There is increasing recognition that the world is facing a climate emergency. Concerns are growing about the damaging effects of global warming on weather patterns, with increasing droughts, forest fires, floods and hurricanes. Ice sheets are melting and glaciers retreating, with consequent rising sea levels. Habitats and livelihoods are being destroyed. And many of the effects seem to be occurring more rapidly than had previously been expected.
Extinction Rebellion has staged protests in many countries; the period from 20 to 27 September saw a worldwide climate strike (see also), with millions of people marching and children leaving school to protest; a Climate Action Summit took place at the United Nations, with a rousing speech by Greta Thunberg, the 16 year-old Swedish activist; the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just released a report with evidence showing that the melting of ice sheets and rising sea levels is more rapid than previously thought; at its annual party conference in Brighton, the Labour Party pledged that, in government, it would bring forward the UK’s target for zero net carbon emissions from 2050 to 2030.
Increasingly attention is focusing on what can be done. At first sight, it might seem as if the answer lies solely with climate scientists, environmentalists, technologists, politicians and industry. When the matter is discussed in the media, it is often the environment correspondent, the science correspondent, the political correspondent or the business correspondent who reports on developments in policy. But economics has an absolutely central role to play in both the analysis of the problem and in examining the effectiveness of alternative solutions.
One of the key things that economists do is to examine incentives and how they impact on human behaviour. Indeed, understanding the design and effectiveness of incentives is one of the 15 Threshold Concepts we identify in the Sloman books.
One of the most influential studies of the impact of climate change and means of addressing it was the study back in 2006, The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review, led by the economist Sir Nicholas Stern. The Review reflected economists’ arguments that climate change represents a massive failure of markets and of governments too. Firms and individuals can emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at no charge to themselves, even though it imposes costs on others. These external costs are possible because the atmosphere is a public good, which is free to exploit.
Part of the solution is to ‘internalise’ these externalities by imposing charges on people and firms for their emissions, such as imposing higher taxes on cars with high exhaust emissions or on coal-fired power stations. This can be done through the tax system, with ‘green’ taxes and charges. Economists study the effectiveness of these and how much they are likely to change people’s behaviour.
Another part of the solution is to subsidise green alternatives, such as solar and wind power, that provide positive environmental externalities. But again, just how responsive will demand be? This again is something that economists study.
Of course, changing human behaviour is not just about raising the prices of activities that create negative environmental externalities and lowering the prices of those that create positive ones. Part of the solution lies in education to make people aware of the environmental impacts of their activities and what can be done about it. The problem here is that there is a lack of information – a classic market failure. Making people aware of the consequences of their actions can play a key part in the economic decisions they make. Economists study the extent that imperfect information distorts decision making and how informed decision making can improve outcomes.
Another part of the solution may be direct government investment in green technologies or the use of legislation to prevent or restrict activities that contribute to global warming. But in each case, economists are well placed to examine the efficacy and the costs and benefits of alternative policies. Economists have the tools to make cost–benefit appraisals.
Economists also study the motivations of people and how they affect their decisions, including decisions about whether or not to take part in activities with high emissions, such air travel, and decisions on ‘green’ activities, such as eating less meat and more vegetables.
If you are starting out on an economics degree, you will soon see that economists are at the centre of the analysis of some of the biggest issues of the day, such as climate change and the environment generally, inequality and poverty, working conditions, the work–life balance, the price of accommodation, the effects of populism and the retreat from global responsibility and, in the UK especially, the effects of Brexit, of whatever form.
- Explain what is meant by environmental externalities.
- Compare the relative merits of carbon taxes and legislation as means of reducing carbon emissions.
- If there is a climate emergency, why are most governments unwilling to take the necessary measures to make their countries net carbon neutral within the next few years?
- In what ways would you suggest incentivising (a) individuals and (b) firms to reduce carbon emissions? Explain your reasoning.
- For what reasons are the burdens of climate changed shared unequally between people across the globe?
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?
