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?
Where you live in Great Britain can have a profound effect on your earning potential. According to a report published by the Social Mobility Commission, there is a growing geographical divide, with more affluent areas getting relatively richer, while ‘many other parts of the country are being left behind economically and hollowed out socially’.
The Commission uses a Social Mobility Index to rank the 324 local authorities in England. The index is a measure of the social mobility prospects for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is ‘made up of 16 key performance indicators spanning each major life stage’.
The index shows that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have lower educational attainment, poorer initial jobs and poorer prospects for advancement in the labour market. Often they are stuck in low paid jobs with little chance of getting on the housing ladder and fewer chances of moving away from the area.
The problem is not simply one of a North-South divide or one of inner cities versus the suburbs. Many inner-city areas have been regenerated, with high incomes and high social and geographical mobility. Other inner-city areas remain deprived.
The worst performing areas are remote rural or coastal areas and former industrial areas, where industries have closed. As the author of the report states in the Guardian article linked below:
These areas have fewer specialist teachers, fewer good schools, fewer good jobs and worse transport links. … Many of these areas have suffered from a lack of regeneration: few high-paying industries are located there, and they often exhibit relatively limited job opportunities and clusters of low pay.
The problem often exists within areas, with some streets exhibiting growing affluence, where the residents have high levels of social mobility, while other streets have poor housing and considerable levels of poverty and deprivation. Average incomes for such areas thus mask this type of growing divide within areas. Indeed, some of the richest areas have worse outcomes for disadvantaged children than generally poorer areas.
There are various regional and local multiplier effects that worsen the situation. Where people from disadvantaged backgrounds are successful, they tend to move away from the deprived areas to more affluent ones, thereby boosting the local economy in such areas and providing no stimulus to the deprived areas. And so the divide grows.
Policies, according to the report, need to focus public investment, and incentives for private investment, in deprived areas. They should not focus simply on whole regions. You can read the specific policy recommendations in the articles below.
Social mobility is a stark postcode lottery. Too many in Britain are being left behind The Guardian, Alan Milburn (28/11/17)
State of the Nation – Sector Response FE News (28/11/17)
Social mobility: the worst places to grow up poor BBC News, Judith Burns and Adina Campbell (28/11/17)
How Britain’s richest regions offer worst prospects for poor young people Independent, May Bulman (28/11/17)
Small Towns Worst Places In Britain For Social Mobility, New ‘State Of The Nation’ Report Reveals Huffington Post, Paul Waugh (28/11/17)
Social mobility in Great Britain: fifth state of the nation report Social Mobility Commission, News (28/11/17)
Fifth State of the Nation Report Social Mobility Commission, News (28/11/17)
- Explain how local multipliers operate.
- What is the relationship between social immobility as identified in the report and the elasticity of supply of labour in specific jobs?
- What is the link between geographical, occupational and social mobility?
- Explain why, apart from London, English cities are ‘punching below their weight on social mobility outcomes’.
- Go through each of the key policy recommendations of the report and consider the feasibility of introducing them.
- What policies could be adopted to retain good teachers in schools in deprived areas?
- To what extent might an increased provision of training ease the problem of social mobility?
- Investigate policies adopted in other European countries to tackle local deprivation. Are there lessons that can be learned by the UK government, devolved governments, local authorities or other agencies?