Category: Essential Economics for Business: Ch 03


The Climate Change Pact agreed by leaders at the end of COP26 in Glasgow went further than many pessimists had forecast, but not far enough to meet the goal of keeping global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The Pact states that:

limiting global warming to 1.5°C requires rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, including reducing global carbon dioxide emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 relative to the 2010 level and to net zero around mid-century, as well as deep reductions in other greenhouse gases.

So how far would the commitments made in Glasgow restrict global warming and what actions need to be put in place to meet these commitments?

Short-term commitments and long-term goals

According to Climate Action Tracker, the short-term commitments to action that countries set out would cause global warming of 2.4°C by the end of the century, the effects of which would be calamitous in terms of rising sea levels and extreme weather.

However, long-term commitments to goals, as opposed to specific actions, if turned into specific actions to meet the goals would restrict warming to around 1.8°C by the end of the century. These long-term goals include reaching net zero emissions by certain dates. For the majority of the 136 countries agreeing to reach net zero, the date they set was 2050, but for some developing countries, it was later. China, Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia, for example, set a date of 2060 and India of 2070. Some countries set an earlier target and others, such as Benin, Bhutan, Cambodia, Guyana, Liberia and Madagascar, claimed they had already reached zero net emissions.

Despite these target dates, Climate Action Tracker argues that only 6 per cent of countries pledging net zero have robust policies in place to meet the targets. The problem is that actions are required by firms and individuals. They must cut their direct emissions and reduce the consumption of products whose production involved emissions.

Governments can incentivise individuals and firms through emissions and product taxes, through carbon pricing, through cap-and-trade schemes, through subsidies on green investment, production and consumption, through legal limits on emissions, through trying to change behaviour by education campaigns, and so on. In each case, the extent to which individuals and firms will respond is hard to predict. People may want to reduce global warming and yet be reluctant to change their own behaviour, seeing themselves as too insignificant to make any difference and blaming big business, governments or rich individuals. It is important, therefore, for governments to get incentive mechanisms right to achieve the stated targets.

Let us turn to some specific targets specified in the Climate Change Pact.

Phasing out fossil fuel subsidies

Paragraph 20 of the Climate Change Pact

Calls upon Parties to accelerate … efforts towards the … phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, while providing targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable in line with national circumstances and recognizing the need for support towards a just transition.

Production subsidies include tax breaks or direct payments that reduce the cost of producing coal, oil or gas. Consumption subsidies cut fuel prices for the end user, such as by fixing the price at the petrol pump below the market rate. They are often justified as a way of making energy cheaper for poorer people. In fact, they provide a bigger benefit to wealthier people, who are larger users of energy. A more efficient way of helping the poor would be through benefits or general tax relief. Removing consumption subsidies in 32 countries alone would, according to International Institute for Sustainable Development, cut greenhouse gas emission by an average of 6 per cent by 2025.

The chart shows the 15 countries providing the largest amount of support to fossil fuel industries in 2020 (in 2021 prices). The bars are in billions of dollars and the percentage of GDP is also given for each country. Subsidies include both production and consumption subsidies. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) In addition to the direct subsidies shown in the chart, there are the indirect costs of subsidies, including pollution, environmental destruction and the impact on the climate. According to the IMF, these amounted to $5.4 trillion in 2020.

But getting countries to agree on a path to cutting subsidies, when conditions vary enormously from one country to another, proved very difficult.

The first draft of the conference agreement called for countries to ‘to accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels’. But, after objections from major coal producing countries, such as China, India and Australia, this was weakened to calling on countries to accelerate the shift to clean energy systems ‘by scaling up the deployment of clean power generation and energy efficiency measures, including accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies’. (‘Unabated’ coal power refers to power generation with no carbon capture.) Changing ‘phasing-out’ to ‘the phasedown’ caused consternation among many delegates who saw this as a substantial weakening of the drive to end the use of coal.

