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Posts Tagged ‘welfare’

Populism and economics

Economists were generally in favour of the UK remaining in the EU and highly critical of the policy proposals of Donald Trump. And yet the UK voted to leave the EU and Donald Trump was elected.

People rejected the advice of most economists. Many blamed the failure of most economists to predict the 2007/8 financial crisis and to find solutions to the growing gulf between rich and poor, with the majority stuck on low incomes.

So to what extent are economists to blame for the rise in populism – a wave that could lead to electoral upsets in various European countries? The podcast below brings together economists and politicians from across the political spectrum. It is over an hour long and provides an in-depth discussion of many of the issues and the extent to which economists can provide answers.

Podcast
Should economists share the blame for populism? Guardian Politics Weekly podcast, Heather Stewart, joined by Andrew Lilico, Ann Pettifor, Jonathan Portes, Rachel Reeves and Vince Cable (23/2/17)

Questions

  1. Why has globalisation become a dirty word?
  2. Assess the arguments for and against an open policy towards immigration?
  3. In what positive ways may economists contribute to populism?
  4. Do economists concentrate too much on growth in GDP rather than on its distribution?
  5. Give some examples of ways in which various popular interpretations of economic phenomena may confuse correlation with causality.
  6. Why did the proportions of people who voted for and against Brexit differ considerably from one part of the country to another, from one age group to another and from one social group to another?
  7. In what ways have economists and the subject of economics contributed towards a growth in human welfare?
  8. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the trend for undergraduate economics curricula to become more mathematical (at least until relatively recently)?
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UK spending on welfare: definitions, myths and facts

How much does the UK spend on welfare? This is a highly charged political question, with some arguing that benefit claimants are putting great demands on ‘hard-working tax payers’. According to information being sent by the government to all 24 million income tax payers in the UK, the figure of £168bn being spent on welfare is around 24.5% of public spending. But what is included in the total? Before you read on, try writing down the categories of government expenditure included under the heading ‘welfare’.

The heading does not include spending on certain parts of the ‘welfare state’, such as health and education. These are services, the production of which contributes to GDP. The category ‘welfare’ does not include expenditure on produced services, but rather transfer payments. The way the government is using the term, it does not include state pensions either, which account for 11.6% of public expenditure. So does the 24.5% largely consist of payments to the unemployed? The answer is no.

The category ‘welfare’ as used by the government includes the following elements. The percentages are of total managed expenditure (i.e. government spending).

Public service pensions, paid to retired public-sector employees, such as teachers, police officers, doctors and nurses (2.6%)
Other support for the elderly, including pension credit, winter fuel allowance, bus passes, etc. (1.5%)
Sickness and disability benefits, including long-term care for the elderly, sick and disabled (6.6%)
Support for families and children, such as child benefit and child tax credits (3.4%)
Social exclusion, including income support and housing benefit (7.8%)
Unemployment benefits, including Job Seekers Allowance (0.7%)
Other (1.9%)

Lumping all these together under a single heading ‘welfare’ can be highly misleading, as many people have strongly held preconceptions about who gets welfare. In fact the term is used pejoratively by many who resent their taxes being given to those who do not work.

But, as you can see from the figures, only a small proportion goes to the unemployed, the majority of whom (around 65%) are unemployed for less than a year as they move between jobs (see). The bulk of benefits goes to children, the retired and the working poor.

Another preconception is that much of welfare spending goes to fraudulent claimants. But, as the article by Professor Hills states:

Just 0.7% of all benefits was over-paid as the result of fraud, less than the amount underpaid as a result of official error. For the main benefit for unemployed people, Jobseeker’s Allowance, estimated fraud was 2.9%, or an annual total of £150million.

It is also important to consider people’s life cycle. The same people receive benefits (via their parents or guardians) as children, pay taxes when they work and receive benefits when they retire or fall sick. Thus you might be a net contributor to public finances at one time and a net beneficiary at another. For example, the majority of pensioners were net contributors when they were younger and are now mainly net beneficiaries. Many unemployed people who rely on benefits now were net contributors when they had a job.

