Archive for November, 2012

Nov 06 2012

To continue stimulus or to pursue austerity, that is the question

Note: This post was originally published in August of 2010. It is being reposted today to support a lesson on fiscal policy in my year 2 IB Economics class.

In the seemingly endless and currently ongoing debate over the role of the government in the macroeconomy, there are two main camps: Those who think the governments of the developed economies have not done enough to get their economies out of recession, and those who think they have already done too much, and therefore need to start rolling back stimulus and reducing deficits.

At the heart of this debate are the two macroeconomic schools of thought, the  Keynesian demand-side theories and the classical, supply-side theories. Two intellectuals have emerged in the last several years representing the two sides of the macroeconomic debate. On the demand-side, representing the Keynesian school of thought, is 2008 Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman. Representing the classical, supply-side school of thought is Harvard economic historian Niall Ferguson. These two have squared off in many forums over the last three years, Krugman arguing for more and continued fiscal stimulus to prop up and increase demand in the economy, Ferguson arguing for smaller deficits, lower taxes and less government spending to increase private sector confidence and thereby supply in the economy.

During our long summer break the two squared off once again in the aftermath of a G20 meeting in which the governments of several major economies from Europe and North America announced plans to begin rolling back the stimulus spending they embarked on throughout 2008 and 2009. The reason for increased “austerity measures” (policies that reduce the budget deficit and slow the growth of national debt), argue global leaders, is to reduce the chances of more countries experiencing debt crises like that experienced in Greece this spring.

International investors realized earlier this year that Greece’s budget deficits were a much larger percentage of its GDP than previously thought, and very quickly decided that Greek government bonds were an unsafe investment. Almost overnight the cost of borrowing in Greece shot up above 20%, bringing investment in the economy to a halt and forcing the government to cut its budget, leading to higher unemployment and reduced social benefits for the people of Greece.  If investors were to look at the growing budget deficits in other developed countries and  then suddenly lose faith in other government’s ability to pay back their debts, then a similar crisis could occur in much larger economies, including the UK, Germany and the United States. Hence these country’s apparent desire to begin reducing deficits and rolling back stimulus spending; measures that may just plunge these economies into an even deeper recession than that which they have experienced over the last two years.

The videos below show the leading intellectuals on both sides of the stimulus/austerity debate presenting their arguments. Below each video are discussion questions to help guide your understanding of their views. Watch the videos and respond to the discussion questions in the comment section below.

Video 1 – Krugman argues for continued stimulus:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7-pndXGafUg&feature=related[/youtube]

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the two “profoundly different views of economics” that are being tested as governments begin rolling back the fiscal stimulus packages of the last two years?
  2. What are three characteristics of an economy in a “depression” according to Krugman?
  3. What is “budget austerity” and why does Krugman think this should not be the first priority of policymakers in the G20 nations?
  4. Why is deflation dangerous according to Krugman?
  5. What is the additional annual cost to the US government of borrowing and spending an additional trillion dollars now? What is the potential additional benefit of more stimulus?

Video 2 – Ferguson argues for austerity and “fiscal regime change”:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=03CB8pVJkI8&feature=related[/youtube]

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why might the US have to pass spending cuts and tax increases to maintain its “credibility in international bond markets”?
  2. Why would fiscal tightening “choke off the recovery”?
  3. How is the financial crisis in Europe a warning to the US?
  4. How could the “costs” exceed the “benefits” of deficit financed expansionary fiscal policy.
  5. Ferguson proposes a new type of policy that “boosts confidence”. Why will expansionary fiscal and monetary policies fail if private sector confidence remains depressed?

11 responses so far

Nov 01 2012

Has the Baby Market Failed?

The tools of economics can be applied to almost any social institution, even the decision of individuals in society whether or not to have children. All over the rich world today, potential parents have decided against having babies, the result being lower fertility rates across much of Europe and the richer countries in Asia, including Japan, South Korea and Singapore. Lower fertility rates have some advantages, such as less pressure on the country’s natural resources, but the disadvantages generally outweigh the benefits.