Another problem is in defining ‘inefficient’ subsidies. Countries are likely to define them in a way that suits them.

The key question was the extent to which countries would actually adopt such measures and what the details would be. Would they be strong enough? This remained to be seen.

As an article in the journal, Nature, points out:

There are three main barriers to removing production subsidies … First, fossil-fuel companies are powerful political groups. Second, there are legitimate concerns about job losses in communities that have few alternative employment options. And third, people often worry that rising energy prices might depress economic growth or trigger inflation.

The other question with the phasing out of subsidies is how and how much would there be ‘targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable in line with national circumstances’.

Financial support for developing countries

Transitioning to a low-carbon economy and investing in measures to protect people from rising sea levels, floods, droughts, fires, etc. costs money. With many developing countries facing serious financial problems, especially in the light of measures to support their economies and healthcare systems to mitigate the effects of COVID-19, support is needed from the developed world.

In the COP21 Paris Agreement in 2015, developed countries pledged $100 billion by 2020 to support mitigation of and adaptation to the effects of climate change by developing countries. But the target was not reached. The COP26 Pact urged ‘developed country Parties to fully deliver on the $100 billion goal urgently and through to 2025’. It also emphasised the importance of transparency in the implementation of their pledges. The proposal was also discussed to set up a trillion dollar per year fund from 2025, but no agreement was reached.

It remains to be seen just how much support will be given.

Then there was the question of compensating developing countries for the loss and damage which has already resulted from climate change. Large historical polluters, such as the USA, the UK and various EU countries, were unwilling to agree to a compensation mechanism, fearing that any recognition of culpability could make them open to lawsuits and demands for financial compensation.

Other decisions

  • More than 100 countries at the meeting agreed to cut global methane emissions by at least 30 per cent from 2020 levels by 2030. Methane is a more powerful but shorter-living greenhouse gas than carbon. It is responsible for about a third of all human-generated global warming. China, India and Russia, however, did not sign up.
  • Again, more than 100 countries agreed to stop deforestation by 2030. These countries include Indonesia and Brazil, which has been heavily criticised for allowing large parts of the Amazon rainforest to be cleared for farming, such that the Amazon region in recent years has been a net emitter of carbon from the felling and burning of trees. The pledge has been met with considerable cynicism, however, as it unclear how it will be policed. Much of the deforestation around the world is already illegal but goes ahead anyway.
  • A mechanism for trading carbon credits was agreed. This allows countries which plant forests or build wind farms to earn credits. However, it may simply provide a mechanism for rich countries and businesses to keep emitting as usual by buying credits.
  • Forty-five countries pledged to invest in green agricultural practices to make farming more sustainable.
  • Twenty-two countries signed a declaration to create zero-emission maritime shipping routes.
  • The USA and China signed a joint declaration promising to boost co-operation over the next decade on various climate actions, including reducing methane emissions, tackling deforestation and regulating decarbonisation.

Blah, blah, blah or real action?

Many of the decisions merely represent targets. What is essential is for countries clearly to spell out the mechanisms they will use for achieving them. So far there is too little detail. It was agreed, therefore, to reconvene in a year’s time at COP27 in Egypt. Countries will be expected to spell out in detail what actions they are taking to meet their emissions targets and other targets such as ending deforestation and reducing coal-fired generation.

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Questions

  1. What were the main achievements of COP26?
  2. What were the main failings of COP26?
  3. How can people be incentivised to reduce their direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions?
  4. How is game theory relevant to understanding the difficulties in achieving global net zero emissions?
  5. Should developing countries be required to give up coal power?
  6. If the world is to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions, should all countries achieve net zero or should some countries achieve net negative emissions to allow others to continue with net positive emissions (albeit at a lower level)?

The development of open-source software and blockchain technology has enabled people to ‘hack’ capitalism – to present and provide alternatives to traditional modes of production, consumption and exchange. This has enabled more effective markets in second-hand products, new environmentally-friendly technologies and by-products that otherwise would have been negative externalities. Cryptocurrencies are increasingly providing the medium of exchange in such markets.

