Economists are often criticised for making inaccurate forecasts and for making false assumptions. Their analysis is frequently dismissed by politicians when it contradicts their own views.
But is this fair? Have economists responded to the realities of the global economy and to the behaviour of people, firms, institutions and government as they respond to economic circumstances? The answer is a qualified yes.
Behavioural economics is increasingly challenging the simple assumption that people are ‘rational’, in the sense that they maximise their self interest by weighing up the marginal costs and benefits of alternatives open to them. And macroeconomic models are evolving to take account of a range of drivers of global growth and the business cycle.
The linked article and podcast below look at the views of 2019 Nobel Prize-winning economist Esther Duflo. She has challenged some of the traditional assumptions of economics about the nature of rationality and what motivates people. But her work is still very much in the tradition of economists. She examines evidence and sees how people respond to incentives and then derives policy implications from the analysis.
Take the case of the mobility of labour. She examines why people who lose their jobs may not always move to a new one if it’s in a different town. Partly this is for financial reasons – moving is costly and housing may be more expensive where the new job is located. Partly, however, it is for reasons of identity. Many people are attached to where they currently live. They may be reluctant to leave family and friends and familiar surroundings and hope that a new job will turn up – even if it means a cut in wages. This is not irrational; it just means that people are driven by more than simply wages.
Duflo is doing what economists typically do – examining behaviour in the light of evidence. In her case, she is revisiting the concept of rationality to take account of evidence on what motivates people and the way they behave.
In the light of workers’ motivation, she considers the implications for the gains from trade. Is free trade policy necessarily desirable if people lose their jobs because of cheap imports from China and other developing countries where labour costs are low?
The answer is not a clear yes or no, as import-competing industries are only part of the story. If protectionist policies are pursued, other countries may retaliate with protectionist policies themselves. In such cases, people working in the export sector may lose their jobs.
She also looks at how people may respond to a rise or cut in tax rates. Again the answer is not clear cut and an examination of empirical evidence is necessary to devise appropriate policy. Not only is there an income and substitution effect from tax changes, but people are motivated to work by factors other than take-home pay. Likewise, firms are encouraged to invest by factors other than the simple post-tax profitability of investment.
- In traditional ‘neoclassical’ economics, what is meant by ‘rationality’ in terms of (a) consumer behaviour; (b) producer behaviour?
- How might the concept of rationality be expanded to take into account a whole range of factors other than the direct costs and benefits of a decision?
- What is meant by bounded rationality?
- What would be the effect on workers’ willingness to work more or fewer hours as a result of a cut in the marginal income tax rate if (a) the income effect was greater than the substitution effect; (b) the substitution effect was greater than the income effect? Would your answers to (a) and (b) be the opposite in the case of a rise in the marginal income tax rate?
- Give some arguments that you consider to be legitimate for imposing controls on imports in (a) the short run; (b) the long run. How might you counter these arguments from a free-trade perspective?
The USA has seen many horizontal mergers in recent years. This has turned industries that were once relatively competitive into oligopolies, resulting in lower output and higher prices for consumers.
In Europe, by contrast, many markets are becoming more competitive. The result is that in industries such as mobile phone services, airlines and broadband provision, prices are considerably lower in most European countries than in the USA. As the French economist, Thomas Philippon, states in a Guardian article:
When I landed in Boston in 1999, the United States was the land of free markets. Many goods and services were cheaper than in Europe. Twenty years later, American free markets are becoming a myth.
According to Asher Schechter (see linked article below):
Nearly every American industry has experienced an increase in concentration in the last two decades, to the point where … sectors dominated by two or three firms are not the exception, but the rule.
The result has been an increase in deadweight loss, which, according to research by Bruno Pelligrino, now amounts to some 13.3 per cent of total potential surplus.
Philippon in his research estimates that monopolies and oligopolies “cost the median American household about $300 a month” and deprive “American workers of about $1.25tn of labour income every year”.
One industry considered by the final two linked articles below is housebuilding. Since the US housing and financial crash of 2007–8 many US housebuilders have gone out of business. This has meant that the surviving companies have greater market power. According to Andrew van Dam in the linked Washington Post article below:
They have since built on that advantage, consolidating until many markets are controlled by just a few builders. Their power has exacerbated the country’s affordable-housing crisis, some economists say.
