For those of you embarking on a course in economics, one of the first things you’ll come across is the distinction between microeconomics and macroeconomics. The news is full of both microeconomic and macroeconomic issues and you’ll quickly see how relevant both branches of economics are to analysing real-world events, problems and policies.
As we state in Economics (updated 10th edition), ‘microeconomics is concerned with the individual parts of the economy. It is concerned with the demand and supply of particular goods, services and resources such as cars, butter, clothes, haircuts, plumbers, accountants, blast furnaces, computers and oil.’ In particular, it is concerned with the buying, selling, production and employment decisions of individuals and firms. When you go shopping and make choices of what to buy you are making microeconomic decisions. When firms choose how much of particular products to produce, what techniques of production to use and how many people to employ, these choices are microeconomic ones.
Microeconomics examines people’s behaviour when they make choices. In fact many of the recent developments in microeconomics involve analysing the behaviour of individuals and firms and the factors that influence this behaviour.
Open any newspaper, turn on the TV news or access any news site and you will see various microeconomic issues covered. Why are rents soaring? How is AI affecting various businesses’ productivity? How rapidly is the switch taking place to green energy? How do supermarkets influence spending patterns? Why are wages so low in the social care sector? Why are private PCR tests so expensive for holidaymakers retuning from abroad?
Many of the blogs on this news site will examine microeconomic issues. We hope that they provide useful case studies for your course.
- Look through news sites and identify five current microeconomic issues. What makes them ‘micro’ issues?
- If world oil and gas prices rise, why is this a microeconomic issue?
- What do you understand by ‘scarcity’? How is microeconomics related to scarcity?
- Are all goods scarce?
- What is meant by ‘opportunity cost’? Give some examples of how opportunity cost has affected recent decisions you have made.
With waiting lists in the NHS at record highs and with the social care system in crisis, there have been growing calls for increased funding for both health and social care. The UK government has just announced tax rises to raise more revenue for both services and has specified new limits on the amounts people must pay towards their care.
In this blog we look at the new tax rises and whether they are fair. We also look at whether the allocation of social care is fair. Clearly, the question of fairness is a contentious one, with people having very different views on what constitutes fairness between different groups in terms of incomes, assets and needs.
In terms of funding, the government has, in effect, introduced a new tax – the ‘health and social care levy’ to come into effect from April 2022. This will see a tax of 1.25% on the earned incomes of workers (both employees and the self-employed) and 1.25% on employers, making a total of 2.5% on employment income. It will initially be added to workers’ and employers’ national insurance (NI) payments. Currently national insurance is only paid by those below pension age (66). From 2023, the 1.25% levy will be separated from NI and will apply to pensioners’ earned income too.
The starting point for workers will be the same as for the rest of national insurance, currently £9568. Above this, the additional marginal rate of 1.25% will apply to all earned income. This will mean that a person earning £20 000 would pay a levy of £130.40, while someone earning £100 000 would pay £1130.40.
There will also be an additional 1.25% tax on share dividends. However, there will be no additional tax on rental income and capital gains, and on private or state pensions.
It is estimated that the levy will raise around £14 billion per year (0.7% of GDP or 1.6% of total tax revenue), of which £11.2 billion will go to the Department of Health and Social Care in 2022/23 and £9 billion in 2023/24. This follows a rise in income tax of £8 billion and corporation tax of £17 billion announced in the March 2021 Budget. As a result, tax revenues from 2022/23 will be a higher proportion of GDP (just over 34%) than at any time over the past 70 years, except for a short period in 1969/70.
Is the tax fair?
In a narrow sense, it can be argued that the levy is fair, as it is applied at the same percentage rate on all earned income. Thus, the higher a person’s earnings, the greater the amount they will pay. Also, it is mildly progressive. This is because, with a levy-free allowance of just under £10 000, the levy as a proportion of income earned rises gently as income rises: in other words, the average levy rate is higher on higher earners than on lower earners.
But national insurance as a whole is regressive as the rate currently drops from 12% to 2%, and with the levy will drop from 13.25% to 3.25%, once the upper threshold is reached. Currently the threshold is £50 270. As incomes rise above that level, so the proportion paid in national insurance falls. Politically, therefore, it makes sense to decouple the levy from NI, if it is being promoted as being fair as an additional tax on income earners.
