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?
Spring has already made its appearance here in Norfolk. Our garden is in full bloom and I am in a particularly spring-philosophical mood today – especially so as I should soon be hearing news from the editorial office of a coveted economics journal. This concerns a paper that I submitted for publication what feels like months ago.
And just as I was reflecting on this thought, a paper by Firmuc and Paphawasit (2018) landed on my desk, evaluating the impact of physical attractiveness on academic research productivity in the field of economics. More specifically, the authors pull together information about the research productivity of about 2000 published economics researchers. They then find photos of them and rate their attractiveness (yes, seriously!) using an online survey. In particular:
Besides collecting some basic information on the authors, we also rated their attractiveness. To this effect, we circulated a number of online survey links to potential participants at Brunel University and elsewhere, using direct communication, email and social networks. Each online survey collected basic background information on the assessor (gender, age, ethnicity, highest education, and whether they are currently enrolled as a student) followed by 30 randomly-chosen and randomly-ordered photos, with each picture placed on a separate page.
…Each rater was asked to rate the attractiveness of the person in the photo on an 11-point scale, from 0 (unattractive) to 10 (very attractive). No information on the photographed individuals was provided and the raters were told that the survey studies the formation of perceptions of beauty. The raters were also asked whether they recognised the person in the picture, or whether the picture did not load properly: in such instances, their scores were excluded from the analysis.
The average beauty score was 3.9, with the most attractive academic scoring 7.6
They even attach photographs of the three most attractive male authors in their sample in an appendix (thankfully the other end of the distribution was left out – I had to check to make sure, as I was worried for a few minutes I would find my photo posted there!).
Their results show that there is a link between authors’ attractiveness and quality of journals where their papers are published, as well as number of citations that they receive. According to their findings, this association matters most for more productive authors (‘of intermediate and high productivity’), whereas there seems to be very small or no effect for less productive authors. Some of these effects disappear once controlling for journal quality:
…attractive authors tend to publish their research in better journals, but once their work is published, it does not attract more citations than other papers published in the same journal by less good-looking authors.
Although there are many methodological parts of this paper that I do not quite understand (probably because it is not my area of specialisation), it does remind us that looks do matter in labour markets. There is a well-established literature in labour economics discussing the association between appearance/beauty and wages and the so-called ‘halo effect’ (referring to the physical attractiveness premium that more attractive workers are likely to command in labour markets – see also Langlois et al., 2000; Zebrowitz et al., 2002; Kanazawa and Kovar, 2004; for a detailed discussion on this).
I was also surprised to read that this beauty bias can be also gender specific. For instance, Cash et al (1977) and Johnson et al. (2010) find that the effect goes the other way (negative impact) when considering female candidates applying for jobs traditionally perceived as ‘masculine’ ones. By contrast, male candidates are more likely to experience a positive return on good looks, irrespective of the type of job that they do (see also Johnson et al., 2010).
No surprise then that ‘guyliners’, ‘make up for men’ and other male beauty products are becoming increasingly popular amongst younger workers – in Europe it is not as common yet as it is in parts of Asia (Japan comes to mind), but I imagine it is a matter of time, as more workers realise that there are positive returns to be made!
- Beautiful Minds: Physical Attractiveness and Research Productivity in Economics
Institute of Labor Economics conference paper, Jan Fidrmucand Boontarika Paphawasit (July 2018)
- Maxims or myths of beauty? A meta-analytic and theoretical review
Psychological Bulletin, Vol 126(3), pp.390–423, Judith H Langlois, Lisa Kalakanis, Adam J Rubenstein, Andrea Larson, Monica Hallam and Monica Smoot (May 2000)
- Looking Smart and Looking Good: Facial Cues to Intelligence and their Origins
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Leslie A Zebrowitz, Judith A Hall, Nora A Murphy, Gillian Rhodes (February 2002)
- Why beautiful people are more intelligent
Intelligence, Vol 32, pp.227–243, Satoshi Kanazawa and Jody L Kovar (2004)
- Sexism and beautyism in personnel consultant decision making
Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 62(3), pp.301–10, Thomas Cash, Barry Gillen and D S Burns (January 1977)
- Physical Attractiveness Biases in Ratings of Employment Suitability: Tracking Down the “Beauty is Beastly” Effect
The Journal of Social Psychology, 150(3), pp.301–18, Stefanie K Johnson, Kenneth E Podratz, Robert L Dipboye and Ellie Gibbons (April 2010)
- Read some of the papers posted above and explain the main argument about the link between physical attraction and wages. What does the empirical evidence show on this?
- Using examples and anecdotal evidence, do you agree with these findings?
