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?
There has been considerable discussion recently about whether the government should introduce a property tax on high value properties. The government, finding it difficult to reduce the public-sector deficit and yet determined to do so, is looking for additional measures to reduce government expenditure or raise tax revenue.
But would it favour a mansion tax as a means of raising additional revenue?
The imposition of such a tax is favoured by both Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party. It is strongly opposed, however, by Conservatives. But just what would such a tax look like and what are the arguments for and against it?
One alternative would be to impose a one-off tax on property valued over a certain amount, such as £2 million. Alternatively it could be levied only for as long as the government is seeking to make substantial inroads into the deficit.
Another would be to add one or more bands to council tax. At present, council tax in England is levied in 8 bands according to the value of a person’s property. The highest band is for property valued over £320,000 in 1991 prices, with the amount of tax due for each band varying from local authority to local authority. (Average UK house prices in 2012 are 135% higher than in 1991.) In Scotland the bands are lower with the top band being for property valued over £212,000 in 1991 prices. In Wales, there is an additional band for property valued over £424,000, but properties are valued in 2003 prices, not 1991 prices.
With low top bands for council tax, people in mansions end up paying the same as people in much more modest property. It would be relatively easy to add additional bands, with the top band applying only to property worth, say, over £1 million or more.
The arguments in favour of a mansion tax are that it is progressive, relatively easy to collect, hard to evade and with minimal disincentive effects. The arguments against are that it would make the tax system ‘too progressive’, would not necessarily be related to an individual’s ability to pay and could have substantial disincentive effects.
The progressiveness of the UK tax system is illustrated in the chart, which looks at the proportion of income paid in direct, indirect and all taxes by quintile groups of households – that is, households grouped into five equal sized groups ranked from lowest to highest gross income. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The following articles look at the debate as it has raged over the past few weeks. Try to unpick the genuine arguments from the political rhetoric!
Clegg Says U.K. Could Apply Mansion Tax ‘in Five Seconds’ Bloomberg, Robert Hutton (25/9/12)
Two thirds back mansion tax on £1m homes Metro, Tariq Tahir (8/10/12)
Mansion tax would ‘tackle inequality’ This is Tamworth (27/9/12)
Council tax: the easy way to make mansion-dwellers pay Guardian, Simon Jenkins (25/9/12)
Rich must pay fair share in tax BBC Andrew Marr Show, Nick Clegg (23/9/12)
We will get mansion tax on £2 million homes through next budget, promise Lib Dems The Telegraph, Rowena Mason (25/9/12)
Trying to tax the wealthy not worth the price The Scotsman, George Kerevan (31/8/12)
Tax on wealth is true to Tory principles Financial Times, Janan Ganesh (24/9/12)
How would Clegg’s emergency wealth tax work? Guardian, Hilary Osborne (29/8/12)
Labour considers mansion tax on wealthy Financial Times, George Parke (5/9/12)
Conservative conference: Cameron rules out ‘mansion tax’ BBC News (7/10/12)
Don’t make wealth tax a habit Financial Times, Howard Davies (29/8/12)
George Osborne blocks mansion tax, but insists wealthy will pay more The Telegraph, Robert Winnett (8/10/12)
Why George Osborne had to kill the mansion tax The Spectator, Matthew Sinclair (7/10/12)
David Cameron rules out mansion tax and plans further welfare cuts Guardian, Hélène Mulholland (7/10/12)
Viewpoint: Would a wealth tax work? BBC News, Mike Walker (29/8/12)
For all the claims made about wealth taxes, it’s not correct to say the rich are paying their fair share Independent, Jonathan Portes (2/10/12)
House price data links Economics Network
The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, 2010/2011 ONS (26/6/12) (see especially Tables 2 and 3 and Table 26 for historical data)
- Explain the distinction between direct and indirect taxes, and between progressive and regressive taxes. For what reasons do the poor pay a higher proportion of their income in indirect taxes than the rich?
- What forms can a tax on wealth take?
- How progressive are taxes in the UK (see the ONS site in the Data section above)?
- Assess the arguments in favour of a mansion tax.
- Assess the arguments against a mansion tax.
- What type of wealth tax would be hardest to evade?
- What are the likely income and substitution effects of a wealth tax?
Let’s face it – no-one likes paying tax! After all, to see your monthly pay decline by £1000 through taxation and national insurance has got to hurt. Yet, taxation and national insurance contributions are essential sources of government revenue to finance benefits and public and merit goods.
However, with so much attention given to the UK’s ‘culture of dependency’, many people are increasingly angry with having to pay so much in taxation to see it being spent by the government on individuals who in some cases choose not to work and at the same time seeing other rich people paying so little in taxation. The increase in the top rate of tax received a lot of coverage. Although it did make the tax system more progressive, there were many concerns that it would lead to lower growth, a lack of innovation and enterprise and increased tax evasion and avoidance, as the super-rich were being hit with phenomenal tax bills. The post on the 50p income tax available here is worth looking at again to think about the effect that taxes have on incentives.
