It is commonplace to use cost–benefit analysis (CBA) in assessing public policies, such as whether to build a new hospital, road or rail line. Various attempts in the past few months have been made to use CBA in assessing policies to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. These have involved weighing up the costs and benefits of national or local lockdowns or other containment measures. But, as with other areas where CBA is used, there are serious problems of measuring costs and benefits and assessing risks. This is particularly problematic where human life is involved and where a value has to be attached to a life saved or lost.
Take the case of whether the government should have imposed a lockdown: an important question if there were to be a second wave and the government was considering introducing a second lockdown. The first step in a CBA is to identify the benefits and costs of the policy.
Identifying the benefits and costs of the lockdown
The benefits of the lockdown include lives saved and a reduction in suffering, not only for those who otherwise would have caught the virus but also for their family and friends. It also includes lives saved from other diseases whose treatment would have been put (even more) on hold if the pandemic had been allowed to rage and more people were hospitalised with the virus. In material terms, there is the benefit of saving in healthcare and medicines and the saving of labour resources. Then there are the environmental gains from less traffic and polluting activities.
On the cost side, there is the decline in output from businesses being shut and people being furloughed or not being able to find work. There is also a cost from schools being closed and children’s education being compromised. Then there is the personal cost to people of being confined to home, a cost that could be great for those in cramped living conditions or in abusive relationships. Over the longer term, there is a cost from people becoming deskilled and firms not investing – so-called scarring effects. Here there are the direct effects and the multiplier effects on the rest of the economy.
Estimating uncertain outcomes
It is difficult enough identifying all the costs and benefits, but many occur in the future and here there is the problem of estimating the probability of their occurrence and their likely magnitude. Just how many lives will be saved from the policy and just how much will the economy be affected? Epidemiological and economic models can help, but there is a huge degree of uncertainty over predictions made about the spread of the disease and the economic effects, especially over the longer term.
One estimate of the number of lives saved was made by Miles et al. in the NIESR paper linked below. A figure of 440 000 was calculated by subtracting the 60 000 actual excess deaths over the period of the lockdown from a figure of 500 000 lives lost which, according to predictions, would have been the consequence of no lockdown. However, the authors acknowledge that this is likely to be a considerable overestimate because:
It does not account for changes in behaviour that would have occurred without the government lockdown; it does not count future higher deaths from side effects of the lockdown (extra cancer deaths for example); and it does not allow for the fact that some of those ‘saved’ deaths may just have been postponed because when restrictions are eased, and in the absence of a vaccine or of widespread immunity, deaths may pick up again.
Some help in estimating likely outcomes from locking down or not locking down the economy can be gained by comparing countries which have taken different approaches. The final article below compares the approaches in the UK and Sweden. Sweden had much lighter control measures than the UK and did not impose a lockdown. Using comparisons of the two approaches, the authors estimate that some 20 000 lives were saved by the lockdown – considerably less than the 440 000 estimate.
Estimating the value of a human life
To assess whether the saving of 20 000 lives was ‘worth it’, a value would have to be put on a life saved. Although putting a monetary value on a human life may be repugnant to many people, such calculations are made whenever a project is assessed which either saves or costs lives. As we say in the 10th edition of Economics (page 381):
Some people argue ‘You can’t put a price on a human life: life is priceless.’ But just what are they saying here? Are they saying that life has an infinite value? If so, the project must be carried out whatever the costs, and even if other benefits are zero! Clearly, when evaluating lives saved from the project, a value less than infinity must be given.
Other people might argue that human life cannot be treated like other costs and benefits and put into mathematical calculations. But what are these people saying? That the question of lives saved should be excluded from the cost–benefit study? If so, the implication is that life has a zero value! Again this is clearly not the case.
In practice there are two approaches used to measuring the value of a human life.
The first uses the value of a statistical life (VSL). This is based on the amount extra the average person would need to be paid to work in a job where there is a known probability of losing their life. So if people on average needed to be paid an extra £10 000 to work in a job with a 1% chance of losing their life, they would be valuing a life at £1 000 000 (£10 000/0.01). To avoid the obvious problem of young people’s lives being valued the same as old people’s ones, even though a 20 year-old on average will live much longer than a 70 year-old, a more common measure is the value of a statistical life year (VSLY).
A problem with VSL or VSLY measures is that they only take into account the quantity of years of life lost or saved, not the quality.
