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?
Did the benefits of the London Olympics outweigh the costs? The government’s UK Trade and Industry (part of the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills) has just published a report, London 2012, Delivering the economic legacy, which itemises the economic benefits of the games one year on. It claims that benefits to date are some £9.9 billion.
This compares with costs, estimated to be somewhere between £8.9 billion and £9.3 billion, although this figure does not include certain other costs, such as maintenance of the stadium. Nevertheless, according to the figures, even after just a year, it would seem that the Games had ‘made a profit’ – just.
The £9.9 billion of benefits consist of £5.9 billion of additional sales, £2.5 billion of additional inward investment and £1.5 billion of Olympic-related high value opportunities won overseas. Most of these can be seen as monetary external benefits: in other words, monetary benefits arising from spin-offs from the Games. The ‘internal’ monetary benefits would be largely the revenues from the ticket sales.
In a separate report for the Department of Culture, Media & Sport, Report 5: Post-Games Evaluation, it has been estimated that the total net benefits (net gross value added (GVA)) from 2004 to 2020 will be between £28 billion and £41 billion.
But benefits are not confined just to internal and external monetary benefits: there are also other externalities that are non-monetary. The Culture, Media & Sport report identified a number of these non-monetary externalities. The Summary Report itemises them. They include:
• The health and social benefits of more people participating in sport
• Inspiring a generation of children and young people
• A catalyst for improved elite sporting performance in the UK
• Setting new standards for sustainability
• Improved attitudes to disability and new opportunities for disabled people to participate in society
• Greater social cohesion as communities across the UK engaged with the Games
• Increased enthusiasm for volunteering
• Accelerated physical transformation of East London
• Beneficial socio-economic change in East London
• Important lessons learned for the co-ordination and delivery of other large-scale public and public/private projects
But with any cost–benefit analysis there are important caveats in interpreting the figures. First there may be monetary and non-monetary external costs. For example, will all the effects on social attitudes be positive? Might greater competitiveness in sport generate less tolerance towards non sporty people? Might people expect disabled people to do more than they are able (see)? Second, the costs generally precede the benefits. This then raises the question of what is the appropriate discount rate to reduce future benefits to a present value.
Perhaps the most serious question is that of the quantification of benefits. It is important that only benefits that can be attributed to the Games are counted and not benefits that would have occurred anyway, even if connected to the Games. For example, it is claimed in the UK Trade & Industry report that much of the Olympic park and stadium for the Winter Olympics in Russia was “designed and built by British businesses”. But was this the direct result of the London Olympics, or would this have happened anyway?
Another example is that any inward investment by any company that attended the London Olympics is counted in the £2.5 billion of additional inward investment (part of the £9.9 billion). As the London Evening Standard article below states:
In London, it credited the Games with helping seal the deal for the £1.2 billion investment in the Royal Albert Docks by Chinese developer ABP, the £1 billion investment in Croydon by Australian shopping centre developer Westfield with UK firm Hammerson and the £700 million investment in Battersea Nine Elms by Dalian Wander Group.
It is highly likely that some or all of these would have gone ahead anyway.
Then there are the £5.9 billion of additional sales. These are by companies which engaged with the Olympics. But again, many of these sales could have taken place anyway, or may have displaced other sales.
Many cost–benefit analyses (or simply ‘benefit analyses’) concern projects where there are strong vested interests in demonstrating that a project should or should not go ahead or, in this case, have gone ahead. The more powerful the vested interests, the less likely it is that the analysis can be seen as objective.