In 2015, at the COP21 climate change conference in Paris, an agreement was reached between the 195 countries present. The Paris agreement committed countries to limiting global warming to ‘well below’ 2°C and preferably to no more than 1.5°C. above pre-industrial levels. To do this, a ‘cap-and-trade’ system would be adopted, with countries agreeing to limits to their emissions and then being able to buy emissions credits to exceed these limits from countries which had managed to emit below their limits. However, to implement the agreement, countries would need to adopt a ‘rulebook’ about how the permitted limits would be applied, how governments would measure and report emissions cuts, how the figures would be verified and just how a cap-and-trade system would work.
At the COP24 meeting from 2 to 15 December 2018 in Katowice, Poland, nearly 14 000 delegates from 196 countries discussed the details of a rulebook. Despite some 2800 points of contention and some difficult and heated negotiations, agreement was finally reached. Rules for targeting, measuring and verifying emissions have been accepted. If countries exceed their limits, they must explain why and also how they will meet them in future. Rich countries agreed to provide help to poor countries in curbing their emissions and adapting to rising sea levels, droughts, floods and other climate-induced problems.
But no details have been agreed on the system of carbon trading, thanks to objections from the Brazilian delegates, who felt that insufficient account would be made of their country’s existing promises on not chopping down parts of the Amazon rainforest.
Most seriously, the measures already agreed which would be covered by the rulebook will be insufficient to meet the 2°C, let alone the 1.5°C, target. The majority of the measures are voluntary ‘nationally determined contributions’, which countries are required to submit under the Paris agreement. These, so far, would probably be sufficient to limit global warming to only around 3°C, at which level there would be massive environmental, economic and social consequences.
There was, however, a belief among delegates that further strong international action was required. Indeed, under the Paris agreement, emissions limits to keep global warming to the ‘well below 2°C’ level must be agreed by 2020.
Climate change is a case of severe market failure. A large proportion of the external costs of pollution are borne outside the countries where the emitters are based. This creates a disincentive for countries acting alone to internalise all these externalities through the tax system or charges, or to regulate them toughly. Only by countries taking an international perspective and by acting collectively can the externalities be seen as a fully internal problem.
Even though most governments recognise the nature and scale of the problem, one of the biggest problems they face is in persuading people that it is in their interests to cut carbon emissions – something that may become increasingly difficult with the rise in populism and the realisation that higher fuel and other prices will make people poorer in the short term.
- To what extent can the atmosphere been seen as a ‘global commons’?
- What incentives might be given for business to make ‘green investments’?
- To what extent might changes in technology help businesses and consumers to ‘go green’?
- Why might international negotiations over tackling climate change result in a prisoner’s dilemma problem? What steps could be taken to tackle the problem?
- How would an emissions cap-and-trade system work?
- Investigate the Brazilian objections to the proposals for emissions credits. Were the delegates justified in their objections?
- What types of initiative could businesses take to tackle ‘supply chain emissions’?
- How could countries, such as the USA, be persuaded to reduce their reliance on coal – an industry lauded by President Trump?
One of the announcements in the recent UK Budget was the ending of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), including its revised form, PF2. PFI was introduced by the Conservative government in 1992. Subsequently, it was to become central to the Labour government’s ‘Third-way’ approach of using the private sector to deliver public projects and services.
PFI involves a public–private partnership (PPP). The private sector builds and/or runs public projects, such as new schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, student accommodation, and so on. The public sector, in the form of government departments, NHS foundation trusts, local authorities, etc., then pays the private sector company a rent for the infrastructure or pays the company to provide services. The benefit of PFI is that it allows private-sector capital to be used for new projects and thus reduces the need for government to borrow; the disadvantage is that it commits the public-sector body to payments over the long-term to the company involved.
As the chart shows, PFI became an important means of funding public service provision during the 2000s. In the 10-year period up to financial year 2007/08, more than 50 new projects were being signed each year.
As the number of projects grew and with them the long-term financial commitments of the public sector, so criticisms mounted. These included:
- Quality and cost. It was claimed that PFI projects were resulting in poorer quality of provision and that cost control was often poor, resulting in a higher burden for the taxpayer in the long term.
- Credit availability. PFI projects are typically dependent on the private partner using debt finance to acquire the necessary funds. Therefore, credit conditions affect the ability of PFI to fund the delivery of public services. With the credit crunch of 2008/9, many firms operating PFI projects found it difficult to raise finance.
