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).
HS2 has been a controversial topic for some time now. Between the disruption it would cause to countless neighbourhoods and the protests that have emerged and the debate about the cost effectiveness of the project, it’s been in the news a fair amount. The transport network in the UK needs improving, not only for businesses located here, but also to encourage more investment into the country. HS2 is one of the solutions offered.
The latest estimate for the cost of HS2 is over £40 billion. However, many suggest that the benefits HS2 will bring do not cover the full costs. Furthermore, as noted above, other concerns include the disruption that it will bring to countless households who will be living along the proposed routes. Cost benefit analysis have been carried out to determine the viability of the project, but they are invariably difficult to do. As they involve determining all of the private and social costs and benefits and putting a monetary estimate onto them, there will inevitably be factors that are over-looked, under-estimated or over-estimated. The suggestions here are that the costs have been under-estimated and the benefits over-estimated.
In September, KPMG produced a report that estimated the overall benefit to the UK economy would be a boost to growth of 0.8%, which would benefit many businesses and communities. The British Chambers of Commerce said:
Business communities in dozens of cities and towns, from many parts of the UK, remain strongly supportive of HS2.
The railway network is also approaching full capacity and this is one of the reasons why HS2 has been proposed. A government source said:
We need to do something because our railways are nearly full, but the alternative to HS2 is a patch and mend job that would cause 14 years of gridlock, hellish journeys and rail replacement buses … The three main routes to the north would be crippled and the economy would be damaged.
However, this report has faced criticism, in particular because it ignored a variety of supply-side constraints and because they argue it would be more effective to simply update the existing network. However, a new government-commissioned report has suggested that this alternative to HS2 would involve 14 years of weekend route closures and much longer journey times. However, those in favour of updating existing routes have said that this new report commissioned by the government is ‘a complete fabrication’. Hilary Wharf of the HS2 Action Alliance commented:
This government-funded report is a complete fabrication. The main alternative to HS2 involves longer trains and reduced first-class capacity to provide more standard class seats…No work is required at Euston to deliver the necessary capacity increase. Work is only required at three locations on the WCML [West Coast Main Line], and this is comparable to the work being carried out on the route at present.
The debate regarding HS2 will continue for the time being and it is just another area that is fuelling the political playing field. Whatever is done, the rail network certainly requires investment, whether it is through HS2 or upgrades to the existing routes. The following reports and articles consider the latest developments and controversy regarding HS2.
HS2 Cost and Risk model Report: A report to Government by HS2 ltd HS2 Ltd March 2012
High Speed 2 (HS2) Limited: HS2 Regional Economic Impacts KPMG September 2013
Draft Environmental Statement: Phase One: Engine for Growth HS2 May 2013
Updated Economic Case for HS2 HS2 August 2012
HS2 alternative ‘would mean years of rail disruption’ BBC News (28/10/13)
Alternative to HS2 would see Britain suffer 14 years of rail misery, says Coalition Independent, Nigel Morris (28/10/13)
HS2 alternatives could require 14 years of weekend rail closures The Guardian, Rajeev Syal (28/10/13)
Passengers ‘face 14 years of chaos if HS2 is derailed’: ‘Unattractive’ package of closures would be needed to expand capacity if Labour withdraws support Mail Online, Jason Groves (28/10/13)
HS2: Labour to examine cheaper rival plan The Telegraph, Tim Ross and Andrew Gilligan (27/10/13)
Britain’s railways have become mere outposts of other nations’ empires The Guardian, John Harris (28/10/13)
’Years of delays’ if government backs down on HS2 rail project Financial Times, Kiran Stacey and Brian Gloom (28/10/13)
- What is a cost-benefit analysis? Explain the steps that are involved in any cost-benefit analysis.
- Conduct a cost-benefit analysis for HS2. Ensure that you differentiate between costs and benefits and between private and social concepts.
- How can we measure the costs and benefits of HS2?
- Explain how HS2 is expected to boost economic growth. Use the AD/AS model to illustrate this.
- To what extent is there likely to be a multiplier effect from HS2? Is it likely to benefit the whole economy or just those areas where the route lies?
- Conduct a cost-benefit analysis for the alternative suggestion. Which do you think is likely to be more feasible? Explain your answer.
- How will improvements to the rail network or the investment of HS2 benefit businesses in the UK economy?
“As snow sweeps the country, the UK has coped in the way it usually does – with surprise, confusion and chaos.” Not only have the transport authorities in many areas struggled to cope, but individuals too have been caught out. Many have rushed to stock up on things such as blankets, fires, de-icing equipment and warming foods.
But why does Britain cope worse than many other countries? Should more resources be diverted into keeping roads, airports and rail lines open? And how have individuals responded? How much have they stocked up on a range of cold-weather items and why? The linked article looks at these issues?
Why can’t the UK deal with snow? EU Infrastructure, Timon Singh (6/1/10)
- Does it make economic sense for the UK to invest relatively little in snowy-weather infrastructure?
- How should a local authority decide whether or not to (a) buy an additional gritting lorry; (b) increase its stock piles of grit? How would risk attitudes affect the decision?
- Why might a lower proportion of people get to work in the recent snowy weather than in equivalent weather 20 years ago?
