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Posts Tagged ‘social efficiency’

A soft target for a tax

Back in October, we looked at the growing pressure in the UK for a sugar tax. The issue of childhood obesity was considered by the Parliamentary Health Select Committee and a sugar tax, either on sugar generally, or specifically on soft drinks, was one of the proposals being considered to tackle the problem. The committee studied a report by Public Health England, which stated that:

Research studies and impact data from countries that have already taken action suggest that price increases, such as by taxation, can influence purchasing of sugar sweetened drinks and other high sugar products at least in the short-term with the effect being larger at higher levels of taxation.

In his Budget on 16 March, the Chancellor announced that a tax would be imposed on manufacturers of soft drinks from April 2018. This will be at a rate of 18p per litre on drinks containing between 5g and 8g of sugar per 100ml, such as Dr Pepper, Fanta and Sprite, and 24p per litre for drinks with more than 8g per 100ml, such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Red Bull.

Whilst the tax has been welcomed by health campaigners, there are various questions about (a) how effective it is likely to be in reducing childhood obesity; (b) whether it will be enough or whether other measures will be needed; and (c) whether it is likely to raise the £520m in 2018/19, falling to £455m by 2020/21, as predicted by the Treasury: money the government will use for promoting school sport and breakfast clubs.

These questions are all linked. If demand for such drinks is relatively inelastic, the drinks manufacturers will find it easier to pass the tax on to consumers and the government will raise more revenue. However, it will be less effective in cutting sugar consumption and hence in tackling obesity. In other words, there is a trade off between raising revenue and cutting consumption.

This incidence of tax is not easy to predict. Part of the reason is that much of the market is a bilateral oligopoly, with giant drinks manufacturers selling to giant supermarket chains. In such circumstances, the degree to which the tax can be passed on depends on the bargaining strength and skill of both sides. Will the supermarkets be able to put pressure on the manufacturers to absorb the tax themselves and not pass it on in the wholesale price? Or will the demand be such, especially for major brands such as Coca-Cola, that the supermarkets will be willing to accept a higher price from the manufacturers and then pass it on to the consumer?

Then there is the question of the response of the manufacturers. How easy will it be for them to reformulate their drinks to reduce sugar content and yet still retain sales? For example, can they produce a product which tastes like a high sugar drink, but really contains a mix between sugar and artificial sweeteners – effectively a hybrid between a ‘normal’ and a low-cal version? How likely are they to reduce the size of cans, say from 330ml to 300ml, to avoid raising prices?

The success of the tax on soft drinks in cutting sugar consumption depends on whether it is backed up by other policies. The most obvious of these would be to impose a tax on sugar in other products, including cakes, biscuits, low-fat yoghurts, breakfast cereals and desserts, and also many savoury products, such as tinned soups, ready meals and sauces. But there are other policies too. The Public Health England report recommended a national programme to educate people on sugar in foods; reducing price promotions of sugary food and drink; removing confectionery or other sugary foods from end of aisles and till points in supermarkets; setting broader and deeper controls on advertising of high-sugar foods and drinks to children; and reducing the sugar content of the foods we buy through reformulation and portion size reduction.

Articles
Sugar tax: How it will work? BBC News, Nick Triggle (16/3/16)
Will a sugar tax actually work? The Guardian, Alberto Nardelli and George Arnett (16/3/16)
Coca-Cola and other soft drinks firms hit back at sugar tax plan The Guardian, Sarah Butler (17/3/16)
Sugar tax could increase calories people consume, economic experts warn The Telegraph, Kate McCann, and Steven Swinford (17/3/16)
Nudge, nudge! How the sugar tax will help British diets Financial Times, Anita Charlesworth (18/3/16)
Is the sugar tax an example of the nanny state going too far? Financial Times (19/3/16)
Government’s £520m sugar tax target ‘highly dubious’, analysts warn The Telegraph, Ben Martin (17/3/16)
Sorry Jamie Oliver, I’d be surprised if sugar tax helped cut obesity The Conversation, Isabelle Szmigin (17/3/16)
Sugar sweetened beverage taxes What Works for Health (17/12/15)

