Archive for September, 2009

Sep 30 2009

World Habitat Day – Raising awareness of the dire need for affordable adequate housing among the world’s poor!

World Habitat Day – Social Media News Release.

On October 5th the world will celebrate World Habitat Day. The purpose of this day, declared by the United Nations, is to raise awareness about the dire need for adequate housing among hundreds of millions, even billions, of the world’s poor. According to Habitat for Humanity:

Worldwide, more than 2 million housing units per year are needed for the next 50 years to solve the present worldwide housing crisis. With our global population expanding, however, at the end of those 50 years, there would still be a need for another 1 billion houses. (UN-HABITAT: 2005)

Raising awareness and advocating for change are the first steps toward transforming systems that perpetuate the global plague of poverty housing. World Habitat Day serves as an important reminder that everyone must unite to ensure that everyone has a safe, decent place to call home.

The U.N. further states that both developed and developing countries, cities and towns are increasingly feeling the effects of climate change, resource depletion, food insecurity, population growth and economic instability.

Rapid rates of urbanization cause serious negative consequences – overcrowding, poverty, slums with many poorly equipped to meet the service demands of ever growing urban populations.

With over half of the world’s population currently living in urban areas the U.N. believes there is no doubt that the “urban agenda” will increasingly become a priority for governments, local authorities and their non-governmental partners everywhere.

Global poverty facts

  • By the year 2030, an additional 3 billion people, about 40 percent of the world’s population, will need access to housing. This translates into a demand for 96,150 new affordable units every day and 4,000 every hour. (UN-HABITAT: 2005)
  • One out of every three city dwellers – nearly a billion people – lives in a slum. (Slum indicators include: lack of water, lack of sanitation, overcrowding, non-durable structures and insecure tenure.) (UN-HABITAT: 2006)
  • UN-Habitat has reported that because of poor living conditions, women living in slums are more likely to contract HIV/AIDS than their rural counterparts, and children in slums are more likely to die from water-borne and respiratory illness. (UN-HABITAT: 2006)
  • Housing formation generates non-housing related expenditures that help drive the economy. (Kissick, et al: 2006)
  • Investing in housing expands the local tax base. (Kissick, et al: 2006)

The facts are undeniable. Housing for the poor is one of the basic necessities that is simply not being met, both in developed and developing countries.

Today I live in Switzerland, but during my first several years as a teacher, as well as during my own high school life, I lived in Asia, where poverty is far more visible than here in Europe. At my last school, I was able to participate in a Habitat for Humanity trip myself, to Lucena City in the Philippines. The week I spent building a house with my 20 students was one of the greatest weeks of my career as a teacher. Below is the album from that amazing week in a small village in the Philippines:

Shanghai American School, Habitat Philippinese 2007 – Lucena City

In Bangkok, where I had my first teaching job, the problem of urban poverty was visible on every street corner. As part of a senior course I taught on Service Learning, I used to take upper class international school students into Bangkok’s poorest slums to learn about the challenges faced by the city’s poor. The most obvious challenge, visible everywhere in the city of 12 million, was lack of adequate housing. I made the video below to document my students’ “Urban Plunge” into the Bangkok slums, and to raise awareness of the issues faced by Thailand’s poor:

In a few days the world will acknowledge World Habitat Day. Take a moment, follow the link at the top of this post. Read about the issues faced by nearly a third of the world’s population, and see how you can get involved. Oh, and if you have the chance to participate in a Habitat build through your school or community, do it! I promise you, the experience will change your life, but more importantly, it will help improve the life of someone in need of one of life’s most basic necessities, safe shelter, a HOME!

One response so far

Sep 29 2009

Letting markets work: the Malaysia fuel subsidy goes bye bye

This article was originally published on June 9, 2008

Asia Sentinel – Malaysia cuts fuel subsidy

One of the recurring themes of this blog is the conflict between good politics and good economics. Most of the time in government, smart economic policy is sacrificed in order to achieve political favor with voters. Whether it’s price ceilings on petrol in China, Zimbabwe’s slashing of food prices, harmful import restrictions to benefit domestic producers, or the proposed suspension of gas taxes in a time when fuel conservation is really what’s needed, politicians often act in economically stupid ways to bolster or hang on to their popularity.

So when a government makes a bold move that is economically sound, it sometimes comes as a surprise, as in the case of the Malaysian government this week. The government in Kuala Lumpur has for years subsidized domestic fuel prices, which at under 2 Malaysian Ringit per liter have been the equivelant of roughly $2.40 US per gallon, far below the average price in the west. Drivers benefited from this subsidy, but were not forced to bear any of the burden of rising oil prices, nor had they any incentive to conserve or switch to more fuel efficient automobiles or alternative forms of transportation. The Malaysian government, on the other hand, has had to allocate more and more of its limited budget towards subsidizing petrol prices.

