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’.
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.
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.
- The Macroeconomics of Artificial Intelligence
IMF publications, Erik Brynjolfsson and Gabriel Unger (December 2023)
- Economic impacts of artificial intelligence (AI)
European Parliamentary Research Service, Marcin Szczepański (July 2019)
- Artificial intelligence: A real game changer
Chief Investment Office, Merrill/Bank of America (July 2023)
- Generative AI could raise global GDP by 7%
Goldman Sachs, Joseph Briggs (5/4/23)
- The macroeconomic impact of artificial intelligence
PwC, Jonathan Gillham, Lucy Rimmington, Hugh Dance, Gerard Verweij, Anand Rao, Kate Barnard Roberts and Mark Paich (February 2018)
- How genAI is revolutionizing the field of economics
CNN, Bryan Mena and Samantha Delouya (12/10/23)
- AI-powered digital colleagues are here. Some ‘safe’ jobs could be vulnerable.
BBC Worklife, Sam Becker (30/11/23)
- Generative AI and Its Economic Impact: What You Need to Know
Investopedia, Jim Probasco (1/12/23)
- AI is coming for our jobs! Could universal basic income be the solution?
The Guardian Philippa Kelly (16/11/23)
- CFPB chief’s warning: AI is a ‘natural oligopoly’ in the making
Politico, Sam Sutton (21/11/23)
- Which industries are most likely to benefit from the development of AI?
- Distinguish between labour-replacing and labour-augmenting technological progress in the context of AI.
- How could AI reduce the amount of labour per unit of output and yet result in an increase in employment?
- What people are most likely to (a) gain, (b) lose from the increasing use of AI?
- Is the distribution of income likely to become more equal or less equal with the development and adoption of AI? Explain.
- What policies could governments adopt to spread the gains from AI more equally?
Since 2019, UK personal taxes (income tax and national insurance) have been increasing as a proportion of incomes and total tax revenues have been increasing as a proportion of GDP. However, in his Autumn Statement of 22 November, the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, announced a 2 percentage point cut in the national insurance rate for employees from 12% to 10%. The government hailed this as a significant tax cut. But, despite this, taxes are set to continue increasing. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), from 2019/20 to 2028/29, taxes will have increased by 4.5 per cent of GDP (see chart below), raising an extra £44.6 billion per year by 2028/29. One third of this is the result of ‘fiscal drag’ from the freezing of tax thresholds.
According to the OBR
Fiscal drag is the process by which faster growth in earnings than in income tax thresholds results in more people being subject to income tax and more of their income being subject to higher tax rates, both of which raise the average tax rate on total incomes.
Income tax thresholds have been unchanged for the past three years and the current plan is that they will remain frozen until at least 2027/28. This is illustrated in the following table.
If there were no inflation, fiscal drag would still apply if real incomes rose. In other words, people would be paying a higher average rate of tax. Part of the reason is that some people on low incomes would be dragged into paying tax for the first time and more people would be paying taxes at higher rates. Even in the case of people whose income rise did not pull them into a higher tax bracket (i.e. they were paying the same marginal rate of tax), they would still be paying a higher average rate of tax as the personal allowance would account for a smaller proportion of their income.
Inflation compounds this effect. Tax bands are in nominal not real terms. Assume that real incomes stay the same and that tax bands are frozen. Nominal incomes will rise by the rate of inflation and thus fiscal drag will occur: the real value of the personal allowance will fall and a higher proportion of incomes will be paid at higher rates. Since 2021, some 2.2 million workers, who previously paid no income taxes as their incomes were below the personal allowance, are now paying tax on some of their wages at the 20% rate. A further 1.6 million workers have moved to the higher tax bracket with a marginal rate of 40%.
The net effect is that, although national insurance rates have been cut by 2 percentage points, the tax burden will continue rising. The OBR estimates that by 2027/28, tax revenues will be 37.4% of GDP; they were 33.1% in 2019/20. This is illustrated in the chart (click here for a PowerPoint).
