With first Houston, then several Caribbean islands and Florida suffering dreadful flooding and destruction from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, many are questioning whether more should be spent on flood prevention and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Economists would normally argue that such questions are answered by conducting a cost–benefit analysis.
However, even if the size of the costs and benefits of such policies could be measured, this would not be enough to give the answer. Whether such spending is justified would depend on the social rate of discount. But what the rate should be in cost-benefit analyses is a highly contested issue, especially when the benefits occur a long time in the future.
I you ask the question today, ‘should more have been spent on flood prevention in Houston and Miami?’, the answer would almost certainly be yes, even if the decision had to have been taken many years ago, given the time it takes to plan and construct such defences. But if you asked people, say, 15 years ago whether such expenditure should be undertaken, many would have said no, given that the protection would be provided quite a long time in the future. Also many people back then would doubt that the defences would be necessary and many would not be planning to live there indefinitely.
This is the familiar problem of people valuing costs and benefits in the future less than costs and benefits occurring today. To account for this, costs and benefits in the future are discounted by an annual rate to reduce them to a present value.
But with costs and benefits occurring a long time in the future, especially from measures to reduce carbon emissions, the present value is very sensitive to the rate of discount chosen. But choosing the rate of discount is fraught with difficulties.
Some argue that a social rate of discount should be similar to long-term market rates. But market rates reflect only the current generation’s private preferences. They do not reflect the costs and benefits to future generations. A social rate of discount that did take their interests into account would be much lower and could even be argued to be zero – or negative with a growing population.
Against this, however, has to be set the possibility that future generations will be richer than the current one and will therefore value a dollar (or any other currency) less than today’s generation.
However, it is also likely, if the trend of recent decades is to continue, that economic growth will be largely confined to the rich and that the poor will be little better off, if at all. And it is the poor who often suffer the most from natural disasters. Just look, for example, at the much higher personal devastation suffered from hurricane Irma by the poor on many Caribbean islands compared with those in comparatively wealthy Florida.
A low or zero discount rate would make many environmental projects socially profitable, even though they would not be with a higher rate. The choice of rate is thus crucial to the welfare of future generations who are likely to bear the brunt of climate change.
But just how should the social rate of discount be chosen? The following two articles explore the issue.
How Much Is the Future Worth? Slate, Will Oremus (1/9/17)
Climate changes the debate: The impact of demographics on long-term discount rates Vox, Eli P Fenichel, Matthew Kotchen and Ethan T Addicott (20/8/17)
- What is meant by the social rate of discount?
- Why does the choice of a lower rate of social discount imply a more aggressive climate policy?
- How is the distribution of the benefits and costs of measures to reduce carbon emissions between rich and poor relevant in choosing the social rate of discount of such measures?
- How is the distribution of the benefits of such measures between current and future generations relevant in choosing the rate?
- How is uncertainty about the magnitude of the costs and benefits relevant in choosing the rate?
- What is the difference between Stern’s and Nordhaus’ analyses of the choice of social discount rate?
- Explain and discuss the ‘mortality-based approach’ to estimating social discount rates.
- What are the arguments ‘for economists analysing climate change through the lens of minimising risk, rather than maximizing utility’?
Following concerns about the market power of the Big Six energy suppliers in the UK and high prices for gas and electricity, the industry regulator, Ofgem, referred the industry to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in June 2014. The CMA published its final report in June 2016. This argued that while there was sufficient potential for competition, consumers nevertheless needed further encouragement to switch suppliers. This would strengthen competition in the market.
To encourage switching, the CMA proposed the creation of a database that would include the details of customers who have been on a supplier’s standard variable tariff (SVT) for three or more years. Competitor energy suppliers would have access to this database to offer better deals for these customers.
There had already been calls for price caps to be imposed on suppliers. For example, in the run-up to the 2015 general election, the then Labour leader, Ed Miliband, proposed imposing a price freeze. This was criticised by the Conservatives for being too anti-market, that it would encourage energy companies to raise prices prior to the freeze and that it would be of no benefit in times of falling wholesale energy prices (which was the position in 2015).
Indeed, in its 2016 report, the CMA recommended price caps only for the 16% of people on prepayment meters and these would be variable caps not freezes. This was followed in February 2017, by Ofgem’s announcement that a temporary price cap for such customers would come into effect in April 2017. The level of the cap would vary by meter type and region. It would also be reviewed every six months to reflect changes in costs and remain in place until 2020. There would be no cap on other customers.