A second measure rectifies this problem. This is the ‘quality of life adjusted year (QALY)’. This involves giving a value to a year of full health and then reducing it according to how much people’s quality of life is reduced by illness, injury or poverty. The problem with this measure is the moral one that a sick or disabled person’s life is being valued less than the life of a healthy person. But it is usual to make such adjustments when considering medical intervention with limited resources.
One adjustment often made to QALYs or VSLYs is to discount years, so that one year gained would be given the full value and each subsequent year would be discounted by a certain percentage from the previous year – say, 3%. This would give a lower weighting to years in the distant future than years in the near future and hence would reduce the gap in predicted gains from a policy between young and old people.
Given the uncertainties surrounding the measurement of the number of lives saved and the difficulties of assigning a value to them, it is not surprising that the conclusions of a cost–benefit analysis of a lockdown will be contentious. And we have yet to see what the long-term effects on the economy will be. But, at least a cost–benefit analysis of the lockdown can help to inform discussion and help to drive future policy decisions about tackling a second wave, whether internationally, nationally or locally.
- When Does the Cure Become Worse Than the Disease? Applying Cost-Benefit Analysis to the Covid-19 Recovery
Journal of Medical Ethics, blog, Derek Soled, Michelle Bayefsky and Rahul Nayak (19/5/20)
- How much did the Covid-19 lockdown really cost the UK?
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (6/9/20)
- The UK lockdown: Balancing costs against benefits
VoxEU, David Miles (13/7/20)
- How Economists Calculate The Costs And Benefits Of COVID-19 Lockdowns
Forbes, Chris Conover (27/5/20)
- Coronavirus Is Giving Cost-Benefit Analysts Fits
Bloomberg, Cass R. Sunstein (12/5/20)
- “Stay at Home, Protect the National Health Service, Save Lives”: a cost benefit analysis of the lockdown in the United Kingdom
Wiley Online Library, David Miles, Mike Stedman and Adrian Heald (13/8/20)
- COVID-19 is Forcing Economists to Rethink the Value of Life
RealClearPolicy, James Broughel (20/8/20)
- A cost–benefit analysis of the COVID-19 disease
Oxford Review of Economic Policy, Robert Rowthorn and Jan Maciejowski (28/8/20)
- Living with Covid-19: Balancing Costs against Benefits in the Face of the Virus
National Institute Economic Review, vol. 253, David Miles, Mike Stedman and Adrian Heald (28/7/20)
- How Many Lives Has Lockdown Saved in the UK?
medRxiv, Rickard Nyman and Paul Ormerod (21/8/20)
- What are the arguments for and against putting a monetary value on a life saved?
- Are QALYs the best way of measuring lives saved from a policy such as a lockdown?
- If the outcomes of a lockdown are highly uncertain, does this strengthen or weaken the case for a lockdown? Explain.
- What specific problems are there in estimating the number of lives saved by a lockdown?
- How might the age distribution of people dying from Covid-19 affect the calculation of the cost of these deaths (or the benefits or avoiding them)?
- How might you estimate the costs to people who suffer long-term health effects from having had Covid-19?
- What are the arguments for and against using discounting in estimating future QALYs?
- The Department of Transport currently uses a figure of £1 958 303 (in 2018 prices) for the value of a life saved from a road safety project. Find out how this is figure derived and comment on it. See Box 12.5 in Economics 10th edition and Accident and casualty costs, Tables RAS60001 and RA60003, (Department of Transport, 2019).
The Winter Olympics are full on as athletes from all over the world compete against each other, hoping to set new world records, win medals and be known as Olympians. Pyeongchang, the South Korean county that hosts the 2018 Winter games, enjoys a large influx of tourists – estimated at 80,000 people a day. This is certainly an unusually large number of tourists for a region that has a regular winter-time population of no more than 45,000 people.
Having such a high number of visitors to the Winter Olympics, and even more to the larger Summer Olympics, is not an unusual occurrence, however, and it is often mentioned as one of the benefits of being a host to the Olympic Games.
Baade and Matheson (see link below) distinguish between three key benefits of hosting the Olympic Games: “the short-run benefits of tourist spending during the Games; the long-run benefits or the ‘Olympic legacy’, which might include improvements in infrastructure and increased trade, foreign investment, or tourism after the Games; and intangible benefits such as the ‘feel-good effect’ or civic pride”.
On these grounds, a number of studies have been authored, attempting to analyse some or all of these benefits, distinguishing between short-term and long-term effects. Müller (see link below), uses data from the 2014 Oympic Games in Sochi, Russia, to assess the net economic outcome for the host region. He concludes that any short-term economic benefits caused by the investment influx (before and during the games) could not offset the long-term costs, leading to an estimated net loss of $1.2 billion per year.
