Category: Economics: Ch 08

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is proposing to launch a formal Market Investigation into anti-competitive practices in the UK’s £2bn veterinary industry (for pets rather than farm animals or horses). This follows a preliminary investigation which received 56 000 responses from pet owners and vet professionals. These responses reported huge rises in bills for treatment and medicines and corresponding rises in the cost of pet insurance.

At the same time there has been a large increase in concentration in the industry. In 2013, independent vet practices accounted for 89% of the market; today, they account for only around 40%. Over the past 10 years, some 1500 of the UK’s 5000 vet practices had been acquired by six of the largest corporate groups. In many parts of the country, competition is weak; in others, it is non-existent, with just one of these large companies having a monopoly of veterinary services.

This market power has given rise to a number of issues. The CMA identifies the following:

  • Of those practices checked, over 80% had no pricing information online, even for the most basic services. This makes is hard for pet owners to make decisions on treatment.
  • Pet owners potentially overpay for medicines, many of which can be bought online or over the counter in pharmacies at much lower prices, with the pet owners merely needing to know the correct dosage. When medicines require a prescription, often it is not made clear to the owners that they can take a prescription elsewhere, and owners end up paying high prices to buy medicines directly from the vet practice.
  • Even when there are several vet practices in a local area, they are often owned by the same company and hence there is no price competition. The corporate group often retains the original independent name when it acquires the practice and thus is is not clear to pet owners that ownership has changed. They may think there is local competition when there is not.
  • Often the corporate group provides the out-of-hours service, which tends to charge very high prices for emergency services. If there is initially an independent out-of-hours service provider, it may be driven out of business by the corporate owner of day-time services only referring pet owners to its own out-of-hours service.
  • The corporate owners may similarly provide other services, such as specialist referral centres, diagnostic labs, animal hospitals and crematoria. By referring pets only to those services owned by itself, this crowds out independents and provides a barrier to the entry of new independents into these parts of the industry.
  • Large corporate groups have the incentive to act in ways which may further reduce competition and choice and drive up their profits. They may, for example, invest in advanced equipment, allowing them to provide more sophisticated but high-cost treatment. Simpler, lower-cost treatments may not be offered to pet owners.
  • The higher prices in the industry have led to large rises in the cost of pet insurance. These higher insurance costs are made worse by vets steering owners with pet insurance to choosing more expensive treatments for their pets than those without insurance. The Association of British Insurers notes that there has been a large rise in claims attributable to an increasing provision of higher-cost treatments.
  • The industry suffers from acute staff shortages, which cuts down on the availability of services and allows practices to push up prices.
  • Regulation by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) is weak in the area of competition and pricing.

The CMA’s formal investigation will examine the structure of the veterinary industry and the behaviour of the firms in the industry. As the CMA states:

In a well-functioning market, we would expect a range of suppliers to be able to inform consumers of their services and, in turn, consumers would act on the information they receive.

Market failures in the veterinary industry

The CMA’s concerns suggest that the market is not sufficiently competitive, with vet companies holding significant market power. This leads to higher prices for a range of vet services. However, the CMA’s analysis suggests that market failures in the industry extend beyond the simple question of market power and lack of competition.

A crucial market failure is asymmetry of information. The veterinary companies have much better information than pet owners. This is a classic principal–agent problem. The agent, in this case the vet (or vet company), has much better information than the principal, in this case the pet owner. This information can be used to the interests of the vet company, with pet owners being persuaded to purchase more extensive and expensive treatments than they might otherwise choose if they were better informed.

The principal–agent problem also arises in the context of the dependant nature of pets. They are the ones receiving the treatment and, in this context, are the principals. Their owners are the ones acquiring the treatment for them and hence are the pets’ agents. The question is whether the owners will always do the best thing for their pets. This raises philosophical questions of animal rights and whether owners should be required to protect the interests of their pets.