Much of this rise will be the result of fiscal drag. According to the OBR, fiscal drag from freezing personal allowances, even after the cut in national insurance rates, will raise an extra £42.9 billion per year by 2027/28. This would be equivalent of the amount raised by a rise in national insurance rates of 10 percentage points. By comparison, the total cost to the government of the furlough scheme during the pandemic was £70 billion. For further analysis by the OBR of the magnitude of fiscal drag, see Box 3.1 (p 69) in the November 2023 edition of its Economic and fiscal outlook.
Support measures during the pandemic and its aftermath and subsidies for energy bills have led to a rise in government debt. This has put a burden on public finances, compounded by sluggish growth and higher interest rates increasing the cost of servicing government debt. This leaves the government (and future governments) in a dilemma. It must either allow fiscal drag to take place by not raising allowances or even raise tax rates, cut government expenditure or increase borrowing; or it must try to stimulate economic growth to provide a larger tax base; or it must do some combination of all of these. These are not easy choices. Higher economic growth would be the best solution for the government, but it is difficult for governments to achieve. Spending on infrastructure, which would support growth, is planned to be cut in an attempt to reduce borrowing. According to the OBR, under current government plans, public-sector net investment is set to decline from 2.6% of GDP in 2023/24 to 1.8% by 2028/29.
The government is attempting to achieve growth by market-orientated supply-side measures, such as making permanent the current 100% corporation tax allowance for investment. Other measures include streamlining the planning system for commercial projects, a business rates support package for small businesses and targeted government support for specific sectors, such as digital technology. Critics argue that this will not be sufficient to offset the decline in public investment and renew crumbling infrastructure.
To support public finances, the government is using a combination of higher taxation, largely through fiscal drag, and cuts in government expenditure (from 44.8% of GDP in 2023/24 to a planned 42.7% by 2028/29). If the government succeeds in doing this, the OBR forecasts that public-sector net borrowing will fall from 4.5% of GDP in 2023/24 to 1.1% by 2028/29. But higher taxes and squeezed public expenditure will make many people feel worse off, especially those that rely on public services.
- Fiscal drag
Sky News Politics Hub on X, Sophy Ridge (22/11/23)
- Fiscal drag
Sky News Politics Hub on X, Beth Rigby (22/11/23)
- Autumn Statement 2023 response
IFS, Stuart Adam, Bee Boileau, Isaac Delestre, Carl Emmerson, Paul Johnson, Robert Joyce, Martin Mikloš, Helen Miller, David Phillips, Sam Ray-Chaudhuri, Isabel Stockton Tom Waters, Tom Wernham and Ben Zaranko (22/11/23)
- Autumn Statement: Jeremy Hunt cuts National Insurance but tax burden still rises
BBC News, Brian Wheeler (23/11/23)
- The hidden tax rise in the Autumn Statement
BBC News, Michael Race (23/11/23)
- How is National Insurance changing and what is income tax?
BBC News (23/11/23)
- UK income tax: how fiscal drag leads to people falling into higher rates
The Guardian, Antonio Voce and Ashley Kirk (22/11/23)
- Will I be pulled into a higher tax band? How ‘fiscal drag’ affects your pay
i News, Alex Dakers (23/11/23)
- Fiscal drag could cost high earners £4,000 by 2027
MoneyWeek, Marc Shoffman (16/11/23)
- Why the UK government’s tax cuts still leave workers worse off
CNBC, Elliot Smith (23/11/23)
- National insurance cuts swamped by stealth tax rise, says fiscal watchdog
Financial Times, Emma Agyemang (22/11/23)
- Frozen income tax bands eat into benefits of NI cut, say experts
FT Adviser, Tara O’Connor (23/11/23)
- Jeremy Hunt’s fiscal fudge
Financial Times editorial (22/11/23)
Report and data from the OBR
- Would fiscal drag occur with frozen nominal tax bands if there were zero real growth in incomes? Explain.
