Each year the BBC hosts the Reith Lectures – a series of talks given by an eminent person in their field. This year’s lecturer is Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England. His series of four weekly lectures began on 2 December 2020. Their topic is ‘How we get what we value’. As the BBC site states, the lectures:
chart how we have come to esteem financial value over human value and how we have gone from market economies to market societies. He argues that this has contributed to a trio of crises: of credit, Covid and climate. And the former Bank of England governor will outline how we can turn this around.
In lectures 2, 3 and 4, he looks at three crises and how they have shaped and are shaping what we value. The crises are the financial crisis of 2007–9, the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis. They have challenged how we value money, health and the environment respectively and, more broadly, have prompted people to question what is valuable for individuals and society, both today and into the future.
The questions posed by Carney are how can we establish what is valuable to individuals and society, how well are such values met by economies and how can mechanisms be improved to ensure that we make the best use of resources in meeting those values.
Value and the market
In the first lecture he probes the concept of value. He explores how economists and philosophers have tried to value the goods, services and human interactions that we desire.
First there is ‘objective value’ propounded by classical economists, such as Adam smith, David Ricardo and Karl Marx. Here the value of goods and services depends on the amount of resources used to make them and fundamentally on the amount of labour. In other words, value is a supply-side concept.
This he contrasts with ‘subjective value’. Here the value of goods and services depends on how well they satisfy wants – how much utility they give the consumer. For these neoclassical economists, value is in the eye of the beholder; it is a demand-side concept.
The two are reconciled in the market, with market prices reflecting the balance of demand and supply. Market prices provided a solution to the famous diamonds/water paradox (see Box 4.2 in Economics (10th edition) or Case Study 4.3 in Essentials of Economics (8th edition) – the paradox of ‘why water, which is essential for life, is virtually free, but diamonds, which have limited utility beyond their beauty, are so expensive.’ The answer is to do with scarcity and marginal utility. Because diamonds are rare, the marginal utility is high, even though the total utility is low. And because water is abundant, even though its total utility is high, for most people its marginal utility is low. In other words, the value at the margin depends on the balance of demand and supply. Diamonds are much scarcer than water.
But is the market balance the right balance? Are the values implied by the market the same as those of society? ‘Why do financial markets rate Amazon as one of the world’s most valuable companies, but the value of the vast region of the Amazon appears on no ledger until it’s stripped of its foliage and converted into farmland?’ – another paradox highlighted by Carney.
It has long been recognised that markets fail in a number of ways. They are not perfect, with large firms able to make supernormal profits by charging more and producing less, and consumers often being ill-informed and behaving impulsively or being swayed by clever marketing. And many valuable things that we experience, such as human interaction and the beauty of nature, are not bought and sold and thus do not appear in measures of GDP – one of the main ways of valuing a country.
What is more, many of things that are produced in the market have side-effects which are not reflected in prices. These externalities, whether good or bad, can be substantial: for example, the global warming caused by CO2 emissions from industry, transport and electricity production from fossil fuels.
And markets reflect people’s biases towards the present and hence lead to too little investment for the future, whether in healthcare, the environment or physical and social infrastructure. Markets reflect the scant regard many give to the damage we might be doing to the lives of future generations.
What is particularly corrosive, according to Carney, is the
drift from moral to market sentiments. …Increasingly, the value of something, some act or someone is equated with its monetary value, a monetary value that is determined by the market. The logic of buying and selling no longer applies only to material goods, but increasingly it governs the whole of life from the allocation of healthcare, education, public safety and environmental protection. …Market value is taken to represent intrinsic value, and if a good or activity is not in the market, it is not valued.
The drift from moral to market sentiments accelerated in the Thatcher/Regan era, when governments were portrayed as inefficient allocators, which stifled competition, innovation and the movement of capital. Deregulation and privatisation were the order of the day. This, according to Carney, ‘unleashed a new dynamism’ and ‘with the fall of communism at the end of the 1980s, the spread of the market grew unchecked.’
But this drift failed to recognise market failures. It has taken three crises, the financial crisis, Covid and the climate crisis to bring these failures to the top of the public agenda. They are examined in the other three lectures.
The Reith Lectures
- Distinguish between objective and subjective value.
- If your income rises, will you necessarily be happier? Explain.
- How is the concept of diminishing marginal utility of income relevant to explaining why ‘A Christmas bonus of £1000 means less to Mark Zuckerberg then £500 does to someone on a minimum wage.’