Zimbalist (2015) and Szymanski (2011) report similar results when analysing data from the London Games (2012) and past major sporting events (Games and FIFA World Cup). Kasimati (2003) points out the significant economic benefits that host regions tend to enjoy for years after hosting the games, but argues that the overall effect depends on a number of factors (including pre-existing infrastructure and location).
The jury is, therefore, still out on what is the overall economic effect of being host to this ancient institution. But I must now dash as women’s hockey is soon to start. “Let everyone shine”.
For the sake of the games, South Korea needs to show hosting an Olympics can be economically viable CNBC, Yen Nee Lee (15/2/18)
South Korea’s Olympic bet is unlikely to pay off, economics professor says CNBC, Andrew Wong and Andrew Zimbalist (12/2/18)
Going for the Gold: The Economics of the Olympics Journal of Economic Perspectives, Robert A. Baade and Victor A. Matheson (Spring 2016)
After Sochi 2014: Costs and Impacts of Russia’s Olympic Games Eurasian Geography and Economics, Martin Müller (9/4/15)
Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup The Brookings Institution, Andrew Zimbalist (14/1/15)
About Winning: The Political Economy of Awarding the World Cup and the Olympic Games SAIS Review of International Affairs, Stefan Szymanski (Winter/Spring 2011)
Economic aspects and the Summer Olympics: a review of related research International Journal of Tourism Research, Evangelia Kasimati (4/11/03)
“Let Everyone Shine”: the song for the PyeongChang 2018 Torch Relay unveiled with 200 days to go Olympic Committee (24/7/17)
The Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 Torch Relay Official Song PyeongChang 2018
- Using supply and demand diagrams, explain whether you would expect hotel room prices to change during the hosting of a major sports event, such as the Winter Olympics.
- List three economic (or economics-related) arguments in favour of and against the hosting of the Olympic games. Relate your answer to the empirical evidence presented in the literature.
- Why is it so difficult to estimate with accuracy the net economic effect of the Olympic Games?
With first Houston, then several Caribbean islands and Florida suffering dreadful flooding and destruction from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, many are questioning whether more should be spent on flood prevention and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Economists would normally argue that such questions are answered by conducting a cost–benefit analysis.
However, even if the size of the costs and benefits of such policies could be measured, this would not be enough to give the answer. Whether such spending is justified would depend on the social rate of discount. But what the rate should be in cost-benefit analyses is a highly contested issue, especially when the benefits occur a long time in the future.
I you ask the question today, ‘should more have been spent on flood prevention in Houston and Miami?’, the answer would almost certainly be yes, even if the decision had to have been taken many years ago, given the time it takes to plan and construct such defences. But if you asked people, say, 15 years ago whether such expenditure should be undertaken, many would have said no, given that the protection would be provided quite a long time in the future. Also many people back then would doubt that the defences would be necessary and many would not be planning to live there indefinitely.
This is the familiar problem of people valuing costs and benefits in the future less than costs and benefits occurring today. To account for this, costs and benefits in the future are discounted by an annual rate to reduce them to a present value.
But with costs and benefits occurring a long time in the future, especially from measures to reduce carbon emissions, the present value is very sensitive to the rate of discount chosen. But choosing the rate of discount is fraught with difficulties.
Some argue that a social rate of discount should be similar to long-term market rates. But market rates reflect only the current generation’s private preferences. They do not reflect the costs and benefits to future generations. A social rate of discount that did take their interests into account would be much lower and could even be argued to be zero – or negative with a growing population.
Against this, however, has to be set the possibility that future generations will be richer than the current one and will therefore value a dollar (or any other currency) less than today’s generation.
However, it is also likely, if the trend of recent decades is to continue, that economic growth will be largely confined to the rich and that the poor will be little better off, if at all. And it is the poor who often suffer the most from natural disasters. Just look, for example, at the much higher personal devastation suffered from hurricane Irma by the poor on many Caribbean islands compared with those in comparatively wealthy Florida.
A low or zero discount rate would make many environmental projects socially profitable, even though they would not be with a higher rate. The choice of rate is thus crucial to the welfare of future generations who are likely to bear the brunt of climate change.
But just how should the social rate of discount be chosen? The following two articles explore the issue.
How Much Is the Future Worth? Slate, Will Oremus (1/9/17)
Climate changes the debate: The impact of demographics on long-term discount rates Vox, Eli P Fenichel, Matthew Kotchen and Ethan T Addicott (20/8/17)
- What is meant by the social rate of discount?