Is it fair between the generations? Pensioners who earn income will pay the levy on that income at the same rate as everyone else (but no NI). But most pensioners’ main or sole source of income is their pensions and some, in addition, earn rent on property they own. Indeed, some pensioners have considerable private pensions or rental income. These sources of income will not be subject to the levy. Many younger people whose sole source of income is their wages will see this as unfair between the generations.
Allocation of funds
For the next few years, most of the additional funding will go to the NHS to help reduced waiting lists, which rocketed with the diversion of resources to treating COVID patients. Of the additional £11.2 billion for health and social care in 2022/23, some £9.4 billion will go to the NHS; and of the £9 billion in 2023/24, some £7.2 billion will go to the NHS. This leaves only an additional £1.8 billion each year for social care.
The funding should certainly help reduce NHS waiting lists, but the government refused to say by how much. Also there is a major staff shortage in the NHS, with many employees having returned to the EU following Brexit and fewer new employees coming from the EU. It may be that the staff shortage will push up wages, which will absorb some of the increase in funding.
The additional money from the levy going to social care would be wholly insufficient on its own to tackle the crisis. As with the NHS, the social care sector is facing an acute staff shortage, again aggravated by Brexit. Wages are low, and when travel time between home visits is taken into account, many workers receive well below the minimum wage. Staff in care homes often find themselves voluntarily working extra hours for no additional pay so as to provide continuity of care. Often levels of care are well below what carers feel is necessary.
Paying for social care
The government also announced new rules for the level of contributions by individuals towards their care costs. The measures in England are as follows. The other devolved nations have yet to announce their measures.
- Those with assets of less than £20 000 will not have to contribute towards their care costs from their assets, but may have to contribute from their income.
- Those with assets between £20 000 and £100 000 will get means-tested help towards their care costs.
- Those with assets over £100 000 will initially get no help towards their care costs. This is increasing from the current limit of £23 250
- There will be a limit of £86 000 to the amount people will have to contribute towards their care costs over their lifetime (from October 2023). These costs include both care in a care home and care at home.
- These amounts will apply only to care costs and not to the board and lodging costs in care homes. The government has not said how much people could be expected to contribute towards these living costs. A problem is that care homes generally do not itemise costs and hence it may be hard to distinguish care costs from living costs.
- Where people’s care costs are fully or partly covered, these will be paid by their local authority.
- A house will only count as a person’s asset if the person is going into a care home and it is not occupied by a spouse or partner. All financial assets, by contrast, will count.
- Many people in care homes will not be judged to be frail enough to be in receipt of support from their local authority. These people’s expenditure would not count towards the cap.
Setting the cap to the amount people must pay at the relatively high figure of £86 000 may ease the pressure on local authorities, as many people in care homes will die before the cap is reached. However, those who live longer and who get their care paid for above the cap, will pay no more no matter what their level of assets, even though they may be very rich. This could be seen to be unfair. A fairer system would be one where a proportion of a person’s assets had to be used to pay for care with no upper limit.
Also, the £1.8 billion is likely to fall well short of what local authorities will need to bring social care back to the levels considered acceptable, especially as the asset limit to support is being raised from £23 250 to £100 000. Local authority expenditure on social care fell by 7.5% per person in real terms between 2009/10 and 2019/20. This means that local authorities may have to increase council tax to top up the amount provided by the government from the levy.
- An initial response to the Prime Minister’s announcement on health, social care and National Insurance
Institute for Fiscal Studies Press Release, Paul Johnson, Carl Emmerson, Helen Miller, David Phillips, George Stoye, Isaac Delestre, Isabel Stockton, Kate Ogden, Robert Joyce, Stuart Adam, Tom Waters, Max Warner and Ben Zaranko (7/9/21)
- National Insurance rates to rise to fund social care crisis – how much more will you pay?
Which? News, Danielle Richardson (7/9/21)
- Social care tax rise: Boris Johnson wins Commons vote
BBC News (8/9/21)
- Will the cap really fix the social care system?