Questions

  1. What determines the price elasticity of demand for sugary drinks in general (as opposed to one particular brand)?
  2. How are drinks manufacturers likely to respond to the sugar tax?
  3. How are price elasticity of demand and supply relevant in determining the incidence of the sugar tax between manufacturers and consumers? How is the degree of competition in the market relevant here?
  4. What is meant by a socially optimal allocation of resources?
  5. If the current consumption of sugary drinks is not socially optimal, what categories of market failure are responsible for this?
  6. Will a sugar tax fully tackle these market failures? Explain.
  7. Is a sugar tax progressive, regressive or proportional? Explain.
  8. Assess the argument that the tax on sugar in soft drinks may actually increase the amount that people consume.
  9. The sugar tax can be described as a ‘hypothecated tax’. What does this mean and is it a good idea?
  10. Compare the advantages and disadvantages of a tax on sugar in soft drinks with (a) banning soft drinks with more than a certain amount of sugar per 100ml; (b) a tax on sugar; (c) a tax on sugar in all foods and drinks.
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Fossil fuel externalities only partially reflected in energy taxes

According to a recent IMF Survey Magazine article, Counting the Cost of Energy Subsidies, world-wide energy subsidies in 2015 account for $5.3 trillion or 6.5% of global GDP. The article summarises findings of an IMF working paper (see link below), which provides estimates by country, product (e.g. coal and oil) and component (e.g. global warming, local air pollution and congestion) in an Excel file

The working paper argues that energy subsidies are both larger and more pervasive than previously thought. According to the IMF Survey Magazine:

Eliminating global energy subsidies could reduce deaths related to fossil-fuel emissions by over 50 percent and fossil-fuel related carbon emissions by over 20 percent. The revenue gain from eliminating energy subsidies is projected to be $2.9 trillion (3.6 percent of global GDP) in 2015. This offers huge potential for reducing other taxes or strengthening revenue bases in countries where large informal sector constrains broader fiscal instruments.

In interpreting the findings it is important to understand how the term ‘subsidies’ is being used. According to the report, most of the $5.3 trillion “arises from countries setting energy taxes below levels that fully reflect the environmental damage associated with energy consumption.”

In other words, the term subsidy is being used whenever taxes do not fully account for the negative externalities associated with extracting and burning fossil fuels. Perhaps a better term would be ‘under-taxing’ rather than ‘subsidising’. Nevertheless the scale of not internalising externalities is huge. As Lord Nicholas Stern (author of the 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change) says:

“The failure to reflect the real costs of fossil fuels in prices and policies means that the lives and livelihoods of billions of people around the world are being threatened by climate change and local air pollution.”

But, while not taxing external costs account for more than 80% of the underpricing of fossil fuel energy, some three-quarters of these external costs relate to local environmental damage, rather than international damage such as global warming. Thus charging for these external costs would benefit primarily the local population, as well as generating revenues, and thus provides a strong argument for governments raising energy prices through increased taxes or reduced subsidies.

So which countries are the major culprits in ‘subsidising’ fossil fuels? What specific measures does the IMF recommend to tackle the problem and what countries are addressing the problem and in what ways? The working paper and articles address these questions.

Articles
Counting the Cost of Energy Subsidies IMF Survey Magazine (17/7/15)
G20 countries pay over $1,000 per citizen in fossil fuel subsidies, says IMF The Guardian, Damian Carrington (4/8/15)
Fossil fuels subsidised by $10m a minute, says IMF The Guardian, Damian Carrington (18/5/15)

Working Paper
How Large Are Global Energy Subsidies? IMF Working Paper, David Coady, Ian Parry, Louis Sears, and Baoping Shang (May 2015)

Questions

  1. Explain how energy subsidies are defined in the IMF working paper.
  2. What measurement problems are there in calculating the size of the ‘subsidies’?
  3. Draw a diagram to show how the under taxing of fossil fuel usage leads to a greater than socially optimum level of consumption of fossil fuels.
  4. What specific policies are pursued by the four biggest fossil fuel subsidising countries?
  5. What political problems are there in persuading countries to reduce fossil fuel subsidies/increase fossil fuel taxes.
  6. Is there a relatively high or low income elasticity of demand for energy? What are the implications of this for different income groups of policies to hold down energy prices?
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A windfall for electricity producers?