Another information issue is the short-term perspective of many pet owners. They may purchase a young and healthy pet and assume that it will remain so. However, as the pet gets older, it is likely to face increasing health issues, with correspondingly increasing vet bills. But many owners do not consider such future bills when they purchase the pet. They suffer from what behavioural economists call ‘irrational exuberance’. Such exuberance may also occur when the owner of a sick pet is offered expensive treatment. They may over-optimistically assume that the treatment will be totally successful and that their pet will not need further treatment.

Vets cite another information asymmetry. This concerns the costs they face in providing treatment. Many owners are unaware of these costs – costs that include rent, business rates, heating and lighting, staff costs, equipment costs, consumables (such as syringes, dressings, surgical gowns, antiseptic and gloves), VAT, and so on. Many of these costs have risen substantially in recent months and are reflected in the prices pet owners are charged. With people experiencing free health care for themselves from the NHS (or other national provider), this may make them feel that the price of pet health care is excessive.

Then there is the issue of inequality. Pets provide great benefits to many owners and contribute to owners’ well-being. If people on low incomes cannot afford high vet bills, they may either have to forgo having a pet, with the benefits it brings, or incur high vet bills that they ill afford or simply go without treatment for their pets.

Finally, there are the external costs that arise when people abandon their pets with various health conditions. This has been a growing problem, with many people buying pets during lockdown when they worked from home, only to abandon them later when they have had to go back to the office or other workplace. The costs of treating or putting down such pets are born by charities or local authorities.

The CMA is consulting on its proposal to begin a formal Market Investigation. This closes on 11 April. If, in the light of its consultation, the Market Investigation goes ahead, the CMA will later report on its findings and may require the veterinary industry to adopt various measures. These could require vet groups to provide better information to owners, including what lower-cost treatments are available. But given the oligopolistic nature of the industry, it is unlikely to lead to significant reductions in vets bills.

Articles

CMA documents

Questions

  1. How would you establish whether there is an abuse of market power in the veterinary industry?
  2. Explain what is meant by the principal–agent problem. Give some other examples both in economic and non-economic relationships.
  3. What market advantages do large vet companies have over independent vet practices?
  4. How might pet insurance lead to (a) adverse selection; (b) moral hazard? Explain. How might (i) insurance companies and (ii) vets help to tackle adverse selection and moral hazard?
  5. Find out what powers the CMA has to enforce its rulings.
  6. Search for vet prices and compare the prices charged by at least three vet practices. How would you account for the differences or similarities in prices?

High-tech firms, such as Google, Amazon, Meta and Apple, have increasingly been gaining the attention of competition authorities across the world, and not in a good way! Over the past few years, competition authorities in the UK, USA and Europe have all opened various cases against Apple, with particular focus on its App Store (see, for example, a blog post on this site from 2021 about the Epic v. Apple case in the USA).

The lead-up to the €1.8 billion fine issued by the European Commission (Europe’s competition regulator) on the 4th March 2024, began in 2019 when music streaming provider, Spotify, filed a complaint against Apple, after years of being bound by the ‘unfair’ App Store rules imposed by Apple.1

Apple’s App Store has traditionally served as the only platform through which application developers can distribute their apps to iOS users, and app developers have had no choice but to adhere to whatever rules are set by Apple. As iPhone and iPad users know, the App Store is the only way in which users can download apps to their iOS devices, establishing Apple’s App Store as a ‘gatekeeper’, as described in the European Commission’s (EC) press release expressing their initial concerns in April 2021.2 When it comes to music streaming apps, Apple not only serves as the exclusive platform for downloading these apps, but also has its own music streaming app, Apple Music, that competes with other music-streaming providers.

This means that Apple holds a dominant position in the market for the distribution of music streaming apps to iOS users through its App Store. Being a dominant firm is not necessarily a problem. However, firms which hold a dominant position do have a special responsibility not to abuse their position. The EC found that Apple was abusing its dominant position in this market, with particular concerns about the rules it imposed on music streaming app developers.

