46p – that buys you a First Class stamp. However, the price will now rise to 60p and the price of a Second Class stamp will increase to 50p from 36p, as Ofcom lifts some price caps. These significant price rises have seen shortages of stamps emerging across the country. As people anticipate the price rise, individuals and businesses are buying up stamps while they remain relatively cheap.
The problem is that this has started to result in a stamp shortage, so much so that the Royal Mail has now begun rationing retailers’ supply of stamps, capping each retailers’ supply this month to 20% of its annual allocation. A Royal Mail spokesman said:
“We are more than happy for retailers to receive the normal commercial return they obtain on stamps and no more than that … That is why we have put in place a prudent allocation policy to safeguard Royal Mail’s revenues and ensure there are more than enough stamps for people to buy both now and in the future.”
With postage volumes falling, as individuals turn to other methods of communication, Royal Mail says that this price rise is essential to keep this universal service going. Revenues have been low and the Royal Mail has been loss-making for some time.
However, while the price rise may help the Royal Mail, many businesses may suffer in its place. One optician, who sends out approximately 5,000 reminders to patients each year intends to bulk-buy 10,000 stamps in the hopes of saving some £1,400 when prices of stamps rise. An IT worker bought 20 books of 12 first-class stamps and said ‘If I could afford it, I would buy a lot more’. Many are unhappy at the ‘shameless profiteering at the public’s expense’, but whatever your opinion about the price rise, it does make for an interesting case of demand and supply. The following articles consider this stamp shortage.
Man’s 10,000 stamp panic: stampede for stamps leaves a 1st class mess as Royal Mail introduces rationing ahead of 30% price rise Mail Online, Colin Fernandez and John Stevens (15/4/12)
Stamps rationed by Royal Mail in run up to price rise (including video) BBC News (13/4/12)
Stamp rationing could hit pensioners Telegraph, James Hall (14/3/12)
Stamp sales limited ahead of price hike Sky News (13/4/12)
How stamp collecting came unstuck Guardian, Hunter Davies (13/4/12)
Royal Mail limits supply of stamps ahead of price rise Telegraph, James Hall and Andrew Hough (12/4/12)
’Profiteering’ Royal Mail limits supply of stamps before price rise Guardian, David Batty (13/4/12)
Royal Mail’s stamp price rises come into force BBC News (30/4/12)
How businesses will be affected by Royal Mail’s changing prices BBC News, Catherine Burns (28/4/12)
- If people expect prices to rise, what will happen to the demand curve? Illustrate this idea on a demand and supply diagram?
- If suppliers anticipate a price rise, what would their best strategy be?
- On a demand and supply diagram, illustrate the shortage of stamps that has emerged. If left to the free market, what should happen to the price of stamps?
- Why could pensioners and those in rural areas be the most adversely affected by this shortage and price rise?
- Why could ‘children and new collectors’ be priced out of the market?
- Why will small businesses be affected by this price hike? How could their customers be affected?
In the UK, we have a dominant public healthcare sector and a small private sector. In the blog Is an education monopoly efficient? we looked at the idea of an education monopoly and why that may create inefficiencies in the system in comparison with competitive private markets. Does the same argument hold for the market for healthcare? The NHS is largely a state monopoly, although market forces are used in certain areas, which does bring some benefits of competition. However, was the NHS to be privatized, would we see further efficiency gains? As we stated in the previously mentioned blog: ‘the more competition there is, the more of an incentive firms have to provide consumers with the best deal, in terms of quality, efficiency and hence price.’
Privatisation of the NHS has always been regarded with skepticism – of all the British welfare state institutions, the NHS is the most symbolic. However, we have recently seen a takeover of a NHS hospital by a private firm. It’s not privatisation, but it is a step towards a more privately run healthcare system.
Hinchingbrooke hospital in Cambridge is only small, but has a history of large debts – £40m and yet only a turnover of about £105m. This new strategy will still see the NHS owning the hospitals, but the private firm becoming liable for the hospital’s debts and essentially taking over the running of it. However, Circle aims to repay all the debts within 10 years and make a profit. There are many skeptics of this bold new approach, suggesting that Circle’s numbers don’t add up, especially with the flat NHS spending we’re going to see. However, the firm does have a positive track record in terms of making efficiency savings and whilst success will undoubtedly be a good thing – it may bring up some pertinent questions for the way in which the NHS is and should be run.
Hinchingbrooke hospital deal shakes up NHS Financial Times, Nicholas Timmins (10/11/11)
Failing NHS hospital is taken over by private firm for the first time in history Mail Online, Jenny Hope (11/11/11)
Andrew Lansley’s NHS is all about private sector hype Guardian, John Lister (11/11/11)
Circle clinches hospital management deal Reuters, Tim Castle (11/11/11)
Will profits come before patients in a hospital run by a private company? Independent, Oliver Wright (11/11/11)
Hospital group’s liabilities capped at £7m Financial Times, Sarah Neville and Gill Plimmer (10/11/11)
First privately run NHS hospital ‘is accident waiting to happen’ Guardian, Randeep Ramesh (10/11/11)
Government rejects hospital privatisation claims BBC News, Democracy Live (10/11/11)
- What are the benefits of competition?