In a BBC podcast, Hacking Capitalism, Leo Johnson, head of PwC’s Disruption Practice and younger brother of Boris Johnson, argues that various changes to the way capitalism operates can make it much more effective in improving the lives of everyone, including those left behind in the current world. The changes can help address the failings of capitalism, such as climate change, environmental destruction, poverty and inequality, corruption, a reinforcement of economic and political power and the lack of general access to capital. And these changes are already taking place around the world and could lead to a new ‘golden age’ for capitalism.

The changes are built on new attitudes and new technologies. New attitudes include regarding nature and the land as living resources that need respect. This would involve moving away from monocultures and deforestation and, with appropriate technologies (old and new), could lead to greater output, greater equality within agriculture and increased carbon absorption. The podcast gives examples from the developing and developed world of successful moves towards smaller-scale and more diversified agriculture that are much more sustainable. The rise in farmers’ markets provides an important mechanism to drive both demand and supply.

In the current model of capitalism there are many barriers to prevent the poor from benefiting from the system. As the podcast states, there are some 2 billion people across the world with no access to finance, 2.6 billion without access to sanitation, 1.2 billion without access to power – a set of barriers that stops capitalism from unlocking the skills and productivity of the many.

These problems were made worse by the response to the financial crisis of 2007–8, when governments chose to save the existing model of capitalism by propping up financial markets through quantitative easing, which massively inflated asset prices and aggravated the problem of inequality. They missed the opportunity of creating money to invest in alternative technologies and infrastructure.

New technology is the key to developing this new fairer, more sustainable model of capitalism. Such technologies could be developed (and are being in many cases) by co-operative, open-source methods. Many people, through these methods, could contribute to the development of products and their adaptation to meet different needs. The barriers of intellectual property rights are by-passed.

New technologies that allow easy rental or sharing of equipment (such as tractors) by poor farmers can transform lives and massively increase productivity. So too can the development of cryptocurrencies to allow access to finance for small farmers and businesses. This is particularly important in countries where access to traditional finance is restricted and/or where the currency is not stable with high inflation rates.

Blockchain technology can also help to drive second-hand markets by providing greater transparency and thereby cut waste. Manufacturers could take a stake in such markets through a process of certification or transfer.

A final hack is one that can directly tackle the problem of externalities – one of the greatest weaknesses of conventional capitalism. New technologies can support ways of rewarding people for reducing external costs, such as paying indigenous people for protecting the land or forests. Carbon markets have been developed in recent years. Perhaps the best example is the European Emissions Trading Scheme (EMS). But so far they have been developed in isolation. If the revenues generated could go directly to those involved in environmental protection, this would help further to internalise the externalities. The podcasts gives an example of a technology used in the Amazon to identify the environmental benefits of protecting rain forests that can then be used to allow reliable payments to the indigenous people though blockchain currencies.

Podcast

Questions

  1. What are the main reasons why capitalism has led to such great inequality?
  2. What do you understand by ‘hacking’ capitalism?
  3. How is open-source software relevant to the development of technology that can have broad benefits across society?
  4. Does the current model of capitalism encourage a self-centred approach to life?
  5. How might blockchain technology help in the development of a more inclusive and fairer form of capitalism?
  6. How might farmers’ co-operatives encourage rural development?
  7. What are the political obstacles to the developments considered in the podcast?

Long queues at petrol pumps, with many filling stations running out of fuel; fears of shortages of food and various other items in supermarkets; orders by shops and warehouses unfilled or delayed. These have been some of the headlines in the UK in recent days.

The immediate problem is a shortage of over 100 000 lorry drivers, with thousands of drivers from EU countries, who were previously living and working in the UK, having returned to their home countries. Their numbers have not been replaced by British drivers, a problem exacerbated by a decline in HGV tests during the pandemic. Thus the supply of lorry drivers has fallen.

