Category: Essentials of Economics: 8e Ch 07

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 Their numbers have not been replaced by British drivers, a problem exacerbated by a decline in HGV tests during the pandemic.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?

With waiting lists in the NHS at record highs and with the social care system in crisis, there have been growing calls for increased funding for both health and social care. The UK government has just announced tax rises to raise more revenue for both services and has specified new limits on the amounts people must pay towards their care.

In this blog we look at the new tax rises and whether they are fair. We also look at whether the allocation of social care is fair. Clearly, the question of fairness is a contentious one, with people having very different views on what constitutes fairness between different groups in terms of incomes, assets and needs.

Funding

In terms of funding, the government has, in effect, introduced a new tax – the ‘health and social care levy’ to come into effect from April 2022. This will see a tax of 1.25% on the earned incomes of workers (both employees and the self-employed) and 1.25% on employers, making a total of 2.5% on employment income. It will initially be added to workers’ and employers’ national insurance (NI) payments. Currently national insurance is only paid by those below pension age (66). From 2023, the 1.25% levy will be separated from NI and will apply to pensioners’ earned income too.

The starting point for workers will be the same as for the rest of national insurance, currently £9568. Above this, the additional marginal rate of 1.25% will apply to all earned income. This will mean that a person earning £20 000 would pay a levy of £130.40, while someone earning £100 000 would pay £1130.40.

There will also be an additional 1.25% tax on share dividends. However, there will be no additional tax on rental income and capital gains, and on private or state pensions.

It is estimated that the levy will raise around £14 billion per year (0.7% of GDP or 1.6% of total tax revenue), of which £11.2 billion will go to the Department of Health and Social Care in 2022/23 and £9 billion in 2023/24. This follows a rise in income tax of £8 billion and corporation tax of £17 billion announced in the March 2021 Budget. As a result, tax revenues from 2022/23 will be a higher proportion of GDP (just over 34%) than at any time over the past 70 years, except for a short period in 1969/70.

Is the tax fair?

In a narrow sense, it can be argued that the levy is fair, as it is applied at the same percentage rate on all earned income. Thus, the higher a person’s earnings, the greater the amount they will pay. Also, it is mildly progressive. This is because, with a levy-free allowance of just under £10 000, the levy as a proportion of income earned rises gently as income rises: in other words, the average levy rate is higher on higher earners than on lower earners.

But national insurance as a whole is regressive as the rate currently drops from 12% to 2%, and with the levy will drop from 13.25% to 3.25%, once the upper threshold is reached. Currently the threshold is £50 270. As incomes rise above that level, so the proportion paid in national insurance falls. Politically, therefore, it makes sense to decouple the levy from NI, if it is being promoted as being fair as an additional tax on income earners.

Is it fair between the generations? Pensioners who earn income will pay the levy on that income at the same rate as everyone else (but no NI). But most pensioners’ main or sole source of income is their pensions and some, in addition, earn rent on property they own. Indeed, some pensioners have considerable private pensions or rental income. These sources of income will not be subject to the levy. Many younger people whose sole source of income is their wages will see this as unfair between the generations.

Allocation of funds

For the next few years, most of the additional funding will go to the NHS to help reduced waiting lists, which rocketed with the diversion of resources to treating COVID patients. Of the additional £11.2 billion for health and social care in 2022/23, some £9.4 billion will go to the NHS; and of the £9 billion in 2023/24, some £7.2 billion will go to the NHS. This leaves only an additional £1.8 billion each year for social care.

The funding should certainly help reduce NHS waiting lists, but the government refused to say by how much. Also there is a major staff shortage in the NHS, with many employees having returned to the EU following Brexit and fewer new employees coming from the EU. It may be that the staff shortage will push up wages, which will absorb some of the increase in funding.