The message is that you should be careful when interpreting statistics, even if these statistics are factually accurate. How figures are grouped together and the labels put on them can give a totally misleading impression. And politicians are always keen to ‘spin’ statistics to their advantage – whether in government or opposition.

Webcast
Annual Tax Summary: TUC and MPs on spending information BBC Daily Politics, Jo Coburn (3/11/14)

Articles
Osborne’s tax summary dismissed as propaganda by the TU BBC News (3/11/14)
The truth about welfare spending: Facts or propaganda? BBC News, Brian Milligan (4/11/14)
Its Cost Is Just One of the Myths Around ‘Welfare’ Huffington Post, John Hills (12/11/14)
Welfare spending summary criticised Express & Star (4/11/14)

Data and Reports
Public Expenditure: Statistical Analyses (PESA) 2014 HM Treasury (see Table 5.2)
DWP annual report and accounts 2013 to 2014 Department of Work and Pensions (see Table 2)
Welfare trends report – October 2014 Office for Budget Responsibility
What is welfare spending? Institute for Fiscal Studies (4/11/14)

Questions

  1. What benefits do you receive? How would you expect this to change over your lifetime?
  2. What are the arguments for (a) reducing and (b) increasing welfare payments. In each case, under which categories of welfare would you decrease or increase the level of benefits?
  3. Referring to Table 5.2 in the PESA data below (the table used for the government’s calculations), which of the categories would be classified as expenditure on goods and services and which as transfer payments?
  4. Assess the arguments of the IFS for the reclassification of the categories of ‘welfare’ payments.
  5. Referring to the pie chart above, also in the BBC video and articles and Table 5.2 in the PESA data, assess the arguments about the size of the UK’s contributions to the EU budget.
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Sex and drugs add to GDP

The most commonly used measure of economic performance is GDP and while there is agreement that it is an important and useful measure, there is also agreement that there are some big problems with it. Does it measure welfare or quality of life? What is and isn’t included? Do some things add to GDP which actually make us worse off?

One criticism often levelled at GDP is that there are many aspects that go unmeasured – often known as the underground economy. Some areas are typical everyday things – DIY, looking after your own children rather than paying someone to do it, or even giving yourself a haircut. But, there are other activities, often illegal, which go unrecorded, such as the selling and distribution of drugs and prostitution. In countries like the Netherlands, their GDP figures get a boost, as some drugs and prostitution are legal. In other countries, such data is not recorded and as such, the contribution of these markets is under-estimated or even completely omitted.

However, this aspect of the calculation of GDP statistics is changing across Europe, which will allow much easier and more meaningful comparisons of relative GDP across countries. This extra production will therefore offer a positive contribution towards our GDP and perhaps suggest to the untrained eye that the British economy is growing, which can only be good news. But, for the trained economist, we are looking at extra data being added, which will boost total output and the question will be does it really indicate that the economy is better off? The following articles consider this change to GDP.

Small data: The way drugs and prostitution boost the economy BBC News (4/4/14)
Small data: Calculating the sex and drugs economy BBC News (2/6/14)
UK economic output to be revised up after ONS updates BBC News, Anthony Reuben (10/6/14)
UK economic output will get near 5 percent boost from data changes Reuters (10/6/14)
Accounting for drugs and prostitution to help push UK economy up by £65bn The Guardian, Katie Allen (10/6/14)

Questions

  1. What does GDP measure? Is it good at measuring it?
  2. Explain the pros and cons of using GDP to measure the welfare of an economy.
  3. Why are there problems using GDP to compare output between countries?
  4. Is it a good idea to include markets such as sex and drugs in calculating a nation’s output?
  5. What other measures of welfare do we have?
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Macroeconomic policy and prospects for the global economy

What lies ahead for economic growth in 2013 and beyond? And what policies should governments adopt to aid recovery? These are questions examined in four very different articles from The Guardian.

The first is by Nouriel Roubini, Professor of Economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He was one of the few economists to predict the collapse of the housing market in the USA in 2007 and the credit crunch and global recession that followed. He argues that continuing attempts by banks, governments and individuals to reduce debt and leverage will mean that the advanced economies will struggle to achieve an average rate of economic growth of 1%. He also identifies a number of other risks to the global economy.