Apple requires that app developers use Apple’s own in-app purchase system. This means that users must make any in-app purchases or subscriptions to music streaming apps through Apple’s system, subsequently subjecting app developers to a 30% commission fee. The EC found that this often led app developers to pass on these costs to consumers through an increase in prices.

Although users could still purchase subscriptions outside of the app, which may be cheaper for users as these payments will not be subject to commission, the EC found that Apple limits the ability for app developers to inform users about these alternative methods. For example, Apple prevented app developers from including links within their apps to their websites, where users could purchase subscriptions. The implications of this extends beyond increased prices for consumers, potentially resulting in a degraded user experience as well.

These restrictions imposed by Apple are examples of what are known as ‘anti-steering provisions’, and it is this conduct that led the Commission to issue the fine for the abuse of a dominant market position.

Whilst this case has now been concluded, the spotlight is not off of Apple yet. The European Commission had required that all ‘gatekeepers’ must comply with their Digital Markets Act (DMA) by the 7 March 2024.3 One implication of this for Apple, is the requirement to allow third-party app stores on iOS devices.

Whilst Apple has agreed to this requirement, concerns have been raised about the accompanying measures which Apple will introduce. This includes varying terms for app developers based on whether or not they offer their app exclusively through Apple’s App Store. As outlined in a recent article,4 one implication is that app developers exceeding 1 million existing downloads through the Apple App Store will incur a fee of €0.50 per additional user if they opt to distribute their app also through a competing app store. This may act as a deterrent to popular app developers to offer their app through a competing store.

The success of a platform like an app store, relies greatly on generating ‘network effects’ – more users attract more developers, leading to more users, and so on. Therefore, not being able to offer some of the most popular apps would make it challenging for a new app store to compete effectively with Apple’s App Store.

Recently, Spotify, along with game developer Epic and others, have expressed various concerns about Apple’s compliance with the DMA in a letter to the EC.5 It will be interesting to see whether the EC is satisfied with Apple’s approach to comply with the requirements of the DMA.

References

  1. A Timeline: How we got here
    Time to Play Fair (Spotify) (updated March 2024)
  2. Antitrust: Commission sends Statement of Objections to Apple on App Store rules for music streaming providers
    EC Press Release (30/4/21)
  3. The Digital Markets Act
    EC: Business, Economy, Euro DG
  4. Apple’s exclusionary app store scheme: An existential moment for the Digital Markets Act
    VOXEU, Jacques Crémer, Paul Heidhues, Monika Schnitzer and Fiona Scott Morton (6/3/24)
  5. A Letter to the European Commission on Apple’s Lack of DMA Compliance
    Time to Play Fair (Spotify) (1/3/24)

Articles

Questions

  1. Why might ‘anti-steering provisions’ that limit the ability of app developers to inform users of alternative purchasing methods be harmful to consumers?
  2. Why is the existence of Apple’s own music streaming service, Apple Music, particularly significant in the context of its role as the operator of the App Store?
  3. Reflect on the potential advantages and disadvantages of allowing third-party app stores on iOS devices, as mandated by the Digital Markets Act (DMA).

The traditional theory of the firm assumes that firms are profit maximisers. Although, in practice, decision-makers in firms are driven by a range of motives and objectives, profit remains a key objective for most firms – if not maximising profit, at least trying to achieve profit growth so as to satisfy shareholders, retain confidence in the company and prevent the share price from falling. After all, if the company is profitable, it is easier to fund investment, either from ploughed-back profit, borrowing or new share issue. And greater investment will help to drive profits in the future.

But does the pursuit of profit and shareholder value as the number-one objective actually lead to higher profit? It could be that a prime focus on other things such as consumer satisfaction, product design and value, innovation, safety, worker involvement and the local community could lead to greater long-term profit than an aggressive policy of marketing, cost cutting and financial rejigging – three of the commonest approaches to achieving greater profits.