When an industry produces positive externalities, there is an argument for granting subsidies. To achieve the socially efficient output in an otherwise competitive market, the marginal subsidy should be equal to the marginal externality. This is the main argument for subsidising wind power. It helps in the switch to renewable energy away from fossil fuels. There is also the secondary argument that subsidies help encourage the development of technologies that would be too uncertain to fund at market rates.

If subsidies are to be granted, it is important that they are carefully designed. Not only does their rate need to reflect the size of the positive externalities, but also they should not entail any perverse incentive effects. But this is the claim about subsidies given to wind turbines: that they create an undesirable side effect.

Small-scale operators are encouraged to build small turbines by offering them a higher subsidy per kilowatt generated (through higher ‘feed-in’ tariffs). But according to a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), this is encouraging builders and operators of large turbines to ‘derate’ them. This involves operating them below capacity in order to get the higher tariff. As the IPPR overview states:

The scheme is designed to support small-scale providers, but the practice of under-reporting or ‘derating’ turbines’ generating capacity to earn a higher subsidy is costing the taxpayer dearly and undermining the competitiveness of Britain’s clean energy sector.

The loophole sees developers installing ‘derated’ turbines – that is, turbines which are ‘capped’ so that they generate less energy. Turbines are derated in this way so that developers and investors are able to qualify for the more generous subsidy offered to lower-capacity turbines, generating 100–500kW. By installing derated turbines, developers are making larger profits off a feature of the scheme that was designed to support small-scale projects. Currently, the rating of a turbine is declared by the manufacturer and installer, resulting in a lack of external scrutiny of the system.

The subsidies are funded by consumers through higher electricity prices. As much as £400 million could be paid in excess subsidies. The lack of scrutiny means that operators could be receiving as much as £100 000 per year per turbine in excess subsidies.

However, as the articles below make clear, the facts are disputed by the wind industry body, RenewableUK. Nevertheless, the report is likely to stimulate debate and hopefully a closing of the loophole.

Video
Turbine power: the cost of wind power to taxpayers Channel 4 News, Tom Clarke (10/2/15)

Articles
Wind subsidy loophole boosts spread of bigger turbines Financial Times, Pilita Clark (10/2/15)
Call to Close Wind Power ‘Loophole’ Herald Scotland, Emily Beament (10/2/15)
Wind farm developers hit back at ‘excessive subsidy’ claims Business Green, Will Nichols (10/2/15)
The £400million feed-in frenzy: Green energy firms accused of making wind turbines LESS efficient so they appear weak enough to win small business fund Mail Online, Ben Spencer (10/2/15)
Wind power subsidy ‘loophole’ identified by new report Engineering Technology Magazine, Jonathan Wilson (11/2/15)

Report
Feed-in Frenzy Institute for Public Policy Research, Joss Garman and Charles Ogilvie (February 2015)

Questions

  1. Draw a diagram to demonstrate the optimum marginal rate of a subsidy and the effect of the subsidy on output.
  2. Who should pay for subsidies: consumers, the government (i.e. taxpayers generally), electricity companies through taxes on profits made from electricity generation using fossil fuels, some other source? Explain your thinking.
  3. What is the argument for giving a higher subsidy to operators of small wind turbines?
  4. If wind power is to be subsidised, is it better to subsidise each unit of output of electricity, or the construction of wind turbines or both? Explain.
  5. What could Ofgem do (or the government require Ofgem to do) to improve the regulation of the wind turbine industry?
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Valuing natural capital

In market capitalism, the stock of manufactured capital provides a flow of output. The profitability of the use of that capital depends on the cost of investing in that capital and the cost of using it, and on the flow of revenues from that capital. Discounted cash flow techniques can be used to assess the profitability of a given investment in capital; the flows of costs and revenues are discounted at a market discount rate to give a net present value (NPV). If the NPV is positive (discounted revenues exceed discounted costs), the investment is profitable; if it is negative, the investment is unprofitable. (See Economics, 8th edition, section 9.3.)

