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?
What will production look like in 20 years time? Will familiar jobs in both manufacturing and the services be taken over by robots? And if so, which ones? What will be the effect on wages and on unemployment? Will most people be better off, or will just a few gain while others get by with minimum-wage jobs or no jobs at all?
The BBC has been running a series looking at new uses for robots and whether they will take people’s jobs? This complements three reports: one by Boston Consulting one by Deloitte and an earlier one by Deloitte and Michael Osborne and Carl Frey from Oxford University’s Martin School. As Jane Wakefield, the BBC’s technology reporter states:
Boston Consulting Group predicts that by 2025, up to a quarter of jobs will be replaced by either smart software or robots, while a study from Oxford University has suggested that 35% of existing UK jobs are at risk of automation in the next 20 years.
Jobs at threat from machines include factory work, office work, work in the leisure sector, work in medicine, law, education and other professions, train drivers and even taxi and lorry drivers. At present, in many of these jobs machines work alongside humans. For example, robots on production lines are common, and robots help doctors perform surgery and provide other back-up services in medicine.
A robot may not yet have a good bedside manner but it is pretty good at wading through huge reams of data to find possible treatments for diseases.
Even if robots don’t take over all jobs in these fields, they are likely to replace an increasing proportion of many of these jobs, leaving humans to concentrate on the areas that require judgement, creativity, human empathy and finesse.
These developments raise a number of questions. If robots have a higher marginal revenue product/marginal cost ratio than humans, will employers choose to replace humans by robots, wholly or in part? How are investment costs factored into the decision? And what about industrial relations? Will employers risk disputes with employees? Will they simply be concerned with maximising profit or will they take wider social concerns into account?
Then there is the question of what new jobs would be created for those who lose their jobs to machines. According to the earlier Deloitte study, which focused on London, over 80% of companies in London say that over the next 10 years they will be most likely to take on people with skills in ‘digital know-how’, ‘management’ and ‘creativity’.
But even if new jobs are created through the extra spending power generated by the extra production – and this has been the pattern since the start of the industrial revolution some 250 years ago – will these new jobs be open largely to those with high levels of transferable skills? Will the result be an ever widening of the income gap between rich and poor? Or will there be plenty of new jobs throughout the economy in a wide variety of areas where humans are valued for the special qualities they bring? As the authors of the later Deloitte paper state:
The dominant trend is of contracting employment in agriculture and manufacturing being more than offset by rapid growth in the caring, creative, technology and business services sectors.
The issues of job replacement and job creation, and of the effects on income distribution and the balance between work and leisure, are considered in the following videos and articles, and in the three reports.
What is artificial intelligence? BBC News, Valery Eremenko (13/9/15)
What jobs will robots take over? BBC News, David Botti (15/8/14)
Could a robot do your job? BBC News, Rory Cellan-Jones (14/9/15)
Intelligent machines: The robots that work alongside humans BBC News, Rory Cellan-Jones (14/9/15)
Intelligent machines: Will you be replaced by a robot? BBC News, John Maguire (14/9/15)
Will our emotions change the way adverts work? BBC News, Dan Simmons (24/7/15)
Could A Robot Do My Job? BBC Panorama, Rohan Silva (14/9/15)
Technology has created more jobs in the last 144 years than it has destroyed, Deloitte study finds Independent, Doug Bolton (18/8/15)
Technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed, says 140 years of data The Guardian, Katie Allen (18/8/15)
Will a robot take your job? BBC News (11/9/15)
Intelligent Machines: The jobs robots will steal first BBC News, Jane Wakefield (14/9/15)
Robots Could Take 35 Per Cent Of UK Jobs In The Next 20 Years Says New Study Huffington Post, Thomas Tamblyn (14/9/15)
The new white-collar fear: will robots take your job? The Telegraph, Rohan Silva (12/9/15)
Does technology destroy jobs? Data from 140 years says no Catch news, Sourjya Bhowmick (11/9/15)
Takeoff in Robotics Will Power the Next Productivity Surge in Manufacturing Boston Consulting Group (10/2/15)
Agiletown: the relentless march of technology and London’s response Deloitte (November 2014)
Technology and people: The great job-creating machine Deloitte, Ian Stewart, Debapratim De and Alex Cole (August 2015)
- Which are the fastest growing and fastest declining occupations? To what extent can these changes be explained by changes in technology?