The additional money from the levy going to social care would be wholly insufficient on its own to tackle the crisis. As with the NHS, the social care sector is facing an acute staff shortage, again aggravated by Brexit. Wages are low, and when travel time between home visits is taken into account, many workers receive well below the minimum wage. Staff in care homes often find themselves voluntarily working extra hours for no additional pay so as to provide continuity of care. Often levels of care are well below what carers feel is necessary.

Paying for social care

The government also announced new rules for the level of contributions by individuals towards their care costs. The measures in England are as follows. The other devolved nations have yet to announce their measures.

  • Those with assets of less than £20 000 will not have to contribute towards their care costs from their assets, but may have to contribute from their income.
  • Those with assets between £20 000 and £100 000 will get means-tested help towards their care costs.
  • Those with assets over £100 000 will initially get no help towards their care costs. This is increasing from the current limit of £23 250
  • There will be a limit of £86 000 to the amount people will have to contribute towards their care costs over their lifetime (from October 2023). These costs include both care in a care home and care at home.
  • These amounts will apply only to care costs and not to the board and lodging costs in care homes. The government has not said how much people could be expected to contribute towards these living costs. A problem is that care homes generally do not itemise costs and hence it may be hard to distinguish care costs from living costs.
  • Where people’s care costs are fully or partly covered, these will be paid by their local authority.
  • A house will only count as a person’s asset if the person is going into a care home and it is not occupied by a spouse or partner. All financial assets, by contrast, will count.
  • Many people in care homes will not be judged to be frail enough to be in receipt of support from their local authority. These people’s expenditure would not count towards the cap.

Setting the cap to the amount people must pay at the relatively high figure of £86 000 may ease the pressure on local authorities, as many people in care homes will die before the cap is reached. However, those who live longer and who get their care paid for above the cap, will pay no more no matter what their level of assets, even though they may be very rich. This could be seen to be unfair. A fairer system would be one where a proportion of a person’s assets had to be used to pay for care with no upper limit.

Also, the £1.8 billion is likely to fall well short of what local authorities will need to bring social care back to the levels considered acceptable, especially as the asset limit to support is being raised from £23 250 to £100 000. Local authority expenditure on social care fell by 7.5% per person in real terms between 2009/10 and 2019/20. This means that local authorities may have to increase council tax to top up the amount provided by the government from the levy.

Articles

Video

Government document

Data

Questions

  1. How would you define a ‘fair’ way of funding social care?
  2. Distinguish between a proportional, progressive and regressive tax. How would you categorise (a) the new health and social care levy; (b) national insurance; (c) income tax; (d) VAT?
  3. Argue the case for providing social care free at the point of use to all those who require it.
  4. Argue the case for charging a person for some or all of their social care, with the amount charged being based on (a) the person’s income; (b) the person’s wealth; (c) both income and wealth.
  5. Argue the case for and against capping the amount a person should pay towards their social care.
  6. When a tax is used to raise revenue for a specific purpose it is known as a ‘hypothecated tax’. What are the advantages and disadvantages of using a hypothecated tax for funding health and social care?

The coronavirus pandemic and the climate emergency have highlighted the weaknesses of free-market capitalism.

Governments around the world have intervened massively to provide economic support to people and businesses affected by the pandemic through grants and furlough schemes. They have also stressed the importance of collective responsibility in abiding by lockdowns, social distancing and receiving vaccinations.

The pandemic has also highlighted the huge inequalities around the world. The rich countries have been able to offer much more support to their people than poor countries and they have had much greater access to vaccines. Inequality has also been growing within many countries as rich people have gained from rising asset prices, while many people find themselves stuck in low-paid jobs, suffering from poor educational opportunities and low economic and social mobility.

The increased use of working from home and online shopping has accelerated the rise of big tech companies, such as Amazon and Google. Their command of the market makes it difficult for small companies to compete – and competition is vital if capitalism is to benefit societies. There have been growing calls for increased regulation of powerful companies and measures to stimulate competition. The problem has been recognised by governments, central banks and international agencies, such as the IMF and the OECD.