- Examine the arguments for continuing to borrow to fund a Budget deficit over a number of years.
- When interest rates rise, how much does this affect the cost of servicing public-sector debt? Why is the effect likely to be greater in the long run than in the short run?
- If the government decides that it wishes to increase tax revenues as a proportion of GDP (for example, to fund increased government expenditure on infrastructure and socially desirable projects and benefits), examine the arguments for increasing personal allowances and tax bands in line with inflation but raising the rates of income tax in order to raise sufficient revenue?
- Distinguish between market-orientated and interventionist supply-side policies? Why do political parties differ in their approaches to supply-side policy?
We have examined inflation in several blogs in recent months. With inflation at levels not seen for 40 years, this is hardly surprising. One question we’ve examined is whether the policy response has been correct. For example, in July, we asked whether the Bank of England had raised interest rates too much, too late. In judging policy, one useful distinction is between demand-pull inflation and cost-push inflation. Do they require the same policy response? Is raising interest rates to get inflation down to the target rate equally applicable to inflation caused by excessive demand and inflation caused by rising costs, where those rising costs are not caused by rising demand?
In terms of aggregate demand and supply, demand-pull inflation is shown by continuing rightward shifts in aggregate demand (AD); cost-push inflation is shown by continuing leftward/upward shifts in short-run aggregate supply (SRAS). This is illustrated in the following diagram, which shows a single shift in aggregate demand or short-run aggregate supply. For inflation to continue, rather than being a single rise in prices, the curves must continue to shift.
As you can see, the effects on real GDP (Y) are quite different. A rise in aggregate demand will tend to increase GDP (as long as capacity constraints allow). A rise in costs, and hence an upward shift in short-run aggregate supply, will lead to a fall in GDP as firms cut output in the face of rising costs and as consumers consume less as the cost of living rises.
The inflation experienced by the UK and other countries in recent months has been largely of the cost-push variety. Causes include: supply-chain bottlenecks as economies opened up after COVID-19; the war in Ukraine and its effects on oil and gas supplies and various grains; and avian flu and poor harvests from droughts and floods associated with global warming resulting in a fall in food supplies. These all led to a rise in prices. In the UK’s case, this was compounded by Brexit, which added to firms’ administrative costs and, according to the Bank of England, was estimated to cause a long-term fall in productivity of around 3 to 4 per cent.
The rise in costs had the effect of shifting short-run aggregate supply upwards to the left. As well as leading to a rise in prices and a cost-of-living squeeze, the rising costs dampened expenditure.
This was compounded by a tightening of fiscal policy as governments attempted to tackle public-sector deficits and debt, which had soared with the support measures during the pandemic. It was also compounded by rising interest rates as central banks attempted to bring inflation back to target.
Monetary policy response
Central banks are generally charged with keeping inflation in the medium term at a target rate set by the government or the central bank itself. For most developed countries, this is 2% (see table in the blog, Should central bank targets be changed?). So is raising interest rates the correct policy response to cost-push inflation?
One argument is that monetary policy is inappropriate in the face of supply shocks. The supply shocks themselves have the effect of dampening demand. Raising interest rates will compound this effect, resulting in lower growth or even a recession. If the supply shocks are temporary, such as supply-chain disruptions caused by lockdowns during the pandemic, then it might be better to ride out the problem and not raise interest rates or raise them by only a small amount. Already cost pressures are easing in some areas as supplies have risen.
If, however, the fall in aggregate supply is more persistent, such as from climate-related declines in harvests or the Ukraine war dragging on, or new disruptions to supply associated with the Israel–Gaza war, or, in the UK’s case, with Brexit, then real aggregate demand may need to be reduced in order to match the lower aggregate supply. Or, at the very least, the growth in aggregate demand may need to be slowed to match the slower growth in aggregate supply.
