How may income inequality be measured?
  2. Comment on the Gini coefficients in the above link to the StatExtracts site.
  3. Why has inequality grown in the USA?
  4. The Swiss have just voted in a referendum to reject a proposal to limit executive pay to 12 times that of the lowest paid worker in the same company. What are the arguments for and against the proposal?
  5. What features of an unequal society tend to perpetuate or even deepen that inequality over time?
  6. What features of a well functioning market economy would help to reduce income inequality?
  7. Are higher marginal tax rates and higher welfare payments the best way of reducing inequality? What other policy options are there?
  8. Compare the views of Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz on the effects of growing inequality on economic growth. How significant is the difference in the marginal propensity to consume of the rich and the poor in explaining the relatively low rate of US economic growth?
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The cost of a living wage

Each year in November, the Living Wage Foundation publishes figures for the hourly living wage that is necessary for people to meet basic bills. The rate for London is calculated by the Greater London Authority and for the rest of the UK by the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University.

The 2013 update was published on 4 November. The Living Wage was estimated to be £8.80 in London and £7.65 in the rest of the UK.

Two things need to be noted about the Living Wage rate. The first is that the figure is an average and thus does not take into account the circumstances of an individual household. Clearly households differ in terms of their size, the number of wage earners and dependants, the local costs of living, etc. Second, the figures have been reduced from what is regarded as the ‘reference’ living wage, which is estimated to be £9.08 outside London. The reason for this is that people earning higher incomes have seen their living standards squeezed since 2009, with prices rising faster than average post-tax-and-benefit wages. Thus, the Living Wage is capped to reflect the overall decline in living standards. As the Working Paper on rates outside London explains:

From 2012 onwards, two kinds of limit have been put on the amount that the Living Wage as applied can rise in any one year. The first limits the increase in the net income (after taxes and benefits) requirement for each household on which the living wage calculation is based, relative to the rise in net income that would be achieved by someone on average earnings. The second limits the increase in the living wage itself (representing gross income) relative to the increase in average earnings.

Nevertheless, despite this capping of the living wage, it is still significantly higher than the UK National Minimum Wage, which currently stands at £6.31 for those aged 21 and over. This can be seen from the chart (click here for a PowerPoint).

Paying the Living Wage is voluntary for employers, but as The Guardian reports:

A total of 432 employers are now signed up to the campaign, up from 78 this time last year, including Legal & General, KPMG, Barclays, Oxfam, Pearson, the National Portrait Gallery and First Transpennine Express, as well as many smaller businesses, charities and town halls. Together they employ more than 250,000 workers and also commit to roll out the living wage in their supply chain.

But as The Observer reports:

The number of people who are paid less than a ‘living wage’ has leapt by more than 400,000 in a year to over 5.2 million, amid mounting evidence that the economic recovery is failing to help millions of working families.

A report for the international tax and auditing firm KPMG also shows that nearly three-quarters of 18-to-21-year-olds now earn below this level – a voluntary rate of pay regarded as the minimum to meet the cost of living in the UK. The KPMG findings highlight difficulties for ministers as they try to beat back Labour’s claims of a “cost of living crisis”.

According to the report, women are disproportionately stuck on pay below the living wage rate, currently £8.55 in London and £7.45 elsewhere. Some 27% of women are not paid the living wage, compared with 16% of men. Part-time workers are also far more likely to receive low pay than full-time workers, with 43% paid below living-wage rates compared with 12% of full-timers.

But although paying a living wage may be desirable in terms of equity, many firms, especially in the leisure and retailing sectors, claim that they simply cannot afford to pay the living wage and, if they were forced to, would have to lay off workers.

The point they are making is that it is not economical to pay workers more than their marginal revenue product. But this raises the question of whether a higher wage would encourage people to work more efficiently. If it did, an efficiency wage may be above current rates for many firms. It also raises the question of whether productivity gains could be negotiated in exchange for paying workers a living wage

These arguments are discussed in the following podcast.