At the same time, as the economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, aggregate demand has risen and with it the demand for lorry drivers.

The shortage is pushing up wages somewhat, but not enough to eliminate the shortage. What is more, the supply of lorry drivers is relatively wage inelastic: a higher wage does not attract many more drivers into the market. Also the demand is also relatively wage inelastic: a higher wage does not do much to dampen the demand for drivers.

But why has this happened? Why has the supply of drivers fallen and why is it inelastic? And what will happen in the coming months? The three main causes are Brexit, COVID-19 and working conditions.

Brexit

With Brexit, many EU workers left the UK, finding life and working conditions more conducive in the EU. Many EU drivers had faced discrimination and felt that they were not welcome in the UK. It has been difficult finding replacement drivers from the EU as the UK’s immigration system, which now applies to the EU as well as other countries, prioritises workers who are classified as high-skilled, and these do not include lorry drivers.

Those EU drivers who do want to stay as UK residents are finding that settled status or visas are not easy to achieve and involve filling in various documents, which can be an onerous and time-consuming process. As the writer of the first linked bog below, who is a Polish worker in the transport industry, states, ‘Would you rather come to Britain and jump through all the hoops, or choose any of the well-paying EU countries, for example, Germany that, if you live in Western Poland, is just a short drive across (virtually non-existent thanks to Schengen) border?’ Another problem is that with EU driving licences: it is harder for potential employers to check on their status and thus they may prefer to employ UK drivers. This, again, puts off EU drivers from seeking to stay in the UK.

Even in the case of EU drivers living in the EU but delivering to the UK there are problems. First there are the dangers for drivers of boarding ferries in France, where people from migrant camps seek to board lorries to get passage to the UK, often threatening drivers. If illegal migrants do succeed in boarding a trailer unseen by the driver, the driver can then be arrested in the UK. According to the Polish blogger, it’s ‘no surprise that I hear more and more drivers who, when taking on new jobs, demand guarantees from their employers that they won’t be sent to the UK’.

Then there is a decline in the system known as ‘cabotage’. This is where an EU driver delivers from the EU to destination A in the UK and takes back a load to the EU from destination B in the UK. To avoid having to travel empty between the two UK destinations, the driver could pick up a load to take from A to B. With a fall in imports and exports from and to the EU following Brexit, there are fewer EU lorries on UK roads. This means that there is now less capacity for transporting loads within the UK.

There has also been a large rise in ‘red tape’ associated with post-Brexit customs checks and border controls. This means that lorries can be held up at ports. This makes it much less attractive for EU haulage companies to export to the UK rather than to other EU countries, where paperwork is minimal. In addition, m many drivers are paid by the length of the journey rather than by the time spent, so delays result in them earning less per hour. Full checks have not been introduced yet. When they are, in January and July next year, the problem will be worse.

Tax changes make it more difficult for drivers to avoid taxes by claiming that they are self employed when they are in reality employees. This too is discouraging drivers from the EU from moving to or staying in the UK since many would now (since April 2021) be paying more tax.

COVID-19

Another contributing factor to the shortage of drivers has been COVID-19 and the government’s response to it. COVID rates are considerably higher in the UK than in most EU countries and, not surprisingly, many EU drivers are afraid to come to the UK.

The pandemic led to fewer HGV driver tests, with 25 000 fewer candidates passing their test in 2020 than in 2019. It takes time to train new drivers and then to test them. However, even if there had been no reduction in HGV drivers passing their tests, there would still be a significant shortage of qualified drivers.

A further problem with the effects of COVID-19 on the economy has been the initial recession and then the bounce back. The sheer size of the bounce back has exacerbated the problem of driver shortages, which otherwise would have been slower to develop, giving the market more time to respond. Real GDP grew by 5.5% from 2021 Q1 to 2021 Q2, giving an annual growth rate of 23.6%. Nevertheless, GDP was still some 3.3% below its 2019 Q3 level.