Boeing disasters

In 2018 and 2019 there were two fatal crashes involving the new 737 MAX-8 aircraft. On 29 October 2018, Indonesia’s Lion Air Flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea; all 189 people on board died. On 10 March 2019, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 similarly crashed; all 157 people on board died. Both disasters were the result of a faulty automatic manoeuvring system. The company and its CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, knew about issues with the system, but preferred to keep planes flying while they sought to fix the issue. Grounding them would have cost the company money. But taking this gamble led to two fatal crashes. This damaged the company’s reputation and cost it billions of dollars.

The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigated the cases and found that the company had made false statements about the plane’s safety and had put ‘profits before people’. But putting profits first ended up in a huge fall in profits, with the 737 MAX grounded for 20 months.

Since the crashes there have been several other issues with various critical systems, including stabilisation, engines, flight control systems, hydraulics and wiring. In December 2023, Boeing asked airlines to inspect its 737 MAX planes for a potential loose bolt in the rudder control system.

On 5 January 2024, Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 experienced an emergency. A window panel on the 737 MAX-9 aircraft, which replaced an unused emergency exit door, blew out and the cabin depressurised. Fortunately the plane was still climbing and had reached only just under 5000m – less than half of the cruising altitude of over 11 500m. The plane rapidly descended and safely returned to Portland International Airport without loss of life. Had the incident occurred at cruising altitude, the rush of air out of the plane would have been much greater. Passengers would be less likely to be wearing their seat belts and several people could have been sucked out.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) temporarily grounded 171 MAX-9s for inspections. It found that several planes had loose bolts holding the panels in place and could potentially have suffered similar blow outs.

Profits rather than safety?

Critics have claimed that the corporate culture at Boeing prioritised profit over safety. This was made worse in 2001 when company headquarters moved from Seattle to Chicago but production remained at Seattle. The culture at headquarters became sharply focused on financial success. Boeing was under intense competition from Airbus, which announced its more fuel-efficient version of the A320, the A320neo, in 2010, with launch planned for 2015. Boeing’s more fuel-efficient version of the 737, the 737 MAX, was announced in 2011, scheduled for first delivery in 2017. Since then, Boeing has been keen to get the 737 MAX to customers as quickly as possible. Also, Boeing has sought to cut manufacturing costs to keep prices competitive with Airbus.

Despite warnings from some Boeing employees that this competition was leading to corners being cut that compromised safety, Boeing management continued to push for more rapid and cheaper production to fight the competition from Airbus.

The aircraft industry is regulated in the USA by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In 2020, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure produced a detailed report on the industry. It found that the FAA delegated too much safety certification work to Boeing. This was a case of regulatory capture. It was also accused of sharing the goal of promoting the production of US-based Boeing in its competition with European-based Airbus.

Effects on profits

But rather than a focus on profit leading to greater profits, safety issues have led to groundings of 737s, a fall in sales and a fall in profits. The first chart shows deliveries of 737s slightly lagging A320s from 2010 to 2018. Since then deliveries of 737s have fallen well behind A320s. In terms of orders for all planes, Boeing was ahead of Airbus in 2018 (893 compared with 747). Since then, Boeing has significantly lagged behind Airbus and in 2019 and 2020 cancellations exceeded new orders. The January 2024 incident and subsequent groundings are likely to erode confidence, orders and profits even further.

As you can see from the second chart, profits fell substantially in 2019, and with COVID fell again in 2020. They have not recovered to previous levels since. Depending on how the market responds to the issue of loose panel bolts on the MAX-9, profits could well fall again in 2024. There will almost certainly be a further erosion of confidence and probably of orders.

The Boeing story is a salutary lesson in how not to achieve long-term profit. A focus on design, quality and reliability may be a better means to achieving long-term profit growth than trying to appeal to shareholders by increasing short-term profits through aggressive cost cutting and hoping that this will not affect quality.

