Category Archives: Externalities

Degrowth – is life better with less?

Most economics courses will include the topic of limitations of Gross Domestic Product as an indicator of standard of living. US senator Robert F Kennedy pointed out 50 years ago that GDP traditionally measures everything except those things that make life worthwhile. Increasing GDP has been the indicator of a healthy economy but is it time for degrowth? This CNBC video looks at whether degrowth is the way forward and should we priorities social and ecological well-being? Scotland, Iceland and New Zealand have focused on well-being rather than economic growth. New Zealand’s recent ‘well-being’ budget indicated this. Good video for the future direction of macro policies and where we are going as a society.

Natural Resources v GDP

The Economics of Biodiversity by Sir Partha Dasgupta was published in February this year and was a wake up call for all of us. Sir Partha says nature must be recognised as an asset and that our traditional measure of economic prosperity – Gross Domestic Product – is no longer fit for purpose. Basically all 7.8 billion of us is on a collision course with the planet.

“The problem with GDP is that it doesn’t include the depreciation of capital and one of the natural capital, or nature, which is somewhat different from buildings and roads in that you can really depreciate it very fast.”

Between 1992 and 2014 there was a 40% fall in the stock of natural capital per person – water, food, air etc. See graph below.

Global Wealth Per Capita, 1992 to 2014

Source: The Economics of Biodiversity by Sir Partha Dasgupta

Since 1950 the global economy has grown 14 fold and with the increase in prosperity has come the cost to our natural environment. With our current consumption we need an earth that is 1.6 times larger. Although there has been moves to slow the rate of climate change the progress needs to be accelerated. Larry Elliott in The Guardian looked at three ways:

  • Firstly you could simply stop the burning of fossil fuels or international travel now or in the near future.
  • Secondly you leave the issue of climate change to the markets: governments could stop subsidising the use of fossil fuels but otherwise leave it to inventiveness of the private sector to come up with solutions.
  • A third approach is to have a partnership between the government and the private sector. A previous example of this was the announcement by President Kennedy in 1961 that the US would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Larry Elliott quotes Mariana Mazzucato’s new book ‘Mission Economy’ in which she states that by focusing on the immense power of governments to shape markets, capitalism itself can be remade. Mazzucato aims to infuse capitalism with public interest rather than private gain.

Below is a recent video from CNBC about climate change which is already taking a financial toll on the planet, with extreme weather events costing the global economy $146 billion in 2019, according to insurer Swiss Re. Also an interview with IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva about how governments and business can fight back.

Mega ships and diseconomies of scale

The mega ship the Ever Given was a familiar name in the news recently with it getting stuck in the Suez canal and thus preventing any marine traffic in both directions. The Ever Given is operated by the Taiwan-based firm Evergreen and is a so called mega ship and was carrying over 18,000 containers.

Mega (container) ships have been built in increasingly larger sizes to take advantage of economies of scale and reduce expense as part of using multiple forms of transport without actually handling of the freight itself. The big container ships can carry up to 23,964 twenty foot equivalent unit (TEU) whilst the smaller capacity ships have a maximum capacity of 1,000 TEU.

Herd Mentality and Prisoner’s Dilemma
This being said there is some dispute over the extent that the mega ships achieve economies of scale. A follow the leader mentality in ordering bigger ships have been since the mid 1990’s with firms following Maersk in ordering bigger capacity ships. In most cases it only takes two years for other carriers to catch-up to Maersk and in some cases they can hold more TEU. This has led to operators facing prisoner’s dilemma. Operators are trying to outdo their rivals by building larger ships which help increase its market share through their reduced costs but are fully aware that what actually is needed is capacity rationalisation. This strategy has not only fuelled the never-ending competition for large ships but also led to mistrust among operators, entangling them in the prisoner’s dilemma. The ideal scenario is for operators to refrain from acquiring mega ships and let supply and demand prevail.

Infrastructure costs to cope with mega ships
The graph below shows the savings and costs increases from increasing the capacity of mega ships. There is a saving with carrying more TEU’s but terminals will incur significant capital expenditure to handle larger vessels and terminal yards areas will need to increase by 33% to avoid congestion, even with no growth in volume. There are negative externalities to consider that arise from upsizing as dredging deeper channels and expanding yard area will have environmental effects.

Source: Diminishing economies of scale from megaships? Marine Money Japan Ship Finance Forum, Tokyo 12th May, 2016

Fishing – Tragedy of the Commons

The Tragedy of the Commons was a title of an article by Garrett Hardin in 1968 although the phrase is more commonly used to name the effect which it describes. It explains what can happen when a number of individuals share a common resource and each individual is presumed to act rationally and in his own interest.

For instance if there 10 different farmers grazing a piece of land then there is an incentive to add one more cow to your herd as you gain all of the benefit of this extra cow and you only have to suffer 1/10 of the cost resulting from the increased degradation of the land. Thus although it is in each individual’s self interest to increase the size of your herd, in the long run the land use will be depleted. This concept can also be transferred to CO2 emissions where countries emit emissions in order to grow their economy but don’t consider the long-term impact of global warming on drought and disease.