But in the run-up to the 2017 election, the Conservatives announced that they would, after all, introduce a price cap on SVTs – 66% of customers are on such tariffs. Before the details were announced, there was much speculation as to what form such a cap would take? It would not be a simple freeze. But there was debate as to whether caps would vary with wholesale costs or whether they would be relative to the company’s lowest tariffs or to those of its rivals.
As it turned out, the proposal was for a cap on standard variable tariffs. It would be set by Ofgem and reviewed every six months. The cap would be based on the cheapest standard variable tariffs in each part of the UK, taking into account the variable costs for transporting energy there. Ofgem will adjust the cap every six months to reflect changes in the wholesale cost of energy.
Articles before details were anniunced
U.K. Energy Industry Faults May’s Election Pledge to Cap Prices Bloomberg, Rakteem Katakey (23/4/17)
Conservatives promise to cap prices in UK energy market Financial Times, Jim Pickard and Nathalie Thomas (23/4/17)
How might an energy price cap work? BBC News, Brian Milligan (24/4/17)
UK government vows strong action to rein in energy companies The Guardian, Adam Vaughan (19/4/17)
Energy bills: what’s the difference between Tory cap and Miliband freeze? The Guardian, Adam Vaughan (23/4/17)
Capping energy prices? Still a bad idea Adam Smith Institute blogs, Sam Dumitriu (25/4/17)
Bulb becomes ‘first’ provider to cut energy prices this year Moneywise (24/4/17)
Experts slam Conservative plans to cap energy bills as ‘clumsy and counterproductive’ The Telegraph, Lauren Davidson (23/4/17)
Capping energy tariffs isn’t a one-way ticket to Venezuelan-style economic ruin Independent, Ben Chu (25/4/17)
Articles after details were anniunced
Conservatives defend plans to cap UK energy bills Financial Times, Jim Pickard and Nathalie Thomas (9/5/17)
What is the energy price cap – and what does it mean for bills? The Telegraph, Jillian Ambrose (9/5/17)
The new energy price cap con? The Telegraph, Jillian Ambrose (9/5/17)
May defends plan to cap ‘rip-off energy bills’ BBC News (9/5/17)
Q&A: The Tory plan to cap energy prices BBC News, Brian Milligan (9/5/17)
Energy prices could still go up under Theresa May’s price cap plans, admits Business Secretary Greg Clark Independent, Rob Merrick (9/5/17)
Tory claims over energy price cap are just hot air The Guardian, Nils Pratley (9/5/17)
Video and audio
UK government energy price cap ‘sheer politics’: Bernstein CNBC, Deepa Venkateswaran and Andrew Sentance (25/4/17)
Energy UK: price cap could backfire Sky News, Lawrence Slade (24/4/17)
Scottish Power: Capping prices ‘damages customers’ BBC News, Keith Anderson (24/4/17)
Tories to pledge energy bill cap BBC News, Michael Fallon (24/4/17)
Tories: Energy cap will protect vulnerable people BBC Today Programme, Business Secretary Greg Clark (9/5/17)
Energy cap: good or bad for consumers? Sky News, Stephen Fitzpatrick and James Kirkup (9/5/17)
- What scope is there for tacit collusion between the Big Six energy suppliers?
- What is meant by the RPI–X price cap? How does it differ from proposals being considered by the government?
- Why are people often reluctant to switch energy supplier?
- How could people be encouraged to switch supplier?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of imposing a price cap for SVTs (a) relative to costs; (b) relative to lower-priced tariffs?
- Comment on Centrica’s chief executive officer Iain Conn’s statement that “price regulation will result in reduced competition and choice, and potentially impact customer service”.
- Comment on the statement by Lawrence Slade, chief executive officer of Energy UK, that intervention would create “huge uncertainty around government intentions, potentially putting at risk the billions in investment and jobs needed to renew our energy system”.
- Would an announcement of the introduction of a price cap in the near future necessarily encourage energy companies to raise their price now?
The UK Parliament’s Culture Media and Sport Select Committee has been examining the secondary ticketing market. The secondary market for events is dominated by four agencies – viagogo, eBay-owned StubHub and Ticket-master’s Get Me In! and Seatwave. These buy tickets to events in the primary market (i.e. from the events or their agents) and then resell them, normally at considerably inflated prices to people unable to get tickets in the primary market.
One example has grabbed the headlines recently. This is where viagogo was advertising tickets for an Ed Sheeran charity concert for £5000. The original tickets were sold for between £40 and £110, with the money going to the Teenage Cancer Trust. None of viagogo’s profits would go to the charity. The tickets were marked ‘not for resale’; so there was doubt that anyone buying a ticket from viagogo would even be able to get into the concert!