BBC News, Nick Triggle (8/9/21)
- National Insurance contributions to rise by 1.25% from April 2022 to fund social care costs
Money Saving Expert, James Flanders (7/9/21)
- Boris Johnson plan to fund health and social care lifts UK tax burden to 70-year high
Financial Times, George Parker, Laura Hughes and Chris Giles (7/9/21)
- Boris Johnson has created a ‘social care plan’ without any plan for social care
The Guardian, Frances Ryan (7/9/21)
- Analysis: The Government’s plans for health and social care
Reform, William Mills (8/9/21)
- Analysis: What does Boris Johnson’s health and social care tax mean for Scotland?
The Scotsman, Martyn McLaughlin (7/9/21)
- Social care tax rise is austerity by another name – economist Q&A
The Conversation, Alex de Ruyter (8/9/21)
- National insurance: a UK tax which is complex and vulnerable to political intervention
The Conversation, Gavin Midgley (8/9/21)
- How would you define a ‘fair’ way of funding social care?
- Distinguish between a proportional, progressive and regressive tax. How would you categorise (a) the new health and social care levy; (b) national insurance; (c) income tax; (d) VAT?
- Argue the case for providing social care free at the point of use to all those who require it.
- Argue the case for charging a person for some or all of their social care, with the amount charged being based on (a) the person’s income; (b) the person’s wealth; (c) both income and wealth.
- Argue the case for and against capping the amount a person should pay towards their social care.
- When a tax is used to raise revenue for a specific purpose it is known as a ‘hypothecated tax’. What are the advantages and disadvantages of using a hypothecated tax for funding health and social care?
The coronavirus pandemic and the climate emergency have highlighted the weaknesses of free-market capitalism.
Governments around the world have intervened massively to provide economic support to people and businesses affected by the pandemic through grants and furlough schemes. They have also stressed the importance of collective responsibility in abiding by lockdowns, social distancing and receiving vaccinations.
The pandemic has also highlighted the huge inequalities around the world. The rich countries have been able to offer much more support to their people than poor countries and they have had much greater access to vaccines. Inequality has also been growing within many countries as rich people have gained from rising asset prices, while many people find themselves stuck in low-paid jobs, suffering from poor educational opportunities and low economic and social mobility.
The increased use of working from home and online shopping has accelerated the rise of big tech companies, such as Amazon and Google. Their command of the market makes it difficult for small companies to compete – and competition is vital if capitalism is to benefit societies. There have been growing calls for increased regulation of powerful companies and measures to stimulate competition. The problem has been recognised by governments, central banks and international agencies, such as the IMF and the OECD.
At the same time as the world has been grappling with the pandemic, global warming has contributed to extreme heat and wildfires in various parts of the world, such as western North America, the eastern Mediterranean and Siberia, and major flooding in areas such as western Europe and China. Governments again have intervened by providing support to people whose property and livelihoods have been affected. Also there is a growing urgency to tackle global warming, with some movement, albeit often limited, in implementing policies to achieve net zero carbon emissions by some specified point in the future. Expectations are rising for concerted action to be agreed at the international COP26 climate meeting in Glasgow in November this year.
An evolving capitalism
So are we seeing a new variant of capitalism, with a greater recognition of social responsibility and greater government intervention?
Western governments seem more committed to spending on socially desirable projects, such as transport, communications and green energy infrastructure, education, science and health. They are beginning to pursue more active industrial and regional policies. They are also taking measures to tax multinationals (see the blog The G7 agrees on measures to stop corporate tax avoidance). Many governments are publicly recognising the need to tackle inequality and to ‘level up’ society. Active fiscal policy, a central plank of Keynesian economics, has now come back into fashion, with a greater willingness to fund expenditure by borrowing and, over the longer term, to use higher taxes to fund increased government expenditure.
But there is also a growing movement among capitalists themselves to move away from profits being their sole objective. A more inclusive ‘stakeholder capitalism’ is being advocated by many companies, where they take into account the interests of a range of stakeholders, from customers, to workers, to local communities, to society in general and to the environment. For example, the Council for Inclusive Capitalism, which is a joint initiative of the Vatican and several world business and public-sector leaders, seeks to make ‘the world fairer, more inclusive, and sustainable’.
If there is to be a true transformation of capitalism from the low-tax free-market capitalism of neoclassical economists and libertarian policymakers to a more interventionist mixed market capitalism, where capitalists pursue a broader set of objectives, then words have to be matched by action. Talk is easy; long-term plans are easy; taking action now is what matters.