The story below, from NPR, explains in detail some of the consequences of declining fertility rates in the rich world, and identifies some of the ways governments have begun to try to increase the fertility rates.

The problem of declining fertility rates can be analyzed using simple supply and demand analysis. In the graph below, we see that the marginal private cost of having children in rich countries is very high. The costs of having children include not only the monetary costs of raising the child, but the opportunity costs of forgone income of the parent who has to quit his or her job to raise the child or the explicit costs of child care, which in some countries can cost thousands of dollars per month. Marginal private cost corresponds with the supply of babies, since private individuals will only choose to have children if the perceived benefit of having a baby exceeds the explicit and implicit costs of child-rearing.

The marginal private benefit of having babies is downward sloping. This reflects the fact that if parents have just one or two children, the benefit of these children is relatively high, due to the emotional and economic contributions a first and second child will  bring to parents’ lives. But the more babies a couple has, the less additional benefit each successive child provides the parents. This helps explain why in an era of increased gender equality, families with three or more children are incredibly rare. The diminishing marginal benefit experienced by individual couples applies to society as a whole as well, therefore the market above could represent either the costs and benefits of individual parents or of society at large.

Notice, however, that that the marginal social benefit of having babies is greater than the marginal private benefit. In economics terminology, there are positive externalities of having babies; in other words, additional children provide benefits to society beyond those emotional and economic benefits enjoyed by the parents. The podcast explained some of these external, social benefits of having children: a larger workforce for firms to employ in the future, more people paying taxes, allowing the government to provide more public goods, more workers supporting the non-working retirees of a nation, and more competitive wages in the global market for goods and services. Higher fertility rates, in short, result in more economic growth and higher incomes for a nation.

When individuals decide how many children to have, they make this decision based solely on their private costs and benefits, since the external benefits of having more babies are enjoyed by society, but not necessarily by the parents themselves. Therefore, left entirely alone, the “free market” will produce fewer babies (Qe) than is socially optimal (Qso).

So what are Western governments doing about low fertility rates? The podcast identifies several strategies being employed to narrow the gap between Qe and Qso. In Australia households receive a $1000 subsidy for each baby born. In Germany mothers receive a year of paid leave from work. Here in Switzerland mothers get three months of government paid leave and $200 a month subsidy to help pay for child care after that. Each of these government policies represents a “baby subsidy”. In the graph above, we can see the intended effect of these policies. By making it more affordable to have children, governments are hoping to reduce the marginal private cost to parents, encouraging them to have more children, which on a societal level should increase the number of babies born so that it is closer to the socially optimal level (Qso).

Unfortunately, as the podcast explains, it appears that parents are relatively unresponsive to the monetary incentives governments are providing. This can be explained by the fact that the private demand (MPB) for babies is highly inelastic. Even if the “cost” of having a baby falls due to government subsidies, parents across the Western world are reluctant to increase the number of babies they have.

As we can see in the graph above, a subsidy for babies reduces the marginal private cost of child-rearing to parents. But the MPB curve, representing the private demand for babies, is highly inelastic, meaning the large subsidy has minimal effect on the quantity of babies produced. Without the subsidy, Qe babies would be born, while with the subsidy only Qs are born, which is closer to the socially optimal number of births at Qso, but still short of the number of births society truly needs.

The “market for babies” in rich countries is failing. Because of the positive externalities of having children, parents are currently under-producing this “merit good”. One of two things must happen to resolve this market failure. Either the marginal private costs of having babies must fall by much more than the government subsidies for babies have allowed, or the marginal private benefit must increase. Either larger subsidies are needed, or some moral revival aimed at encouraging potential parents to consider both the private and social benefits of having children when making their decisions.

Don’t you love economics? We make everything seem so logical! And like they say, it all comes down to supply and demand!