- Why does the choice of a lower rate of social discount imply a more aggressive climate policy?
- How is the distribution of the benefits and costs of measures to reduce carbon emissions between rich and poor relevant in choosing the social rate of discount of such measures?
- How is the distribution of the benefits of such measures between current and future generations relevant in choosing the rate?
- How is uncertainty about the magnitude of the costs and benefits relevant in choosing the rate?
- What is the difference between Stern’s and Nordhaus’ analyses of the choice of social discount rate?
- Explain and discuss the ‘mortality-based approach’ to estimating social discount rates.
- What are the arguments ‘for economists analysing climate change through the lens of minimising risk, rather than maximizing utility’?
Many politicians throughout the world,
not just on the centre and left, are arguing for increased spending on infrastructure. This was one of the key proposals of Donald Trump during his election campaign. In his election manifesto he pledged to “Transform America’s crumbling infrastructure into a golden opportunity for accelerated economic growth and more rapid productivity gains”.
Increased spending on inffrastructure has both demand- and supply-side effects.
Unless matched by cuts elsewhere, such spending will increase aggregate demand and could have a high multiplier effect if most of the inputs are domestic. Also there could be accelerator effects as the projects may stimulate private investment.
On the supply side, well-targeted infrastructure spending can directly increase productivity and cut costs of logistics and communications.
The combination of the demand- and supply-side effects could increase both potential and actual output and reduce unemployment.
So, if infrastructure projects can have such beneficial effects, why are politicians often so reluctant to give them the go-ahead?
Part of the problem is one of timing. The costs occur in the short run. These include demolition, construction and disruption. The direct benefits occur in the longer term, once the project is complete. And for complex projects this may be many years hence. It is true that demand-side benefits start to occur once construction has begun, but these benefits are widely dispersed and not easy to identify directly with the project.
Then there is the problem of externalities. The external costs of projects may include environmental costs and costs to local residents. This can lead to protests, public hearings and the need for detailed cost–benefit analysis. This can delay or even prevent projects from occurring.
The external benefits are to non-users of the project, such as a new bridge or bypass reducing congestion for users of existing routes. These make the private construction of many projects unprofitable, except with public subsidies or with public–private partnerships. So there does need to be a macroeconomic policy that favours publicly-funded infrastructure projects.
One type of investment that is less disruptive and can have shorter-term benefits is maintenance investment. Maintenance expenditure can avoid much more costly rebuilding expenditure later on. But this is often the first type of expenditure to be cut when public-sector budgets as squeezed, whether at the local or national level.
The problem of lack of infrastructure investment is very much a political problem. The politicians who give the go-ahead to such projects, such as high-speed rail, come in for criticisms from those bearing the short-run costs but they are gone from office once the benefits start to occur. They get the criticism but not the praise.
Are big infrastructure projects castles in the air or bridges to nowhere? The Economist, Buttonwood’s notebook (16/1/17)
Trump’s plans to rebuild America are misguided and harmful. This is how we should do it. The Washington Post, Lawrence H. Summers (17/1/17)
- Identify the types of externality from (a) a new high-speed rail line, (b) new hospitals.
- How is discounting relevant to decisions about public-sector projects?
- Why are governments often unwilling to undertake (a) new infrastructure projects, (b) maintenance projects?
- Is a programme of infrastructure investment necessarily a Keynesian policy?
- What accelerator effects would you expect from infrastructure investment?
- Explain the difference between the ‘spill-out’ and ‘pull-in’ effects of different types of public investments in a specific location. Is it possible for a project to have both effects?
- What answer would you give to the teacher who asked the following question of US Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers? “The paint is chipping off the walls of this school, not off the walls at McDonald’s or the movie theatre. So why should the kids believe this society thinks their education is the most important thing?”
- What is the ‘bridge to nowhere’ problem? Why does it occur and what are the solutions to it?
- Why is the ‘castles in the air’ element of private projects during a boom an example of the fallacy of composition?
The UK government has finally given the go-ahead to build the new Hinkley C nuclear power station in Somerset. It will consist of two European pressurised reactors, a relatively new technology. No EPR plant has yet been completed, with the one in the most advanced stages of construction at Flamanville in France, having experienced many safety and construction problems. This is currently expected to be more than three times over budget and at least six years behind its original completion date of 2012.
