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January 11, 2010

Government Action To Reduce Externalities

Government Action To Reduce Externalities11/01/2010

Posted by opemipo3655 in Economic PolicyEconomicsEfficiency,ExternalitiesPolicyPollutionPublic GoodsSocial Justice
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We all know the feeling: You’re on your way to an important business meeting (even a job interview) and then you end up stuck in a traffic jam. An hour later, you’re already late and you find out that the disruption was caused by some company digging up the roads. Then you think to yourself “Deja vu! I could have sworn traffic was held up by another road-digging crew yesterday, and the day before.” (NB: I don’t know the feeling, I don’t drive and I live on campus at university and secondly, WHY ARE YOU DRIVING IN LONDON? Tube, bus, maybe bike- but then I forget that you can’t be seen on the modes of transport of the masses even if it means sitting for such a length of time that you get a clot the size of your heart… IN YOUR LEG[Sorry for complaining, I understand perfectly]).

This is an example of a negative externality. Negative externalities occur when the market does not lead to the socially optimum price level and output level. Negative externalities arise when the private costs of a good are lower than the social costs (private costs+external costs) leading to a lower price level (as only private costs are recognised by the market) and thus to overproduction of a “bad” which leads to inefficiency and reduction in public welfare (does harm to society or reduces the overall good to society of having cars).

In this case the social costs would include the business deals or jobs that would be lost if everyone that was held up was late to work, their job interview or their meeting and can be estimated quite easily (I won’t) in monetary terms; this is the opportunity cost (to society) of sitting in a car for four hours instead of working. Other social costs include the pollution (smog, CO2 and other gases) from thousands of idly-running cars everyday; affecting the health of those in the area (passengers, drivers, pedestrians, road-diggers, those who live nearby) as well as contributing to climate change; and noise pollution. Even though these costs are quite difficult to estimate monetarily, it doesn’t mean they don’t matter, we shouldn’t try to,  or that it is impossible to. For instance, costs of pollution can be estimated from the costs to treat or cure people who get respiratory problems mainly explained by constant exposure to gases emitted from vehicles.

One way to reduce social costs is for regulators (usually government) to do their job and regulate. Issuing directives on the amount of CO2 and other gases that cars can emitforcing manufacturers to produce less emitting cars and more efficient ones; banning the use of leaded-petrolwhich emits lead (lead poisoning) into the atmosphere; even possibly, requiring manufacturers to make sure their cars are not louder than X decibels.

Another way of reducing externalities (which I think is more efficient as it works through the market) would be for government to raise the private costs of the good to meet the social costs so that the new market equilibrium is at the point where social costs equals social benefits (socially optimum point). This can be done by the government taxing goods with externalities; the new car tax bands are an example- car taxation based on CO2 emittedby the car aiming to make people buy less emitting cars.

I first heard the term social engineering used to describe this type of government intervention some days ago in this Robert Frank NYT article(he writes about global warming, but the theme is transferable) which is unsympathetic to that view and tries to show that it is not a crime against individual liberty to tax harmful goods that some people gain satisfaction from consuming (h/t Mark Thoma):

…Although both proposals pass muster within the Coase framework, conservatives remain almost unanimously opposed to the cap-and-trade proposal approved last year in the House… Much of this opposition is rooted in a passionate distaste for “social engineering”…

But social engineering is just another term for collective action to change individual incentives. And unconditional rejection of such action is flatly inconsistent with the Coase framework that conservatives have justifiably celebrated. …

In the case of global warming, markets fail because we don’t take into account the costs that our carbon dioxide emissions impose on others. The least intrusive way to have us weigh those costs is by taxing emissions, or by requiring tradable emissions permits. Either step would move us closer to the conservative/libertarian gold standard — namely, theoutcome we’d see if there were perfect information and no obstacles to free exchange.

Finally, back to the issue I started with. There was an article in the Guardianabout plans for the government to price and coordinate the road-digging/traffic disruption timetable in London (SHOCK, HORROR- GOVERNMENT) so as to reduce disruption and Londoner’s frustration. “Oh, I thought the government caused the disruption with too much regulation just like it causes everything?” No the private utilities did because they could. No regulation and no costs meant they could dig up the roads whenever they felt like it.