Huw Pill, the Chief Economist at the Bank of England, in a podcast from the Columbia Law School (see links below), argued that people should recognise that the rise in costs has made them poorer. If they respond to the rising costs by seeking higher wages, or in the case of businesses, by putting up prices, this will simply stoke inflation. In these circumstances, raising interest rates to cool aggregate demand may reduce people’s ability to gain higher wages or put up prices.
Another argument for raising interest rates in the face of cost-push inflation is when those cost increases are felt more than in other countries. The USA has suffered less from cost pressures than the UK. On the other hand, its growth rate is higher, suggesting that its inflation, albeit lower than in the UK, is more of the demand-pull variety. Despite its inflation rate being lower than in the UK, the problem of excess demand has led the Fed to adopt an aggressive interest rate policy. Its target rate is 5.25% to 5.50%, while the Bank of England’s is 5.25%. In order to prevent short-term capital outflows and a resulting depreciation in the pound, further stoking inflation, the Bank of England has been under pressure to mirror interest rate rises in the USA, the eurozone and elsewhere.
Blogs on this site
Information and data
- How may monetary policy affect inflationary expectations?
- If cost-push inflation makes people generally poorer, what role does the government have in making the distribution of a cut in real income a fair one?
- In the context of cost-push inflation, how might the authorities prevent a wage–price spiral?
- With reference to the second article above, explain the ‘monetary policy conundrum’ faced by the Bank of Japan.
- If central banks have a single policy instrument, namely changes in interest rates, how may conflicts arise when there is more than one macroeconomic objective?
- Is Russia’s rise in inflation the result of cost or demand pressures, or a mixture of the two (see articles above)?
HS2 has been cancelled north of Birmingham. The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, announced this at the Conservative Party conference on 4 October, some 13 years after the plan was adopted by the Labour government to build a new high-speed railway from London to Birmingham, which then would branch into two legs – one to Manchester and one to Leeds. The initial budget for this was £15.8bn to £17.4bn. When it came to power, the Conservative-Liberal coalition government ordered a review of the plan. In light of this, the government gave the green light in January 2012 for the full Y-shaped project to go ahead. The London–Birmingham leg was planned to open in 2026 and the two northern legs from 2033.
The project was divided into two phases: Phase 1 to Birmingham and Phase 2 to Manchester and Leeds. The Phase 1 parliamentary bill became law in February 2017 and soon after that, various construction contracts were signed. After some delays, preparation for construction work began in June 2019. There was growing doubt, however, about the viability of the northern legs.
On becoming prime minister in 2019, Boris Johnson ordered an independent review of the project after estimates that the costs of the full project would be some £88bn. The review, chaired by Douglas Oakervee, was published in December 2019 (for a link, see list of reports below). It found that costs (in 2015 prices) were likely to be between £62bn and £69bn. Nevertheless, it concluded that the project should proceed: that the original rationale for HS2 still held; that there were:
no shovel-ready alternative investments in the existing network that were available: if HS2 were to be cancelled, many years of planning work would be required to identify, design and develop new proposals; that the upgrading of existing lines would also come at a high passenger cost with significant disruption; that there would be serious consequences for the supply chain, the fragile UK construction industry and confidence in UK infrastructure planning if HS2 were to be cancelled at this late stage.
In February 2020, the prime minister announced that HS2 would go ahead, including the legs to Manchester and Leeds. The Department for Transport published a document (see source line to the following table) giving the full business case for Phase 1 and the outline case for Phase 2. The document itemised the costs and benefits as estimated at the time.Source: Full Business Case: High Speed Two, Table 2.9, Department for Transport (April 2020)
Box 12.6 in Economics (eleventh edition) and Case study 8.16 on the Essentials of Economics (ninth edition) student website looks at these costs and benefits. The above table is taken from the box/case study. Net transport benefits (present value at 2015 prices) were estimated to be £74.2bn. These include benefits to passengers from shorter journey times, greater reliability, greater connectivity and less crowding, and reduced congestion on roads. They also include other benefits, such as a reduction in carbon emissions and a reduction in road accidents. Net benefits also include the wider benefits from greater connectivity between firms (resulting in increased specialism, trade and investment), greater competition and greater labour mobility. These wider benefits were estimated to be £20.5bn, giving total net benefits of £94.7bn.