Webcasts and Podcasts
Have Olympics and Paralympics really boosted trade? Channel 4 News, Jackie Long (19/7/13)
Economy boosted by Olympics Sky Sports News, Amy Lewis (19/7/13)
Olympic investment boost to last decade – Cable BBC News (19/7/13)
Did the UK gain from the Olympics? BBC Today Programme (19/7/13)
Government announces almost £10bn economic boost from London 2012 Specification Online (19/7/13)
Olympic Legacy Boosted Economy By £10bn, Government Insists The Huffington Post (19/7/13)
Olympics are delivering economic gold but volunteering legacy is at risk The Telegraph, Tim Ross (19/7/13)
Vince Cable: Case for HS2 still being made The Telegraph, Christopher Hope and Tim Ross (19/7/13)
Olympic legacy ‘gave London a £4bn windfall’ London Evening Standard, Nicholas Cecil and Matthew Beard (19/7/13)
London 2012 Olympics ‘have boosted UK economy by £9.9bn’ BBC News (19/7/13)
The great Olympic stimulus BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (19/7/13)
London Olympics still costing the taxpayer one year on Sky Sports (19/7/13)
Mayor missed long-term London Olympic jobs targets, says report BBC News, Tim Donovan (19/7/13)
Olympics legacy: Have the London 2012 Games helped Team GB develop a winning habit? Independent, Robin Scott-Elliot (19/7/13)
London 2012 added up to more than pounds and pence The Guardian, Zoe Williams (19/7/13)
London 2012 – Delivering the economic legacy UK Trade & Investment (19/7/13)
London 2012: Delivering the economic legacy UK Trade & Investment (19/7/13)
Report 5: Post-Games Evaluation: Summary Report Department for Culture, Media & Sport (July 2013)
Report 5: Post-Games Evaluation: Economy Evidence Base Department for Culture, Media & Sport (July 2013)
- Distinguish between gross and net benefits; monetary and non-monetary externalities; direct costs (or benefits) and external costs (or benefits).
- How should the discount rate be chosen for a cost–benefit analysis?
- Give some examples of monetary and non-monetary external costs of the Games.
- What are the arguments for and against including non-monetary externalities in a cost–benefit analysis?
- Why might the £9.9 billion figure for the monetary benefits of the Games up to the present time be questioned?
Virgin’s franchise to run the West Coast Main Line from London to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh was due to expire in December. The Department of Transport thus invited tenders to run a new 13-year franchise, worth around £5 billion, and on 15 August announced that the franchise had been awarded to FirstGroup. It had bid substantially more than Virgin.
Virgin immediately challenged the decision, arguing that FirstGroup’s figures were flawed. According to the second BBC article below:
It argued that FirstGroup’s revenue projections were wildly optimistic – that passenger growth of 6% a year was unlikely given that Virgin had seen growth of 5% a year from a much lower base. This level of passenger growth would have seen FirstGroup’s revenue from the franchise grow by more than 10% a year, which was simply unrealistic, Virgin argued.
And it is not alone. “Everybody in the industry thought that this bid was not sustainable and that the risks had not been taken into account by the Department for Transport,” says rail industry expert Christian Wolmar.
If revenue targets are not met, the franchisee doesn’t have the money to pay the government the promised fee for the contract, which in FirstGroup’s case was back-loaded towards the end of the 13-year term.
After making its decision, the Transport Secretary at the time, Justine Greening, said that the process of assessing the bid was robust and fair and conducted with due diligence. Sir Richard Branson of Virgin strongly and publicly disagreed and Virgin decided to take the Department of Transport to court. The court case was scheduled to begin on 4 October.
However, in preparing its case to put to the court, the Department of Transport uncovered significant errors in the evaluation of the bids. These errors involved the overestimation of passenger numbers, the undervaluation of risk and a failure to take inflation into account. The errors stemmed from inputting the data incorrectly.
The errors were so serious that the new Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, on the day before the court case was due to begin, announced that he was scrapping the contract to FirstGroup and would invite new bids. All four of the original bidders would have their costs refunded, amounting to some £40 million.
The minister also announced that he was setting up two reviews. One would seek to establish just what went wrong in the assessment of the West Coat Main Line bids and what lessons could be learned. This is due to report at the end of October. The other review would examine the wider rail franchise programme and how bids are appraised. In the meantime, three other franchise competitions had been ‘paused’ pending the results of this second review, due to report in December.