Podcast
Higher ‘productivity’ will increase living wage BBC Today Programme, Priya Kothari and Steve Davies (4/11/13)

Articles
UK living wage rises to £7.65 an hour The Guardian (4/11/13)
More than 5 million people in the UK are paid less than the living wage The Observer, Toby Helm (2/11/13)
Increasing numbers of Scots are paid less than living wage Herald Scotland (2/11/13)
Labour would give tax rebates to firms that pay living wage Independent, Jane Merrick (3/11/13)
Employers praise Ed Miliband’s living wage proposal Independent, Andy McSmith (3/11/13)
Miliband’s living wage tax break will raise prices, warns CBI chief The Telegraph, Tim Ross (3/11/13)
Living Wage rise provides a boost for low paid workers BBC News (4/11/13)

Information and Reports
What is the Living Wage? Living Wage Foundation
The Living Wage Centre for Research in Social Policy, Loughborough University
Living wage Mayor of London
One in five UK workers paid less than the Living Wage KPMG News Release (3/11/13)
Number of workers paid less than the Living Wage passes 5 million KPMG News Release (3/11/13)
Living Wage Research for KPMG Markit (October 2012)

Questions

  1. How is the Living Wage calculated?
  2. What are the reasons for announcing a Living Wage figure that is lower than a reference living wage? Assess these reasons.
  3. If there are two separate figures for the Living Wage for London and the rest of the UK, would it be better to work out a living wage for each part, or even location, of the UK?
  4. Why might it be in employers’ interests to pay at least the Living Wage? Does this explain why more and more employers are volunteering to pay it?
  5. Assess the Labour Party’s pledge, if they win the next election, that ‘firms which sign up to the living wage will receive a tax rebate of up to £1000 for every low-paid worker who gets a pay rise, funded by tax and national insurance revenue from the higher wages’.
  6. Which is fairer: to pay everyone at least the Living Wage or to use tax credits to redistribute incomes to low-income households?
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Out of sight

According to the Sunday Times Rich List, the combined wealth of Britain’s 1000 richest people grew by nearly 4.7% last year to £414 billion (after growing by 18% in 2010).

This is in stark contrast to average households, who saw their real incomes decline by 1.9% in 2011. As the Guardian article below says:

The Rich Listers are not merely the 1%, but the 0.01%, and this fanfared celebration of their assets feels like a celebration of things that nobody feels like celebrating: bankers’ bonuses, complex corporate tax-avoidance structures, the stifling grip of aristocratic family wealth.

So why are the rich getting richer and what are the implications for society and the economy? Watch and read the following webcasts and articles and then see if you can answer the questions below.

Webcasts
Rich List shows how super-wealthy have dodged recession (or) Channel 4 News (29/4/12)
Sunday Times Rich List: Wealthy getting richer BBC News, Ben Thompson (29/4/12)

Articles
Britain’s richest see fortunes rise to record high Reuters, Tim Castle (29/4/12)
Sunday Times Rich List shows rich recover wealth twice as fast Myfinances.co.uk, Ben Salisbury (29/4/12)
Sunday Times Rich List suggests UK’s wealthiest defy recession BBC News (28/4/12)
Sunday Times Rich List 2012: Wealth of richest grows to record levels The Telegraph, Patrick Sawer (28/4/12)
The Not-So-Rich-Any-More List Guardian, Oliver Burkeman and Patrick Kingsley (27/4/12)
Sunday Times Rich List ITV News (29/4/12)

Data
Distribution of Personal Wealth HMRC
The effects of taxes and benefits on household income ONS (19/5/11)
Household Quarterly Release 2011 Q4 – Real household actual income and expenditure per head ONS

Questions

  1. Distinguish between stocks and flows. Which of the following are stocks and which are flows: income, wealth, savings, saving, expenditure, possessions?
  2. If the combined wealth of the 1000 wealthiest people increased in 2011, does this imply that their incomes rose? Explain.
  3. Why have the super rich got richer, while average incomes in the country have fallen?
  4. What are the costs and benefits to society (other than the super rich) of the super rich becoming richer?
  5. Distinguish between the income and substitution effects of an increase in income of the wealthy. Which is likely to be larger and why?
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