Total costs to the government were estimated to be £108.9bn and revenues from fares to be £45.4bn, giving total net costs of £63.5bn. This gave a benefit/cost ratio of 1.5 (£94.7bn/£63.5bn). In the light of these findings, the government announced in September 2020 that the main work on the London to Birmingham leg would begin, despite the Public Accounts Committee’s finding that the project was badly off course and lacking in transparency.
Concern was expressed over whether the Leeds leg would go ahead, but in May 2021, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, confirmed that it would be completed. However, with the publication of the Integrated Rail Plan in November 2021 (for a link, see list of reports below), the government decided that the eastern leg of HS2 would no longer reach Leeds but instead end in the East Midlands. Then in June 2022, the link between the HS2 line near Manchester and the West Coast Main Line was scrapped. This would have allowed HS2 trains to reach Scotland.
In early 2023, it was announced that the building of the terminus at Euston was being put on hold. Many interpreted this as meaning that it was being scrapped, with trains terminating at Old Oak Common, some six miles from Central London.
Finally, as we have seen, HS2 north of Birmingham has now been scrapped and the government is seeking private-sector funding to build the terminus at Euston and complete the line from Old Oak Common.
Arguments for scrapping the northern legs
The main argument given by the government was that projected costs have risen substantially above original estimates and that by cancelling the Manchester and east Midlands legs, the money saved could be better used elsewhere. The argument is one of opportunity cost. The cost of going ahead would mean not going ahead with better-value alternatives.
The government claims that £36bn will be saved and that this will be diverted to rail, road and other transport projects, primarily (although not exclusively) in the north of England. The money would be spent between 2029 and 2040. Projects include spending additional money on the planned upgrading of the rail link between Manchester and Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds and Hull; building a new station at Bradford; developing a mass transit system for Leeds and its surroundings; a £2.5bn fund for improved transport for smaller cities, towns and the countryside in the north of England; extra funding for transport in the east and west Midlands, including funding a Midlands Rail Hub. Out of the £36bn, £6.5bn would be for projects elsewhere, including road improvement.
In order to judge whether the diversion of funds represents a better use of money, a full analysis of costs and benefits of the various projects would need to be conducted and compared with an updated cost–benefit analysis of continuing with the legs to Manchester and the east Midlands and possibly reinstating the Leeds leg too.
One possible benefit for the government is a political one. It hopes that promising more local projects rather than HS2 will appeal to the electorate in large parts of the north of England who are suffering from poor and unreliable transport links. However, most of these projects will be started well beyond the next election and this political gain may turn out to be small. Indeed, cancelling HS2 may breed cynicism, with people wondering whether any promised new projects will actually be delivered.
Arguments against scrapping the northern leg(s)
The benefits originally identified from HS2 will now be lost. It is not just that the northern legs of HS2 would have provided faster travel to Manchester and Leeds, but the new lines would have reduced congestion for slower trains and freight on existing lines. This has been the experience in countries such as Japan and Spain, which have invested heavily in new, separate high-speed lines.
When the line is completed to Birmingham, the HS2 trains will be able to continue north of Birmingham on existing lines. But these lines are heavily congested, which will limit the number of HS2 trains that can use them. Also they will be restricted to 110 mph on these lines as they have no tilting mechanism. Also they will have a maximum capacity of only 550 seats (a single train set) as the platforms at Manchester Piccadilly cannot accommodate double-set trains. The existing Pendalino trains on the West Coast mainline can travel at 125 mph as they do have the tilting mechanism and they have a higher capacity of 607 seats.