In contrast to Roubini, who predicts that ‘stagnation and outright recession – exacerbated by front-loaded fiscal austerity, a strong euro and an ongoing credit crunch – remain Europe’s norm’, Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF and former French Finance Minister, predicts that the eurozone will return to growth. ‘It’s clearly the case’, she says, ‘that investors are returning to the eurozone, and resuming confidence in that market.’ Her views are echoed by world leaders meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, who are generally optimistic about prospects for economic recovery in the eurozone.

The third article, by Aditya Chakrabortty, economics leader writer for The Guardian, looks at the policies advocated at the end of World War II by the Polish economist, Michael Kalecki and argues that such policies are relevant today. Rather than responding to high deficits and debt by adopting tough fiscal austerity measures, governments should adopt expansionary fiscal policy, targeted at expanding infrastructure and increasing capacity in the economy. That would have an expansionary effect on both aggregate demand and aggregate supply. Sticking with austerity will result in continuing recession and the ‘the transfer of wealth and power into ever fewer hands.’

But while in the UK and the eurozone austerity policies are taking hold, the new government in Japan is adopting a sharply expansionary mix of fiscal and monetary policies – much as Kalecki would have advocated. The Bank of Japan will engage in large-scale quantitative easing, which will become an open-ended commitment in 2014, and is raising its inflation target from 1% to 2%. Meanwhile the Japanese government has decided to raise government spending on infrastructure and other government projects.

So – a range of analyses and policies for you to think about!

Risks lie ahead for the global economy The Guardian, Nouriel Roubini (21/1/13)
Eurozone showing signs of recovery, says IMF chief The Guardian, Graeme Wearden (14/1/13)
Austerity? Call it class war – and heed this 1944 warning from a Polish economist The Guardian, Aditya Chakrabortty (14/1/13)
Bank of Japan bows to pressure with ‘epoch-making’ financial stimulus The Guardian, Phillip Inman (22/1/13)

Questions

  1. What are the dangers facing the global economy in 2013?
  2. Make out a case for sticking with fiscal austerity measures.
  3. Make out a case for adopting expansionary fiscal policies alongside even more expansionary monetary policies.
  4. Is is possible for banks to increase their capital-asset and liquidity ratios, while at the same time increasing lending to business and individuals? Explain.
  5. What are the implications of attempts to reduce public-sector deficits and debt on the distribution of income? Would it be possible to devise austerity policies that did not have the effect you have identified?
  6. What will be the effect of the Japanese policies on the exchange rate of the yen with other currencies? Will this be beneficial for the Japanese economy?
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Environmental market failure

No market is perfect and when the market mechanism fails to deliver an efficient allocation of resources, we say the market fails and hence there is justification for some government intervention. From a monopolist dominating an industry to a manufacturing firm pumping out pollution, there are countless examples of market failure.

The Guardian is creating a guide to climate change, covering areas from politics to economics. The problem of climate change has been well documented and this blog considers a particular issue – the case for climate change or the environment as a market failure. In many cases just one market failure can be identified, for example an externality or a missing market. However, one of the key problems with climate change is that there are several market failures: externalities in the form of pollution from greenhouse gases; poor information; minimal incentives; the problem of the environment as a common resource and the immobility of factors of production, to name a few. Each contributes towards a misallocation of resources and prevents the welfare of society from being maximised.

When a market fails, intervention is justified and economists argue for a variety of policies to tackle the above failures. In a first-best world, there is only one market failure to tackle, but in the case of the environment, policy must be designed carefully to take into account the fact that there are numerous failings of the free market. Second-best solutions are needed. Furthermore, as the problem of climate change will be felt by everyone, whether in a developed or a developing country, international attention is needed. The two articles below are part of the Guardian’s ultimate climate change guide and consider a huge range of economic issues relating to the problem of environmental market failure.