There may be market imperfections in the allocation of investment, in terms of distorted prices and interest rates. These may be the result of market power, asymmetry of information, etc., but in many cases the market allows capital investment to be allocated relatively efficiently.

Natural capital
This is not the case with ‘natural capital’. Natural capital (see also) is the stock of natural resources and ecosystems that, like manufactured capital, yields a flow of goods and services into the future. Natural capital, whilst it can be improved or degraded by human action, is available without investment. Thus the natural capital of the oceans yields fish, the natural capital of the skies yields rain and the natural capital of forests reduces atmospheric CO2.

Even though some natural capital is owned (e.g. private land), much is a common resource. As such, it is free to use and tends to get overused. This is the Tragedy of the Commons – see, for example, the following news items: A modern tragedy of the commons and Is there something fishy going on?.

Natural capital accounting
But would it be possible to give a value to both the stock of natural capital and the goods and services provided by it? Would this environmental accounting enable governments to tax or subsidise firms and individuals for their use or enhancement of natural capital?

On 21 and 22 November 2013, the first World Forum on Natural Capital took place in Edinburgh. This brought together business leaders, politicians, economists, environmentalists and other scientists to discuss practical ways of taking natural capital into account in decision making. Central to the forum was a discussion of ways of valuing natural capital, or ‘natural capital accounting’. As the forum site states:

Natural capital accounting is a rapidly evolving new way of thinking about how we value the economic benefits we derive from our natural environment. The World Forum on Natural Capital will bring together world-class speakers, cutting edge case studies and senior decision makers from different sectors, in order to turn the debate into practical action.

But if natural capital is not owned, how is it to be priced? How will the costs and benefits of its use be valued? How will inter-generational effects be taken into account? Will firms price natural capital voluntarily if doing so reduces their profits? Will firms willingly extend corporate social responsibility to include corporate environmental responsibility? Will governments be prepared to introduce taxes and subsidies to internalise the costs of using natural capital, even if the effects extend beyond a country’s borders? Will natural capital accounting measure purely the effects on humans or will broader questions of maintaining and protecting environmental diversity for its own sake be taken into account? These are big questions and ones that various organisations are beginning to address.

Despite problems of measurement and incentives, sometimes there are clear economic benefits from careful evaluation and management of natural capital. Julia Marton-Lefèvre is Director General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). According to the first Guardian article below:

Her favourite example of natural capital working in practice comes from Vietnam, where “planting and protecting nearly 12,000 hectares of mangroves cost just more than $1m but saved annual expenditures on dyke maintenance of well over $7m. And that only accounts for coast maintenance: mangroves are also nurseries for fish, meaning livelihoods for fishing and source of nutrients … “

One organisation attempting to value natural capital is The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project (TEEB). It also looks at what organisational changes are likely to be necessary for the management of natural capital.

Based on data collected from 26 early adopter companies (60% of them with $10 Billion+ revenues each) across several industry sectors this provides real life evidence on the drivers and barriers for natural capital management.

Pricing the environment is a highly controversial issue. Critics claim that the process can easily be manipulated to serve the short-term interests of business and governments. What is more, where tradable permits markets have been set up, such as the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), prices have often been a poor reflection of social costs and have been open to manipulation. As Nick Dearden, director of the World Development Movement (WDM), says:

It is deeply ironic that the same financial markets that caused the economic crisis are now seen as the solution to our environmental crisis. It’s about time we learnt that financial markets need to be reined in, not expanded. Pricing these common resources on which people depend for their survival leaves all of us more exposed to the forces of the global economy, and decisions about whether or not to protect them become a matter of accounting.