Recently a lot of attention has focussed on the fishing industry which is worth $16 billion annually. International law states that 64% of the surface of the oceans are defined as ‘the common heritage of mankind’ although with the advent of technology and bigger and faster fishing trawlers the last 50 years has seen a significant depletion of stock. Approximately 90% of fishing areas are fished to sustainable limits or beyond.

Stopping overfishing

The Economist – 22nd October 2020

Property rights has been the traditional policy to try and overcome the tragedy of the commons. This gives exclusive rights to coastal states to police and maintain territorial waters but the looting still continues – since 2010 the proportion of tuna and tuna-like species being overexploited has increased from 28% to 36%.

Reducing subsidies is seen as the most pressing policy as they come to $35 billion a year of 70% are given to more developed countries. It is estimated that $22bn of the subsidy helps destroy fish stocks. In giving subsidies you reduce the running costs of operators but it also brings certain fishing fields within reach for trawlers from developed economies. Only 10 countries received the money from high-seas catches between 2000 and 2010 and that is with Africa having more fishermen than Europe and America combined.

Closing off more areas fishing is another alternative and it has been suggested that 30% of oceans should be designated as ‘marine protected areas’. Countries could also take responsibility by creating marine reserves within their territorial waters. However technology has provided an opportunity to limit the over fishing. Compulsory cameras on board fishing vessels which can identify suspicious behaviour and illicit species should be compulsory especially in exclusive economic zones that define a country’s control over resources such as fish. Australia, America and New Zealand have invested heavily in this this area of surveillance. For example, reports of interactions with seabirds and mammals increased 7 times when electronic monitoring was introduced to Australia’s longline fisheries in 2015. Overall reported catch remained the same. In New Zealand regulations for on-board cameras on commercial fishing vessels came into effect in 2018 – they applied to vessels from 1 November 2019 in a defined fishing area on the west coast of the North Island. To mitigate the overfishing governments could agree on some policies:

  • National regulators to set basic standards for crew – no forced labour
  • Countries failing to follow rules – banned from fishing
  • Countries should only import fish from law abiding nations
  • WTO to scrap subsidies that encourage over fishing – see above
  • Outlaw bottom-trawling
  • Subsidies to fish farming – it now accounts for approximately 50 percent of the fish consumed globally

Source: The Economist July 16th 2016 & October 22nd 2020

The paradox of Norway – fossil fuel giant and leader in renewable energies

In 1969 the discovery of oil off the coast of Norway transformed its economy with it being one of the largest exporters of oil. A lot of countries in similar positions have succumbed to the ‘resource curse’ in which countries tend to focus on a natural resource like oil. The curse comes in two forms:

With high revenues from the sale of a resource, governments try and seek to control the assets and use the money to maintain a political monopoly. This is where you find that from the sale of your important natural resource there is greater demand for your currency which in turn pushes up its value. This makes other exports less competitive so that when the natural resource runs out the economy has no other good/service to fall back on.

However it is the fall in commodity prices that is now hitting these countries that have, in the past, been plagued by the resource curse. As a lot of commodities tend to be inelastic in demand so a drop in price means a fall in total revenue since the the proportionate drop in price is greater than the proportionate increase in quantity demanded.

Norway – has a different approach.

In Norway hydrocarbons account for half of its exports and 19% of GDP and with further oil fields coming on tap Norway could earn an estimated $100bn over the next 50 years. Nevertheless there is a need to wean the economy off oil and avoid not only the resource curse that has plagued some countries – Venezuela is a good example as approximately 90% of government spending was dependent on oil revenue – but also the impact on climate change. Norwegians have been smart in that the revenue made from oil has been put into a sovereign wealth fund which is now worth $1.1trn – equates to $200,000 for every citizen. This ensures that they have the means to prepare for life after oil.

The Economist – Ecowarriors bankrolled by oil – 8-2-20

What are they doing?

  • 98% of electricity is from renewable energies and technologies
  • Heating with oil is to be banned this year
  • 50% of new cars are to be electric
  • Oslo has set a ceiling every year for its greenhouse gas emissions
  • Oslo removed nearly all parking spaces from the city centre – now bicycle docks / benches
  • Norway is hoped to be completely emission-free shipping fleet over the next couple of decades – this accounts for almost all of Norway’s oil consumption
  • Sovereign wealth fund will sell its shares in companies dedicated to oil and gas exploration

Norway and Liberia – Coarse Theorem

Coarse Theorem – Ronald Coarse argued that bargaining between parties could produce a mutually beneficial and efficient solution to problems like pollution.

An example of this was the a deal between Liberia and Norway. Norway will give $150m in aid in return for Liberia stopping the destruction of its forests. The stick approach of trying to force Liberia to stop cutting down its trees might give way to a more effective carrot approach by paying Liberia to do so. This makes both sides better off. Liberia still gets the aid and Norway gets to preserve biodiversity and take a small step against climate change.