University Tuition Fees (Thoughts On Public Good Provision)

University Tuition Fees (Thoughts On Public Good Provision)27/12/2009

Posted by opemipo3655 in EconomicsEducation PolicyExternalitiesPolitics,Public GoodsRedistributionSocial JusticeUniversities
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David Blanchflower (former member of the BoE Monetary Policy Committee [MPC]) thinks richer students [students who have rich parents] should pay tuition fees more in line with the market price for education (Link). That is closer to the £30,000 paid by Ivy League students in the US (elite private colleges eg. Harvard, Dartmouth). He wants the cap on tuition fees to be raised from £3,225 p.a. so that better-off students are charged more while (or so that?) financial aid is given to students from poorer backgrounds. An analysis can be found here.

This comes against the backdrop of the government’s decision to claw back £135 million on top of the £180 million savings they had to make over 18 months (a favourable analysis based on the incentives for innovation it gives to universities can be found here) as well as the funding review which is expected to recommend an increase in tuition fees.

Education as a (net) Public Benefit

It must be noted that university education has significant positive externalities (social benefits). For instance, if a significant amount of a country’s labour force is university educated,the growth potential of the country should increase. This is because the workforce becomes more productive; being able to produce more with the same resources- a better educated workforce is better able to generate innovations in production and administration which improve productivity. A better educated workforce also increases the flexibility of the economy- if and when a sector of an economy fails, the workforce can transfer quicker to another sector if they are well educated as it takes a shorter time to train [This is very simplistic and requires elastic demand for labour in all other sectors of the economy so wages do not fall and the extra supply of labour can be absorbed]. Flexible economies tend to be resilient to shocks as easy movement of resources to sectors with the best potential for growth works against shocks in any sectors. [Resilience does not mean that recessions or sector failures will not occur, it just means that even if they do, the economy is able to bounce back quicker and stronger than in a less flexible economy].

When looked at with this background, I think it should be plain to see that increased participation in university education (meaningful degrees) should be encouraged and indeed facilitated, for the public good, through loans, grants and price caps among others (as the UK has been doing so far- Thank you, Britannia and Labour of course). This has led to an increase in government university funding of 25% over the last decade. However, with the revenge of the CDO economic crisis , government bailouts and fiscal stimulus we have reached a political equilibrium on spending somewhere between savage cuts now or savage cuts later. This has led to the aforementioned cuts and savings in university funding.

With cuts in funding I think it’s only fair that richer members of society should pay a higher price for education so as to subsidise the less well-off. This could leave the amount of “university education” (a good) the same or even raise it from the level it would be if the cuts were imposed at the same time as a rise in tuition fees as these would lead to a fall in participation by students from poorer backgrounds. As a reduction in a public good is harmful (leads to an efficiency loss) to society, anything that would leave the good demanded (and supplied, although this would have to be brought about by other means) unchanged or could raise it is useful.

I think this is a good argument for subsidising poorer students by richer students (I might be biased right now). However, it loses all weight if you’re a fiercely individualistic libertarian (“No such thing as society”- M Thatcher). Then you would believe that whatever is yours cannot and should not be used by others for anything other than your good so you should not be subsidising anyone (Read Nozick’s ‘Anarchy, State and Utopia’ for reasons why whatever you own is fairly yours if it has been traded legitimately etc. as well as arguments against redistribution). However, I believe that part of what makes us human is our ability, even our need to work together and help each other for the good of the collective. Now, while I do not dispute that what everyone owns is theirs and they should be left alone to enjoy it, I do think that the source of everything we own or will own can in some way be traced back to the society we live in, be it respect for property shown by others who do have incentive to steal what we own or the maintenance of the rule of law by the state. In most countries, public provision of primary and secondary education, maintenance/ provision of education standards in both public and private institutions by government and even (until recently in the UK) free university education through grants also show that at least part of what we own cannot be attributed to our individual genius. With this in mind, I think that the haves should help the have-nots so as to improve social welfare (which benefits all).


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