Since the financial crisis of 2008–9, the UK has experienced the lowest growth in productivity for the past 250 years. This is the conclusion of a recent paper published in the National Institute Economics Review. Titled, Is the UK Productivity Slowdown Unprecedented, the authors, Nicholas Crafts of the University of Sussex and Terence C Mills of Loughborough University, argue that ‘the current productivity slowdown has resulted in productivity being 19.7 per cent below the pre-2008 trend path in 2018. This is nearly double the previous worst productivity shortfall ten years after the start of a downturn.’
According to ONS figures, productivity (output per hour worked) peaked in 2007 Q4. It did not regain this level until 2011 Q1 and by 2019 Q3 was still only 2.4% above the 2007 Q4 level. This represents an average annual growth rate over the period of just 0.28%. By contrast, the average annual growth rate of productivity for the 35 years prior to 2007 was 2.30%.
The chart illustrates this and shows the productivity gap, which is the amount by which output per hour is below trend output per hour from 1971 to 2007. By 2019 Q3 this gap was 27.5%. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) Clearly, this lack of growth in productivity over the past 12 years has severe implications for living standards. Labour productivity is a key determinant of potential GDP, which, in turn, is the major limiter of actual GDP.
Crafts and Mills explore the reasons for this dramatic slowdown in productivity. They identify three primary reasons.
The first is a slowdown in the impact of developments in ICT on productivity. The office and production revolutions that developments in computing and its uses had brought about have now become universal. New developments in ICT are now largely in terms of greater speed of computing and greater sophistication of software. Perhaps with an acceleration in the development of artificial intelligence and robotics, productivity growth may well increase in the relatively near future (see third article below).
The second cause is the prolonged impact of the banking crisis, with banks more cautious about lending and firms more cautious about borrowing for investment. What is more, the decline in investment directly impacts on potential output, and layoffs or restructuring can leave people with redundant skills. There is a hysteresis effect.
The third cause identified by Crafts and Mills is Brexit. Brexit and the uncertainty surrounding it has resulted in a decline in investment and ‘a diversion of top-management time towards Brexit planning and a relative shrinking of highly-productive exporters compared with less productive domestically orientated firms’.
- How suitable is output (GDP) per hour as a measure of labour productivity?
- Compare this measure of productivity with other measures.
- According to Crafts and Mills, what is the size of the impact of each of their three explanations of the productivity slowdown?
- Would you expect the growth in productivity to return to pre-2007 levels over the coming years? Explain.
- Explain the underlying model for obtaining trend productivity growth rates used by Crafts and Mills.
- Explain and comment on each of the six figures in the Crafts and Mills paper.
- What policies should the government adopt to increase productivity growth?
How to get the most from your money? This is the question posed by the linked article below. It’s a topic we’ve looked at in previous posts, such as Studies show that money can buy happiness (but only if you spend on experiences), Happiness economics and Peak stuff. This article takes the arguments further.
It suggests that, up to a certain level of income, there is a roughly linear relationship between money and life satisfaction. As poor people have more to spend, so they can begin to escape poverty and the negative features of financial insecurity and a lack of basic necessities, such as food and shelter. They also gain a greater freedom to choose what and when to buy. Beyond a certain level, however, the rate of increase in life satisfaction tends to decline, as does the specific pleasure from additional individual purchases. In economists’ language, the marginal utility of income diminishes.
But the article goes further than this. It suggests that satisfaction or happiness is of two broad types. The first is the general sense of well-being that people get from their life. This tends to be relatively stable for any given person, but will tend to increase as people have more money to spend or have more fulfilling jobs. Of course, there may well be a trade-off between income and job satisfaction. Some people may prefer to take a cut in pay for a more fulfilling job.
The second is the satisfaction or happiness you get from specific experiences. This tends to fluctuate on a day-to-day basis, depending on what you are doing. Here, what you purchase and the use you make of the purchases is a key component.
So what lessons are there for earning and spending money wisely? To start with, it is important to get a good work-life balance. It may be worth trading income for job satisfaction. Here the focus should be on long-term fulfilment, rather than on the short-term happiness from more ‘stuff’. Then it is important to spend money wisely. Here the author identifies three lessons:
The first is to consider buying time. Time-saving purchases, such as dishwashers can help. So too can ‘outsourcing’ activities, such as cleaning, laundry, cooking, DIY or child care, if they give you more time to do other more fulfilling things (but not if you love doing them!).