Well, as of yesterday, all price supports for petrol are cancelled, and the effect will be sweeping in the Malaysian economy:

The government announced Wednesday evening that petrol prices would rise by 78 sen (US24¢) at midnight — a 41 percent jump from RM1.92 per liter to RM2.70. That means those spending RM2,000 per month to fill the tanks of their BMWs will now be paying RM2,820. Regardless of income levels, it is likely most Malaysians will feel the pinch.

The subsidy would have cost the Malaysian government 56 billion ringit (around $17 billion) this year. With the money it will now save by ending the subsidy, the government will begin making public transport cheaper and more convenient for commuters who wish to avoid paying for the more expensive petrol to fuel their personal automobiles:

The government hopes to channel the savings into improving public transportation, as it promised many years and elections ago but with little to show. In Kuala Lumpur, despite having a light rail train service and monorail, public transportation is expensive and inconvenient. Worse, intercity travel is still being serviced by old and slow trains, and accident-prone buses.

Malaysia is not the only country taking measures to end government fuel-price supports:

Indonesia has hiked fuel prices by an average of 29 percent, saving about 34.5 trillion rupiah and kicking off a series of street demonstrations… Similarly, after slashing subsidies, Taiwan will distribute US$659 million to middle and low-income families. The latest to raise oil prices is India, whose government announced Wednesday that gasoline and diesel prices will increase by 10 percent.

As more and more countries allow the market mechanism to work, and in the short-run fuel prices rise with the price of oil, the chances are that the long-run equilibrium price of petrol will actually begin to fall.Price controls and subsidies distort market demand. In Malaysia, where a government subsidy kept the price consumers paid around 2 RM, the quantity demanded exceeded the free market quantity. With the removal of the subsidy, consumers will respond by driving less, reducing overall quantity demanded for petrol. As other Asian nations follow suit, global quantity demanded for petrol will decline, while higher prices incentivize producers to increase output. New prouction facilities will come online, just as drivers begin to find alternative ways to get to work, either through carpooling, public transportation, cycling or walking.

The combined effect of slowing increases in demand (or perhaps even a decline in demand if enough substitution of alternative forms of transportation takes place), and increases in supply as new production facilities come on line will be a stabilization and eventual fall in the price of oil.

The future fall in oil prices is explained in more detail here. Malaysia’s repealing of the fuel subsidy is one example of how markets work to restore equilibrium in a market such as that for oil today, where short-term bubbles always burst. $135 oil is probably not here to stay, if only the market is allowed to works its magic.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why does a subsidy create disequilibrium in a product market like the petrol market in Malaysia?
  2. Give two examples of how consumers may respond to the 40% increase in petrol prices once the subsidy is removed in Malaysia.
  3. How could making fuel more expensive to consumers in the short-run actually lead to a fall in oil and fuel prices in the long-run?

39 responses so far

Sep 29 2009

China’s “visible hand” clamps down on rising prices

This article was originally posted on September 19, 2007

FT.com / Asia-Pacific / China – China freezes government-set prices

Here’s a great article for both AP and IB students to pay attention to. The Chinese government is responding to rising prices at home by resorting to some good old fashioned “iron fist” measures, namely price controls on a wide range of products. For the rest of this year, prices on certain goods and services will not be permitted to rise, OR ELSE! (what? we don’t want to know!)

China has begun to enforce a freeze on all government-controlled prices in a sign of the central government’s alarm about rising popular anger over inflation, now at the highest rate in over a decade.The order freezes a vast array of prices still under the control of governments in China, ranging from oil, electricity and water, to the cost of parking and park entrance fees.

I find the following statement interesting:

“Any unauthorised price rises are strictly forbidden…and in principle, there will be no new price-raising measures this year,” the ministries’ announcement said. (italics added)

How strange is it that the government’s announcement pointed out that the freeze on prices is only in principle? Could this be the government’s attempt to placate a public that’s grown angry at their weakening purchasing power? Does this mean that if prices actually do go up, the government can just say, “Hey, at least we tried!” Looks like the old communist mentality has softened a bit in the era of market reforms!

So what’s the source of all these rising prices? Well, food plays a big role, thanks to a couple of factors:

The sharp spike in inflation is largely due to higher food prices, because of a shortage of pigs after a disease killed millions late last year and earlier in 2007, and the rising cost of feed, a global
phenomenon.

The China of today is very different from that of 20 or 30 years ago, when the government played a much larger role in the economy. Unleashing the beast of the free market in the early 80′s may have meant the government would have to loosen its grip in situations such as today’s inflation, and let the free market adjust on its own.

Economists said the price freeze is the kind of administrative measure redolent of China’s former planned economy, but it may be less effective in China today.

“They will not be able to control the price of everything,” said Chen Xingdong, of BNP Parisbas in Beijing.