- Does the use of social cost–benefit analysis enable us to use adjusted prices as a measure of value?
- Listen to lectures 2, 3 and 4 and provide a 500-word summary of each.
- Assess the arguments Mark Carney uses in one of these three lectures.
How to get the most from your money? This is the question posed by the linked article below. It’s a topic we’ve looked at in previous posts, such as Studies show that money can buy happiness (but only if you spend on experiences), Happiness economics and Peak stuff. This article takes the arguments further.
It suggests that, up to a certain level of income, there is a roughly linear relationship between money and life satisfaction. As poor people have more to spend, so they can begin to escape poverty and the negative features of financial insecurity and a lack of basic necessities, such as food and shelter. They also gain a greater freedom to choose what and when to buy. Beyond a certain level, however, the rate of increase in life satisfaction tends to decline, as does the specific pleasure from additional individual purchases. In economists’ language, the marginal utility of income diminishes.
But the article goes further than this. It suggests that satisfaction or happiness is of two broad types. The first is the general sense of well-being that people get from their life. This tends to be relatively stable for any given person, but will tend to increase as people have more money to spend or have more fulfilling jobs. Of course, there may well be a trade-off between income and job satisfaction. Some people may prefer to take a cut in pay for a more fulfilling job.
The second is the satisfaction or happiness you get from specific experiences. This tends to fluctuate on a day-to-day basis, depending on what you are doing. Here, what you purchase and the use you make of the purchases is a key component.
So what lessons are there for earning and spending money wisely? To start with, it is important to get a good work-life balance. It may be worth trading income for job satisfaction. Here the focus should be on long-term fulfilment, rather than on the short-term happiness from more ‘stuff’. Then it is important to spend money wisely. Here the author identifies three lessons:
The first is to consider buying time. Time-saving purchases, such as dishwashers can help. So too can ‘outsourcing’ activities, such as cleaning, laundry, cooking, DIY or child care, if they give you more time to do other more fulfilling things (but not if you love doing them!).
The second is to spend more money on experiences (as we saw in the post Studies show that money can buy happiness (but only if you spend on experiences). A better TV or car may seem like a wiser investment than more dinners out, holidays or going to concerts. But we quickly adapt to new upgraded ‘stuff’, thereby eliminating any additional satisfaction. Experiences, however, tend to linger in the memory. As Tom Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, is quoted by the article as saying:
Even though, in a material sense, they [experiences] come and go, they live on in the stories we tell, the relationships we cement, and ultimately in the sense of who we are.
Choosing a more fulfilling but less well-paid job is a form of spending money on experiences.
The third is to give some of your money away, whether to charity or to helping friends or relatives. As Gilovich says:
It’s hard to find a more charming finding than that by giving away money, you not only make someone else happier, you make yourself happier.
- What is meant by ‘diminishing marginal utility of income’? Is the concept consistent with the arguments in the article?
- In what sense may it be rational to choose a lower-paid job?
- Is ‘happiness’ the same as ‘utility’ as the concept is used by economists?
- Does the concept of ‘peak stuff’ apply to all physical products? Explain your answer.
- If giving money away makes a person happy, is it truly altruistic for that person to do so? Explain.
One of the key developments in economics in recent years has been the growing influence of behavioural economics. We considered some of the insights of behavioural economics in a blog in 2016 (A nudge in the right direction?). As the post stated, ‘Behavioural economists study how people’s buying, selling and other behaviour responds to various incentives and social situations. They don’t accept the simplistic notion that people are always rational maximisers.’ The post quoted from a Livemint article (see first linked article below):
According to behavioural economists, the human brain neither has the time nor the ability to process all the information involved in decision making, as assumed by the rational model.
Instead, people use heuristics. A heuristic technique is any approach to problem-solving, such as deciding what to buy, which is practical and sufficient for the purpose, but not necessarily optimal. For example, people may resort to making the best guess, or to drawing on past experiences of similar choices that turned out to be good or bad. On other accasions, when people are likely to face similar choices in the future, they resort to trial and error. They try a product. If they like it, they buy it again; if not, they don’t.
On other occasions, they may use various rules of thumb: buying what their friends do, or buying products on offer or buying trusted brands. These rules of thumb can lead to estimates that are reasonably close to the utility people will actually get and can save on time and effort. However, they sometimes lead to systematic and predictable misjudgements about the likelihood of certain events occurring.