- How might you define a ‘thermal elasticity of demand’ for a product, where the determinant of demand is the temperature?
- What factors determine the thermal elasticity of demand for a product? How is the short-term elasticity likely to be different from the longer-term elasticity and why?
- What would you need to include in measuring the full social costs to the economy of the cold spell?
No-one in the UK can have failed to notice the seemingly never-ending torrent of wind and rain that has swept the country over the past couple of weeks. At the moment, there are 19 flood warnings in the UK and a further 58 areas are on flood watch, according to the Environmental Agency. Cockermouth in Cumbria has been the worse hit, with 12.4 inches of rain falling in just 24 hours, 6 bridges collapsing and over 200 people being rescued by emergency services, some having to break through their roof to get out. Thousands of people have been evacuated; PC Bill Barker lost his life trying to save others; and fears remain for a 21-year old women, who was washed away from a bridge. This has led to a safety review of all 1800 bridges in Cumbria.
Thousands of people have lost their homes and belongings and over 1000 claims to insurance companies have already been made. Flood victims are facing rapidly rising costs, as insurance premiums increase to cover the costs of flooding and this has led to these houses becoming increasingly difficult to sell. Some home-owners are even being forced to pay mandatory flood insurance. Without this in place, insurance companies are not willing to insure homeowners in some areas, or the premiums they’re charging are simply unaffordable. After all, if one household in an area hit by flooding claims for flood damage, the probability of all other houses in that area also claiming is pretty high, if not an almost certainty.
Care packages are arriving for those hit by the floods, as food is starting to run out, and estimates of the costs of flooding have already reached ‘tens of millions of pounds’. Gordon Brown has pledged £1 million to help the affected areas, but who knows where this money will come from; Barclays has also pledged help for the small businesses affected.
An independent inquiry needs to be launched into the causes of this flooding and whether better flood protection should have been in place. However, the extent of the flooding experienced is argued to only happen every 300 years, so is the cost of flood protection really worth the benefits it will bring? A number of issues have arisen from this freak weather, and some are considered in the articles below.
Residents returning to Cockermouth after flooding (including video) BBC News (23/11/09)
Insurers will be hit by £100 million flood bill City AM, Lora Coventry (23/11/09)
£100 million bill after Cumbria floods nightmare Metro, Kirststeen Patterson (23/11/09)
Floods claim in Cumbria could and Scotland could top £100 million (including video) BBC news (22/11/09)
Riverside residents, others may be forced to buy mandatory flood insurance The Times, Illinois, Steve Stout (21/11/09)
Funds for flooding victims set up BBC News (22/11/09)
Flood victims suffer as insurance costs rise Guardian, Jamie Elliott (8/11/09)
1 in 6 house insurance customers at risk of flooding UIA (20/11/09)
Papers focus on flood shortages BBC News (23/11/09)
- Why are insurance premiums high for flood protection and how will this affect house sales in the affected areas?
- Are the risks of flooding independent?
- Apart from those living in the areas hit by floods, who else will suffer from the flooding and how?
- The flooding experienced is said to be a phenomenon experienced every 300 years. Should better flood defences be put into place to stop the same thing happening in the future or should we use the necessary money elsewhere?
- What are the private and external costs and benefits of increased flood defences? What would a cost–benefit analysis need to establish in order for a decision to be made over whether more defences should be put in place?
- Millions of pounds will be needed to repair the damage caused by the flooding. Where will this money come from? Think about the opportunity cost.
- What do you think will be the likely impact on environmental policy and how will this affect you?
The traditional macroeconomic issues are well-known: unemployment, inflation, economic growth and the balance of payments. However, the environment, and specifically climate change, have become increasingly important objectives for the global economy. Over recent months, many countries have announced new policies and measures to tackle climate change.
The costs of not tackling climate change are well-documented, but what about the costs of actually tackling it? Why is a changing climate receiving such attention and what are the economics behind this problem? The articles below consider this important issue.
Tougher climate target unveiled BBC News (16/10/08)
Brown proposes £60 billion climate fund BBC News (26/6/09)
EU says tackling climate change will cost global economy €400 billion a year Irish Times, Frank McDonald (26/6/09)
Obama makes 11th-hour climate change push Washington AFP, Ammenaul Parisse (25/6/09)
UK to outline emission cut plans BBC News (26/6/09)
What’s new in the EU: EU examines impact of climate change on jobs The Jerusalem Post, Ari Syrquin (25/6/09)
Climate change: reducing risks and costs The Chronicle Herald, Jennifer Graham (25/6/09)
Obama to regulate ‘pollutant’ CO2 BBC News (17/4/09)
Billions face climate change risk BBC News (6/5/07)
Obama vows investment in science BBC News (27/4/09)
Japan sets ‘weak’ climate target BBC News (10/6/09)
- Why is climate change an example of market failure?
- Apart from imposing limits on emissions, what other interventionist policies could be used? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each of them?
- According to the EU, the cost of tackling climate change is very high. So, why are we doing it? See if you can carry out a cost-benefit analysis!
- Why is climate change presenting a problem for insurance companies? Can it be overcome?
- Why is finance such an issue between developed and developing countries in relation to tackling climate change?
- What is the likely impact of climate changing policies on the labour market? Will we be able to adapt in the current economic crisis?