- If these findings are representative of the real world, what do they suggest about the functioning of modern labour markets?
When making a decision, what happens if you do nothing: i.e. take no action? The answer is the default option. There is evidence that changing the default option for the same decision can sometimes have a big impact on the final choices people make. For example, when a person starts a new job, they often have to decide whether to contribute to the company’s pension scheme. The default option is typically for employees not to contribute. They have to do something actively (e.g. fill in an online form) to opt in to the scheme. An alternative is to change the default option so that employees are contributing to the pension. They now have to do something to opt out of the scheme.
Changing the default should have no impact on people who behave in ways that are consistent with the rational choice model in economics. However, research by Madrian and Shea (2001) found that it had a big effect. When employees had to opt-in, 49 per cent enrolled in a company pension. When they had to opt out, the figure increased to 86 per cent.
Other research suggests that defaults can influence the likelihood of getting a flu jab, making healthier food choices, receiving e-mail marketing and choosing certain types of car insurance.
One policy area where the choice of default has become a topical issue is organ donation. In 2017, over 400 people died in the UK because it was impossible to find an appropriate donor. Could changing the default increase the number of donors?
The scheme that operates in England requires people to sign-up to the organ donor register: i.e. they have to opt in. Although 80 per cent of the public support organ donation less than 50 per cent ever get around to signing this register.
Parliament recently approved the Organ Donation Bill and the new law will come into effect in 2020. The default position will change so that people are automatically signed-up for organ donation. If they do not want to donate their organs, they will have to opt out of the register.
In December 2015, the devolved Welsh government introduced a similar scheme. Although it is quite early to give a full assessment of the policy, its impact has been smaller than many people had hoped.
Why have the initial results been disappointing? One potential downside with an opt-out scheme is that it may create greater uncertainty about someone’s true wishes. With an opt-in scheme, a relative takes a deliberate action to indicate their preference to be an organ donor. In England, approximately 10 per cent of families overrule the wishes of a relative who has actively signed the register.
With an opt-out scheme, family members may worry that their relative did not want to donate their organs but never found the time to take their name off the register. In 2017/18, families in Wales overruled the presumed consent of their relatives in 33 per cent of cases.
Some countries, such as Singapore and Austria, operate a ‘hard opt-out’ policy. In these schemes, families cannot overrule and this leads to high organ donor rates. However, this type of policy is unpopular with large sections of the electorate who feel it is over paternalistic.
Forcing people to make a choice
Is it possible to force people to make a choice and so reveal their preferences to others? This is a policy of active choice. For example, the government could make the issuing of a driving licence conditional on a people making a choice about whether or not to sign the organ donor register.
This type of policy has been trialled in the USA with the take up of home delivered prescriptions. For the majority of people, there are clear advantages of choosing to have home delivered prescriptions rather than visiting a pharmacy – it is both cheaper and involves less time/hassle. However, the default option is to visit a pharmacy and one study found that only 6 per cent of people chose home delivered options. With the introduction of active choice, this figure increased to 42 per cent.
Some have argued that it is socially undesirable to force people to make a choice. An alternative is simplified active choice – people can either make a choice or accept the default option.
- Explain why changing the default option should have no impact on people who behave in ways that are consistent with the rational choice model in economics.
- What is present bias? How does it differ from simple impatience? Explain how present bias might help to explain the impact of changing the default option.
- What is loss aversion? How does it differ from diminishing marginal utility? Explain how loss aversion might help to explain the impact of changing the default option.
- What are some of the limitations of using defaults in policy-making?
- Is active choice less paternalistic than changing the default option?
- Think of some reasons why someone may not want to make a choice.
One of the key developments in economics in recent years has been the growing influence of behavioural economics. We considered some of the insights of behavioural economics in a blog in 2016 (A nudge in the right direction?). As the post stated, ‘Behavioural economists study how people’s buying, selling and other behaviour responds to various incentives and social situations. They don’t accept the simplistic notion that people are always rational maximisers.’ The post quoted from a Livemint article (see first linked article below):
According to behavioural economists, the human brain neither has the time nor the ability to process all the information involved in decision making, as assumed by the rational model.
Instead, people use heuristics. A heuristic technique is any approach to problem-solving, such as deciding what to buy, which is practical and sufficient for the purpose, but not necessarily optimal. For example, people may resort to making the best guess, or to drawing on past experiences of similar choices that turned out to be good or bad. On other accasions, when people are likely to face similar choices in the future, they resort to trial and error. They try a product. If they like it, they buy it again; if not, they don’t.