At the same time as the world has been grappling with the pandemic, global warming has contributed to extreme heat and wildfires in various parts of the world, such as western North America, the eastern Mediterranean and Siberia, and major flooding in areas such as western Europe and China. Governments again have intervened by providing support to people whose property and livelihoods have been affected. Also there is a growing urgency to tackle global warming, with some movement, albeit often limited, in implementing policies to achieve net zero carbon emissions by some specified point in the future. Expectations are rising for concerted action to be agreed at the international COP26 climate meeting in Glasgow in November this year.

An evolving capitalism

So are we seeing a new variant of capitalism, with a greater recognition of social responsibility and greater government intervention?

Western governments seem more committed to spending on socially desirable projects, such as transport, communications and green energy infrastructure, education, science and health. They are beginning to pursue more active industrial and regional policies. They are also taking measures to tax multinationals (see the blog The G7 agrees on measures to stop corporate tax avoidance). Many governments are publicly recognising the need to tackle inequality and to ‘level up’ society. Active fiscal policy, a central plank of Keynesian economics, has now come back into fashion, with a greater willingness to fund expenditure by borrowing and, over the longer term, to use higher taxes to fund increased government expenditure.

But there is also a growing movement among capitalists themselves to move away from profits being their sole objective. A more inclusive ‘stakeholder capitalism’ is being advocated by many companies, where they take into account the interests of a range of stakeholders, from customers, to workers, to local communities, to society in general and to the environment. For example, the Council for Inclusive Capitalism, which is a joint initiative of the Vatican and several world business and public-sector leaders, seeks to make ‘the world fairer, more inclusive, and sustainable’.

If there is to be a true transformation of capitalism from the low-tax free-market capitalism of neoclassical economists and libertarian policymakers to a more interventionist mixed market capitalism, where capitalists pursue a broader set of objectives, then words have to be matched by action. Talk is easy; long-term plans are easy; taking action now is what matters.

Articles and videos

Questions

  1. How similar is the economic response of Western governments to the pandemic to their response to the financial crisis of 2007–8?
  2. What do you understand by ‘inclusive capitalism’? How can stakeholders hold companies to account?
  3. What indicators are there of market power? Why have these been on the rise?
  4. How can entrepreneurs contribute to ‘closing the inequality gap for a more sustainable and inclusive form of society’?
  5. What can be done to hold governments to account for meeting various social and environmental objectives? How successful is this likely to be?
  6. Can inequality be tackled without redistributing income and wealth from the rich to the poor?

In a post at the end of 2019, we looked at moves around the world to introduce a four-day working week, with no increase in hours on the days worked and no reduction in weekly pay. Firms would gain if increased worker energy and motivation resulted in a gain in output. They would also gain if fewer hours resulted in lower costs.

Workers would be likely to gain from less stress and burnout and a better work–life balance. What is more, firms’ and workers’ carbon footprint could be reduced.

In New Zealand, Unilever has begun a one-year experiment to allow all 81 of its employees to work one day less each week and no more hours per day. This, it argues, might boost productivity and improve employees’ work-life balance.

The biggest experiment so far has been in Iceland. From 2015 to 2019 more than 2500 people took part in a pilot programme (about 1 per cent of Iceland’s working population). This involved reducing the working week to four days and reducing hours worked from 40 hours per week to 35 or 36 hours with no reduction in weekly pay.

Analysis of the results of the trial, published in July 2021, showed that output remained the same or improved in the majority of workplaces.

As a result of agreements struck with unions since the end of the pilot programme, 86% of Iceland’s workforce have either moved to shorter hours for the same pay or will gain the right to do so.

Many companies and public-sector employers around the world are considering reducing hours or days worked. With working patterns having changed for many employees during the pandemic, employers may now be more open to rethinking ways of deploying their workforce more productively. And this may involve rethinking worker motivation and welfare.