Then there are the signals that cancellation sends to industry about whether governments can be trusted to follow through on public-sector projects. Many business had expanded or relocated to places near the HS2 routes. Many others will wonder whether the promised new projects will go ahead. Indeed, shortly after giving a list of the projects (some of which had already been built or were being built), the list was removed from the government website. There is already a mood of scepticism amongst the electorate. Polling following the initial announcement showed that a majority believed that it was unlikely that the Conservatives would deliver the other projects if they won the next election.
The opportunity cost argument that the money would be better spent on alternative transport projects is predicated on various assumptions. One is that the money will actually be spent, which, as we have seen, people consider doubtful. Another is that the only choice is either spending a fixed pot of money on the northern leg(s) of HS2 or spending it on the alternative projects announced by the prime minister. It could be argued that the government should proceed with both the full HS2 and these other projects, and fund it by extra taxation. Investment as a percentage of GDP is low in the UK compared with other countries. Over the past 10 years, it has averaged 17.8% in the UK. This compares with 21.0% in the USA, 21.5% in Germany, 23.7% in France and 25.4% in Japan. Also, public-sector investment is low in the UK compared with that in other countries.
Assessing the arguments
Many of the costs and benefits of long-term projects, such as HS2, occur many years hence. There is, therefore, a great deal of uncertainty over their magnitude. This makes it extremely difficult to reach a clear conclusion over the desirability of cancelling HS2 north of Birmingham or continuing with it. Under such circumstances, politics tends to dominate decision making.
- Rishi Sunak promises more rail, road and bus links
BBC News (4/10/23)
- The HS2 rail line: what has been cut and what will replace it?
Financial Times Gill Plimmer, Phillip Georgiadis, Jennifer Williams and Jim Pickard (4/10/24)
- HS2 explained: What is the route now, what are the costs and why is the Manchester leg being axed?
Sky News, Sarah Taaffe-Maguire (5/10/23)
- Rishi Sunak finally axes HS2 in the north – weeks after The Independent revealed plan
Independent, Jon Stone and Adam Forrest (4/10/23)
- HS2 | Timeline of a mistreated megaproject
New Civil Engineer, Rob Hakimian (4/10/23)
- HS2 scale-back creates ‘chilling effect’
Construction News, Catherine Moore (5/10/23)
- How HS2 caused the UK to lose focus on ‘levelling up’ during years of high-speed rail delays
The Conversation, Steven McCabe (28/9/23)
- What Rishi Sunak scrapping HS2 – and promising a new ‘Network North’– means for the north of England
The Conversation Tom Arnold (4/10/23)
- HS2: Why Rishi Sunak’s big gamble may not pay off
BBC News, Faisal Islam (5/10/23)
- ‘Managed decline’: the uncertain future for British rail after cuts to HS2
Financial Times, Philip Georgiadis, Gill Plimmer and Jim Pickard (6/10/23)
- Investment outside London could bring £100bn boost to economy, says Bank of England’s former chief economist
Channel 4 News, Helia Ebrahimi interviews Andy Haldane (27/9/23)
- HS2 surgery is the wrong choice say leading academics
RailTech, Simon Walton (3/10/23)
- Why has HS2 ended up being so expensive?
The Guardian, Gwyn Topham (25/9/23)
- Ten problems with Rishi Sunak’s Network North announcement
The Guardian, Helen Pidd (5/10/23)
- International investors are laughing at the HS2 shambles
The Guardian, Nils Pratley (4/10/23)
- Spain’s high-speed trains aren’t just efficient, they have transformed people’s lives
The Guardian, María Ramírez (11/10/23)
Government Press Release
- Why have the costs of HS2 (in real terms) risen substantially since the first estimates in 2012?
- Identify the types of environmental costs and benefits of the full Y-shaped HS2 project. Why might such costs and benefits be difficult to measure?
