Tag: utility

Happiness and unhappiness are central to economists’ analysis of consumer behaviour. If we define ‘utility’ as perceived happiness, standard consumer theory assumes that rational people will seek to maximise the excess of happiness over the costs of achieving it: i.e. will seek to maximise consumer surplus. In fact, this analysis can be traced back to the work of the utilitarians, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Bentham reffered to it as hedonic or felicific calculus (see also and also).

Now, of course, whether people actually behave in this way is an empirical question: one that behavioural and experimental economists have been investigating over a number of years. Nevertheless, it remains central to neoclassical analysis of ‘rational behaviour’.

But if happiness is central to a large part of economic analysis, how is happiness to be measured? At a micro level, this has proved problematic as it is virtually impossible to have inter-personal comparisons of utility. As a result, consumer theory uses indifference analysis, characteristics analysis, revealed preference and other approaches to analyse consumer demand.

But what about at the macro level? How is a nation’s happiness or well-being to be measured? There is general acceptance that GDP is a relatively poor proxy for national well-being and is more a measure of production. There have been various indices developed over the years (see, for example, Box 14.7 on ISEW in Economics, 7th edition) as alternatives to GDP. None has been adopted by governments, however, with the exception of a Gross National Happiness index in Bhutan.

Recently, however, there has been renewed interest in developing an index of well-being. In France, President Sarkozy commissioned two Nobel economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, to examine the issues in developing such a measure. In the light of the Stiglitz/Sen report, David Cameron has asked the Office of National Statistics to measure the UK’s general well-being. The articles below look at the difficulties that could arise in producing an index of well-being, of meauring the elements and in using it for policy.

Articles
UK Prime Minister Cameron Moves on UK Happiness Index Triple Pundit, Kristina Robinson (17/11/10)
David Cameron’s happiness index finds support despite impending decade of austerity Daily Record, Magnus Gardham (16/11/10)
How can we measure happiness? Telegraph, Philip Johnston (16/11/10)
David Cameron aims to make happiness the new GDP Guardian, Allegra Stratton (14/11/10)
An unhappiness index is more David Cameron’s style Guardian, Polly Toynbee (16/11/10)
Happiness is a warm baguette? The Economist (13/1/08)
‘Stiglitz-Sen Moving in the Right Direction, but Slowly’ IPS, Hazel Henderson (18/9/09)
The Rise and Fall of the G.D.P. New York Times Magazine (13/5/10)
Happiness doesn’t increase with growing wealth of nations, finds study Guardian, Alok Jha (13/12/10)
Should governments pursue happiness rather than economic growth? The Economist (25/11/10)
M&S’s Sir Stuart Rose among UK’s expert happiness panel BBC News (27/1/11)

The Stiglitz/Sen/Fitoussi report
Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, Jean-Paul Fitoussi (September 2009)

Questions

  1. What are the shortcomings of using GDP as a measure of a nation’s well-being?
  2. Summarise the main findings of the Stiglitz/Sen/Fetoussi report.
  3. What items would be included in a happiness or well-being index that (a) are not included in GDP; (b) not included in Stiglitz and Sen’s proposed net national product measure? How would such an index be compiled?
  4. Would it be satisfactory to compile such an index purely on the basis of survey evidence? Why might such evidence prove unreliable?
  5. What are the political advantages and disadvantages of using such an index?
  6. Is utilitarianism the best basis for judging the progress of society?

Later this afternoon I’ll be going down to watch my beloved Leicester City. Our first home match drew a crowd of just over 21,500. This was perhaps a little disappointing for the first home match of the season. Normally, supporters’ spirits are high are the start of the season, we all go down to the ground with renewed optimism, and so ‘first match’ crowds are high. But, this year a number had not come along and the problem was not confined to my club. Just down the road in Coventry, their first match against fellow Midlanders Derby County drew a crowd of only a little over 13,000. While this match was televised by SKY, the attendance is likely to have disappointed many at this historic club. Up by the River Tees, Midllesbrough’s first home match drew a record low league crowd of 14,633 and led manager Gordon Strachan to blame poor crowds on the recession. But, while some clubs are struggling to get supporters through the turnstiles, others seemed rather more immune from the affects of the economic climate. Manchester United’s first home match drew a near-capacity 75,221, despite being a televised match on a Monday night, while Arsenal’s first home match against newly promoted Blackpool drew a capacity crowd of 60,032.

These contrasting experiences amongst football clubs raise some important questions about the nature of demand for attending football matches. Perhaps a good place to start for any chief executive thinking about the demand for their club’s matches is to actually step back and consider about how supporters derive satisfaction from attending matches. This satisfaction from consuming something is also known by economists as ‘utility’. In understanding how supporters derive utility clubs may gain some really useful information when pricing season tickets or match-day tickets.