The second is to spend more money on experiences (as we saw in the post Studies show that money can buy happiness (but only if you spend on experiences). A better TV or car may seem like a wiser investment than more dinners out, holidays or going to concerts. But we quickly adapt to new upgraded ‘stuff’, thereby eliminating any additional satisfaction. Experiences, however, tend to linger in the memory. As Tom Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, is quoted by the article as saying:
Even though, in a material sense, they [experiences] come and go, they live on in the stories we tell, the relationships we cement, and ultimately in the sense of who we are.
Choosing a more fulfilling but less well-paid job is a form of spending money on experiences.
The third is to give some of your money away, whether to charity or to helping friends or relatives. As Gilovich says:
It’s hard to find a more charming finding than that by giving away money, you not only make someone else happier, you make yourself happier.
- What is meant by ‘diminishing marginal utility of income’? Is the concept consistent with the arguments in the article?
- In what sense may it be rational to choose a lower-paid job?
- Is ‘happiness’ the same as ‘utility’ as the concept is used by economists?
- Does the concept of ‘peak stuff’ apply to all physical products? Explain your answer.
- If giving money away makes a person happy, is it truly altruistic for that person to do so? Explain.
Economists are often criticised for making inaccurate forecasts and for making false assumptions. Their analysis is frequently dismissed by politicians when it contradicts their own views.
But is this fair? Have economists responded to the realities of the global economy and to the behaviour of people, firms, institutions and government as they respond to economic circumstances? The answer is a qualified yes.
Behavioural economics is increasingly challenging the simple assumption that people are ‘rational’, in the sense that they maximise their self interest by weighing up the marginal costs and benefits of alternatives open to them. And macroeconomic models are evolving to take account of a range of drivers of global growth and the business cycle.
The linked article and podcast below look at the views of 2019 Nobel Prize-winning economist Esther Duflo. She has challenged some of the traditional assumptions of economics about the nature of rationality and what motivates people. But her work is still very much in the tradition of economists. She examines evidence and sees how people respond to incentives and then derives policy implications from the analysis.
Take the case of the mobility of labour. She examines why people who lose their jobs may not always move to a new one if it’s in a different town. Partly this is for financial reasons – moving is costly and housing may be more expensive where the new job is located. Partly, however, it is for reasons of identity. Many people are attached to where they currently live. They may be reluctant to leave family and friends and familiar surroundings and hope that a new job will turn up – even if it means a cut in wages. This is not irrational; it just means that people are driven by more than simply wages.
Duflo is doing what economists typically do – examining behaviour in the light of evidence. In her case, she is revisiting the concept of rationality to take account of evidence on what motivates people and the way they behave.
In the light of workers’ motivation, she considers the implications for the gains from trade. Is free trade policy necessarily desirable if people lose their jobs because of cheap imports from China and other developing countries where labour costs are low?
The answer is not a clear yes or no, as import-competing industries are only part of the story. If protectionist policies are pursued, other countries may retaliate with protectionist policies themselves. In such cases, people working in the export sector may lose their jobs.
She also looks at how people may respond to a rise or cut in tax rates. Again the answer is not clear cut and an examination of empirical evidence is necessary to devise appropriate policy. Not only is there an income and substitution effect from tax changes, but people are motivated to work by factors other than take-home pay. Likewise, firms are encouraged to invest by factors other than the simple post-tax profitability of investment.
- In traditional ‘neoclassical’ economics, what is meant by ‘rationality’ in terms of (a) consumer behaviour; (b) producer behaviour?
- How might the concept of rationality be expanded to take into account a whole range of factors other than the direct costs and benefits of a decision?
- What is meant by bounded rationality?
- What would be the effect on workers’ willingness to work more or fewer hours as a result of a cut in the marginal income tax rate if (a) the income effect was greater than the substitution effect; (b) the substitution effect was greater than the income effect? Would your answers to (a) and (b) be the opposite in the case of a rise in the marginal income tax rate?
- Give some arguments that you consider to be legitimate for imposing controls on imports in (a) the short run; (b) the long run. How might you counter these arguments from a free-trade perspective?