Articles and videos
- Why the next stage of capitalism is coming
BBC Future, Matthew Wilburn King (27/5/21)
- During the pandemic, a new variant of capitalism has emerged
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (30/7/21)
- When it comes to social and environmental justice, words don’t cut it
GreenBiz, C J Clouse (28/4/21)
- Introducing the Council for Inclusive Capitalism with the Vatican
Inclusive Capitalism (7/12/20)
- The State and Direction of Inclusive Capitalism
Saïd Business School, Ford Foundation and Deloitte Social Impact practice, Richard Barker, Mary Johnstone-Louis, Colin Mayer, Pradeep Prabhala, Noah Rimland Flower, Theodore Roosevelt Malloch, Tony Siesfeld and Peter Tufano (2018)
- Rising Market Power—A Threat to the Recovery?
IMF Blog, Kristalina Georgieva, Federico J Díez, Romain Duval and Daniel Schwarz (15/3/21)
- The Pandemic Alone Can’t Transform Capitalism
Jacobin, Ramaa Vasudevan (30/7/21)
- Down to earth: How entrepreneurs can collaborate to rejuvenate capitalism
EU-Startups, Luca Sabia (4/8/21)
- How similar is the economic response of Western governments to the pandemic to their response to the financial crisis of 2007–8?
- What do you understand by ‘inclusive capitalism’? How can stakeholders hold companies to account?
- What indicators are there of market power? Why have these been on the rise?
- How can entrepreneurs contribute to ‘closing the inequality gap for a more sustainable and inclusive form of society’?
- What can be done to hold governments to account for meeting various social and environmental objectives? How successful is this likely to be?
- Can inequality be tackled without redistributing income and wealth from the rich to the poor?
Each year the BBC hosts the Reith Lectures – a series of talks given by an eminent person in their field. This year’s lecturer is Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England. His series of four weekly lectures began on 2 December 2020. Their topic is ‘How we get what we value’. As the BBC site states, the lectures:
chart how we have come to esteem financial value over human value and how we have gone from market economies to market societies. He argues that this has contributed to a trio of crises: of credit, Covid and climate. And the former Bank of England governor will outline how we can turn this around.
In lectures 2, 3 and 4, he looks at three crises and how they have shaped and are shaping what we value. The crises are the financial crisis of 2007–9, the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis. They have challenged how we value money, health and the environment respectively and, more broadly, have prompted people to question what is valuable for individuals and society, both today and into the future.
The questions posed by Carney are how can we establish what is valuable to individuals and society, how well are such values met by economies and how can mechanisms be improved to ensure that we make the best use of resources in meeting those values.
Value and the market
In the first lecture he probes the concept of value. He explores how economists and philosophers have tried to value the goods, services and human interactions that we desire.
First there is ‘objective value’ propounded by classical economists, such as Adam smith, David Ricardo and Karl Marx. Here the value of goods and services depends on the amount of resources used to make them and fundamentally on the amount of labour. In other words, value is a supply-side concept.
This he contrasts with ‘subjective value’. Here the value of goods and services depends on how well they satisfy wants – how much utility they give the consumer. For these neoclassical economists, value is in the eye of the beholder; it is a demand-side concept.
The two are reconciled in the market, with market prices reflecting the balance of demand and supply. Market prices provided a solution to the famous diamonds/water paradox (see Box 4.2 in Economics (10th edition) or Case Study 4.3 in Essentials of Economics (8th edition) – the paradox of ‘why water, which is essential for life, is virtually free, but diamonds, which have limited utility beyond their beauty, are so expensive.’ The answer is to do with scarcity and marginal utility. Because diamonds are rare, the marginal utility is high, even though the total utility is low. And because water is abundant, even though its total utility is high, for most people its marginal utility is low. In other words, the value at the margin depends on the balance of demand and supply. Diamonds are much scarcer than water.
But is the market balance the right balance? Are the values implied by the market the same as those of society? ‘Why do financial markets rate Amazon as one of the world’s most valuable companies, but the value of the vast region of the Amazon appears on no ledger until it’s stripped of its foliage and converted into farmland?’ – another paradox highlighted by Carney.