Pay and working conditions

Working conditions are very poor for many drivers. The following are common complaints:

  • Driving jobs are often very tightly controlled, with computer monitoring and little freedom for the driver. Some cabs have cameras aimed at the drivers so that they can be constantly monitored.
  • Drivers are subject to very stringent health and safety regulations, such as not being allowed to drive longer than a certain time, even when they are queuing in congested traffic. Whilst many of these regulations are desirable to protect both the public’s and the driver’s safety, they can discourage drivers from entering or staying in the industry. And some regulations are hard to justify on safety grounds (see second linked article below, point 13).
  • Just-in-time deliveries at supermarkets, regional distribution centres (warehouses) or factories make timing very important and add considerable stress to drivers who may face abuse if they are late, even though it was not their fault, with their employer perhaps facing a fine. And yet on other occasions they might have to wait a long time to offload if drivers before them have been delayed, and often the conditions in waiting areas are poor with few if any facilities.
  • Drivers often feel a lack of respect from employers, trainers and the general public.
  • Rest and refreshment facilities are often very poor in the UK and generally much worse than in the EU. In the EU, motorway service areas have better parking, toilets, showers and shops. Restaurants are better and cheaper. Dedicated truck stops have supermarkets, laundrettes, showers or even open-air gyms dedicated to making drivers’ lives easier and more pleasant. The UK by contrast often has very poor facilities. Unlike in most EU motorway services, drivers have to pay to park and are faced with poor toilet and eating facilities. ‘Meanwhile, a typical British truck stop is some dusty yard full of potholes on the side of some industrial estate with a portaloo and a “greasy spoon” burger van parked next to it.’
  • Hours are long. Even though driving hours are restricted to 10 hours per day (recently extended to 11 hours), the average working day may be much longer as drivers have to wait at distribution centres, fill in increasing amounts of paperwork and help load or unload their vehicle. Also drivers may have to work variable shifts, which leads to disturbed sleeping patterns.
  • The work is often physically demanding, especially when a large part of the job involves loading and unloading and moving items from the lorry to where the customer wants them.
  • Many vehicles are hard and unpleasant to drive, with leased vehicles often low-spec, dirty, uncomfortable and poorly maintained.
  • Many of the jobs are agency jobs that do not offer stable employment.

Although pay is higher than in some parts of the labour market where there are shortages, such as social care and hospitality, pay per hour is still relatively poor when compared with many industries which have better conditions of employment.

The future

The government is allowing more foreign workers into the UK from this month (October); more training places will be offered for potential drivers and the number of driving tests will increase; the government is also encouraging retired drivers or those who have left driving for other jobs to return to the industry.

However, there are shortages of drivers in other EU countries and so it will be difficult to attract additional drivers to the UK from the EU. What is more, with wages and working conditions remaining poor and the labour market remaining tight in other sectors, it might be hard to fill new training places and encourage workers to return to driving. Also, with the average age of drivers being 55, it is likely that the outflow of workers from driving jobs could be large in the coming years.

Articles

Questions

  1. Why are the supply of and demand for lorry drivers relatively wage inelastic?
  2. Use a marginal productivity diagram to explain the current situation in the market for lorry drivers.
  3. What policy measures could be adopted to increase the supply of lorry drivers? How successful would these be?
  4. Is it ‘rational’ for consumers to ‘panic buy’ fuel and other products in short supply?
  5. Find out why there is a shortage of lorry drivers in the EU. Are any of the explanations similar to those in the UK?
  6. What are the macroeconomic implications of a shortage of lorry drivers and other key workers?

Bubbles

Speculation in markets can lead to wild swings in prices as exuberance drives up prices and
pessimism leads to price crashes. When the rise in price exceeds underlying fundamentals, such as profit, the result is a bubble. And bubbles burst.