Video and audio

Articles

Information

Questions

  1. Why is the pursuit of long-run profit likely to result in different decisions from the pursuit of short-run profit?
  2. How has Airbus’s strategy differed from that of Boeing?
  3. How would you summarise Boeing management’s attitude towards risk?
  4. Is it important to locate senior management of a company at its manufacturing base?
  5. What is regulatory capture? Is it fair to say that the FAA was captured by Boeing?
  6. Should Boeing scrap the 737 MAX and design a new narrow-body plane?


Politicians, business leaders, climate scientists, interest groups and journalists from across the world have been meeting in Dubai at the COP28 climate summit (the 28th annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)). The meeting comes at a time when various climate tipping points are being reached or approached – some bad, but some good. Understanding these tipping points and their implications for society and policy requires understanding not only the science, but also the various economic incentives affecting individuals, businesses, politicians and societies.

Tipping points

A recent report (see first reference in articles section below) identified various climate tipping points. These are when global temperatures rise to a point where various domino effects occur. These are adverse changes to the environment that gather pace and have major effects on ecosystems and the ability to grow food and support populations. These, in turn, will have large effects on economies, migration and political stability.

According to the report, five tipping points are imminent with the current degree of global warming (1.2oC). These are:

  • Melting of the Greenland ice sheet;
  • Melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet;
  • Death of warm-water coral reefs;
  • Collapse of the North Atlantic Subpolar Gyre circulation, which helps to drive the warm current that benefits Western Europe;
  • Widespread rapid thawing of permafrost, where tundra without snow cover rapidly absorbs heat and releases methane (a much more powerful source of global warming than CO2).

With global warming of 1.5oC, three more tipping points are likely: the destruction of seagrass meadows, mangrove swamps and the southern part of the boreal forests that cover much of northern Eurasia. As the temperature warms further, other tipping points can interact in ways that drive one another, resulting in tipping ‘cascades’.

But the report also strikes an optimistic note, arguing that positive tipping points are also possible, which will help to slow global warming in the near future and possibly reverse it further in the future.


The most obvious one is in renewable energy. Renewable power generation in many countries is now cheaper than generation from fossil fuels. Indeed, in 2022, over 80% of new electricity generation was from solar and wind. And as it becomes cheaper, so this will drive investment in new renewable plants, including in small-scale production suitable for use in developing countries in parts not connected to a grid. In the vehicle sector, improved battery technology, the growth in charging infrastructure and cheaper renewable sources of electricity are creating a tipping point in EV take-up.

Positive tipping points can take place as a result of changing attitudes, such as moving away from a meat-intensive diet, avoiding food waste, greater use of recycling and a growth in second-hand markets.

But these positive tipping points are so far not strong enough or quick enough. Part of the problem is with economic incentives in market systems and part is with political systems.

Market failures

Economic decisions around the world of both individuals and firms are made largely within a market environment. But the market fails to take into account the full climate costs and benefits of such decisions. There are various reasons why.

Externalities. Both the production and consumption of many goods, especially energy and transport, but also much of agriculture and manufacturing, involve the production of CO2. But the costs of the resulting global warming are not born directly by the producer or consumer. Instead they are external costs born by society worldwide – with some countries and individuals bearing a higher cost than others. The result is an overproduction or consumption of such goods from the point of view of the world.

The environment as a common resource. The air, the seas and many other parts of the environment are not privately owned. They are a global ‘commons’. As such, it is extremely difficult to exclude non-payers from consuming the benefits they provide. Because of this property of ‘non-excludability’, it is often possible to consume the benefits of the environment at a zero price. If the price of any good or service to the user is zero, there is no incentive to economise on its use. In the case of the atmosphere as a ‘dump’ for greenhouse gases, this results in its overuse. Many parts of the environment, however, including the atmosphere, are scarce: there is rivalry in their use. As people increase their use of the atmosphere as a dump for carbon, so the resulting global warming adversely affects the lives of others. This is an example of the tragedy of the commons – where a free resource (such as common land) is overused.

Inter-generational problems. The effect of the growth in carbon emissions is long term, whereas the benefits are immediate. Thus consumers and firms are frequently prepared to continue with various practices, such as driving, flying and using fossil fuels for production, and leave future generations to worry about their environmental consequences. The problem, then, is a reflection of the importance that people attach to the present relative to the future.