The Hinkley C power station, first proposed in 2007, is currently estimated to cost £18 billion. This cost will be borne entirely by its builder, EDF, the French 85% state-owned company, and its Chinese partner, CGN. When up and running – currently estimated at 2025 – it is expected to produce around 7% of the UK’s electricity output.
On becoming Prime Minister in July 2016, Theresa May announced that the approval for the plant would be put on hold while further investigation of its costs, benefits, security concerns, technological issues and safeguards was conducted. This has now been completed and approval has been granted subject to new conditions. The main one is that the government “will be able to prevent the sale of EDF’s controlling stake prior to the completion of construction”. This will allow the government to prevent change of ownership during the construction phase. Thus, for example, EDF, would not be allowed to sell its share of Hinkley C to CGN, which currently has a one-third share in the project. EDF and CGN have accepted the new terms.
After Hinkley the government will have a ‘golden share’ in all future nuclear projects. “This will ensure that significant stakes cannot be sold without the Government’s knowledge or consent.”
In return for their full financing of the project, the government has guaranteed EDF and CGN a price of £92.50 per megawatt hour of electricity (in 2012 prices). This price will be borne by consumers. It will rise with inflation from now and over the first 35 years of the power station’s operation. It is expected that the Hinkley C will have a life of 60 years.
Critics point out that this guaranteed ‘strike price’ is more than double the current wholesale price of electricity and, with the price of renewables falling as technology improves, it will be an expensive way to meet the UK’s electricity needs and cut carbon emissions.
Those in favour argue that it is impossible to predict electricity prices into the distant future and that the certainty this plant will give is worth the high price by current standards.
To assess the desirability of the plant requires an assessment of its costs and benefits. In principle, this is a relatively simple process of identifying and measuring the costs and benefits, including external costs and benefits; discounting future costs and benefits to give them a present value; weighting them by their probability of occurrence; then calculating whether the net present value is positive or negative. A sensitivity analysis could also be conducted to show just how sensitive the net present value would be to changes in the value of specific costs or benefits.
In practice the process is far from simple – largely because of the huge uncertainty over specific costs and benefits. These include future wholesale electricity prices, unforeseen problems in construction and operation, and a range of political issues, such as pressure from various interest groups, and attitudes and actions of EDF and CGN and their respective governments, which will affect not only Hinkley C but other future power stations.
The articles look at the costs and benefits of this, the most expensive construction project ever in the UK, and possibly on Earth..
Hinkley Point: UK approves nuclear plant deal BBC News (15/9/16)
Hinkley Point: What is it and why is it important? BBC News, John Moylan (15/9/16)
‘The case hasn’t changed’ for Hinkley Point C BBC Today Programme, Malcolm Grimston (29/7/16)
U.K. Approves EDF’s £18 Billion Hinkley Point Nuclear Project Bloomberg, Francois De Beaupuy (14/9/16)
Hinkley Point C nuclear power station gets government green light The Guardian, Rowena Mason and Simon Goodley (15/9/16)
Hinkley Point C: now for a deep rethink on the nuclear adventure? The Guardian, Nils Pratley (15/9/16)
Hinkley Point C finally gets green light as Government approves nuclear deal with EDF and China The Telegraph, Emily Gosden (15/9/16)
UK gives go-ahead for ‘revised’ £18bn Hinkley Point plant Financial Times, Andrew Ward, Jim Pickard and Michael Stothard (15/9/16)
Hinkley Point: Is the UK getting a good deal? Financial Times, Andrew Ward (15/9/16)
Hinkley Point is risk for overstretched EDF, warn critics Financial Times, Michael Stothard (15/9/16)
Hinkley C must be the first of many new nuclear plants The Conversation, Simon Hogg (16/9/16)
Nuclear power in the UK National Audit Office, Sir Amyas Morse, Comptroller and Auditor General (12/7/16)
- Summarise the arguments for going ahead with Hinkley C.
- Summarise the objections to Hinkley C.
- What categories of uncertain costs and uncertain benefits are there for the project?
- Is the project in EDF’s interests?
- How will the government’s golden share system operate?
- How should the discount rate be chosen for discounting future costs and benefits from a project such as Hinkley C?
- What factors will determine the wholesale price of electricity over the coming years? In real terms, do you think it is likely to rise or fall? Explain.
- If nuclear power has high fixed costs and low marginal costs, how does this affect how much nuclear power stations should be used in a situation of daily and seasonal fluctuations in demand?
- How could ‘smart grid’ technology smooth out peaks and troughs in electricity supply and demand? How does this affect the relative arguments about nuclear power versus renewables?