With university fees for home students in England of £9250 per year and with many students receiving maintenance loans of around £9000 per year, many students are graduating with debts in excess of £50 000. Loans are repaid at a marginal rate of 9% on incomes over £25 716.
Many students also study for a masters degree. The average fee for a taught, classroom-based masters (MA) is £7392 and for a laboratory-based masters (MSc) is £8167 but can be considerably higher at some prestigious universities where demand is high. Government loans of up to £10 906 are available to contribute towards fees and maintenance. These are paid back at a marginal rate of 6% for people earning over £21 000, giving a combined marginal rate of 15% for first and masters degrees.
For high earners on the 40% income tax rate, the combined marginal rate of payment out of income is 40% tax, plus 2% national insurance, plus 15% for those with undergraduate and masters loans. This gives a combined marginal rate of 57%.
Average student debt in England is higher even than in the USA, where the average is $37 000. US university courses are more expensive than in the UK, costing an average of $34 000 per year in tuition alone. But undergraduates can borrow less. They can borrow between $5500 and $12 500 per year in federal loans towards both fees and maintenance, and some private loans are also available. Most students do some paid work during their studies to make up the difference or rely on parents contributing. Parental contributions mean that students from poor families end up owing more. According to a Guardian article:
Race is a huge factor. Black students owe an average of $7400 more than white students when they graduate, the Brookings Institution found. After graduation, the debt gap continues to widen. Four years after graduation, black graduates owe an average of nearly $53 000 – nearly double that of white graduates.
Student debt looks to become one of the key issues in the 2020 US presidential election.
Pressure to cancel student fees and debt in the USA
Most of the Democratic candidates are promising to address student fees and debt. Student debt, they claim, places an unfair burden on the younger generation and makes it hard for people to buy a house, or car or other major consumer durables. This also has a dampening effect on aggregate demand.
The most radical proposal comes from Bernie Sanders. He has vowed, if elected, to abolish student fees and to cancel all undergraduate and graduate debt of all Americans. Other candidates are promising to cut fees and/or debt.
Although most politicians and commentators agree that the USA has a serious problem of student debt, there is little agreement on what, if anything, to do about it. There are already a number of ways in which student debt can be written off or reduced. For example, if you work in the public sector for more than 10 years, remaining debt will be cancelled. However, none of the existing schemes is as radical as that being proposed by many Democrats.
Criticisms of the Democrats’ plans are mainly of two types.
The first is the sheer cost. Overall debt is around $1.6tn. What is more, making student tuition free would place a huge ongoing burden on government finances. Bernie Sanders proposes introducing a financial transactions tax on stock trading. This would be similar to a Tobin tax (sometimes dubbed a ‘Robin Hood tax’) and would include a 0.5% tax on stock transactions, a 0.1% tax on bond trades and a 0.005% tax on transactions in derivatives. He argues that the public bailed out the financial sector in 2008 and that it is now the turn of the financial sector to come to the aid of students and graduates.
The other type of criticism concerns the incentive effects of the proposal. The core of the criticism is that loan forgiveness involves moral hazard.
The moral hazard of loan forgiveness
The argument is that cancelling debt, or the promise to do so, encourages people to take on more debt. Generally, moral hazard occurs when people are protected from the consequences of their actions and are thus encouraged to make riskier decisions. For example, if you are ensured against theft, you may be less careful with your belongings. As the Orange County Register article linked below states:
If the taxpayers pay the debts of everyone with outstanding student loans, how will that affect the decisions made by current students thinking about their choices for financing higher education? What’s the message? Borrow as much as you can and wait for the debt to be canceled during the next presidential primary campaign?
Not only would more students be encouraged to go to college, but they would be encouraged to apply for more costly courses if they were free.
Universities would be encouraged to exaggerate their costs to warrant higher fees charged to the government. The government (federal, state or local) would have to be very careful in auditing courses to ensure costs were genuine. Universities could end up being squeezed for finance as government may try to cut payments by claiming that courses were overpriced.
Even if fees were not abolished, cancelling debts would encourage students to take on larger debt, if that was to be cleared at some point in the future. What is more, students (or their parents) who could afford to pay, would choose to borrow the money instead.
But many countries do have free or highly subsidised higher education. Universities are given grants which are designed to reflect fair costs.