Norway’s challenges

This being said there needs to be more emphasis on the service sector as an earner of GDP – this sector already accounts for 55% of GDP. According to The Economist Norway faces 4 challenges:

  • Reduce it focus on gas and oil
  • Increase its productivity through the use of technologies
  • Reduce carbon emissions to meet the Paris agreement goals on climate change
  • Create 25,000 jobs a year so that oil workers can find meaningful employment

Source: The Economist – Ecowarriors bankrolled by oil – 8-2-20

Using whiteboards to teach externalities graphs

I held my annual whiteboard competition with my A2 Economics class to see who could draw the best 4 graphs showing Positive and Negative Externalities of Consumption and Production. The winner this year was Fiona Leng with two highly recommended by Jemima Hodgson and Yanz Chen.

Fiona Leng

Jemima Hodgson

Yanz Chen

The externalities topic at A2 Level Economics involves being able to draw and understand four graphs. A different way of teaching this area of the course was to get students to use A3 size whiteboards so that they could practice drawing these graphs. This proved to be very successful with students for the following reasons:

  • the novelty of using whiteboards
  • if they made a mistake this could be easily rubbed out and they could start again
  • it allowed me to go around the class to correct graphs where necessary
  • students took pride in their graphs
  • the best set of graphs was posted on the econfix blog
  • students who were struggling could learn off others

New Green Deal – more about politics than economics

In Unit 3 of A2 CIE economics course you will no doubt have come across externalities – see graphs below. In simple terms the cost to the consumer must also be accompanied by the external costs (referred to as externalities) which is normally not paid by the consumer. Externalities are common in virtually all economic activities. They are defined as third party (or spill over) effects arising from the production and/or consumption of goods and services for which no appropriate compensation is paid.

Externalities can cause market failure if the price mechanism does not take into account the full social costs and social benefits of production and consumption. The study of externalities by economists has become extensive in recent years, not least because of concerns about the link between the economy and the environment.

This all seems very straight forward as you would assume the external cost (externality) of driving a car (emissions) would be added to the private cost of running the car (petrol etc). However carbon taxation is politically elusive as only 20% of global emissions are covered by schemes that put a price on carbon and only 1% of emissions subject to such schemes face a price as high as $40 per tonne of carbon dioxide. The Green New Deal proposes to a move to a 100% clean and renewable energy within a decade or two, and to zero net emissions by mid-century. Those who support the idea are sceptical about costs and funding as decarbonising the economy will require some serious capital.

For the Green New Deal to work it must mobilise a majority that are more passionate than the remainder. A carbon tax with a dividend may be appealing but the financial benefits are small when divided by the number of voters. Remember that an associated tax would encourage an aggressive response from wealthy fossils-fuel firms. A Green New Deal, in contrast, might promise sufficient goodies to organised interest groups, such as labour unions and domestic manufacturers, to gather a winning political coalition.

Some see the Green New Deal is something more radical. Roosevelt saw the Depression as both a threat to liberal democracy and the product of an economic system that put profits ahead of the welfare of the working man. Similarly, left-wing activists view climate change as the result of unbridled capitalism. They aim to solve it by redistributing economic and political power.

Source: The Economist – A bold new plan to tackle climate change ignores economic orthodoxy. 7th February 2019

Ireland’s first home win against the All Blacks – Behavioural Economics

You maybe aware that the rugby game this morning (NZ time) between Ireland and the New Zealand All Blacks in Dublin created history. It was the first time that Ireland have beaten the All Blacks on Irish soil. Remember they did beat the ABs in Chicago two years ago.

Image result for ireland v all blacks

Irish supporters, including myself, will take great pleasure in talking about such a result – lets face it we lost it in the last few minutes 5 years ago on Irish soil at Croke Park in Dublin. What all this alludes to is the fact that as part of this entertainment comes without the public paying for it, the public benefits from an externality.

Those who travelled to Dublin (and those local supporters) for the game and will have no doubt spent a significant amount of Euros tonight in the bars and restaurants around town. Nevertheless the satisfaction (utility) derived in Euros from the game would have been much greater than the price they paid for the ticket. This suggest that there is a lot of consumer surplus present – the difference between the price that a consumer WOULD BE WILLING TO PAY, and the price that he or she actually HAS TO PAY. The success of the Irish team will boost merchandise sales and interest for the World Cup next year in Japan but more importantly it has been good for rugby in general with throwing the World Cup wide open. When the All Blacks play overseas there are significant externalities whether it be the revenue generated in hosting the match or the social benefits to society. Furthermore the lead up to the game brings about a sense of delayed gratification (Behavioural Economics). Looking ahead the fact that people have paid for tickets to the World Cup means that they can reap the pleasures of anticipation of being there. Research (Smarter Spending – see previous post) shows that owning material things from expensive homes to luxurious cars turn out to provide less pleasure than holidays, concerts or even witnessing Ireland beating the All Blacks – where were you when Ireland beat the All Blacks in Dublin? With Ireland’s win national pride increases, along with patriotism and people feeling better about themselves. This is turn brings people together and boosts well-being of the nation. As for the All Blacks they will learn from this defeat as they did against the Springboks earlier in the season. All in all it makes for a great World Cup with supporters experiencing the pleasures of anticipation.