It has long been recognised that markets fail in a number of ways. They are not perfect, with large firms able to make supernormal profits by charging more and producing less, and consumers often being ill-informed and behaving impulsively or being swayed by clever marketing. And many valuable things that we experience, such as human interaction and the beauty of nature, are not bought and sold and thus do not appear in measures of GDP – one of the main ways of valuing a country.
What is more, many of things that are produced in the market have side-effects which are not reflected in prices. These externalities, whether good or bad, can be substantial: for example, the global warming caused by CO2 emissions from industry, transport and electricity production from fossil fuels.
And markets reflect people’s biases towards the present and hence lead to too little investment for the future, whether in healthcare, the environment or physical and social infrastructure. Markets reflect the scant regard many give to the damage we might be doing to the lives of future generations.
What is particularly corrosive, according to Carney, is the
drift from moral to market sentiments. …Increasingly, the value of something, some act or someone is equated with its monetary value, a monetary value that is determined by the market. The logic of buying and selling no longer applies only to material goods, but increasingly it governs the whole of life from the allocation of healthcare, education, public safety and environmental protection. …Market value is taken to represent intrinsic value, and if a good or activity is not in the market, it is not valued.
The drift from moral to market sentiments accelerated in the Thatcher/Regan era, when governments were portrayed as inefficient allocators, which stifled competition, innovation and the movement of capital. Deregulation and privatisation were the order of the day. This, according to Carney, ‘unleashed a new dynamism’ and ‘with the fall of communism at the end of the 1980s, the spread of the market grew unchecked.’
But this drift failed to recognise market failures. It has taken three crises, the financial crisis, Covid and the climate crisis to bring these failures to the top of the public agenda. They are examined in the other three lectures.
The Reith Lectures
- Distinguish between objective and subjective value.
- If your income rises, will you necessarily be happier? Explain.
- How is the concept of diminishing marginal utility of income relevant to explaining why ‘A Christmas bonus of £1000 means less to Mark Zuckerberg then £500 does to someone on a minimum wage.’
- Does the use of social cost–benefit analysis enable us to use adjusted prices as a measure of value?
- Listen to lectures 2, 3 and 4 and provide a 500-word summary of each.
- Assess the arguments Mark Carney uses in one of these three lectures.
Elections are times of peak deception. Political parties have several ways in which they can use data to persuade people to vote for them. At one extreme, they can simply make up ‘facts’ – in other words, they can lie. There have been various examples of such lies in the run-up to the UK general election of 12 December 2019. The linked article below gives some examples. But data can be used in other deceptive ways, short of downright lies.
Politicians can use data in two ways. First, statistics can be used to describe, explain and interpret the past. Second, they can be used as the basis of forecasts of the future effects of policies.
In terms of past data, one of the biggest means of deception is the selective use of data. If you are the party currently in power, you highlight the good news and ignore the bad. You do the reverse if you are currently in opposition. The data may be correct, but selective use of data can give a totally false impression of events.
In terms of forecast data, you highlight those forecasts, or elements of them, that are favourable to you and ignore those that are not.
Politicians rely on people’s willingness to look selectively at data. People want to see ‘evidence’ that reinforces their political views and prejudices. News media know this and happily do the same as politicians, selectively using data favourable to their political leanings. And it’s not just newspapers that do this. There are many online news sites that feed their readers with data supportive of their position. And there are many social media platforms, where people can communicate with people in their political ‘bubble’.
Genuine fact-checking sites can help, as can independent forecasters, such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies. But too many voters would rather only look at evidence, genuine or not, that supports their political point of view.
This can make life hard for economists who seek to explain the world with an open mind, based on a non-biased use of evidence – and hard for economic forecasters, who want to use full and accurate data in their models and to make realistic assumptions, emphasising that their forecasts are only the most likely outcome, not a certainty. As the article states:
Economic forecasts are flawed and their limitations should be acknowledged. But they should not be blindly dismissed as fake facts. And as far as political debate and discourse is concerned, in the long run, the truth may will out.
- Give some specific examples of ways in which politicians misuse data.
- Give some specific examples of ways in which politicians misuse the analysis of economists.
- Distinguish between positive and normative statements? Should economists make policy recommendations? If so, in what context?
- Why are economic forecasts flawed, but why should they not be dismissed as ‘fake facts’?
- Examine the manifestos of two political parties and provide a critique of their economic analysis.