- What type of unemployment is caused by rapid technological change?
- Why, if automation replaces jobs, have jobs increased over the past 250 years?
- In what occupations is artificial intelligence (AI) most likely to replace humans?
- To what extent are robots and humans complementary rather than substitute inputs into production?
- “Our analysis of more recent employment data also reveals a clear pattern to the way in which technology has affected work.” What is this pattern? Explain.
- Why might AI make work more interesting for workers?
- Using a diagram, show how an increase in workers’ marginal productivity from working alongside robots can result in an increase in employment. Is this necessarily the case? Explain.
Lloyds Banking Group has announced that it plans to reduce its labour force by 9000. Some of this reduction may be achieved by not replacing staff that leave, but some may have to be achieved through redundancies.
The reasons given for the reduction in jobs are technological change and changes in customer practice. More banking services are available online and customers are making more use of these services and less use of branch banking. Also, the increasingly widespread availability of cash machines (ATMs) means that fewer people withdraw cash from branches.
And it’s not just outside branches that technological change is impacting on bank jobs. Much of the work previously done by humans is now done by software programs.
One result is that many bank branches have closed. Lloyds says that the latest planned changes will see 150 fewer branches – 6.7% of its network of 2250.
What’s happening in banking is happening much more widely across modern economies. Online shopping is reducing the need for physical shops. Computers in offices are reducing the need, in many cases, for office staff. More sophisticated machines, often controlled by increasingly sophisticated computers, are replacing jobs in manufacturing.
So is this bad news for employees? It is if you are in one of those industries cutting employment. But new jobs are being created as the economy expands. So if you have a good set of skills and are willing to retrain and possibly move home, it might be relatively easy to find a new, albeit different, job.
As far as total unemployment is concerned, more rapid changes in technology create a rise in frictional and structural unemployment. This can be minimised, however, or even reduced, if there is greater labour mobility. This can be achieved by better training, education and the development of transferable skills in a more adaptive labour force, where people see changing jobs as a ‘normal’ part of a career.
Lloyds Bank cuts 9,000 jobs – but what of the tech future? Channel 4 News, Symeon Brown (28/10/14)
Lloyds Bank confirms 9,000 job losses and branch closures BBC News, Kamal Ahmed (28/10/14)
Lloyds job cuts show the technology axe still swings for white collar workers The Guardian, Phillip Inman (28/10/14)
Unleashing Aspiration: The Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions Cabinet Office (July 2009)
Fair access to professional careers: a progress report Cabinet Office (30/5/12)
- Is a reduction in banking jobs inevitable? Explain.
- What could banks do to reduce the hardship to employees from a reduction in employment?
- What other industries are likely to see significant job losses resulting from technological progress?
- Distinguish between demand-deficient, real-wage, structural and frictional unemployment. Which of these are an example, or examples, of equilibrium unemployment?
- What policies could the government pursue to reduce (a) frictional unemployment; (b) structural unemployment?
- What types of industry are likely to see an increase in employment and in what areas of these industries?
Multinational companies bring many advantages to host nations. Whether it is creating jobs, income, investment or sharing technology, governments across the world try to encourage firms to set up in their country. However, once a multinational has been set up, it’s natural for the owners and managers to favour their own countries when decisions have to be made. If there is some new investment planned, where to put it will be a key decision and not just for the firm. New investment may mean new jobs and better working environments. If job cuts are necessary, the decision-maker’s country of origin may determine where they occur.
This so-called ‘Headquarters effect’ is apparent in the case of Siemens, which has guaranteed the safety of all German jobs, both now and in the future. Those employees in the UK are understandably concerned. If job cuts are needed and German workers will not be affected, it takes little intelligence to realise that their jobs may be at risk. The following discussion by Robert Peston considers this issue.
British jobs, for German workers BBC News blogs, Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (7/10/10)
- What is the ‘Headquarters effect’?
- The article states: “The HQ effect implies that when a British plant is owned by an overseas company, it may be more vulnerable to being closed down if the going gets tough”. Why is this the case?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of multinational investment to (a) the multinational company and (b) the host country?
- How is multinational investment affected by the business cycle?