Discussion Questions:

  1. What makes low fertility rates among parents in the rich world an example of a “market failure”?
  2. What are the primary reasons fertility rates are lower in the rich world than they are in the developing world?
  3.  What are the economic consequences of lower birth rates? What are the environmental consequences of lower birth rates? Should government be trying to increase the number of babies born?
  4. Why have government incentives for parents to have more babies failed to achieve the fertility rates that government wish they would achieve?
  5. Do you believe that government can create strong enough incentives for parents to have more babies? If not, what will become of the populations of Western Europe and the rich countries of Asia given today’s low fertility rates? Should we be worried?

75 responses so far

Nov 01 2012

“Cap & Trade” – An introduction market-based approaches to pollution reduction

Inside Obama’s Green Budget – Forbes.com

Some say that Global Warming may be the greatest market failure of all. This podcast was originally broadcast in January of 2007 while George Bush was still in office. The commentator claims that global warming is “nothing but one giant market failure”, arguing that the United States therefore must get serious about tackling the problem.

The allocation of resources towards carbon emitting industries has almost undoubtedly contributed to the warming of the planet over the last half century. Only recently have governments begun taking active measures to reduce the impact of industry on the environment through greater regulation of polluting industries, employing corrective taxes in some instances and market-based approaches to pollution reduction in others.

US President Barack Obama, unlike his predecessor, appears to be serious about correcting the “market failure” represented by global warming:

Obama’s budget, announced Thursday, looks to fund a host of new energy programs, from carbon sequestration to electric transmission upgrades. It would also provide the EPA with a $10.5 billion budget for 2010, a 34% increase over the likely 2009 budget. Nineteen million dollars of that would be used to upgrade greenhouse gas reporting measures.

The Interior Department would get $12 billion for 2010. The agency would use part of the money to asses the availability of alternative energy resources throughout the country.

Funding comes from elaborate carbon “cap and trade” program, which puts a price on emitting pollution and is the core of Obama’s plans. Starting in 2012, the government would sell permits giving businesses the right to emit pollution, generating $646 billion in revenue through 2019.

During those years, the number of available permits would gradually decline, forcing businesses to buy the increasingly scarce, and costly, rights to pollute on an open market. Obama hopes that the rising cost of permits will encourage businesses to invest in clean technologies as a cheaper alternative to meeting pollution mandates, helping to cut greenhouse gas production to 14% below 2005 levels by 2020.

Below is a diagram that illustrates precisely how the Obama cap and trade plan is meant to work. Notice that between 2012 and 2020 the cost to firms of emitting pollution will increase dramatically, while at the same time the total amount of carbon emissions in the US economy will fall due to regular reductions in the number of permits issued to industry.

market-for-pollution-rights_1

The Obama cap and trade scheme is not the first experiment with such a market based approach to externality reduction:

Europe established such a market in 2005. But some E.U. governments allocated too many credits at the outset, causing the value of some permits to fall by half and making it relatively easy for large polluters to simply buy credits rather than cut emissions. Overall emissions grew in 2005 and 2006. In 2008, E.U. emissions dropped 3%; 40% of that drop was attributed to the carbon trading scheme.

Europe’s cap and trade program took a few years before it began having any noticeable impact on the emission of carbon by European industry. While unpopular among the firms who are forced to pay to pollute, the fall in emissions in Europe shows that a market for carbon may be effective in forcing firms “internalize” the costs of carbon emissions, which until now have been born by society and the environment in the form of the negative effects of global warming.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think tradeable pollution permits are more politically viable than a direct tax on firms’ carbon emissions?
  2. Why did Europe’s carbon emission permit market fail to reduce emissions over its first couple of years of implementation?
  3. Is making firms pay to pollute a good idea in the middle of a recession? Do you think that we should even be worrying about the environment when millions of people are losing their jobs and entire industries are struggling to survive?

60 responses so far

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