The articles look at the problems of assessing bids and properly taking into account risks associated with both revenue and cost projections. Not surprisingly, they also look at the politics of this amazing and unprecedented U-turn
Webcasts and podcasts
West Coast Main Line rail franchise deal scrapped BBC News, Richard Westcott (3/10/12)
West coast rail franchise deal scrapped Channel 4 News, Krishnan Guru-Murthy (3/10/12)
‘Major problem’ for West Coast Main Line BBC Today Programme, Louise Ellman (3/10/12)
Philip Hammond on West Coast Main Line contract BBC News, Andrew Neil (7/10/12)
Virgin to run West Coast route ‘for at least nine months’ BBC News, Richard Westcott (15/10/12)
British transport secretary cancels West Coast franchise International Railway Journal, David Briginshaw (3/10/12)
Wrong track: Another humiliation for the government The Economist (5/10/12)
West Coast Main Line: total chaos as government scraps franchise deal The Telegraph, Alistair Osborne (3/10/12)
West Coast Main Line deal scrapped after contract flaws discovered BBC News (3/10/12)
Q&A: West Coast Main Line franchise BBC News (4/10/12)
What derailed the Transport Department BBC News, Robert Peston (3/10/12)
Transport official suspended over rail fiasco is ex-Goldman banker Independent, Oliver Wright and Cahal Milmo (5/10/12)
West Coast Main Line: Civil servant Kate Mingay speaks out BBC News (6/10/12)
Civil servant: I wasn’t to blame over West Coast bid The Telegraph, Louise Armitstead (5/10/12)
West coast rail fiasco: three government officials suspended Guardian, Gwyn Topham (3/10/12)
What does west coast shambles mean for big rail franchises? Guardian, Dan Milmo (3/10/12)
West coast mainline fiasco may claim further victims Guardian, Gwyn Topham and Dan Milmo (4/10/12)
The West Coast mainline, wasted taxes, and a secretive shambles at the heart of the Civil Service Independent, Steve Richards (4/10/12)
Why all the West Coast bids were wrong BBC News, Robert Peston (9/10/12)
- What were reasons for awarding the contract to FirstGroup back in August?
- How is discounting used to assess the value of projected future revenue and costs? How does the choice of the rate of discount impact on these calculations?
- In what way should risk be taken into account?
- Why was the FirstGroup bid particularly sensitive to the calculation of risk?
- If both costs and revenues go up with inflation, how is inflation relevant to the calculation of the profitability of a bid?
- What are the arguments for and against making franchises longer?
- Is it only at the bidding stage that there is any competition for train operators? Explain.
- Should full social costs and benefits be taken into account when assessing bids for a rail franchise? Explain.
My son Andrew Sloman (see also) is currently in Goa. My wife Alison and I went to visit him over half term – our first trip to India. Goa is a beautiful state, with wonderful beaches, fantastic food and perfect weather in February. But inland from this tourist haven lies an environmental disaster caused by the open-cast extraction of iron ore.
This tiny state by Indian standards produces more than 60% of India’s iron ore exports. Whilst, along with tourism, the iron ore industry has been one of the largest contributors to the Goan economy, its environmental footprint is massive. Deforestation and water and air pollution are just three of the environmental externalities.
So should a cap be placed on the amount of iron ore that is mined? Should the industry be taxed more heavily? Should tough environmental standards be imposed on the industry? Or should it simply be allowed to continue, given its large contribution to the Goan economy? Or, at the other extreme, should the industry be closed? The linked article looks at some of the issues. Try to identify, as an economist, what information you would require in order to come to a conclusion to these questions.
Greens’ shout for cap on iron ore mining falls on deaf ears Times of India, Paul Fernandes (28/2/12)
- What negative externalities are involved with the Goan iron ore industry? Are there any positive externalities?
- What difficulties are there in measuring the negative externalities?
- How would you set about doing a cost–benefit analysis of (a) expanding the Goan iron ore industry; (b) shutting it?
- Explain the following: “The net present value of the opportunity cost for 25 years at 12% social discount rate of giving it up is greater than its environmental cost by Rs 14,449 crore, the report states.” (A crore is 10 million and Rs is the symbol for an Indian Rupee, where £1 = approximately 78 rupees.)
- What difficulties are there in attempting to take distribution into account when doing a cost–benefit analysis?