Ignorance. People may be contributing to global warming without realising it. They may be unaware of which of the goods they buy involve the release of carbon in their production or how much carbon they release when consumed.

Political failures

Governments, whether democratic or dictatorships, face incentives not to reduce carbon emissions – or to minimise their reduction, especially if they are oil producing countries. Reducing carbon involves short-term costs to consumers and this can make them unpopular. It could cost them the next election or, in the case of dictatorships, make them vulnerable to overthrow. What is more, the oil, coal and gas industries have a vested interest in continuing the use of fossil fuels. Such industries wield considerable political power.

Even if governments want the world to reduce carbon emissions, they would rather that the cost of doing so is born less by their own country and more by other countries. This creates a prisoner’s dilemma, where the optimum may be for a large global reduction in carbon emissions, but the optimum is not achieved because countries individually are only prepared to reduce a little, expecting other countries to reduce more. Getting a deal that is deemed ‘fair’ by all countries is very difficult. An example is where developing countries, may feel that it is fair that the bulk of any cuts, if not all of them, should be made by developed countries, while developed countries feel that fixed percentage cuts should be made by all countries.

Policy options

If the goal is to tackle climate change, then the means is to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere (or at the least to stop its increase – the net zero target). There are two possibilities here. The first is to reduce the amount of carbon emissions. The second is to use carbon capture and storage or carbon sequestration (e.g. through increased forestation).

In terms of reducing carbon emissions, the key is reducing the consumption of carbon-producing activities and products that involve emissions in their production. This can be achieved through taxes on such products and/or subsidies on green alternatives (see the blog ‘Are carbon taxes a solution to the climate emergency?‘). Alternatively carbon-intensive consumption can be banned or phased out by law. For example, the purchase of new petrol or diesel cars cold be banned beyond a certain date. Or some combination of taxation and regulation can be used, such as in a cap-and-trade system – for example, the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) (see the blog ‘Carbon pricing in the UK‘). Then there is government investment in zero carbon technologies and infrastructure (e.g. electrifying railways). In practice, a range of policy instruments are needed (see the blog ‘Tackling climate change: “Everything, everywhere, all at once”‘).

With carbon capture, again, solutions can involve a mixture of market mechanisms and regulation. Market mechanisms include subsidies for using carbon capture systems or for afforestation. Regulation includes policies such as requiring filters to be installed on chimneys or banning the felling of forests for grazing land.

The main issue with such policies is persuading governments to adopt them. As we saw above, governments may be unwilling to bear the short-term costs to consumers and the resulting loss in popularity. Winning the next election or simple political survival may be their number-one priority.

COP28

The COP28 summit concluded with a draft agreement which called for the:

transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.

This was the first COP summit that called on all nations to transition away from fossil fuels for energy generation. It was thus hailed as the biggest step forward on tackling climate change since the 2015 Paris agreement. However, there was no explicit commitment to phase out or even ‘phase down’ fossil fuels. Many scientists, climate interest groups and even governments had called for such a commitment. What is more, there was no agreement to transition away from fossil fuels for transport, agriculture or the production of plastics.

If the agreement is to be anything more than words, the commitment must now be translated into specific policy actions by governments. This is where the real test will come. It’s easy to make commitments; it’s much harder to put them into practice with policy measures that are bound to impose costs on various groups of people. What is more, there are powerful lobbies, such as the oil, coal and steel industries, which want to slow any transition away from fossil fuels – and many governments of oil producing countries which gain substantial revenues from oil production.

One test will come in two years’ time at the COP30 summit in the Amazonian city of Belém, Brazil. At that summit, countries must present new nationally determined commitments that are economy-wide, cover all greenhouse gases and are fully aligned with the 1.5°C temperature limit. This will require specific targets to be announced and the measures required to achieve them. Also, it is hoped that by then there will be an agreement to phase out fossil fuels and not just to ‘transition away’ from them.