The issue of tax avoidance is by no means new, but with a large budget deficit in the UK, tax avoidance by the super-rich has become something that everyone has an opinion on. The average household has seen its income squeezed more and more, as the government continues its efforts to cut the deficit. The fact that the super rich are avoiding sometimes millions in taxation, while the average household struggles to pay even the basic rate of tax, creates a rather contentious issue. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, has said that the basic rate of tax could be cut by 2p in the pound if tax avoidance came to an end. He commented to the BBC’s Sunday Politics Programme that:
‘We have to make sure that everybody, especially the rich and famous, are paying their fair share of tax…These sorts of schemes that save wealthy people potentially tens of millions of pounds in tax, they are paid for by everybody else… If we could narrow the tax gap in this country by a quarter we could reduce income tax for every basic rate payer by 2p in the pound.’
This would clearly have some very positive effects on some of the poorest people living in the UK.
There is a variety of tax avoidance schemes available and the one receiving the most attention at present is the Jersey-based K2 scheme, which Jimmy Carr and others are thought to be using. The Public Accounts Committee will be reporting on the problem of using private companies to pay salaries, as a means of avoiding income tax and national insurance contributions.
If tax avoidance could be stopped, or at least reduced, then not only could basic rate tax payers benefit, but it might go some way to cutting the budget deficit, giving the government more flexibility in stimulating the economy. According to HMRC, tax avoidance and evasion cost the economy some £42 billion – enough to pay off one-third of Britain’s budget deficit.
The following articles consider the problem of tax avoidance and then try answering the questions on the issue of taxation.
Five-point plan to curb tax cheating by big firms and super-rich Guardian (27/6/12)
Stop tax dodgers or there will be ‘riots on the streets’, warns top lawyer designing new anti-avoidance rules Mail Online, Julian Gavaghan (26/6/12)
Danny Alexander describes aggressive tax avoidance as ‘morally repugnant’ Guardian, Patrick Wintour (24/6/12)
Basic tax ‘could be cut by 2p’ if avoidance ended BBC News(24/6/12)
Danny Alexander says tax avoidance ‘adds 2p in every £1 to basic tax rate’ Independent, Oliver Wright (24/6/12)
Make tax returns public, urges peer The Press Association (28/6/12)
Tax officials reveal scale of probe Financial Times, Jim Pickard (27/6/12)
- What are the key principles of a good tax system?
- Explain how taxation affects the incentive to work?
- What is the difference between tax evasion and tax avoidance?
- Using indifference analysis, illustrate the effect of a cut in the basic rate of income tax. How does it affect the decision to work more or less? You should consider the income and substitution effects in your answer and which rate of tax (if any) an individual is paying.
- Why is tax avoidance of such concern at the moment? Think about the current state of the economy.
- What are taxes and national insurance contributions used to pay for?
- To what extent do you think tax avoidance is a natural consequence of any tax system?
Recently there have been calls from business leaders and Conservative politicians to scrap the UK’s 50% income tax rate, which is paid on taxable incomes over £150,000. The 50% income tax rate is thus paid by top earners, who comprise around just 1% of taxpayers.
And yet the government receives about 30% of income tax revenue from this 1% – and this was before the introduction of the 50% rate in April 2010. (In fact, with the marginal national insurance rate of 2%, top earners are paying an effective marginal rate of 52%.)
One argument used by those who favour reducing the 50% rate is that the rich would pay more income tax, not less. There are four reasons given for this. The first is that people would be encouraged to work harder and/or seek promotion if they knew they would keep more of any rise in income. The second is that fewer rich people would be encouraged to leave the country or to relocate their businesses abroad. The third is that more people would be encouraged to work in or set up businesses in the UK. The fourth is that there would be less temptation to evade taxes by not declaring all income earned or to find clever ways of avoiding tax.
These arguments were put forward in the 1980s by Art Laffer, an adviser to President Reagan. His famous ‘Laffer curve’ (see Economics (8th edition) Box 10.3 or Economics (7th edition) Box 10.4) illustrated that tax revenues are maximised at a particular tax rate. The idea behind the Laffer curve is very simple. At a tax rate of 0%, tax revenue will be zero – but so too at a rate of 100%, since no-one would work if they had to pay all their income in taxes. As the tax rate rises from 0%, so tax revenue would rise. And so too, as the tax rate falls from 100%, the tax rate would rise. It follows that there will be some tax rate between 0% and 100% that maximises tax revenue.
Those arguing that a cut in the top rate of income tax would increase tax revenue are arguing that the 50% rate is beyond the peak of the Laffer curve. But this is an empirical issue. In other words, to assess the argument you would need to look at the evidence as, theoretically, the peak of the Laffer curve could be below or above 50%. Indeed, some argue that the peak is more likely to be at around 75%.
The following podcasts and articles consider the arguments. As you will see, the authors are not all agreed! Consider carefully their arguments and try to identify any flaws in their analysis.
