Limits of an Economists Policy Tool Kit

Tim Worstall on the ASI Blog looks at the robust economic tools that are available to control externalities. Here I enlarge on a blog comment looking the limits of these tools in combating climate change.

Although economic solutions may be “hugely cheaper than the sort of command and control systems”, that does not mean they are a solution in every circumstance. In the area of climate change mitigation there are four practical areas where such solutions may have higher costs than the original problem.

  1. The economic policy is applied too far. The benefit to cost ratios will fall the greater the desired change. A 1% reduction in CO2 can be achieved, ceteris paribus, by economic solutions at a benefit to cost ratio of much greater than 1. The costs will rise exponentially after that, so for a given state of technology, the ratio will quickly reduce to less than one. This is the implication of Richard Tol’s 2010 paper “An Analysis of Mitigation as a Response to Climate Change” (2.5MB pdf). Looking at various scenarios, reducing the total amount spent on climate change mitigation from $2.5 trillion to a twentieth of the size increases the benefit to cost ratio from 1/100 to 3/2. I try to graph this here.
  2. Any Cap and trade or Carbon taxes will not be implemented in their purest form. Public Choice theory (or practical examples) will predict that special interest groups will seek to maximize their returns. Those businesses that will be harmed will seek to reduce the effectiveness. Those who can make easy gains (and thus have permits to sell) along with any potential administrators of the scheme will be keen to promote it. There is a long policy chain linking the pure theory and the final outcomes. These various levels of policy formulation and implementation diminish the benefit / cost ratio as I attempt to outline here.
  3. Scheme avoidance. For either a carbon tax or a carbon trading scheme, if there is competition from those outside the area of the scheme that is not proportionately shared by all emitters, then those facing the competition will have the gravest effect on their business. For instance both the steel industry and fossil-fuel power stations are huge CO2 emitters. The European steel firm cannot pass on the cost of the permits to its customers, as it is competing with firms in emerging economies with little or no carbon-trading. A British coal or oil power station does not have this competition, and its main competition comes from the more expensive nuclear power stations, the less reliable wind and the finite hydro-power stations. In the short-term it can pass on the costs. Protectionism is not a solution as it imposes extra costs.
  4. The more encompassing a cap and trade scheme, the greater the number of participants and the complexity. The greater of severity of the scheme, the greater the potential economic gains and losses. Combine these two areas and you create large potential gains from out-right corruption, or engineering biases through the political system, or having unidentified inefficiencies.


    The economic tools might be quite powerful and robust, but put into the hands of inexpert users can create a lot of harm. A bit like a hot-hatch in the hands of 17-year-old trying to impress his mates on a night out.

Why China will not Constrain it’s CO2 Emissions

There is an interesting and simple explanation of why it is not possible for the West to emulate China’s growth rates at the ASI Blog. This is basically Robert Solow’s exogenous growth model – that is explained graphically at Wikipedia. China is increasing it’s output per capita by increasing it’s capital per worker on by moving up the current technological production frontier. They are still on the lower part of the curve, so the returns to substituting capital goods for labour are quite large. The western countries are at the top end, so returns can only come from moving to a higher technological boundary.

This does not explain all of the phenomenally high growth rates of China against the West. A clue is that it is not the traditional manufacturing industries that China is entering, such as steel, shipbuilding and textiles. It is also the production of the latest high-tech gadgets invented in the West. The reason is that the time taken in turning prototype to mass production is much quicker in China, due to a lack of regulations and statutory planning consents. Yet most of the profits from the last innovations come before anyone can replicate them. A saving of a few months or weeks for the latest mobile phone or digital camera can mean the difference between millions sold at very high margin and tens of thousands sold at a much lower margin.