Reasons for hope

Despite the unwillingness of many countries, especially the oil and coal producing countries, to phase out fossil fuels, there are reasons for hope that global warming may be halted and eventually even reversed. Damage will have been done and some tipping points may have been reached, but further tipping points may be averted.

The first reason is technological advance. Research, development and investment in zero carbon technologies is advancing rapidly. As we have seen, power generation from wind and solar is now cheaper than from fossil fuels. And this cost difference is likely to grow as technology advances further. This positive tipping point is becoming more rapid. Other technological advances in transport and industry will further the shift towards renewables and other advances will economise on the use of power.

The second is changing attitudes. With the environment being increasingly included in educational syllabuses around the world and with greater stress on the problems of climate change in the media, with frequent items in the news and with programmes such as the three series of Planet Earth, people are becoming more aware of the implications of climate change and how their actions contribute towards the problem. People are likely to put increasing pressure on businesses and governments to take action. Growing awareness of the environmental impact of their actions is also affecting people’s choices. The negative externalities are thus being reduced and may even become positive ones.

Articles

Questions

  1. Use a diagram to demonstrate the effects of negative externalities in production on the level of output and how this differs from the optimum level.
  2. Use another diagram to demonstrate the effects of negative externalities in consumption on the level of consumption and how this differs from the optimum level.
  3. What was agreed at COP28?
  4. What incentives were included in the agreement to ensure countries stick to the agreement? Were they likely to be sufficient?
  5. What can governments do to encourage positive environmental tipping points?
  6. How may carbon taxes be used to tackle global warming? Are they an efficient policy instrument?
  7. What can be done to change people’s attitudes towards their own carbon emissions?

Artificial intelligence is having a profound effect on economies and society. From production, to services, to healthcare, to pharmaceuticals; to education, to research, to data analysis; to software, to search engines; to planning, to communication, to legal services, to social media – to our everyday lives, AI is transforming the way humans interact. And that transformation is likely to accelerate. But what will be the effects on GDP, on consumption, on jobs, on the distribution of income, and human welfare in general? These are profound questions and ones that economists and other social scientists are pondering. Here we look at some of the issues and possible scenarios.

According to the Merrill/Bank of America article linked below, when asked about the potential for AI, ChatGPT replied:

AI holds immense potential to drive innovation, improve decision-making processes and tackle complex problems across various fields, positively impacting society.

But the magnitude and distribution of the effects on society and economic activity are hard to predict. Perhaps the easiest is the effect on GDP. AI can analyse and interpret data to meet economic goals. It can do this much more extensively and much quicker than using pre-AI software. This will enable higher productivity across a range of manufacturing and service industries. According to the Merrill/Bank of America article, ‘global revenue associated with AI software, hardware, service and sales will likely grow at 19% per year’. With productivity languishing in many countries as they struggle to recover from the pandemic, high inflation and high debt, this massive boost to productivity will be welcome.

But whilst AI may lead to productivity growth, its magnitude is very hard to predict. Both the ‘low-productivity future’ and the ‘high-productivity future’ described in the IMF article linked below are plausible. Productivity growth from AI may be confined to a few sectors, with many workers displaced into jobs where they are less productive. Or, the growth in productivity may affect many sectors, with ‘AI applied to a substantial share of the tasks done by most workers’.

Growing inequality?

Even if AI does massively boost the growth in world GDP, the distribution is likely to be highly uneven, both between countries and within countries. This could widen the gap between rich and poor and create a range of social tensions.

In terms of countries, the main beneficiaries will be developed countries in North America, Europe and Asia and rapidly developing countries, largely in Asia, such as China and India. Poorer developing countries’ access to the fruits of AI will be more limited and they could lose competitive advantage in a number of labour-intensive industries.