Why do economists describe climate change as a ‘market failure’? Guardian, Grantham Research Institute and Dunca Clark (21/5/12)
What is the economic cost of climate change? Guardian (16/2/11)

Questions

  1. What is meant by market failure?
  2. What are the market failures associated with the environment and climate change? In each case, explain how the issue causes an inefficient allocation of resources and thus causes the market to fail? You may find diagrams useful!
  3. What is meant by the first-best and second-best world?
  4. What does a second-best solution aim to do?
  5. Using diagrams to help your explanation, show how a tax on pollution will have an effect in a first best world, where the only market failure is a negative externality and in a second best world, where the firm in question is also a monopolist.
  6. What solutions are there to the problem of climate change? How effective are they likely to be?
  7. Does the need to tackle climate change require international co-operation? Can you use game theory to help your explanation?!
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A way out of the poverty trap?

On November 11, the government published a White Paper on welfare reform. Central to the proposals is the replacing of the range of out-of-work benefits, housing benefit and tax credits with a single universal benefit. The system will be introduced for new claimants in 2013 and for those currently on benefits sometime after 2015.

When the unemployed find work, the benefit will be withdrawn at a rate of 65p of each £1 earned. At present, because of the complexity of the system, some claimants on multiple benefits can find that the withdrawal rate is almost 100%. When income tax is added in, the tax-plus-lost-benefit rate does sometimes exceed 100%. Thus some people find themselves in a poverty trap, whereby it’s not worth getting a job. It’s financially benefical to stay on benefits.

The other crucial element of the proposal is to deny people benefits who turn down a legitimate job.

a. Failure to meet a requirement to prepare for work (applicable to jobseekers and those in the Employment and Support Allowance Work-Related Activity Group) will lead to 100 per cent of payments ceasing until the recipient re-complies with requirements and for a fixed period after re-compliance (fixed period sanctions start at one week, rising to two, then four weeks with each subsequent failure to comply).

b. Failure to actively seek employment or be available for work will lead to payment ceasing for four weeks for a first failure and up to three months for a second.

c. The most serious failures that apply only to jobseekers will lead to Jobseeker’s Allowance payment ceasing for a fixed period of at least three months (longer for repeat offences). Actions that could trigger this level of penalty include failure to accept a reasonable job offer, failure to apply for a job or failure to attend Mandatory Work Activity.

The following podcasts and articles look at the details of the proposals and discuss their merits and drawbacks,

Podcasts and webcasts
Not going to work if you can is ‘not an option’ ITV, part of speech by Iain Duncan Smith (11/11/10)
IDS: Staying on benefits ‘irrational choice’ BBC Today Programme, Chris Buckler, Iain Duncan Smith Smith (11/11/10)
Iain Duncan Smith unveils new benefits system BBC News (11/11/10)
Welfare reform success ‘far from certain’ BBC Today Programme, Norman Smith (11/11/10)

Articles
Benefits system overhaul ‘to make work pay’ BBC News (11/11/10)
At-a-glance: Benefits overhaul BBC News (11/11/10)
Benefits explained: A basic guide to entitlements BBC News (11/11/10)
Is welfare reform doomed to fail? BBC News, Norman Smith (11/11/10)
A bold and principled approach to benefits Telegraph (11/11/10)
Reshaping the benefits system The Economist, Blighty blog (11/11/10)
Unemployment benefits shake-up ‘a fair deal’ Independent (11/11/10)
Tougher welfare sanctions spark ‘destitution’ warnings Independent (11/11/10)
Iain Duncan Smith: it’s a sin that people fail to take up work Guardian, Patrick Wintour, Randeep Ramesh and Hélène Mulholland (11/11/10)
Preacher Duncan Smith aims for holy grail of welfare policy Guardian, Randeep Ramesh (11/11/10)

Documents, official information and data
Universal Credit: welfare that works Department for Work and Pensions, Links to White Paper (11/11/10)
Benefits and financial support Directgov
Economic and Labour Market Review (see tables in Chapters 2 and 6), National Statistics

Questions
  1. Explain what is meant by the ‘poverty trap’ (or ‘welfare trap’).
  2. Summarise the reforms to benefits proposed in the White Paper.
  3. Examine whether the Coalition government’s proposal for a universal benefit will lead to greater fairness.
  4. Will a withdrawal rate of 65% provide a strong incentive for people out of work to take a job?
  5. Why may some be paying a combined tax-plus-lost-benefit rate of 76%?
  6. Why is there an inherent trade-off between making work pay (and thus eliminating the poverty trap) and keeping the cost of welfare benefits down? Would reducing the level of benefit be an appropriate answer to this trade-off?
  7. One aim of the benefits reform is to reduce unemployment. What type of unemployment is likely to be affected?
  8. Find out the current level of unemployment and the level of job vacancies and, in the light of this, comment on the likely effectiveness of the policy in reducing unemployment (a) shortly after the new system is introduced; (b) over the longer term.
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The deadweight loss of giving