Perhaps that’s for the better.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why might the government’s price controls actually make the matter worse for the average Chinese?
  2. If the government were to take a “laissez faire” approach to the problems faced by China, how might the free market resolve them on its own? Any ideas?

18 responses so far

Sep 29 2009

Preview my Council for Economics Education presentation, feedback welcome!

Council for Economic Education | 2009 Council for Economic Education / NAEE / GATE Annual Conference.

Next week, I will be travelling to Washington, D.C. to the Council for Economics Education Annual Conference on Capitol Hill. In addition to attending the board of advisors meeting for the Global Association of Teachers of Economics, I will be presenting a workshop to Economics educators titles Harnessing the Power of Web 2.0 in the Economics Classroom.

In the spirit of collaborative learning, I thought I’d post the PowerPoint presentation I’ve been working on recently for my workshop here, and solicit feedback while I still have time! I am alloted only 50 minutes for the workshop, followed by a 10 minute question and answer session. So, here is the presentation! Please leave any feedback or advice you may have in the comments!

5 responses so far

Sep 29 2009

How big is the government spending multiplier in America? Well, it depends on which economist you ask…

Economics focus: Much ado about multipliers | The Economist

What is the goal of fiscal stimulus during a recession? Is it simply to increase nation’s total income by a certain amount determined by how much a government increases its own spending by? If this were the case, then an $800 billion stimulus package, like the one begun this year in the US, would lead to a total increase in national income of, well, exactly $800 billion.

While such an outcome is possible, it is not the desired outcome of the Obama administration and the economists who have supported the use of expansionary fiscal policy during economic downturns (i.e. the Keynesian school of economists). Keynesians expect that an initial increase in government spending (or a decrease in taxes) will result in households and firms increasing their own consumption and investment, meaning successive increases in spending. The initial change in spending ultimately gets multiplied through further rounds of spending. The total change in national income resulting from an initial change in government spending or taxes depends on the size of the fiscal multiplier. Now, this is where things get tricky! From the Economist:

The size of the multiplier is bound to vary according to economic conditions. For an economy operating at full capacity, the fiscal multiplier should be zero. Since there are no spare resources, any increase in government demand would just replace spending elsewhere. But in a recession, when workers and factories lie idle, a fiscal boost can increase overall demand. And if the initial stimulus triggers a cascade of expenditure among consumers and businesses, the multiplier can be well above one.

The above scenario, where an economy is operating below full-employment and government spending puts the nation’s idle resources to work, creates new income and further increases private spending, is precisely what the Obama team and its economists hope will happen in the US economy soon. A multiplier of above one means the $800 billion will ultimately increase America’s national income by something greater than $800 billion!

The multiplier is also likely to vary according to the type of fiscal action. Government spending on building a bridge may have a bigger multiplier than a tax cut if consumers save a portion of their tax windfall. A tax cut targeted at poorer people may have a bigger impact on spending than one for the affluent, since poorer folk tend to spend a higher share of their income.

Crucially, the overall size of the fiscal multiplier also depends on how people react to higher government borrowing. If the government’s actions bolster confidence and revive animal spirits, the multiplier could rise as demand goes up and private investment is “crowded in”. But if interest rates climb in response to government borrowing then some private investment that would otherwise have occurred could get “crowded out”. And if consumers expect higher future taxes in order to finance new government borrowing, they could spend less today. All that would reduce the fiscal multiplier, potentially to below zero.

Herein lies the controversy about the effectiveness of deficit-financed fiscal stimulus. Several posts on this blog have focused on the neo-classical, supply-side economists’ fears that expansionary fiscal policy financed by government borrowing will drive up interest rates to private borrowers, thereby “crowding-out” private investment, off-setting any expansion in output achieved through government spending. In the Keynesian model, however, it is precisely because interest rates have bottomed out at the “zero bound” (according to Paul Krugman) that government borrowing and spending will not lead to crowding-out, rather could actually increase investors’ willingness to spend (their “animal spirits”) on new capital, actually “crowding-in” private investment.

Alas, the debate continues. The ironic thing is that even years from now, after all of Obama’s stimulus money has been spent, and the US economy is either fully recovered or it is not, we still won’t know how large the fiscal multiplier was, since tomorrow’s economists will find it nearly impossible to isolate the variable of the $800 billion of government spending and determine just how much of America’s growth in income can be attributed to government spending, and how much resulted from automatic stabilizers built-in to help the economy recover on its own during recessions.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do tax cuts for the rich tend to have a smaller multiplier effect than tax cuts for lower income households?
  2. How can government borrowing drive up interest rates, and why is this a concern to policy makers deciding on the size of a fiscal stimulus package?
  3. What are the animal spirits the article mentions? Where have you heard this expression before?
  4. Do you think borrowing trillions of dollars and spending it to put people back to work and try to dig the US economy out of recession is wise, or should the US government be practicing better fiscal responsibility?

9 responses so far

Next »