In traditional models of consumer choice, individuals aim to maximise their utility when choosing between goods, or bundles of goods. The context in which the choices are offered is not considered.
Yet, in real life, we see that context is important; people will often make different choices when they are presented, or framed, in different ways. For example, people will buy more of a good when it is flagged up as a special offer than they would if there is no mention of an offer, even though the price is the same.
The recognition that framing is important to choices has led to the development of nudge theory. Indeed, it underpins many marketing techniques. These seek to persuade people to make a particular choice by framing it in an optimistic way or presenting it in a way that makes it easy to decide.
Governments too use nudge theory. In the UK, the Coalition government (2010–15) established the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) (also unofficially known as the Nudge Unit) in the Cabinet Office in 2010. A major objective of this team is to use ideas from behavioural economics to design policies that enable people to make better choices for themselves.
The podcast linked below, looks at the use of nudge theory. The presenter, Mary Ann Sieghart looks at how we are being encouraged to change our behaviour. She also looks at the work of UCL’s Love Lab which researches the way we make decisions. As the programme notes state:
Mary Ann is grilled in UCL’s Love Lab to find out how she makes decisions; she finds taking the pound signs off the menu in a restaurant encourages her spend more and adding adjectives to the food really makes it taste better.
Walking through the Nudge Unit, she hears how powerful a tiny tweak on a form or text can get be, from getting people back to work to creating a more diverse police force. Popular with the political left and right, it has been embraced around the world; from Guatemala to Rwanda, Singapore to India it is used to reduce energy consumption, encourage organ donation, combat corruption and even stop civil wars.
But the podcast also looks at some of the darker sides of nudging. Just as we can be nudged into doing things in our interests, so too we can be nudged to do things that are not so. Politicians and businesses may seek to manipulate people to get them to behave in ways that suit the government or the business, rather than the electorate or the consumer. The dark arts of persuasion are also something that behavioural economists study.
The articles below explore some of the areas where nudge theory is used to devise policy to influence our behaviour – for good or bad.
- New frontiers of human behaviour
Livemint, Biju Dominic (15/9/16)
- It’s been 10 years since behavioral economics hit the mainstream
Quartz, Dan Kopf (13/10/18)
- What is ‘nudge theory’ and why should we care? Explaining Richard Thaler’s Nobel economics prize-winning concept
Independent, Ben Chu (9/10/17)
- Is Nudge Theory The Answer To Our Single-Use Plastics Problem?
HuffPost, Ollie Boesen (15/6/18)
- Re-enrolment key to ‘nudge’ UK into saving: survey
Investment and Pensions Europe Magazine (IPE), Elizabeth Pfeuti (22/10/18)
- Applying nudge strategies to higher education
Times Higher Education, Ben Castleman (6/7/18)
- Want to nudge others to install solar? Actions speak louder than words
Phys.org, Kevin Dennehy (25/10/18)
- DNA test and phone app to ‘nudge’ Waitrose shoppers towards healthier food
Imperial College London News, Caroline Brogan (12/10/18)
- “Nudge theory” explored to boost medication adherence
AMA Wire, Sara Berg (29/6/18)
- Simple ‘nudge’ letters can boost school attendance, new research suggests
The Seattle Times, Neal Morton (5/7/18)
- Using Behavioral Nudges to Treat Diabetes
Harvard Business Review, Thomas H. Davenport, James Guszcza and Greg Szwartz (10/10/18)
- Why nudge theory works until a kick in the backside is needed.
The Guardian, Andrew Rawnsley (22/10/17)
- Why Nudging Your Customers Can Backfire
Harvard Business Review, Utpal M. Dholakia (15/4/16)
- Explain what are meant by ‘bounded rationality’ and ‘heuristics’.
- How may populist politicians use nudge theory in their campaigning?
- Give some examples from your own behaviour of decisions made using rules of thumb.
- Should we abandon models based on the assumption of rational maximising behaviour (e.g. attempts to maximise consumer surplus or to maximise profit)?
- Find out some other examples of how people might be nudged to behave in ways that are in their own interest or that of society.
- How might we be nudged into using less plastic?
- How might people be nudged to eat more healthily or to give up smoking?
- To what extent can financial incentives, such as taxes, fines, grants or subsidies be regarded as nudging? Explain.
- Would you advise all GP surgeries and hospital outpatient departments to text reminders to people about appointments? What should such reminders say? Explain.