The measurement of natural capital and setting up systems to internalise the costs and benefits of using natural capital is both complex and a political minefield – as the following articles show.

Articles
Putting a value on nature: Edinburgh conference says business is ‘part of the solution’ Blue & Green Tomorrow, Nicky Stubbs (20/11/13)
Edinburgh forum says putting value on nature could save it BBC News, Claire Marshall (20/11/13)
Natural capital must be the way forward, says IUCN director general The Guardian, Tim Smedley (11/11/13)
Is ‘natural capital’ the next generation of corporate social responsibility? The Guardian, Tim Smedley (7/11/13)
Natural capital accounting: what’s all the fuss about? The Guardian, Alan McGill (27/9/13)
Put nature at the heart of economic and social policymaking The Guardian, Aniol Esteban (1/3/13)
Campaigners warn of dangers of ‘privatised nature’ The Scotsman, Ilona Amos (21/11/13)
Edinburgh conference attempts to ‘privatise nature’ World Development Movement, Miriam Ross (18/11/13)
Valuing Nature BBC Shared Planet, Monty Don (8/7/13)

Sites concerned with natural capital
World Forum on Natural Capital
TEEB for Business Coalition
International Union for Conservation of Nature

Questions

  1. How would you define natural capital?
  2. What are ecosystem services?
  3. Is social efficiency the best criterion for evaluating the use of the environment? What other criteria could you use?
  4. How would you set about deciding what rate of discount to use when evaluating the depletion of or enhancement of natural capital?
  5. How can game theory provide insights into the strategies of both businesses and governments towards the environment?
  6. What are the arguments for and against attempting to value natural capital and to incorporate these values in decision making?
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The end of bargain booze?

Ministers are considering introducing a minimum price of 45p per unit of alcohol on all drinks sold in England and Wales. The Scottish government has already passed legislation for a minimum price of 50p per unit in Scotland. This, however, is being challenged in the Scottish courts and is being examined by the European Commission.

As we saw in a previous blog, Alcohol minimum price, the aim is to prevent the sale of really cheap drinks in supermarkets and other outlets. Sometimes supermarkets sell alcoholic drinks at less than average cost as a ‘loss leader’ in order to encourage people to shop there. Two-litre bottles of strong cider can be sold for as little as £2. Sometimes they offer multibuys which are heavily discounted. The idea of minimum pricing is to stop these practices without affecting ‘normal’ prices.

The effect of a 45p minimum price per unit would give the following typical minimum prices (depending on strength):

Strength Size Minimum price
Wine 12.5% 750ml £4.22
Beer/lager (normal) 4.5% pint (568ml) £1.15
Beer/lager (strong) 7.5% pint (568ml) £1.92
Beer/lager (normal) 4.5% 2 litres £4.05
Beer/lager (strong) 7.5% 2 litres £6.75
Cider (normal) 5% pint (568ml) £1.28
Cider (strong) 8% pint (568ml) £2.04
Cider (normal) 5% 2 litres £4.50
Cider (strong) 8% 2 litres £7.20
Whisky 40% 700ml £12.60
Vodka 37.5% 700ml £11.81

The hope is that by preventing the sale of really cheap drinks in supermarkets, people will no longer be encouraged to ‘pre-load’ so that when they go out for the evening they are already drunk.

But how successful will such a policy be in cutting down drunkenness and the associated anti-social behaviour in many towns and cities, especially on Friday and Saturday nights? The following articles discuss the issue and look at some of the evidence on price elasticity of demand.