- Assess the arguments for abolishing or substantially reducing student fees.
- Assess the arguments against abolishing or substantially reducing student fees.
- Assess the arguments for writing off or substantially reducing student debt.
- Assess the arguments against writing off or substantially reducing student debt.
- If it were decided to cancel student debt, would it be fair to pay students back for any debt they had already paid off?
- Does tackling the problem of student debt necessarily lead to a redistribution of wealth/income?
- Give some other examples of moral hazard.
- If student fees were abolished, would there be any problem of adverse selection? If so, how could this be overcome?
- Find out what the main UK parties are advocating about student fees and debt in the nations of the UK for home and non-home students. Provide a critique of each of their policies.
The linked article below, by Evan Davis, assesses the state of economics. He argues that economics has had some major successes over the years in providing a framework for understanding how economies function and how to increase incomes and well-being more generally.
Over the last few decades, economists have …had an influence over every aspect of our lives. …And during this era in which economists have reigned, the world has notched up some marked successes. The reduction in the proportion of human beings living in abject poverty over the last thirty years has been extraordinary.
With the development of concepts such as opportunity cost, the prisoners’ dilemma, comparative advantage and the paradox of thrift, economics has helped to shape the way policymakers perceive economic issues and policies.
These concepts are ‘threshold concepts’. Understanding and being able to relate and apply these core economic concepts helps you to ‘think like an economist’ and to relate the different parts of the subject to each other. Both Economics (10th edition) and Essentials of Economics (8th edition) examine 15 of these threshold concepts. Each time a threshold concept is used in the text, a ‘TC’ icon appears in the margin with the appropriate number. By locating them in this way, you can see their use in a variety of contexts.
But despite the insights provided by traditional economics into the various problems that society faces, the discipline of economics has faced criticism, especially since the financial crisis, which most economists did not foresee.
Even Davis identifies two major shortcomings of the discipline – both beginning with ‘C’. ‘One is complexity, the other is community.’
In terms of complexity, the criticism is that economic models are often based on simplistic assumptions, such as ‘rational maximising behaviour’. This might make it easier to express the models mathematically, but mathematical elegance does not necessarily translate into predictive accuracy. Such models do not capture the ‘messiness’ of the real world.
These models have a certain theoretical elegance but there is now an increasing sense that economies do not evolve along a well-defined mathematical path, but in a far more messy way. The individual players within the economy face radical uncertainty; they adapt and learn as they go; they watch what everybody else does. The economy stumbles along in a process of slow discovery, full of feedback loops.
As far as ‘community’ is concerned, people do not just act as self-interested individuals. Their actions are often governed by how other people behave and also by how their own actions will affect other people, such as family, friends, colleagues or society more generally.
And the same applies to firms. They will be influenced by various other firms, such as competitors, trend setters and suppliers and also by a range of stakeholders – not just shareholders, but also workers, customers, local communities, etc. A firm’s aim is thus unlikely to be simple short-term profit maximisation.
And this broader set of interests translates into policy. The neoliberal free-market, laissez-faire approach to policy is challenged by the desire to take account of broader questions of equity, community and social justice. However privately efficient a free market is, it does not take account of the full social and environmental costs and benefits of firms’ and consumers’ actions or a fair distribution of income and wealth.
It would be wrong, however, to say that economics has not responded to these complexities and concerns. The analysis of externalities, income distribution, incentives, herd behaviour, uncertainty, speculation, cumulative causation and institutional values and biases are increasingly embedded in the economics curriculum and in economic research. What is more, behavioural economics is becoming increasingly mainstream in examining the behaviour of consumers, workers, firms and government. We have tried to reflect these developments in successive editions of our four textbooks.
- Write a brief defence of traditional economic analysis (i.e. that based on the assumption of ‘rational economic behaviour’).
- What are the shortcomings of traditional economic analysis?
- What is meant by ‘behavioural economics’ and how does it address the concerns raised in Evan Davis’ article?
- How is herd behaviour relevant to explaining macroeconomic fluctuations?
- Identify various stakeholder groups of an energy company. What influence are they likely to have on the company’s behaviour?
- In an era of social media, web-based information and e-commerce, why might it be necessary to rethink the concept of GDP and its measurement?
- What is meant by an efficient stock market? Why may the stock market not be efficient?