According to research by Luis Quintero and Jacob Cosman:
… this dwindling competition has cost the country approximately 150 000 additional homes a year – all else being equal. With fewer competitors, builders are under less pressure to beat out rival projects, and can time their efforts so that they produce fewer homes while charging higher prices.
Thanks to lobbying of regulators and politicians by businesses and various unfair, but just about legal, practices to exclude rivals, competition policy in the USA has been weak.
In the EU, by contrast, the competition authorities have been more active and tougher. For example, in the airline industry, EU regulators have “encouraged the entry of low-cost competitors by making sure they could get access to takeoff and landing slots.” Politicians from individual EU countries have generally favoured tough EU-wide competition policy to prevent companies from other member states getting an unfair advantage over their own country’s companies.
- What are the possible advantages and disadvantages of oligopoly compared with markets with many competitors?
- How can concentration in an industry be measured?
- Why have US markets become more concentrated?
- Why have markets in the EU generally become more competitive?
- Find out what has happened to levels of concentration in the UK housebuilding market.
- What are the possible effects of Brexit on concentration and competition policy in the UK?
There is increasing recognition that the world is facing a climate emergency. Concerns are growing about the damaging effects of global warming on weather patterns, with increasing droughts, forest fires, floods and hurricanes. Ice sheets are melting and glaciers retreating, with consequent rising sea levels. Habitats and livelihoods are being destroyed. And many of the effects seem to be occurring more rapidly than had previously been expected.
Extinction Rebellion has staged protests in many countries; the period from 20 to 27 September saw a worldwide climate strike (see also), with millions of people marching and children leaving school to protest; a Climate Action Summit took place at the United Nations, with a rousing speech by Greta Thunberg, the 16 year-old Swedish activist; the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just released a report with evidence showing that the melting of ice sheets and rising sea levels is more rapid than previously thought; at its annual party conference in Brighton, the Labour Party pledged that, in government, it would bring forward the UK’s target for zero net carbon emissions from 2050 to 2030.
Increasingly attention is focusing on what can be done. At first sight, it might seem as if the answer lies solely with climate scientists, environmentalists, technologists, politicians and industry. When the matter is discussed in the media, it is often the environment correspondent, the science correspondent, the political correspondent or the business correspondent who reports on developments in policy. But economics has an absolutely central role to play in both the analysis of the problem and in examining the effectiveness of alternative solutions.
One of the key things that economists do is to examine incentives and how they impact on human behaviour. Indeed, understanding the design and effectiveness of incentives is one of the 15 Threshold Concepts we identify in the Sloman books.
One of the most influential studies of the impact of climate change and means of addressing it was the study back in 2006, The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review, led by the economist Sir Nicholas Stern. The Review reflected economists’ arguments that climate change represents a massive failure of markets and of governments too. Firms and individuals can emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at no charge to themselves, even though it imposes costs on others. These external costs are possible because the atmosphere is a public good, which is free to exploit.
Part of the solution is to ‘internalise’ these externalities by imposing charges on people and firms for their emissions, such as imposing higher taxes on cars with high exhaust emissions or on coal-fired power stations. This can be done through the tax system, with ‘green’ taxes and charges. Economists study the effectiveness of these and how much they are likely to change people’s behaviour.
Another part of the solution is to subsidise green alternatives, such as solar and wind power, that provide positive environmental externalities. But again, just how responsive will demand be? This again is something that economists study.
Of course, changing human behaviour is not just about raising the prices of activities that create negative environmental externalities and lowering the prices of those that create positive ones. Part of the solution lies in education to make people aware of the environmental impacts of their activities and what can be done about it. The problem here is that there is a lack of information – a classic market failure. Making people aware of the consequences of their actions can play a key part in the economic decisions they make. Economists study the extent that imperfect information distorts decision making and how informed decision making can improve outcomes.
Another part of the solution may be direct government investment in green technologies or the use of legislation to prevent or restrict activities that contribute to global warming. But in each case, economists are well placed to examine the efficacy and the costs and benefits of alternative policies. Economists have the tools to make cost–benefit appraisals.
Economists also study the motivations of people and how they affect their decisions, including decisions about whether or not to take part in activities with high emissions, such air travel, and decisions on ‘green’ activities, such as eating less meat and more vegetables.