Articles
Alcohol minimum price plan to be unveiled BBC News, Dominic Hughes (28/11/12)
Multi-buy alcohol deals face ban under minimum price plans The Telegraph, James Kirkup (28/11/12)
Alcohol at 40p, 45p or 50p a unit to be Cameron choices for minimum price The Guardian, Juliette Jowit (25/11/12)
Minimum price plan to end cheap alcohol sales BBC News, Nick Triggle (28/11/12)
Minimum pricing having a difficult birth in Scotland BBC News, James Cook (28/11/12)
Cameron to set minimum price for alcohol Independent, Brian Brady (25/11/12)
Minimum Alcohol Price: Doubts Measures Will Cut Binge Drinking Huffington Post (25/11/12)
An industry divided: Pubs set against brewers and retailers in battle for cheap booze This is Money, Rupert Steiner (26/11/12)
A minimum price per unit of alcohol BMC Public Health, Adam J Lonsdale, Sarah J Hardcastle and Martin S Hagger (23/11/12)

Home Office alcohol policy
Alcohol strategy (23/3/12)

Questions

  1. Draw a diagram to illustrate the effect of a minimum price per unit of alcohol on (a) cheap cider; (b) good quality wine.
  2. How is the price elasticity of demand for alcoholic drinks relevant to determining the success of minimum pricing?
  3. Compare the effects of imposing a minimum unit price of alcohol with raising the duty on alcoholic drinks? What are the revenue implications of the two policies for the government?
  4. What externalities are involved in the consumption of alcohol? How could a socially efficient price for alcohol be determined?
  5. Is imposing a minimum price for alcohol fair? How will it effect the distribution of income?
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Plastic peril

A campaign to introduce a tax on disposable plastic bags in England has been launched by various pressure groups, including The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), Keep Britain Tidy, the Marine Conservation Society and Surfers Against Sewage. Plastic bags, they maintain, litter streets and the countryside and pollute the seas, where they cause considerable damage to marine life.

They propose a tax of 5p per bag, which would be passed on to consumers. Such a levy has already been introduced in Wales in October 2011. As a result, plastic bag use in Wales has dropped dramatically (see also the full report from the Welsh Government). The Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly are also planning introducing similar charges.

Many other governments have introduced taxes, charges or bans on plastic bags and many more are considering introducing such measures. Ireland introduced a 15 euro cent charge on single-use plastic bags as far back as 2002 and saw a 94% reduction in plastic bag use (328 per person per year to 21). The charge was raised to 22 euro cents in 2007 after bag use rose to 30 per person.

Other countries have banned plastic bags altogether: some, such as Rwanda and Somalia have banned all plastic bags; others, such as China and South Africa have banned very thin bags; others, such as Italy, have banned non-biodegradable ones.

In the USA, various states or districts have introduced levies and in the EU, where more than four billion bags are thrown away each year, the European Commission will soon publish proposals for limiting the use of plastic bags.

So what are the arguments for limiting the use of plastic bags? Why is it not enough to leave things simply to the market? And if the use of plastic bags is to be reduced, what’s the most efficient way of doing so? Are there any problems with alternatives to plastic bags? The following articles and reports consider these questions?

Articles
England urged to pick up Wales’ plastic bag levy businessGreen, Jessica Shankleman (1/8/12)
Wales’ plastic bag charge yields massive green savings businessGreen, Jessica Shankleman (5/7/12)
Supermarkets ‘should charge £1 a bag’ BBC Today Programme, Samantha Harding and Judith Holder (2/8/12)
Environmentalists team up to push for bag tax in England Plastics News, Anthony Clark (1/8/12)
Break the Bag Habit Keep Britain Tidy (1/8/12)
Plastic bag use ‘up for second year running’ Guardian, Rebecca Smithers (5/7/12)
Plastic bag use in Wales plummets due to 5p charge, figures show Guardian, Adam Vaughan (4/7/12)
Carrier bag charge ‘effective and popular’ figures reveal ITV News (4/7/12)
What should be done about plastic bags? BBC News Magazine, Chris Summers (19/3/12)
Irish bag tax hailed success BBC News, Chris Summers (20/8/02)
The Big Fix The Math Behind Sacking Disposable Bags Atlantic Cities, Nate Berg (26/9/11)
Fremantle moves to ban plastic bags ABC News, Lucy Martin (23/7/12)
Bans Plastic Bag Ban Report, Ted Duboise (updated)
Vote With Your Dollars, and Also Vote New York Times, Gernot Wagner (30/7/12)