There are four major issues.
The first is that the tickets are often sold, as in the case of the Ed Sheeran concert, at many times their face value. We examined this issue back in September 2016 in the blog What the market will bear? Secondary markets and ticket touts).
The second is that the secondary sites use ‘bots’ to buy tickets in bulk when they first come on sale. This makes it much harder for customers to buy tickets on the primary site. Often all the tickets are sold within seconds of coming on sale.
The third is whether the tickets sold on the secondary market are legitimate. Some, like the Ed Sheeran tickets, are marked ‘not for resale’; some are paperless and yet the secondary ticket agencies are accused of selling paper versions, which are worthless.
The fourth is that multiple seats that are listed together are not always located together and so people attending with friends or partners may be forced to sit separately.
These are the issues that were addressed by the Culture Media and Sport committee at its meeting on 21 March. It was due to take evidence from various people, including viagogo, the agency which has come in for the most criticism. Viagogo, however, decided not to attend. This has drawn withering criticism from the press and on social media. One of the other witnesses at the meeting, Keith Kenny, sales and ticketing director for the West End musical Hamilton, described viagogo as ‘a blot on the landscape’. He said, ‘Ultimately, our terms and conditions say ticket reselling is forbidden. If you look at the way that glossy, sneaky site is constructed, they’ve gone an awful long way not to be compliant in the way they’ve built their site.’
The Competition and Markets Authority launched an enforcement investigation last December into suspected breaches of consumer protection law in the online secondary tickets market. This follows on from an earlier report for the government by an independent review chaired by Professor Waterson.
The government itself is considering amending the Digital Economy Bill to make it illegal to use bots to buy tickets in excess of the limit set by the event. Online touts who break this new law would face unlimited fines.
Touts to face unlimited fines for bulk-buying tickets online Independent, Roisin O’Connor (13/3/17)
Unlimited fines for bulk buying ticket touts BBC News (11/3/17)
Ticket touts face unlimited fines for using ‘bots’ to buy in bulk The Guardian, Rob Davies (10/3/17)
Ticket touts face unlimited fines in government crackdown on bots Music Week, James Hanley (11/3/17)
Government confirms bots ban and better enforcement in response to secondary ticketing review CMU, Chris Cooke (13/3/17)
The ‘Viagogo Glitch’: Why Fans Must Be Put First In The Secondary Ticketing Market Huffington Post, Sharon Hodgson (14/3/17)
Angry MPs accuse no-show Viagogo of ‘fraudulent mis-selling’ of Ed Sheeran tickets i News, Adam Sherwin (21/3/17)
Ed Sheeran’s manager Stuart Camp on secondary ticketing BBC News, Stuart Camp (21/3/17)
Fury at Viagogo no-show as MPs probe tickets on sale for thousands Coventry Telegraph, James Rodger (22/3/17)
Music fans given 10-step guide on how to tackle ticket touts Daily Record, Mark McGivern (20/3/17)
Viagogo snubs MPs’ inquiry into online ticket reselling The Guardian, Rob Davies (21/3/17)
Viagogo a No-Show at U.K. Hearing Into Secondary Ticketing: ‘Huge Lack of Respect’ Billboard, Richard Smirke (21/3/17)
Daily Record campaign against ticket touts reaches Parliament but Viagogo don’t show up to answer claims Daily Record, Torcuil Crichton and Keith McLeod (22/3/17)
Ticketmaster is using its software — and your data — to take on ticket-buying bots recode, Peter Kafka (14/3/17)
Official sites and documents
The Culture, Media and Sport Committee holds a further evidence session on ticket abuse. Culture, Media and Sport Commons Select Committee (20/3/17)
CMA launches enforcement investigation into online secondary ticketing Competition and Markets Authority, Press Release (19/12/16)
Independent Review of Consumer Protection Measures concerning Online Secondary Ticketing Facilities Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Professor Michael Waterson (May 2016)
Ticket abuse: ban digital ‘harvesting’ software says Committee Culture, Media and Sport Commons Select Committee (24/11/16)
- Use a demand and supply diagram to demonstrate how secondary ticket agencies are able to sell tickets for popular events at prices several times the tickets’ face value.
- If secondary ticket sites and ticket touts are able to sell tickets at well above box office prices, isn’t this simply a reflection of people’s willingness to pay (i.e. their marginal utility)? In which case, aren’t these sellers providing a useful service?