If you are starting out on an economics degree, you will soon see that economists are at the centre of the analysis of some of the biggest issues of the day, such as climate change and the environment generally, inequality and poverty, working conditions, the work–life balance, the price of accommodation, the effects of populism and the retreat from global responsibility and, in the UK especially, the effects of Brexit, of whatever form.
- Explain what is meant by environmental externalities.
- Compare the relative merits of carbon taxes and legislation as means of reducing carbon emissions.
- If there is a climate emergency, why are most governments unwilling to take the necessary measures to make their countries net carbon neutral within the next few years?
- In what ways would you suggest incentivising (a) individuals and (b) firms to reduce carbon emissions? Explain your reasoning.
- For what reasons are the burdens of climate changed shared unequally between people across the globe?
The linked article below, by Evan Davis, assesses the state of economics. He argues that economics has had some major successes over the years in providing a framework for understanding how economies function and how to increase incomes and well-being more generally.
Over the last few decades, economists have …had an influence over every aspect of our lives. …And during this era in which economists have reigned, the world has notched up some marked successes. The reduction in the proportion of human beings living in abject poverty over the last thirty years has been extraordinary.
With the development of concepts such as opportunity cost, the prisoners’ dilemma, comparative advantage and the paradox of thrift, economics has helped to shape the way policymakers perceive economic issues and policies.
These concepts are ‘threshold concepts’. Understanding and being able to relate and apply these core economic concepts helps you to ‘think like an economist’ and to relate the different parts of the subject to each other. Both Economics (10th edition) and Essentials of Economics (8th edition) examine 15 of these threshold concepts. Each time a threshold concept is used in the text, a ‘TC’ icon appears in the margin with the appropriate number. By locating them in this way, you can see their use in a variety of contexts.
But despite the insights provided by traditional economics into the various problems that society faces, the discipline of economics has faced criticism, especially since the financial crisis, which most economists did not foresee.
Even Davis identifies two major shortcomings of the discipline – both beginning with ‘C’. ‘One is complexity, the other is community.’
In terms of complexity, the criticism is that economic models are often based on simplistic assumptions, such as ‘rational maximising behaviour’. This might make it easier to express the models mathematically, but mathematical elegance does not necessarily translate into predictive accuracy. Such models do not capture the ‘messiness’ of the real world.
These models have a certain theoretical elegance but there is now an increasing sense that economies do not evolve along a well-defined mathematical path, but in a far more messy way. The individual players within the economy face radical uncertainty; they adapt and learn as they go; they watch what everybody else does. The economy stumbles along in a process of slow discovery, full of feedback loops.
As far as ‘community’ is concerned, people do not just act as self-interested individuals. Their actions are often governed by how other people behave and also by how their own actions will affect other people, such as family, friends, colleagues or society more generally.
And the same applies to firms. They will be influenced by various other firms, such as competitors, trend setters and suppliers and also by a range of stakeholders – not just shareholders, but also workers, customers, local communities, etc. A firm’s aim is thus unlikely to be simple short-term profit maximisation.
And this broader set of interests translates into policy. The neoliberal free-market, laissez-faire approach to policy is challenged by the desire to take account of broader questions of equity, community and social justice. However privately efficient a free market is, it does not take account of the full social and environmental costs and benefits of firms’ and consumers’ actions or a fair distribution of income and wealth.
It would be wrong, however, to say that economics has not responded to these complexities and concerns. The analysis of externalities, income distribution, incentives, herd behaviour, uncertainty, speculation, cumulative causation and institutional values and biases are increasingly embedded in the economics curriculum and in economic research. What is more, behavioural economics is becoming increasingly mainstream in examining the behaviour of consumers, workers, firms and government. We have tried to reflect these developments in successive editions of our four textbooks.
- Write a brief defence of traditional economic analysis (i.e. that based on the assumption of ‘rational economic behaviour’).
- What are the shortcomings of traditional economic analysis?
- What is meant by ‘behavioural economics’ and how does it address the concerns raised in Evan Davis’ article?
- How is herd behaviour relevant to explaining macroeconomic fluctuations?
- Identify various stakeholder groups of an energy company. What influence are they likely to have on the company’s behaviour?