In a recently published book, Scroogenomics, Joel Waldfogel, Professor of Business and Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, examines the economics of giving presents and considers whether we would be better off being Scrooges. This book brings to a general audience some of Professor Waldfogel’s work on giving. In a 1993 paper, he argued that holiday gift-giving involves a deadweight welfare loss. “I find that holiday gift-giving destroys between 10 per cent and a third of the value of gifts.” (See The Deadweight Welfare Loss of Christmas. Note: you should be able to access this from a UK university site if you are logged on.)

The core of his argument is that many gifts we give are not really what the person receiving it would have chosen. If you give someone a gift costing £10 for which the person would not have paid more than £6, then that is £4 wasted – a deadweight loss of £4.

So should we all be Scrooges and stop giving? Think of all money that would be saved and which could be spent on things that were more wanted. But wait a minute. What about the pleasure (i.e. utility) of giving? And what about the pure pleasure of receiving a gift, irrespective of the gift itself? Should these be added in to arrive at the total utility? Then there is the pleasure (or hassle) of shopping for the gift. Shouldn’t this be taken into account too? In other words, to establish deadweight loss, we need to take into account all the pleasures and displeasures of the process of giving and receiving.

Finally there is the question of whether better research on the part of the giver into the tastes of the receiver would enable them to choose more wanted gifts. Or should we simply give cash or gift tokens: at least these can be used by the recipient for whatever they choose?

Interview with Joel Waldfogel Princeton University Press, on YouTube

See also the following articles:
It’s not just Scrooge who wants Christmas abolished Financial Times, Tim Harford (20/11/09)
Stop blaming Grandma for cruddy Christmas presents Seattle Times, Joel Waldfogel (20/11/09)
It may not be the thought that counts Washington Post (22/11/09)
Economics of gift vouchers BBC News Magazine, Ruth Alexander (17/12/07)
The high cost of ugly, useless Christmas gifts Globe and Mail (Canada), Erin Anderssen (13/11/09)
Author’s argument that unappreciated gifts drag down economy isn’t Scroogish, it’s foolish Mlive.com, Nancy Crawley (8/11/09)
Give gold, not myrrh The Economist (21/12/09)

Questions

  1. What factors would need to be taken into account in attempting to measure the true deadweight loss of giving? Would this involve inter-personal comparisons of utility and, if so, what problems might arise from this?
  2. Examine whether it is better to give cash or gift tokens rather than a physical gift?
  3. Consider whether charitable donations would be the best form of gift to a friend or relative?
  4. One practice used in many families is the ‘secret Santa’. This is where everyone in the family secretly draws the name of another family member at random. They then buy a gift for this person and put the gift under the tree (or in a box). Thus each person gives just one gift and receives one gift and nobody knows who has given them their gift. Normally a maximum value of the gift is determined in advance. Consider the advantages and disadvantages of such as system. Is it a more efficient way of giving?
  5. What are the macroeconomic arguments for giving presents at Christmas time or at other festivals?
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Redefining economic growth

The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, has asked a panel of economists, including Joseph Stiglitz, to come up with new measures of the quality of life as an alternative to the more traditional measures of GDP and production. He believes that traditional GDP measures understate the developments that have taken place in France.

Sarkozy seeks le feel-good factor Times Online (10/1/08)
France seeks new growth measure BBC News Online (8/1/08)
Beyond GDP – odd numbers Conde Nast Portfolio.com (9/1/08)

Questions
1. Explain why traditional GDP measures may not be a good measure of the standard of living.
2. Define what is meant by an Index of Sustainable Welfare.
3. Use the ‘Make your own ISEW‘ on the Friends of the Earth web site to assess the factors that make the most difference to the standard of living.
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