Reports
Evaluation Of The Introduction Of The Single-Use Carrier Bag Charge In Wales: Attitude Change And Behavioural Spillover, Wouter Poortinga, Lorraine Whitmarsh and Christine Suffolk Report to Welsh Government by Cardiff University (June 2012)
Life cycle assessment of supermarket carrierbags: a review of the bags available in 2006 Environment Agency, Joanna Marchant (25/7/11)
Stakeholder consultation on options to reduce the use of plastic carrier bags … EC Environment (19/3/12)

Questions

  1. Draw a diagram demonstrating the externalities involved in the use of plastic bags. Show the marginal private and social costs and benefits and the socially efficient level of consumption.
  2. How would you set about establishing the amount of consumer surplus from the use of plastic bags at a zero price?
  3. Compare the relative social efficiency of a tax on plastic bags with a ban on plastic bags.
  4. Would education be an effective alternative to taxing plastic bags?
  5. Why might it be difficult to get supermarkets and other retailers to agree to a voluntary ban on giving out free plastic bags?
  6. Why might it be extremely difficult in practice to establish the socially efficient price for plastic bags?
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Is private best?

The following article by Will Hutton looks at the relative efficiency of private- and public-sector organisations. The public sector is typically characterised as inefficient and providing a poorer level of service and poorer quality products than the private sector. After all, the private sector is driven by the profit motive, where providing a good service would seem to be a key ingredient in making more profit.

Yet when you look around you, this portrayal can be seen as far too simplistic. On the one hand, much of the public sector has been forced to be efficient, following many years of tight budgets. At the same time, many in the public sector are keen to deliver a good service, not only because that is required by their employers, but because they are motivated by a sense of public duty and professionalism. On the other hand, there are many market failings in large parts of the private sector, where monopoly power, asymmetric information and externalities are rife. Read the article and see if you agree with Will Hutton’s analysis.

These money-grubbing companies make the public sector look good Observer (1/11/09)

Questions

  1. What are the incentives to encourage either private-sector companies or public-sector organisations (a) to be efficient in the sense of cutting out waste (X-efficiency); (b) to be allocatively efficient; and (c) to provide a high quality of service to customers / clients / patients / students, etc.?
  2. What market failures may prevent private-sector companies from achieving (a) to (c) above?
  3. What organisational failures may prevent public-sector organisations from achieving (a) to (c) above?
  4. How is Goodhart’s Law relevant to the setting of performance targets in both the private and public sectors?
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The dispute between Boeing and Airbus – still up in the air?

In October 2004, the USA brought a complaint to the WTO that Airbus had received illegal subsidies from the UK, French, German and Spanish governments. One of these subsidies was the so-called ‘launch aid’, which the US government argued was a form of export subsidy. In a counter-complaint to the WTO made on the same day, the EU maintained that the US government had provided illegal support to Boeing in the form of subsidies, legislation, regulations and other administrative measures.

On 4 September 2009, the EU and the USA were handed the confidential preliminary findings by the WTO panel in the first of the two disputes. This found that some of the support measures by the EU countries violated WTO rules. However, some two thirds of the complaints by the USA were dismissed.

Despite some progress in its deliberations, the WTO is unlikely to give a final judgment in the first case for several months and not even a preliminary report has been issued on the second case (the EU’s complaint against the USA). But can any conclusions be drawn at this interim stage? The following videos and articles look at the findings and their implications.