Guest post by Hazel Garcia from InvestmentZen
An oft-repeated quote is that money can’t buy happiness. But according to multiple studies, yes, it can. The key is what you spend that hard earned cash on. When researchers asked individuals to reflect on their recent purchases, those who had made experiential purchases i.e. trips, lessons, events, etc. were much happier compared to those who had made material purchases.
Why is this the case? According to a 20 year study at Cornell, our excitement from new purchases fades quickly over time. That new watch you bought quickly becomes a part of your everyday life. This is what psychologists call the “hedonic treadmill,” which describes the way we return to our normal state of happiness after a momentous occasion. However, buying a new chair will return you much quicker to that state than an adventure across the Rocky Mountains.
Researchers identified several key reasons why this is the case. One reason is that an object is just an object and can never become a part of your identity (at least, not a healthy one), whereas experiences shape us over time. In addition, because by definition unique experiences are only short-lived, we don’t adapt to them the way we might with a new phone or watch. They do not become part of the routine and as such are usually viewed in a special light.
Interestingly, researchers found that even a negative experience could be rated more highly than purchasing a luxury good. In the study, participants were asked to describe a bad experience they had recently and a few weeks later, they were asked again about it. Over the course of just a few weeks, most people’s opinion of that moment had changed.
This is because the human brain has a tendency to reduce the impact of stressful situations. In fact, a significant portion of those polled even stated that in the end, they were happy to have had the negative encounter as it gave them a fresh way to look at things. When similar questions were asked to those who had purchased a high-end item, their levels of happiness were consistently lower as time went on.
So when it comes to the age old question of “Does money buy happiness?” the answer is a resounding yes – provided you spend it on the right things. But of course, you should still aim to make every dollar go as far as possible in pursuit of great experiences. Take a look at the infographic below to see a visual summary of the research on money and how it can buy happiness.
Questions (by JS)
- Why does buying material goods not buy happiness? Does this apply to all material goods?
- What is different, in terms of happiness, about buying experiences? Does this apply to the consumption of all services?
- Is the consumption of experiences subject to diminishing marginal utility (a) for specific experiences; (b) for experiences in general? Explain.
- Why do we seem not to care as much about the “Jones'” vacation as about their income or possession of material goods?
Economics is about choice – and choices occur in all parts of our lives. One area is personal relationships. Are we making the best of our relationships with family, friends and sexual partners? Increasingly economists are examining human behaviour in such contexts and asking what factors determine our decisions and whether such decisions are rational.
A recent book looks at the economics of marriage and goes under the title of ‘Spousonomics‘. Its authors, Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson, use economics “to master love, marriage and dirty dishes”. As they say:
Every marriage is its own little economy, a business of two with a finite number of resources that need to be allocated efficiently.
They look at ways in which such resources can be allocated efficiently. They also look at apparently irrational behaviour and seek to explain it in terms of various ‘failures’ (akin to market failures). They also examine how these failures can be rectified to improve relationships.
So is this economics stepping on the toes of relationship counsellors and psychologists? Or is this the legitimate domain of economists seeking to understand how to optimise in the context of scarce resources – including time and patience?
Spousonomics gets to heart of the matter Belfast Telegraph (19/1/11)
Run your marriage with ‘Spousonomics’: A new book says applying economic rules with transform your relationship Mail Online, Lydia Slater (31/1/11)
Spousonomics: How Economics Can Help Figure Out Your Marriage Book Beast (31/1/11)
Spousonomics Lesson #1: Loss Aversion YouTube (15/1/11)
Economist’s Explanation For Why Getting Married Isn’t Rational Huffington Post, Dan Ariely (15/1/11)
How Economics Saved My Marriage Newsweek, Paula Szuchman (30/1/11)
Want your marriage to profit? New York Post, Sara Stewart (29/1/11)
Spousonomics: blog, Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson
- How would you define ‘rational behaviour’ in a personal relationship?
- Why may marriage be a better deal generally for men than for women?
- Give some examples of asymmetry of information in marriage and why this may lead to bad decision making?
- Give some examples of risk averse and risk loving behaviour in personal relationships?
- Why are many actions in marriage apparently irrational? Could such actions be explained if the concept of ‘irrationality’ is redefined?
- Why may a simple demand curve help to explain why sexual relationships tend to wane in many marriages?
- Why does moral hazard occur in marriage? Does a combination or moral hazard and asymmetry of information help to explain divorce?
- Should marriage guidance counsellors study economics?!