There have been many examples of bubbles throughout history. One of the most famous is that of tulips in the 17th century. As Box 2.4 in Essential Economics for Business (6th edition) explains:

Between November 1636 and February 1637, there was a 20-fold increase in the price of tulip bulbs, such that a skilled worker’s annual salary would not even cover the price of one bulb. Some were even worth more than a luxury home! But, only three months later, their price had fallen by 99 per cent. Some traders refused to pay the high price and others began to sell their tulips. Prices began falling. This dampened demand (as tulips were seen to be a poor investment) and encouraged more people to sell their tulips. Soon the price was in freefall, with everyone selling. The bubble had burst .

Another example was the South Sea Bubble of 1720. Here, shares in the South Sea Company, given a monopoly by the British government to trade with South America, increased by 900% before collapsing through a lack of trade.

Another, more recent, example is that of Poseidon. This was an Australian nickel mining company which announced in September 1969 that it had discovered a large seam of nickel at Mount Windarra, WA. What followed was a bubble. The share price rose from $0.80 in mid-1969 to a peak of $280 in February 1970 and then crashed to just a few dollars.

Other examples are the Dotcom bubble of the 1990s, the US housing bubble of the mid-2000s and BitCoin, which has seen more than one bubble.

Bubbles always burst eventually. If you buy at a low price and sell at the peak, you can make a lot of money. But many will get their fingers burnt. Those who come late into the market may pay a high price and, if they are slow to sell, can then make a large loss.

GameStop shares – an unlikely candidate for a bubble

The most recent example of a bubble is GameStop. This is a chain of shops in the USA selling games, consoles and other electronic items. During the pandemic it has struggled, as games consumers have turned to online sellers of consoles and online games. It has been forced to close a number of stores. In July 2020, its share price was around $4. With the general recovery in stock markets, this drifted upwards to just under $20 by 12 January 2021.

Then the bubble began.

Hedge fund shorting

Believing that the GameStop shares were now overvalued and likely to fall, many hedge funds started shorting the shares. Shorting (or ‘short selling’) is where investors borrow shares for a fee and immediately sell them on at the current price, agreeing to return them to the lender on a specified day in the near future (the ‘expiration date’). But as the investors have sold the shares they borrowed, they must now buy them at the current price on or before the expiration date so they can return them to the lenders. If the price falls between the two dates, the investors will gain. For example, if you borrow shares and immediately sell them at a current price of £5 and then by the expiration date the price has fallen to $2 and you buy them back at that price to return them to the lender, you make a £3 profit.

But this is a risky strategy. If the price rises between the two dates, investors will lose – as events were to prove.

The swarm of small investors

Enter the ‘armchair investor’. During lockdown, small-scale amateur investing in shares has become a popular activity, with people seeking to make easy gains from the comfort of their own homes. This has been facilitated by online trading platforms such as Robinhood and Trading212. These are easy and cheap, or even free, to use.

What is more, many users of these sites were also collaborating on social media platforms, such as Reddit. They were encouraging each other to buy shares in GameStop and some other companies. In fact, many of these small investors were seeing it as a battle with large-scale institutional investors, such as hedge funds – a David vs. Goliath battle.

With swarms of small investors buying GameStop, its share price surged. From $20 on 12 January, it doubled in price within two days and had reached $77 by 25 January. The frenzy on Reddit then really gathered pace. The share price peaked at $468 early on 28 January. It then fell to $126 less than two hours later, only to rise again to $354 at the beginning of the next day.

Many large investors who had shorted GameStop shares made big losses. Analytics firm Ortex estimated that hedge funds lost a total of $12.5 billion in January. Many small investors, however, who bought early and sold at the peak made huge gains. Other small investors who got the timing wrong made large losses.

And it was not just GameStop. Social media were buzzing with suggestions about buying shares in other poorly performing companies that large-scale institutional investors were shorting. Another target was silver and silver mines. At one point, silver prices rose by more than 10% on 1 February. However, money invested in silver is huge relative to GameStop and hence small investors were unlikely to shift prices by anything like as much as GameStop shares.