- Is the opportunity of cost of proceeding with the full Y-shaped HS2 a range of other transport projects? Explain.
- Find out the level of public-sector investment expenditure as a percentage of (a) total government expenditure and (b) GDP in some other developed countries and compare them with the UK. Comment on your findings.
- Should the decision whether or not to go ahead with the Manchester and east Midlands legs have been delayed until a new updated cost–benefit analysis had been conducted?
- If most of the benefits from the originally planned HS2 will be now be lost with the line ending at Birmingham, should this leg to Birmingham also be cancelled, even though many of the costs have already been incurred? Explain your reasoning.
A recent report published by the High Pay Centre shows that the median annual CEO pay of the FTSE 100 companies rose by 15.7% in 2022, from £3.38 million in 2021 to £3.91 million – double the UK CPIH inflation rate of 7.9%. Average total pay across the whole economy grew by just 6.0%, representing a real pay cut of nearly 2%.
The pay of top US CEOs is higher still. The median annual pay of S&P 500 CEOs in 2022 was a massive $14.8 million (£11.7 million). However, UK top CEOs earn a little more than those in France and Germany. The median pay of France’s CAC40 CEOs was €4.9 million (£4.2 million). This compares with a median of £4.6 million for the CEOs of the top 40 UK companies. The mean pay of Germany’s DAX30 CEOs was €6.1 million (£5.2 million) – lower than a mean of £6.0 million for the CEOs of the top 30 UK companies.
The gap between top CEO pay and that of average full-time workers narrowed somewhat after 2019 as the pandemic hit company performance. However, it has now started widening again. The ratio of the median UK CEO pay to the median pay of a UK full-time worker stood at 123.1 in 2018. This fell to 79.1 in 2020, but then grew to 108.1 in 2021 and 118.1 in 2022.
The TUC has argued that workers should be given seats on company boards and remuneration committees that decide executive pay. Otherwise, the gap is likely to continue rising, especially as remuneration committees in specific companies seek to benchmark pay against other large companies, both at home and abroad. This creates a competitive upward push on remuneration. What is more, members of remuneration committees have the incentive to be generous as they themselves might benefit from the process in the future.
Although the incomes of top CEOs is huge and growing, even if they are excluded, there is still a large gap in incomes between high and low earners generally in the UK. In March 2023, the top 1 per cent of earners had an average gross annual income of just over £200 000; the bottom 10 per cent had an average gross annual income of a little over £8500 – just 4.24% of the top 1 per cent (down from 4.36% in March 2020).
What is more, in recent months, the share of profits in GDP has been rising. In 2022 Q3, gross profits accounted for 21.2% of GDP. By 2023 Q2, this had risen to 23.4%. As costs have risen, so firms have tended to pass a greater percentage increase on to consumers, blaming these price increases on the rise in their costs.
Life at the bottom
The poor spend a larger proportion of their income on food, electricity and gas than people on average income; these essential items have a low income elasticity of demand. But food and energy inflation has been above that of CPIH inflation.
In 2022, the price of bread rose by 20.5%, eggs by 28.9%, pasta by 29.1%, butter by 29.4%, cheese by 32.6% and milk by 38.5%; the overall rise in food and non-alcoholic beverages was 16.9% – the highest rise in any of the different components of consumer price inflation. In the past two years there has been a large increase in the number of people relying on food banks. In the six months to September 2022, there was a 40% increase in new food bank users when compared to 2021.
As far as energy prices are concerned, from April 2022 to April 2023, under Ofgem’s price cap, which is based on wholesale energy prices, gas and electricity prices would have risen by 157%, from £1277 to £3286 for the typical household. The government, however, through the Energy Price Guarantee restricted the rise to an average of £2500 (a 96% rise). Also, further help was given in the form of £400 per household, paid in six monthly instalments from October 2022 to March 2023, effectively reducing the rise to £2100 (64%). Nevertheless, for the poorest of households, such a rise meant a huge percentage increase in their outgoings. Many were forced to ‘eat less and heat less’.