On other occasions, they may use various rules of thumb: buying what their friends do, or buying products on offer or buying trusted brands. These rules of thumb can lead to estimates that are reasonably close to the utility people will actually get and can save on time and effort. However, they sometimes lead to systematic and predictable misjudgements about the likelihood of certain events occurring.
In traditional models of consumer choice, individuals aim to maximise their utility when choosing between goods, or bundles of goods. The context in which the choices are offered is not considered.
Yet, in real life, we see that context is important; people will often make different choices when they are presented, or framed, in different ways. For example, people will buy more of a good when it is flagged up as a special offer than they would if there is no mention of an offer, even though the price is the same.
The recognition that framing is important to choices has led to the development of nudge theory. Indeed, it underpins many marketing techniques. These seek to persuade people to make a particular choice by framing it in an optimistic way or presenting it in a way that makes it easy to decide.
Governments too use nudge theory. In the UK, the Coalition government (2010–15) established the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) (also unofficially known as the Nudge Unit) in the Cabinet Office in 2010. A major objective of this team is to use ideas from behavioural economics to design policies that enable people to make better choices for themselves.
The podcast linked below, looks at the use of nudge theory. The presenter, Mary Ann Sieghart looks at how we are being encouraged to change our behaviour. She also looks at the work of UCL’s Love Lab which researches the way we make decisions. As the programme notes state:
Mary Ann is grilled in UCL’s Love Lab to find out how she makes decisions; she finds taking the pound signs off the menu in a restaurant encourages her spend more and adding adjectives to the food really makes it taste better.
Walking through the Nudge Unit, she hears how powerful a tiny tweak on a form or text can get be, from getting people back to work to creating a more diverse police force. Popular with the political left and right, it has been embraced around the world; from Guatemala to Rwanda, Singapore to India it is used to reduce energy consumption, encourage organ donation, combat corruption and even stop civil wars.
But the podcast also looks at some of the darker sides of nudging. Just as we can be nudged into doing things in our interests, so too we can be nudged to do things that are not so. Politicians and businesses may seek to manipulate people to get them to behave in ways that suit the government or the business, rather than the electorate or the consumer. The dark arts of persuasion are also something that behavioural economists study.
The articles below explore some of the areas where nudge theory is used to devise policy to influence our behaviour – for good or bad.
- New frontiers of human behaviour
Livemint, Biju Dominic (15/9/16)
- It’s been 10 years since behavioral economics hit the mainstream
Quartz, Dan Kopf (13/10/18)
- What is ‘nudge theory’ and why should we care? Explaining Richard Thaler’s Nobel economics prize-winning concept
Independent, Ben Chu (9/10/17)
- Is Nudge Theory The Answer To Our Single-Use Plastics Problem?
HuffPost, Ollie Boesen (15/6/18)
- Re-enrolment key to ‘nudge’ UK into saving: survey
Investment and Pensions Europe Magazine (IPE), Elizabeth Pfeuti (22/10/18)
- Applying nudge strategies to higher education
Times Higher Education, Ben Castleman (6/7/18)
- Want to nudge others to install solar? Actions speak louder than words
Phys.org, Kevin Dennehy (25/10/18)
- DNA test and phone app to ‘nudge’ Waitrose shoppers towards healthier food
Imperial College London News, Caroline Brogan (12/10/18)
- “Nudge theory” explored to boost medication adherence
AMA Wire, Sara Berg (29/6/18)
- Simple ‘nudge’ letters can boost school attendance, new research suggests
The Seattle Times, Neal Morton (5/7/18)
- Using Behavioral Nudges to Treat Diabetes
Harvard Business Review, Thomas H. Davenport, James Guszcza and Greg Szwartz (10/10/18)
- Why nudge theory works until a kick in the backside is needed.
The Guardian, Andrew Rawnsley (22/10/17)
- Why Nudging Your Customers Can Backfire
Harvard Business Review, Utpal M. Dholakia (15/4/16)
- Explain what are meant by ‘bounded rationality’ and ‘heuristics’.
- How may populist politicians use nudge theory in their campaigning?
- Give some examples from your own behaviour of decisions made using rules of thumb.
- Should we abandon models based on the assumption of rational maximising behaviour (e.g. attempts to maximise consumer surplus or to maximise profit)?
- Find out some other examples of how people might be nudged to behave in ways that are in their own interest or that of society.
- How might we be nudged into using less plastic?
- How might people be nudged to eat more healthily or to give up smoking?
- To what extent can financial incentives, such as taxes, fines, grants or subsidies be regarded as nudging? Explain.
- Would you advise all GP surgeries and hospital outpatient departments to text reminders to people about appointments? What should such reminders say? Explain.