Amidst this turmoil, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued a statement on 29 January. It warned that it was working closely with other regulators and the US stock exchange ‘to ensure that regulated entities uphold their obligations to protect investors and to identify and pursue potential wrongdoing’. It remains to be seen, however, what it can do to curb the concerted activities of small investors. Perhaps, only the experience of bubbles bursting and the severe losses that can result will make small investors think twice about backing failing companies. Some Davids may beat Goliath; others will be defeated.

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Questions

  1. Distinguish between stabilising and destabilising speculation.
  2. Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate destabilising speculation.
  3. Explain how short selling contributed to the financial crisis of 2007/8 (see Box 2.7 in Economics (10th edition) or Box 3.4 in Essentials of Economics (8th edition)).
  4. Why won’t shares such as GameStop go on rising rapidly in price for ever? What limits the rise?
  5. Find out some other shares that have been trending among small investors. Why were these specific shares targeted?
  6. How has quantitative easing impacted on stock markets? What might be the effect of a winding down of QE or even the use of quantitative tightening?

How to get the most from your money? This is the question posed by the linked article below. It’s a topic we’ve looked at in previous posts, such as Studies show that money can buy happiness (but only if you spend on experiences), Happiness economics and Peak stuff. This article takes the arguments further.

It suggests that, up to a certain level of income, there is a roughly linear relationship between money and life satisfaction. As poor people have more to spend, so they can begin to escape poverty and the negative features of financial insecurity and a lack of basic necessities, such as food and shelter. They also gain a greater freedom to choose what and when to buy. Beyond a certain level, however, the rate of increase in life satisfaction tends to decline, as does the specific pleasure from additional individual purchases. In economists’ language, the marginal utility of income diminishes.

But the article goes further than this. It suggests that satisfaction or happiness is of two broad types. The first is the general sense of well-being that people get from their life. This tends to be relatively stable for any given person, but will tend to increase as people have more money to spend or have more fulfilling jobs. Of course, there may well be a trade-off between income and job satisfaction. Some people may prefer to take a cut in pay for a more fulfilling job.

The second is the satisfaction or happiness you get from specific experiences. This tends to fluctuate on a day-to-day basis, depending on what you are doing. Here, what you purchase and the use you make of the purchases is a key component.

So what lessons are there for earning and spending money wisely? To start with, it is important to get a good work-life balance. It may be worth trading income for job satisfaction. Here the focus should be on long-term fulfilment, rather than on the short-term happiness from more ‘stuff’. Then it is important to spend money wisely. Here the author identifies three lessons:

The first is to consider buying time. Time-saving purchases, such as dishwashers can help. So too can ‘outsourcing’ activities, such as cleaning, laundry, cooking, DIY or child care, if they give you more time to do other more fulfilling things (but not if you love doing them!).

The second is to spend more money on experiences (as we saw in the post Studies show that money can buy happiness (but only if you spend on experiences). A better TV or car may seem like a wiser investment than more dinners out, holidays or going to concerts. But we quickly adapt to new upgraded ‘stuff’, thereby eliminating any additional satisfaction. Experiences, however, tend to linger in the memory. As Tom Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, is quoted by the article as saying:

Even though, in a material sense, they [experiences] come and go, they live on in the stories we tell, the relationships we cement, and ultimately in the sense of who we are.

Choosing a more fulfilling but less well-paid job is a form of spending money on experiences.

The third is to give some of your money away, whether to charity or to helping friends or relatives. As Gilovich says:

It’s hard to find a more charming finding than that by giving away money, you not only make someone else happier, you make yourself happier.

Article

Questions

  1. What is meant by ‘diminishing marginal utility of income’? Is the concept consistent with the arguments in the article?
  2. In what sense may it be rational to choose a lower-paid job?
  3. Is ‘happiness’ the same as ‘utility’ as the concept is used by economists?
  4. Does the concept of ‘peak stuff’ apply to all physical products? Explain your answer.
  5. If giving money away makes a person happy, is it truly altruistic for that person to do so? Explain.