Well, let’s start with me! I am a fox (a Leicester supporter) through and through and so it’s about an emotional attachment. I was first taken down to Filbert Street by Grandfather in the early 1980s. We were soundly beaten on the day by Notts County on the day. But, while I was gutted, I was supporting my team! I derive a lot of my satisfaction from supporting my home-town team. I guess that makes me what we might term a ‘core supporter’. It’s important for clubs to have a sense of their core support because these are likely to be supporters who are least sensitive to pricing. In other words, this group of supporters is more likely to exhibit a price inelastic demand.

So, a happy chief executive of a football club is likely to be one with a sizeable core support. Another way of looking at this, which is not always popular amongst football traditionalists, is to think of a football club as a brand. A popular, sought-after brand gives the supplier a greater degree of power over pricing. The greater the attachment to the brand the greater the power to set price. While for me the attachment comes from the geography of my birth, for others the attachment comes from being associated with success. This helps to explain the attachment of so many supporters to what we refer to as ‘the big clubs’. Therefore, success can help generate supporter-attachment which can therefore be ‘priced-in’ by clubs when determining the pricing structure for matches and season tickets.

But, not everybody is attached to a team out of loyalty to their town or city or because of its success. For others, the utility from attending matches could come from a variety of sources. A ‘floating supporter’ is therefore likely to be more choosey and pricing needs to try and take this into account. For these supporters it might be a question of who the two teams on show are on a particular day. This helps, in part, to understand why local derbies are generally well attended – but why they are also relatively expensive to attend. It might also be the case that particular matches allow supporters to see a ‘superstar’. If a certain player or club is in town then prices at the turnstiles are likely to reflect this.

What we have suggested here is that in beginning to understand the demand for attending football matches, clubs need to build up a profile of their supporters and their potential supporters. We have focused on how supporters derive satisfaction from watching football and how this affects what they are willing to pay. Yet they need to do more than this, including building up a profile of the economic, social and geographic demographics of supporters. As Gordon Strachan points out, supporters are not immune to economic conditions and football clubs can’t be either. Therefore, clubs will also need to have a sense of how income-sensitive is the demand for attending their matches. The economic climate means that many in football, especially those at clubs involved in setting prices, may need to give considerable thought to the demand function for attending live football matches. May be an economist really could help in the board rooms of many football clubs. While I may not make the board room at the Walkers Stadium later, I will be in the crowd!

Articles

Boro boss Strachan blames recession for poor crowds BBC News (22/8/10)
Premier League fun for all – at a cost BBC Sport, Matt Slater’s Blog (27/8/10)
Inside football with Rob Tanner: Where have all the fans gone Leicester Mercury, Rob Tanner (27/8/10)

Questions

  1. What do you understand by term ‘utility’? Think of any two products or services and draw up a list of how you derive utility from them?
  2. What do you understand by the terms ‘price elasticity of demand’ and ‘income elasticity of demand’? Try applying these concepts to the demand to attend matches at any two football clubs that you might be aware of.
  3. Are football clubs price-takers or price-makers when determining match prices? Is this true of all clubs?
  4. Imagine that a club is promoted to the top league in its country for the first ever time. How will this affect the position and slope of its demand curve for season tickets?

Skin cancer is on the increase in the UK. Calls are thus being made by both retailers and cancer charities for a cut in VAT on sun cream.

At present the VAT rate on sun cream in the UK is the standard rate of 17.5%, which is due to increase to 20% in January 2011. But would cutting the rate to 5%, as is being proposed, be effective in cutting skin cancer rates? What information would you, as an economist, need to assess this claim?

Articles
Government urged to cut VAT on sun cream amid skin cancer fears Guardian, Rebecca Smithers (27/7/10)
Brits Get Burned By Vat Rise On Suncream PRLog (7/7/10)
Why we still think bronzing is tan-tastic Irish Independent, Susan Daly (27/7/10)

Evidence on sun creams
Sunscreen Wikipedia
Sun creams Cancer Research UK

Questions

  1. What would determine the incidence of a cut in VAT on sun creams between consumers and retailiers?
  2. If there were a 50:50 incidence of a VAT cut between consumers and retailers and the VAT was cut from 17.5% to 5%, what percentage fall in the retail price would you expect?
  3. Assume that the price elasticity of demand for sun cream is –1 and price elasticity of supply is +1, how much would sales of sun cream rise if the VAT rate fell from 17.5% to 5%? Are these realistic values for the price elasticity of demand and supply?
  4. Under what circumstances may promoting the use of sun creams encourage the development of skin cancer?
  5. Are people being rational if they choose to expose themselves to the sun for long periods in order to receive a ‘fashionable’ tan? How are time preference rates (personal discount rates) relevant here?
  6. What market failures are involved in the tanning industry? If the use of sunbeds contributes towards skin cancer, should they be banned?

Here’s an exciting bit of news. Lake Eyre in South Australia is filling and the Lake Eyre Yacht Club’s sailing regatta started on 5 July. So what, you may ask! Well, Lake Eyre is in the middle of one of the driest deserts in the world. It virtually never rains there and most of the time, the ‘lake’ is one huge dry salt pan.