Videos
Airbus violated trade laws msnbc news (4/9/09)
WTO issues report on Airbus-Boeing dispute AlJazeera (4/9/09)
Update – Boeing vs. Airbus Bloomberg (4/9/09)

Articles
Airbus Loans Toward A380 Jumbo Faulted in WTO Ruling Bloomberg (4/9/09)
World trade body ruling reflects pre-crisis time Boston Globe (Associated Press report) (5/9/09)
WTO rules that Airbus benefited from E.U. subsidies MarketWatch (4/9/09)
Boeing wins first round in trade battle with Airbus Independent (5/9/09)
WTO rules on huge plane dispute BBC News (4/9/09)
Boeing and Airbus: Round one to Boeing The Economist (4/9/09)
Partial US victory on Airbus funds Financial Times (5/9/09)

Questions

  1. What sanctions does the WTO have to enforce its rulings? (see the WTO site.)
  2. What sanctions do individual governments have for ensuring that countries abide by the WTO rulings?
  3. How could strategic trade theory be used to justify support to aircraft manufacturers? Do such arguments apply to Airbus and Boeing?
  4. Do airlines and airline passengers gain or lose from the behaviour of Airbus and Boeing? Should the WTO take this into account?
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Guzzling gas just got more expensive

One of the key Budget measures was a change in the car tax regime. The Chancellor, Alistair Darling, introduced a new banded system annual vehicle excise duty (VED) based on the level of emissions of the vehicle. The cars with the lowest levels of emissions will be exempt from VED, but at the other end of the spectrum, the highest polluting vehicles will face an annual VED of around £440. However, this will be substantially higher in the year of purchase of the vehicle and this so-called ‘showroom tax’ will raise the tax level to £950 in the first year of purchase.


Gas guzzlers hit with higher taxes
Guardian (12/03/08)
New taxes on gas-guzzlers will raise an extra £1.2bn Guardian (13/03/08)
Spared at the pumps – but hit in the showroom Guardian (16/03/08)
Q&A: Showroom tax BBC News Online (12/03/08)
Gas guzzlers set to face £950 tax BBC News Online (12/03/08)

Questions
1. Explain how the highest polluting vehicles affect the socially optimal equilibrium in the market for car travel.
2. Using supply and demand diagrams as appropriate, illustrate the likely impact of the new car tax regime in 2009-10 on the equilibrium in the market for car travel. What is the significance of the concepts of price elasticity of demand and consumer surplus in your analysis?
3. Discuss the likely effectiveness of the new banded car tax regime at reducing the average level of emissions from cars. Would raising the tax on petrol and diesel be a more efficient method of achieving the same goal?
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Plastic bags – not so plastic fantastic after all?

2008 may yet come to be seen as the year that marks the death of the single-use plastic bag. Many countries around the world, including China, have banned their use and February 2008 has seen Marks and Spencer announcing a 5p charge per plastic bag in an attempt to reduce their usage. Even government departments have faced criticism over their use as promotional tools. For more details on plastic bag bans and policies relating to limiting their usage, see our 2007/8 podcast on The economics of plastic bags elsewhere on the site.

M&S hopes to cut plastic bag use with 5p levy Guardian (28/2/08)
Brown may legislate against free plastic bags Guardian (29/2/08)
Q&A: Plastic bags Guardian (28/2/08)
M&S to charge 5p for carrier bags BBC News Online (28/2/08)
Brown threatens supermarkets over plastic bag reduction Times Online (29/2/08)
Government accused over plastic bag waste Guardian (29/2/08)
Agency scraps use of plastic bags for Whitehall promotions Guardian (1/3/08)
Plastic bag bans around the world BBC News Online (28/2/08)

Videos
M&S to charge for carrier bags BBC News Online (February 2008)
M&S boss on plastic bags BBC News Online (February 2008)
M&S to start charging for plastic bags BBC News Online (February 2008)

Questions
1. What are the social costs and benefits resulting from the use of single-use plastic
bags?
2. Using diagrams as appropriate, show how the equilibrium price and quantity of plastic bags differs from the social optimum.
3. Evaluate two possible policies that the government could use to reduce the use of plastic bags.
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