Then there is growing inequality between the companies controlling AI systems and other economic actors. Just as companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Google and Meta grew rich as computing, the Internet and social media grew and developed, so these and other companies at the forefront of AI development and supply will grow rich, along with their senior executives. The question then is how much will other companies and individuals benefit. Partly, it will depend on how much production can be adapted and developed in light of the possibilities that AI presents. Partly, it will depend on competition within the AI software market. There is, and will continue to be, a rush to develop and patent software so as to deliver and maintain monopoly profits. It is likely that only a few companies will emerge dominant – a natural oligopoly.

Then there is the likely growth of inequality between individuals. The reason is that AI will have different effects in different parts of the labour market.

The labour market

In some industries, AI will enhance labour productivity. It will be a tool that will be used by workers to improve the service they offer or the items they produce. In other cases, it will replace labour. It will not simply be a tool used by labour, but will do the job itself. Workers will be displaced and structural unemployment is likely to rise. The quicker the displacement process, the more will such unemployment rise. People may be forced to take more menial jobs in the service sector. This, in turn, will drive down the wages in such jobs and employers may find it more convenient to use gig workers than employ workers on full- or part-time contracts with holidays and other rights and benefits.

But the development of AI may also lead to the creation of other high-productivity jobs. As the Goldman Sachs article linked below states:

Jobs displaced by automation have historically been offset by the creation of new jobs, and the emergence of new occupations following technological innovations accounts for the vast majority of long-run employment growth… For example, information-technology innovations introduced new occupations such as webpage designers, software developers and digital marketing professionals. There were also follow-on effects of that job creation, as the boost to aggregate income indirectly drove demand for service sector workers in industries like healthcare, education and food services.

Nevertheless, people could still lose their jobs before being re-employed elsewhere.

The possible rise in structural unemployment raises the question of retraining provision and its funding and whether workers would be required to undertake such retraining. It also raises the question of whether there should be a universal basic income so that the additional income from AI can be spread more widely. This income would be paid in addition to any wages that people earn. But a universal basic income would require finance. How could AI be taxed? What would be the effects on incentives and investment in the AI industry? The Guardian article, linked below, explores some of these issues.

The increased GDP from AI will lead to higher levels of consumption. The resulting increase in demand for labour will go some way to offsetting the effects of workers being displaced by AI. There may be new employment opportunities in the service sector in areas such as sport and recreation, where there is an emphasis on human interaction and where, therefore, humans have an advantage over AI.

Another issue raised is whether people need to work so many hours. Is there an argument for a four-day or even three-day week? We explored these issues in a recent blog in the context of low productivity growth. The arguments become more compelling when productivity growth is high.

Other issues

AI users are not all benign. As we are beginning to see, AI opens the possibility for sophisticated crime, including cyberattacks, fraud and extortion as the technology makes the acquisition and misuse of data, and the development of malware and phishing much easier.

Another set of issues arises in education. What knowledge should students be expected to acquire? Should the focus of education continue to shift towards analytical skills and understanding away from the simple acquisition of knowledge and techniques. This has been a development in recent years and could accelerate. Then there is the question of assessment. Generative AI creates a range of possibilities for plagiarism and other forms of cheating. How should modes of assessment change to reflect this problem? Should there be a greater shift towards exams or towards project work that encourages the use of AI?

Finally, there is the issue of the sort of society we want to achieve. Work is not just about producing goods and services for us as consumers – work is an important part of life. To the extent that AI can enhance working life and take away a lot of routine and boring tasks, then society gains. To the extent, however, that it replaces work that involved judgement and human interaction, then society might lose. More might be produced, but we might be less fulfilled.

Articles

Questions

  1. Which industries are most likely to benefit from the development of AI?
  2. Distinguish between labour-replacing and labour-augmenting technological progress in the context of AI.
  3. How could AI reduce the amount of labour per unit of output and yet result in an increase in employment?
  4. What people are most likely to (a) gain, (b) lose from the increasing use of AI?
  5. Is the distribution of income likely to become more equal or less equal with the development and adoption of AI? Explain.
  6. What policies could governments adopt to spread the gains from AI more equally?