But just a few times per century, the rainfall many kilometres away is heavy enough to fill the dry river beds of Cooper Creek, Finke River, Georgina River and Diamantina River. These ‘rivers’ drain about one sixth of the whole of Australia (about the size of Germany, France, Italy combined) – but a sixth where rainfall is normally very low. But this season’s rains have been exceptionally high; the rivers are flowing – and the lake is filling.

When the lake does fill, it teems with life. Fish eggs that have lain buried in the salt for years hatch. Sea birds fly in nearly 1000 kilometres from the Southern Ocean. And it’s then that the enthusiasts come to play.

What’s this got to do with economics? Well economics is about scarcity and choice. Many of the choices we make are not simple buying and selling choices. Many clubs and other organisations thrive on the enthusiasm of their members. They’re not there to make money but certainly add to people’s ‘utility’. And enthusiasm, and hope, is what the members of the Lake Eyre Yacht Club have in abundance. Let’s hope they get lots of utility from sailing in the desert over the coming weeks.

Articles
Outback Sailors 10 News (6/7/10)
Floods and boat race brings life to desert lake ABC News (7/7/10)
Flightseeing Lake Eyre Stuff.co.nz, James Shrimpton (25/5/10)
Gone (not fishing) flying over Lake Eyre Australian Daily Telegraph, Maralyn Parker (6/6/10)
The Lake Eyre Yacht Club Lounge of the Lab Lemming, Chuck Magee (21/3/10)
Lake Eyre Regatta ExplorOz, The Landy blog (14/6/10)
Boom follows boom in the Lake Eyre Basin ABC Western Queensland, Julia Harris (23/3/10)
Entries flood in for rare outback regatta ABC News (23/6/10)
Yacht club sails into history with a desert regatta The Age (7/7/10)
Chasing water to Lake Eyre ABC Rural, Caitlyn Gribbin (6/7/10)
Lake Eyre brims with life ABC News, Paul Lockyer (15/6/10)
Yachting regatta in Australian desert for first time in 20 years Telegraph, Bonnie Malkin (7/7/10)
Plain sailing for desert regatta Gulf Times (7/7/10)

Information sites
Lake Eyre Yacht Club
Current Lake Status Lake Eyre Yacht Club
Lake Eyre Wikipedia
Lake Eyre Rita’s Outback Guide

Questions

  1. What attitude do the members of Lake Eyre Yacht Club have towards risk and uncertainty?
  2. How would you set about estimating the consumer surplus that members are likely to gain from attending the regatta and sailing on the lake?
  3. How price elastic would you expect the demand for and supply of services to be, such as ferry crossings and accommodation?
  4. What business opportunities are likely to be associated with sailing on the lake? Would it be ‘rational’ to set up such a business?

Whilst the internet and technological developments provide massive opportunities, they also create problems. For some time now, newspapers have seen declining sales, as more and more information becomes available online. Type something into Google or any other search engine and you will typically find thousands of relevant articles, even if the story has only just broken. As revenue from newspaper sales falls, revenue has to be made somewhere else to continue investment in ‘frontline journalism’. The question is: where will this come from?

The Financial Times and News Corp’s Wall Street Journal charge readers for online access and we can expect this to become more common from May, when the Times and the Sunday Times launch their new websites, where users will be charged for access. Subscription to these online news articles will be £1 per day or £2 for weekly access. Whilst the Executives of the Times admit that they will lose many online readers, they hope that the relatively low price, combined with a differentiated product will be enough of an incentive to keep readers reading.

Critics of this strategy argue that this a high risk strategy, as there is so much information available online. Whilst the BBC does plan to curtail the scope of its website, the Times and Sunday Times will still face competition from them, as well as the Guardian, the Independent, Reuters, etc., all of whom currently do not charge for online access. However, if you value journalism, then surely it’s right that a price should be charged to read it. Only time will tell how successful a strategy this is likely to be and whether we can expect other online news sites to follow their example.

Times and Sunday Times websites to charge from June (including video) BBC News (26/3/10)
Murdoch to launch UK web paywall in June Financial Times, Tim Bradshaw (26/3/10)
Times and Sunday Times websites to start charging from June Guardian, Mercedes Bunz (26/3/09)
News Corp to charge for UK Times Online from June Reuters (26/3/10)
Murdoch-owned newspaper charges for content BBC News (14/1/10)

Questions

  1. Why have newspaper sales declined?
  2. How might estimates of elasticity have been used to make the decision to charge to view online articles?
  3. ’If people value journalism, they should pay for it.’ What key economic concepts are being considered within that statement?
  4. Why is charging for access to the Times Online viewed as a high-risk strategy?
  5. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this strategy? To what extent do you think it is likely that other newspapers will soon follow suit?
  6. Which consumers do you think will be most affected by this strategy?
  7. In what ways might non-pay sites gain from theTimes’ charging policy?
  8. Would you continue to read articles from the Times linked from this site if you had to pay to access them? If so, why? If not, why not? (We want to know!!)