- How do secondary ticket agencies reduce consumer surplus? Could they reduce it to zero?
- See Tickets, the primary market ticket agency, has set up a secondary site, whereby fans can trade tickets with one another at a mark-up capped at just 5%. Will this help to reduce abuses on the secondary market, or is it a totally separate part of the market?
- Would it be a good idea for event organisers to charge higher prices for popular events than they do at present, but still below the equilibrium?
- How does the price elasticity of demand influence the mark-up that secondary ticket agencies can make? Illustrate this on a diagram similar to the one in question 1.
- What measures would you advocate to make tickets more available to the public at reasonable prices? Explain their benefits and any drawbacks.
- What would be the effect on prices if the use of bots could be successfully banned?
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.
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)
- Why has globalisation become a dirty word?
- Assess the arguments for and against an open policy towards immigration?
- In what positive ways may economists contribute to populism?
- Do economists concentrate too much on growth in GDP rather than on its distribution?
- Give some examples of ways in which various popular interpretations of economic phenomena may confuse correlation with causality.
- 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?
- In what ways have economists and the subject of economics contributed towards a growth in human welfare?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of the trend for undergraduate economics curricula to become more mathematical (at least until relatively recently)?
Many politicians throughout the world,
not just on the centre and left, are arguing for increased spending on infrastructure. This was one of the key proposals of Donald Trump during his election campaign. In his election manifesto he pledged to “Transform America’s crumbling infrastructure into a golden opportunity for accelerated economic growth and more rapid productivity gains”.
Increased spending on inffrastructure has both demand- and supply-side effects.
Unless matched by cuts elsewhere, such spending will increase aggregate demand and could have a high multiplier effect if most of the inputs are domestic. Also there could be accelerator effects as the projects may stimulate private investment.
On the supply side, well-targeted infrastructure spending can directly increase productivity and cut costs of logistics and communications.
The combination of the demand- and supply-side effects could increase both potential and actual output and reduce unemployment.
So, if infrastructure projects can have such beneficial effects, why are politicians often so reluctant to give them the go-ahead?
Part of the problem is one of timing. The costs occur in the short run. These include demolition, construction and disruption. The direct benefits occur in the longer term, once the project is complete. And for complex projects this may be many years hence. It is true that demand-side benefits start to occur once construction has begun, but these benefits are widely dispersed and not easy to identify directly with the project.
Then there is the problem of externalities. The external costs of projects may include environmental costs and costs to local residents. This can lead to protests, public hearings and the need for detailed cost–benefit analysis. This can delay or even prevent projects from occurring.
The external benefits are to non-users of the project, such as a new bridge or bypass reducing congestion for users of existing routes. These make the private construction of many projects unprofitable, except with public subsidies or with public–private partnerships. So there does need to be a macroeconomic policy that favours publicly-funded infrastructure projects.
One type of investment that is less disruptive and can have shorter-term benefits is maintenance investment. Maintenance expenditure can avoid much more costly rebuilding expenditure later on. But this is often the first type of expenditure to be cut when public-sector budgets as squeezed, whether at the local or national level.
The problem of lack of infrastructure investment is very much a political problem. The politicians who give the go-ahead to such projects, such as high-speed rail, come in for criticisms from those bearing the short-run costs but they are gone from office once the benefits start to occur. They get the criticism but not the praise.
Are big infrastructure projects castles in the air or bridges to nowhere? The Economist, Buttonwood’s notebook (16/1/17)
Trump’s plans to rebuild America are misguided and harmful. This is how we should do it. The Washington Post, Lawrence H. Summers (17/1/17)
- Identify the types of externality from (a) a new high-speed rail line, (b) new hospitals.
- How is discounting relevant to decisions about public-sector projects?
- Why are governments often unwilling to undertake (a) new infrastructure projects, (b) maintenance projects?
- Is a programme of infrastructure investment necessarily a Keynesian policy?
- What accelerator effects would you expect from infrastructure investment?
- Explain the difference between the ‘spill-out’ and ‘pull-in’ effects of different types of public investments in a specific location. Is it possible for a project to have both effects?
- What answer would you give to the teacher who asked the following question of US Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers? “The paint is chipping off the walls of this school, not off the walls at McDonald’s or the movie theatre. So why should the kids believe this society thinks their education is the most important thing?”
- What is the ‘bridge to nowhere’ problem? Why does it occur and what are the solutions to it?
- Why is the ‘castles in the air’ element of private projects during a boom an example of the fallacy of composition?