Many people have got into rent arrears and have been evicted or are at risk of being so. As the ITV News article and videos linked below state: 242 000 households are experiencing homelessness including rough sleeping, sofa-surfing and B&B stays; 85% of English councils have reported an increase in the number of homeless families needing support; 97% of councils are struggling to find rental properties for homeless families.
Financial strains have serious effects on people’s wellbeing and can adversely affect their physical and mental health. In a policy research paper, ‘From Drained and Desperate to Affluent and Apathetic’ (see link below), the consumer organisation, Which?, looked at the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on different groups. It found that in January 2023, the crisis had made just over half of UK adults feel more anxious or stressed. It divided the population into six groups (with numbers of UK adults in each category in brackets): Drained and Desperate (9.2m), Anxious and At Risk (7.9m), Cut off by Cutbacks (8.8m), Fretting about the Future (7.7m), Looking out for Loved Ones (8.9m), Affluent and Apathetic (8.8m).
The majority of the poorest households are in the first group. As the report describes this group: ‘Severely impacted by the crisis, this segment has faced significant physical and mental challenges. Having already made severe cutbacks, there are few options left for them.’ In this group, 75% do not turn the heating on when cold, 63% skip one or more meals and 94% state that ‘It feels like I’m existing instead of living’.
Many of those on slightly higher incomes fall into the second group (Anxious and At Risk). ‘Driven by a large family and mortgage pressure, this segment has not been particularly financially stable and experienced mental health impacts. They have relied more on borrowing to ease financial pressure.’
Although inflation is now coming down, prices are still rising, interest rates have probably not yet peaked and real incomes for many have fallen significantly. Life at the bottom has got a lot harder.
- FTSE 100 CEOs get half a million pound pay rise
High Pay Centre (21/8/23)
- Call for reforms as median FTSE 100 chief executive pay topped £3.91m in 2022
Sky News, Sarah Taaffe-Maguire (22/8/23)
- FTSE 100 bosses given average 16% pay rises
Financial Times, Michael O’Dwyer, George Parker and Jim Pickard (21/8/23)
- Median pay for a FTSE 100 CEO increased from £3.38 million in 2021 to £3.91 million in 2022, the High Pay Centre said
Morningstar, Alliance News (22/8/23)
- FTSE 100 bosses ‘given average pay rise of £500,000 in 2022’
The Guardian, Rupert Neate (22/8/23)
- Big firm bosses’ pay rose 16% as workers squeezed
BBC News, Michael Race (22/8/23)
- Anxious and at risk? Britons fall into six cost of living groups, report finds
The Guardian, Robert Booth (29/7/23)
- From Drained and Desperate to Affluent and Apathetic
Which?, Nicole Chan, Katie Alpin and Ash Strange (29/7/23)
- To grasp the extent of inequality, look at the relatively well-off
LSE blog, Gerry Mitchell and Marcos González Hernando (17/7/23)
- Growing inequality across Britain has left millions of families exposed to the cost-of-living crisis
Resolution Foundation, Lalitha Try (25/1/23)
- Earned income taxed twice as heavily as capital gains for some in UK, study finds
The Guardian, Phillip Inman (20/8/23)
- Reducing inequality benefits everyone — so why isn’t it happening?
Nature, Editorial (16/8/23)
- Homeless families forced to live in tents and hotels as temporary accommodation runs out
ITV News, Daniel Hewitt (22/8/23)
- What are the arguments for and against giving huge pay awards to CEOs?
- What are the arguments for and against raising the top rate of income tax to provide extra revenue to distribute to the poor? Distinguish between income and substitution effects.
- What policies could be adopted to alleviate poverty? Why are such policies not adopted?
- Using the ONS publication, the Effects of taxes and benefits on UK household income, find out how the distribution of income between the various decile groups of household income has changed over time? Comment on your findings.