- What are the market failures within the healthcare market? To what extent do you think that public sector provision (in the form of the NHS) is the most effective type of intervention?
- Is this just the first step towards privatisation of healthcare?
- Do you think private ownership of hospitals with significant debts is a good strategy?
- Why do you think Unison have argued that Circle’s takeover is ‘an accident waiting to happen’?
- Does privatisation mean that profits will be more important than patient care?
There has always been relatively widespread agreement that the best method to produce and finance education is via the government. Education is such a key service, with huge positive externalities, but information is far from perfect. If left to the individual, many would perhaps choose not to send their children to school. Whether it be because they lack the necessary information, they don’t value education or they need the money their child could earn by going out to work – perhaps they put the welfare of the whole family unit above the welfare of one child. However, with such large external benefits, the government intervenes by making education compulsory and goes a step further in many countries and provides and finances it too.
However, is this the right way to provide education? People like choice and the ability to exercise their consumer sovereignty. The more competition there is, the more of an incentive firms have to provide consumers with the best deal, in terms of quality, efficiency and hence price. We see this every day when we buy most goods. Many car salesrooms to visit – all the dealerships trying to offer us a better deal. Innovation in all industries – one phone is developed, only to be trumped by a slightly better one. This is only one of the many benefits of competition. Yet, education sectors are largely monopolies, run by the government. Many countries have a small private sector and there is substantial evidence to suggest that education standards in it are significantly higher. Research from Harvard University academics, covering 220,000 teenagers, suggests that competition from private schools improves achievement for all students. Martin West said:
“The more competition the state schools face for students, the stronger their incentive to perform at high levels…Our results suggest that students in state-run schools profit nearly as much from increased private school competition as do a nation’s students as a whole.”
The study concluded that an increase in the percentage of private school pupils made the education system more competitive and therefore more efficient, with an overall improvement in education standards. With so much evidence in favour of competition in other markets in addition to the above study, what makes education so different?
Or is it different? Should there be more competition in this sector – many economists, including Milton Friedman, say yes. He proposed a voucher scheme, whereby parents were given a voucher to cover the cost of sending their child to school. However, the parents could decide which school they sent their child to – a private one or a state run school. This meant that schools were in direct competition with each other to attract parents, their children and hence their money. Voucher schemes have been trialed in several places, most prominently in Sweden, where the independent sector has significantly expanded and results have improved. Is this a good policy? Should it be expanded and implemented in countries such as the UK and US? The following articles consider this.
School Competition rescues kids: the government’s virtual monopoly over K-12 education has failed Hawaii Reporter, John Stossel (30/10/11)
Private schools boosts national exam results Guardian, Jessica Shepherd (15/9/10)
Can the private sector play a helpful role in education? Osiris (10/8/11)
Voucher critics are misleading the public Tribune Review, TribLive, Joy Pullmann (30/10/11)
Vouchers beat status quo The Times Tribune (29/10/11)
Why are we allowing kids to be held hostage by a government monopoly? Fox News, John Stossel (26/10/11)
Free Schools – freedom to privatise education The Socialist (26/10/11)
Anyone noticed the Tories are ‘nationalising’ schools? Guardian, Mike Baker (17/10/11)
School Choice works: The case of Sweden Milton & Rose D Friedman Foundation, Frederick Bergstrom and Mikael Sandstrom (December 2002)
- What are the general benefits of competition?
- How does competition in the education market improve efficiency and hence exam results? Think about results in the private sector.
- What is the idea of a voucher scheme? How do you think it will affect the efficiency of the sector?
- What do you think would happen to equity in if a scheme such as the voucher programme was implemented in the UK?
- How do you think UK families would react to the introduction of a voucher scheme?
- What other policies have been implemented in the UK to create more competition in the education sector? To what extent have they been effective?
Inequality is growing in most countries. This can be illustrated by examining what has been happening to countries’ Gini coefficient. The Gini coefficient measures income inequality, where 0.00 represents perfect equality, with everyone in the country earning the same, and 1.00 represent perfect inequality, with one person earning all the country’s income. (Note that sometimes it is expressed as the ‘Gini index’, with 100 representing perfect inequality). In virtually all countries, the Gini coefficient has been rising. In the OECD countries it has risen by an average of 0.3% per annum over the past 25 years. The OECD average is now 0.31.
But despite the fact that the Gini coefficient has been rising, its value differs markedly from one country to another, as does its rate of change. For example, Finland’s Gini coefficient, at 0.26, is below the average, but it has been rising by 1.2% per annum. By contrast, Turkey’s Gini coefficient, at 0.41, is above the average and yet has been falling by 0.3% per annum.
The most unequal of the developed countries is the USA. According to OECD data, its Gini coefficient is 0.38, well above the values in the UK (0.34), Japan (0.33), Germany (0.30) France (0.29) and Denmark (0.26). What is more, inequality in the USA has been increasing by an average of 0.5% per annum since the mid 1980s.