- The financial health of the private partner. What happens if the private company runs into financial difficulties. In 2005, the engineering company Jarvis only just managed to avoid bankruptcy by securing refinancing on all 14 of its PFI deals.
Recognising these problems, in 2011 the government set up a review of PFI. The result was a revised form of PFI, known as ‘PF2’. PF2 projects involved tighter financial control, with the government acting as a minority co-investor; more robust tendering processes, with bidders required to develop a long-term financing solution, where bank debt does not form the majority of the financing of the project; the removal of cleaning, catering and other ‘soft services’.
Despite the government’s intention that PPPs remain an important plank of its funding of public services, the number of new PFI/PF2 projects has nonetheless declined sharply during the 2010s as the chart shows. Of the 715 PPP projects as of 31 March 2017, 631 had been signed before May 2010. Indeed, in 2016/17 only 1 new project was signed.
The collapse of Carillion
Concerns over PPPs remained despite the reforms under PF2. These were brought dramatically into focus with the collapse of Carillion plc (see the blog, Outsourcing, PFI and the demise of Carillion). Carillion was a British company focused on construction and facilities management (i.e. support services for organisations). It was a significant private-sector partner in PPP projects. By 2014 it had won 60 PPP projects in the UK and Canada, including hospitals, schools, university buildings, prisons, roads and railways.
However, Carillion had increasing burdens of debt, caused, in part, by various major acquisitions, including McAlpine in 2008. Events came to a head when, on 15 January 2018, an application was made to the High Court for a compulsory liquidation of the company.
A subsequent report for the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in light of the collapse of Carillion found that procurement procedures were fundamentally flawed. It found that contracts were awarded based on cost rather than quality. This meant that some contracts were not sustainable. Between 2016 and the collapse of Carillion the government had been forced to renegotiate more than £120m of contracts so that public services could continue.
The ending of PPPs?
On 18 January 2018, the National Audit Office published an assessment of PFI and PF2. The report stated that there were 716 PFI and PF2 projects at the time, either under construction or in operation, with a total capital value of £59.4 billion. In recent years, however, ‘the government’s use of the PFI and PF2 models had slowed significantly, reducing from, on average, 55 deals each year in the five years to 2007/8 to only one in 2016/17.’
At its conference in September 2018, the Labour shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, said that, if elected, a Labour government would not award any new PFI/PF2 contracts. He claimed that PFI/PF2 contracts were set to cost the taxpayer £200bn over the coming decade. Labour policy would be to review all existing PFI/PF2 contracts and bring the bulk of them fully back into the public sector.
Then in the Budget of 29 October 2018, the Chancellor announced that no further PFI/PF2 projects would be awarded, although existing ones would continue.
I have never signed off a PFI contract as chancellor, and I can confirm today that I never will. I can announce that the government will abolish the use of PFI and PF2 for future projects.
We will honour existing contracts. But the days of the public sector being a pushover, must end. We will establish a centre of excellence to actively manage these contracts in the taxpayers’ interest, starting in the health sector.
But does this mean that there will be no more public-private partnerships, of which PFI is just one example? The answer is no. As the Chancellor stated:
And in financing public infrastructure, I remain committed to the use of public-private partnership where it delivers value for the taxpayer and genuinely transfers risk to the private sector.
But just what form future PPPs will take is unclear. Clearly, the government will want to get value for money, but that depends on the mechanisms used to ensure efficient and high-quality projects. What is more, there is still the danger that the companies involved could end up with unsustainable levels of debt if economic circumstances change and it will still involve a burden on the taxpayer for the future.
- Find out how PF2 differs from PFI and assess the extent to which it overcame the problems identified with PFI.
- The government is not bringing back existing PFI contracts into the public sector, whereas the Labour Party would do so – at least with some of them. Assess the arguments for and against bringing PFI contracts ‘in-house’.
- Find out why Carillion collapsed. To what extent was this due to its taking on PFI contracts?
- What were the main findings of the National Audit Office’s assessment of PFI and PF2?
- The government still supports the use of public-private partnerships (PPPs). What form could these take other than as PFI/PF2 contracts? Would the problems associated with PFI/PF2 also apply to PPPs in general?