- In an era of social media, web-based information and e-commerce, why might it be necessary to rethink the concept of GDP and its measurement?
- What is meant by an efficient stock market? Why may the stock market not be efficient?
The IFS has launched a major five-year review into all aspects of inequality. The review is led by Sir Angus Deaton, the Scottish-born Professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University. In 2015, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his analysis of consumption, poverty, and welfare. The review will cover all aspects of inequality, including inequality of income, wealth, health, life-span, education, social mobility, housing, opportunity and political access, and by gender, age, ethnicity, family and geography. It will look at trends in and causes of inequality, the impacts of globalisation and political change, barriers to tackling inequality and poverty, and at various policy measures.
Although the published Gini coefficient in England and Wales has not changed much over the past 15 years, largely because of support given to the poor by tax credits, it did rise from 31.7 to 33.2 from 2015/16 to 2017/18 (the latest year for which figures are available). Other measures of inequality, however, have changed more dramatically. There is huge geographical inequality in income in the UK, reflected in inequality in health. Average weekly earnings in London are 66% higher than in the north east of England. And, according to the IFS, ‘Men in the most affluent areas can expect to live nearly 10 years longer than those in the most deprived areas, and this gap is widening’.
The UK has the greatest inequality of income of developed countries, with the exception of the USA. The IFS warns that the UK could follow the USA:
…where wages for non-college-educated men have not risen for five decades, and where rising mortality for less-educated white men and women in middle age has caused average life expectancy in America to fall for the last three years – something that has not happened for a century. We have not experienced anything similar in the UK but we have now had a decade of stagnant wages and there is recent evidence that ‘deaths of despair’ – deaths from suicide and drug and alcohol abuse – are now rising among middle-aged Britons. Sir Angus will go on to say:
‘I think that people getting rich is a good thing, especially when it brings prosperity to others. But the other kind of getting rich, “taking” rather than “making”, rent-seeking rather than creating, enriching the few at the expense of the many, taking the free out of free markets, is making a mockery of democracy. In that world, inequality and misery are intimate companions.’
The initial report, which introduces the IFS Deaton Review, points to some possible causes of growing inequality, including the dramatic decline in union membership, which now stands at just 13% of private-sector employees, with more flexible labour markets with growing numbers of workers on temporary or zero-hour contracts. Other causes include growing globalisation, rapid technological change making some skills redundant, the power of large companies and their shareholders, large pay rises given to senior executives, growing inequality of access to education and changing family environments with more single parents.
About one in six children in the UK are born to single parents – a phenomenon that is heavily concentrated in low-income and low-educated families, and is significantly less prevalent in continental Europe.
Then there is the huge growth in housing inequality as house prices and rents have risen faster than incomes. Home ownership has increasingly become beyond the reach of many young people, while many older people live in relative housing wealth. Generational inequality is another major factor that the Deaton Review will consider.
Inequalities in different dimensions – income, work, mental and physical health, families and relationships – are likely to reinforce one another. They may result in, and stem from, other inequalities in wealth, cultural capital, social networks and political voice. Inequality cannot be reduced to any one dimension: it is the culmination of myriad forms of privilege and disadvantage.
The review will consider policy alternatives to tackle the various aspects of inequality, from changes to the tax and benefit system, to legislation on corporate behaviour, to investment in various structural resources, such as health and education. As the summary to the initial report states:
The Deaton Review will identify policy responses to the inequalities we face today. It will assess the relative merits of available policy options – taxes and benefits, labour market policies, education, competition policy, ownership structures and regulations – and consider how policies in different spheres can be designed to complement each other and minimise adverse effects. We aim not just to further our understanding of inequalities in the twenty-first century, but to equip policymakers with the knowledge and tools to tackle those inequalities.
IFS Deaton Review
- Identify different aspects of inequality. Choose two or three aspects and examine how they are related.
- Why has inequality widened in most developed countries over the past 20 years?
- What is meant by ‘rent seeking’? Why may it be seen as undesirable? Can it be justified and, if so, on what grounds?
- What policies could be adopted to tackle poverty?
- What trade-offs might there be between greater equality and faster economic growth?
- What policies could be adopted that would both reduce inequality and boost long-term economic growth?