According to the United Nations’ Human Development Report 2010, the USA’s Gini coefficient is even higher, at 0.41 (see Table 3 of the report). But this is still below that of Russia, with a figure of 0.44, a figure that has markedly worsened over time, along with those of other former Soviet countries. According to the report (page 72):
The worsening is especially marked in countries that were part of the former Soviet Union – which still have relatively low Gini coefficients because they started with low inequality. Transition has eroded employment guarantees and ended extensive state employment. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9 of 10 people in socialist countries were employed by the state, compared with 2 of 10 in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development economies. While the privileged elite (the nomenklatura) often attained higher material well-being, the measured differences in income were narrow.
The Gini coefficient for Russia is the same as the average of the 39 developing countries with the lowest level of human development &nbash; and developing countries are generally much less equal than developed ones. Of course, some developing countries have an even higher Gini coefficient: for Angola the figure is 0.59; for Haiti it is 0.60.
The following three webcasts look at aspects of the growing inequality in Russia.
Gap between rich and poor widens in Russia BBC News, Jamie Robertson (29/5/11)
Corruption slows Russian modernisation BBC News, Emma Simpson (29/5/11)
Corruption and poverty in Russia’s far east Al Jazeera (28/2/11)
Russia’s rich double their wealth, but poor were better off in 1990s Guardian, Tom Parfitt (11/4/11)
Russia’s growing wealth gap BBC News, Jamie Robertson (28/5/11)
A Country of Beggars and Choosers Russia Profile, Svetlana Kononova (16/5/11)
Rich and poor, growing apart The Economist (3/5/11)
Distribution of family income – Gini Index CIA World Factbook (ranked by country in desending order)
Society at a Glance 2011 – OECD Social Indicators OECD: see particularly the Excel file 6. Equity Indicators: Income inequality (click on No if prompted about a linked workbook)
Russia Distribution of family income – Gini index Index Mundi
Chart of the week: inflation stoking inequality in China and India Financial Times, Andrew Whiffin (24/5/11)
List of countries by income equality Wikipedia
Growing Income Inequality in OECD Countries: What Drives it and How Can Policy Tackle it? OECD Forum on Tackling Inequality (2/5/11)
Human Development Report 2010 United Nations Development Programme
- Explain what is meant by the Gini coefficient. How does it relate to the Lorenz curve? What does a figure of 0.31 mean?
- Why has income inequality been growing in most countries of the world? Has the process of globalisation dampened or exacerbated this trend?
- What specific factors in Russia can explain the growing inequality?
- How is privatisation likely to affect income distribution??
- Why is it difficult to quantify the extent of inequality in Russia?
- What maxim of taxation has been used in setting income tax rates in Russia?
- What role does corruption play in determining the degree of inequality in Russia?
- What policy measures, if any, could realistically be adopted in Russia to reduce inequality? What constraints are there on adopting such policies?
What is the future of the Royal Mail? One thing for certain is that it needs an injection of money, which has led the government to consider either privatisation of the Royal Mail or selling it. Over the past years, we have seen continued strikes by the postal service in response to proposed changes in working practices. Mr. Cable commented that:
‘Royal Mail is facing a combination of potentially lethal challenges – falling mail volumes, low investment, not enough efficiency and a dire pension position.’
However, there are concerns that the privatisation or sale of the Royal Mail could lead to higher prices, job losses and further pension problems. The transfer of the Royal Mail to the highest bidder could shift the pension deficit, currently standing at £13.3 billion, to the taxpayer, potentially costing each taxpayer £400. The choice for the public is stark: either lose the right to send a letter anywhere in the UK for the same price or take on postal workers’ pensions.
Expecting massive opposition from the Communication Workers Union (CWU), Ministers are looking to pursue an arrangement similar to that of John Lewis, whereby staff are given shares in the company. This will give the staff an incentive to perform well to improve the performance of the company and hence increase their future dividend. Read the following articles and then try answering the questions that follow.
Royal Mail is to be privatised, government confirms BBC News (10/9/10)
Royal Mail sell-off is confirmed BBC News, Hugh Pym (10/9/10)
Royal Mail privatisation backed Press Association (10/7/10)
Royal Mail sale could cost £400 per home as taxpayers set to fund £13.3 billion pension deficit Mail Online, James Chapman (10/9/10)
Royal Mail pension plan challenged by regulator BBC News, Ian Pollock (30/7/10)
Ministers consider offering 20 per cent of shares in Royal Mail to staff Telegraph, Christopher Hope (10/9/10)
Cable to privatise ‘inefficient’ Royal Mail Independent, Cahal Milmo and Alistair Dawber (11/9/10)
Royal Mail revolution needed, say bankers Telegraph, Louise Armitstead (10/9/10)
- What are the problems that the Royal Mail is facing? Why have they occurred?
- What are the arguments for and against privatisation of the Royal Mail?
- How might privatisation lead to job losses and higher prices?
- What type of business arrangement does John Lewis have? Explain why this may improve overall performance of the company?
- If the pension deficit is passed on to the government, why will it cost the taxpayer? Is such an arrangement (a) efficient (b) equitable? Explain your answer.