Articles

Report

Questions

  1. Distinguish between different ways of measuring labour productivity.
  2. Summarise the results of the Iceland pilot.
  3. In what ways may reducing working hours reduce a firm’s total costs?
  4. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the government imposing (at some point in the future) a maximum working week or a four-day week?
  5. What types of firm might struggle in introducing a four-day week or a substantially reduced number of hours for full-time employees?
  6. What external benefits and costs might arise from a shorter working week?

One of the major economic concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic has been the likely long-term scarring effects on economies from bankruptcies, a decline in investment, lower spending on research and development, a loss of skills, discouragement of workers, disruption to education, etc. The result would be a decline in potential output or, at best, a slower growth. These persistent effects are known as ‘hysteresis’ – an effect that persists after the original cause has disappeared.

In a speech by Dave Ramsden, the Bank of England’s Deputy Governor for Markets & Banking, he argued that, according to MPC estimates, the pandemic will have caused a loss of potential output of 1.75%. This shortfall may seem small at first sight, so does it matter? According to Ramsden:

The answer is definitely yes for two reasons. First, a 1¾% shortfall as a share of annual GDP for the UK … represents roughly £39 billion – for context, that’s about half of the education budget. And second, that 1¾% represents a permanent shortfall, or at least a very persistent one, on top of the impact of the immediate downturn. If you lose 1¾% of GDP every year for ten years, then in total you have lost 17.5% of one year’s GDP, or around £390bn in 2019 terms

However, as the IMF blog linked below argues, there may be positive supply-side effects which outweigh these scarring effects, causing a net rise in potential GDP growth. There are two possible reasons for this.

The first is that the pandemic may have hastened the process of digitalisation and automation. Examples include ‘video conferencing and file sharing applications to drones and data-mining technologies’. According to evidence from a sample of 15 countries cited in the blog, a 10% rise in such intangible capital investment is associated with about a 4½% rise in labour productivity. ‘As COVID-19 recedes, the firms which invested in intangible assets, such as digital technologies and patents may see higher productivity as a result.’

The second is a reallocation of workers and capital to more productive sectors. Firms in some sectors, such as leisure, hospitality and retail, have relatively low labour productivity. Many parts of these industries have declined during the pandemic, especially those with high labour intensity. At the same time, there has been a rise in employment in firms where output per worker is higher. Such sectors include e-commerce and those where remote working is possible. The greater the reallocation from low labour-productivity to high labour-productivity sectors, the more will overall labour productivity rise and hence the more will potential output increase.

The size of these two effects will depend to a large extent on expectations, incentives and government policy. The blog cites four types of policy that can help investment and reallocation.

  • Improved insolvency and restructuring procedures to enable capital in failed firms to be reallocated to sectors with potential for growth.
  • Promoting competition to enable the exit and entry of firms into expanding sectors and to prevent powerful firms from blocking the process.
  • Refocusing policy from retaining labour in existing jobs to reskilling workers for new jobs, thereby improving labour mobility from declining to expanding sectors.
  • Addressing financial bottlenecks, so as to ensure adequate access to financing for viable firms.

Whether there will be a net increase or decrease in productivity from the pandemic very much depends on the extent to which firms and workers are able and willing to take advantage of new opportunities and the extent to which government supports investment in and reallocation to high-productivity sectors.

Blogs, articles and speeches

Questions

  1. Can actual economic growth be greater than potential economic growth (a) in the short run; (b) in the long run?
  2. Give some example of scarring effects from the COVID-19 pandemic.
  3. What effects might short-term policies to tackle the recession caused by the pandemic have on longer-term potential economic growth?
  4. What practical policies could governments adopt to encourage the positive supply-side effects of the pandemic? To what extent would these policies have negative short-term effects?
  5. Why might (endogenous) financial crises result in larger and more persistent reductions in potential output than exogenous crises, such as a pandemic or a war?
  6. Distinguish between interventionist and market-orientated supply-side policies to encourage the reallocation of labour and capital to higher-productivity sectors.