On 27 June 2012, Arthur Laffer appeared on the BBC Today Programme to discuss the Laffer curve and its implications for UK income tax policy. You can hear it from the link below
Should the 50p tax rate be ditched? BBC Today Programme, John Redwood and Paul Johnson (3/3/12)
Arthur Laffer: Tax rate should ‘provide for growth’ BBC Today Programme (27/6/12)
Where’s the High Point on the Laffer Curve? And Where Are We? Business Insider, Angry bear Blog (3/3/12)
Tax cuts: we can have our cake and eat it The Telegraph, Ruth Porter (22/2/12)
‘Scrap the 50p tax rate’ say 500 UK entrepreneurs Management Today, Rebecca Burn-Callander (1/3/12)
The Laffer Curve Appears in the UK Forbes, Tim Worstall (22/2/12)
Memo to 50p tax trashers: Laffer Curve peaks at over 75 per cent Left Foot Forward, Alex Hern (1/3/12)
- Explain how a cut in income tax could lead to an increase in tax revenue.
- Distinguish between the income effect and the substitution effect of a tax cut. Which would have to be bigger if a tax cut were to increase tax revenue?
- If, in a given year, the top rate of tax were raised and tax revenue fell, would this prove that the economy was now past the peak of the Laffer curve?
- What would cause the Laffer curve to shift/change shape? To what extent could the government affect the shape of the Laffer curve?
- If the government retains the 50% top tax rate, what can it do to increase the revenue earned from people paying the top rate?
- What other objectives might the government have for having a high marginal income tax rate on top earners?
- Investigate the marginal income tax and national insurance (social protection) rates in other countries. How progressive are UK income taxes compared with those in other countries?
The pensions crisis is one area of social policy that has been the focus of attention for some years. With an ageing population, more people entering higher education and a rather substantial deficit facing the government, pension reform has been high on the agenda and not just in the UK.
A number of factors have contributed towards the so-called pensions crisis: rising life expectancy; the ‘baby-boomers’ retiring; more people staying in education for longer; an ageing population. All of these have led to a dependency ratio that is becoming worse – fewer workers to support every pensioner. Over the past few years, strikes have taken place in protest to government pension plans, especially for public sector workers, who see the proposals as making them worse off once they retire. Doctors are the latest group to strike in protest over having to work longer before retiring and having to pay higher national insurance contributions.
So, are the doctors justified in their protests? They are currently on a final-salary pension scheme, which is a very generous scheme, although it is being phased out and replaced with a career average scheme, which will have big implications for doctors’ pensions. Furthermore, there was an overhaul of their pensions in 2008, thus the criticism that further changes are now being made to make them even worse off. Doctors do pay higher national insurance contributions than other occupations, such as teachers and they will naturally receive a higher pension than other NHS workers, such as nurses simply because they earn more. However, this does have big implications for their future.
Inequality is a big issue across the UK and this doesn’t only refer to income. Those earning higher salaries are more likely to live longer than the average worker. So, we see life expectancy inequality as well. The consequence of this is that once an individual retires at say 60, if your life expectancy is 85, then you have 25 years to live in retirement receiving whatever pension you have accumulated throughout your working life. If, however, your life expectancy is only 75, perhaps because of your background, your occupation, your health, then you will only spend 15 years in retirement. The person that lives longer therefore receives significantly more in pension payments and if this differing life expectancy is related to your occupation and thus your salary, then inequality of income clearly has some very wide implications for pension schemes and rates of contribution.
There are, of course, wider effects of any industrial action by doctors. Whilst some may agree with their view that this further pension reform is unfair, if any strike action does take place there will be wider economic effects. Those in need of treatment may have to delay it and if that means more people taking sick days, then the economic cost to the economy could be significant. The following articles consider the latest controversy in public-sector pensions.
Independent Public Service Pensions Commission Final Report HM Treasury, Pensions Commission March 2011
Doctors’ strike: how the cost of NHS pensions soared Telegraph, Matthew Holehouset (21/6/12)
Are doctors’ pensions too generous Guardian, Hillary Osborne and Jill Insley (21/6/12)
Lansley: ‘Doctors’ pension scheme is generous’ BBC News (21/6/12)
Doctors get a nasty taste of Gordon Brown’s pension medicine Telegraph, Philip Johnston (18/6/12)
Doctors wrong on pensions, says Hutton Financial Times, Sarah Neville and Norma Cohen (19/6/12)
BMA ‘Inherent unfairness’ in doctor pensions BBC Radio 4 Today (21/6/12)
Reluctant move against intransigent government Scotsman, Dr Brian Keighley (21/6/12)
Will you be affected by the doctors’ strikes? BBC News (15/6/12)
- Explain the main factors that are contributing towards the so-called pensions crisis. In each case, is it a demand-side or supply-side issue?
- What are the main proposals to tackling the pensions crisis (not just for Doctors)?
- What is the difference between a career average and a final salary pension scheme? Which is better for (a) those on a higher salary at the end of their career and (b) those who are on a relatively lower salary at the end of their career? Make sure you explain your thinking!!
- What are the arguments both for and against this new round of pension reforms for doctors? Do you think the doctors are justified in taking strike action?
- What are the wider implications of industrial action? Think about the effect on individuals and on the economic performance of the wider economy.
- To what extent is it equitable that public sector workers should pay more in contributions and retire at the same age as the state pension age?
- How might higher contributions affect the incentive to work? What could we see happen to labour supply? Think about both income and substitution effects.