- It Trent UK were to shut down or if a particular office was closed in one part of the country, what type of unemployment would be created?
Recent data on the US economy suggest that it may be heading back towards recession. Confidence is waning as growth slows. US GDP growth figures for the second quarter of 2010 have just been revised downwards: from 2.4% to 1.6%. And although growth is still quite strongly positive, unemployment is not coming down.
Most economists still think that the US economy will avoid a double dip, but many think that it is nevertheless a distinct possibility. For example, economists at Goldman Sachs put the likelihood of a double-dip recession at 25% to 30%, which although less than 50% is still a substantial risk.
Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, told a gathering of bankers and economists in Wyoming on August 27 that the Fed “will do all that it can” to avoid a double dip. According to Bernanke:
In many countries, including the United States and most other advanced industrial nations, growth during the past year has been too slow and joblessness remains too high… Central bankers alone cannot solve the world’s economic problems. That said, monetary policy continues to play a prominent role in promoting the economic recovery and will be the focus of my remarks today.
Bernanke outlined four monetary policy options that could be pursued, the first three of which were real possibilities for the Fed if economic growth did stall.
• The first would be to sell long-term government securities on the open market – a form of open-market operation. This quantitative easing would expand the money supply and should push long-term interest rates down (short-term interest rates are already virtually zero).
• The second would be to reduce interest rates paid to banks on reserves held in the Fed. These are currently around 0.25% and hence the scope for reductions here are very limited
• The third would be to promise to keep short-term interest rates low for a longer period than markets currently expect, thereby assuring markets that borrowing would remain cheap for some considerable time.
• The fourth option, and one not currently contemplated by the Fed, would be to raise the inflation rate target above its current level of 1.5% to 2%.
The first of the following two podcasts, which includes an interview with US Managing Editor of the Financial Times, Gillian Tett, looks at what the Fed might do. Is the solution to expand aggregate demand through monetary policy or are the problems more structural in nature? The other podcasts and the articles look at Bernanke’s proposals and their scope for avoiding a double dip.
‘No magic wand’ for US economy BBC Today Programme, Mark Mardell and Gillian Tett (27/8/10)
Fed Offers Higher Ground In Economic Mudslide NPR, Scott Horsley (28/8/10)
Roubini Interview Excerpt Bloomberg, Nouriel Roubini (27/8/10)
Bernanke Says Fed Will Do `All It Can’ to Ensure U.S. Recovery Bloomberg, Craig Torres and Scott Lanman (27/8/10)
What ammunition does the Fed have left? Reuters (27/8/10)
Fed is prepared to keep U.S. out of recession, Bernanke vows Los Angeles Times, Jim Puzzanghera (28/8/10)
Bernanke soothes rattled markets Telegraph (28/8/10)
Ben Bernanke promises to step in as US economy veers back towards recession Guardian, Katie Allen (27/8/10)
Shoot out at Jackson Hole – the world’s central bankers take aim at deflation Independent, Sean O’Grady (27/8/10)
Treasury Two-Year Yields Increase Most Since April After Bernanke Speech Bloomberg, Cordell Eddings (28/8/10)
Bernanke speech shows effort to find Fed consensus One News Now, Jeannine Aversa (28/8/10)
Analysis: The uncomfortable mathematics of monetary policy Reuters, Pedro Nicolaci da Costa (28/8/10)
Ben Bernanke calls for help to revive the stuttering US economy Guardian, Richard Adams (28/8/10)
Fed stands by to boost US growth Financial Times, Robin Harding, Michael Mackenzie and Alan Rappeport (27/8/10)
Bernanke outlines options for Fed Financial Times, Robin Harding (27/8/10)
The Economic Outlook and Monetary Policy Ben Bernanke (27/8/10)
US Bond Rates Yahoo Finance
US interest rates Federal Reserve Statistical Release
- Why is growth in the US economy slowing?
- Why has the recovery from recession in the USA so far not resulted in a reduction in unemployment?
- What structural problems are there in the US economy?
- What further scope is there for monetary policy in stimulating the US economy?
- What are the arguments for the Fed introducing a new programme of quantitative easing?
- How important are expectations in determining whether the US recovery will be maintained or whether there will be a double-dip recession?
- What impact did Bernanke’s speech have on bond markets and why?