China’s high growth rates are also accompanied by a rapid increase in energy production. Much of this comes from coal and oil. The advantage of fossil fuel over clean energy is primarily one of cost, but there is time and convenience as well. Coal is based on well-established technologies and China has large reserves of its own, as well as cheap and reliable supplies from elsewhere. Oil-fired power stations are easy to turn on and off. Against this nuclear power stations take a long time to build (and longer to de-commission), along with higher unit costs. Wind power and solar power are highly expensive, and have an extreme mismatch between the timing of the power supply and power demand. Hydro is limited in availability, takes a long time to build, and (like the Three Gorges or the Itaipu dams) cause environmental damage and the displacement of large numbers of people. To constrain China’s growth in energy will create a slowing down in the ability of China’s entrepreneurs to create new output, and therefore constrain a major advantage of manufacturing in China. The Chinese officials will attend the Climate Summits, smile politely and undermine any binding global commission agreements. It is not out of obstinacy that they do it. Rather they understand that the potential costs of constraint far outweigh any benefits.

ASI on the Minimum Price for Alcohol

Uncharacteristically, the Adam Smith Institute has made a serious error in its economic analysis. The idea of alcohol being a Giffen good is certainly a contestable one. There are a couple of pertinent areas here. The first is whether alcohol in the UK meets the requirements of a Giffen good. The second is whether the pattern of discounting is such that installing a minimum price will create the Giffen good conditions.

The Conditions for a Giffen Good. (Descriptions here and here)

  1. A staple on which people spend a significant part of their income.
  2. Applies to the very poor.
  3. There are no close substitutes

The current state of play in the UK market.

1. The major supermarkets concentrate their promotions on premium brands. Most of the promotions for cider & beer are for premium brands. The wine promotions similarly are mostly for the more expensive (& often branded) varieties. Own brand (especially the budget brands) are less frequently and less deeply discounted.

2. Many promotions do not involve a gross loss for the supermarket. By allocating space for high volume promotions a small gross margin can generate a larger net profit than the full price low turn product. It is all about overhead absorption.

3. Promotions made more profitable by promotional & volume discounts from the suppliers.  As I regularly shop at more than one major supermarket I notice similar promotions across different supermarkets.

4. Many promotions are partly spurious. For instance I recently noticed a bottle of standard Cava at half price. The full price would significantly more the vintage variety. Or compare the undiscounted price per litre for large packs of beer with the smaller pack sizes. You will find the “undiscounted” price is often more expensive, indicating the discount is exaggerated.

5. Many people pay the top prices at clubs and pubs in city centres. Cheaper prices are obtained at local pubs (known as bars in the USA & on mainland Europe). Much cheaper still is the supermarket. So for English bitter beer, you pay £5 per pint (568ml) in a club in town centres, £3.50 in a local pub, £2 equivalent for a 500ml bottle, £1.40 for a 4 pack cans and £0.99 for the best offers of 3 x 8 440ml can packs. Therefore, there are many close substitutes without change of brand, though the quality and ambience may not be the same! Higher prices lead to the next best substitute, which is why many choose to drink at home, or on the street, rather than in the more sociable public houses.

6. The UK is a rich country. In spending power (purchasing power parity) is at least 35 times richer than in 1750 (or modern day Ethiopia). In nominal terms at least 200 times richer. Someone on the minimum wage with the proverbial wife and two kids, will have in excess of £1200 per month disposable income. If an alcoholic drinking the cheapest booze – 3 litres of 6% cider (at £1 per litre) a day, they would spend just 10% of their income on booze. At 70p per unit minimum (10ml of pure alcohol) they would see this rise to a third of income. This is the most extreme case. In practice, most problem drinkers consume less and do not get the cheapest alcohol from the cheapest source. There are opportunities for substituting to cheaper forms of alcohol and reducing other forms of consumption.

In its flawed analysis the ASI actually understates the case against the minimum price of alcohol. Any proposed level of pricing would simply be ineffective in reducing alcohol consumption.  It will merely serve to hasten the decline in pubs and drive people down market. Most of the discounting in supermarkets is aimed at getting consumers to move up market, where the larger profits reside. The only effective levels of seriously reducing alcohol consumption would be far above the bounds of political acceptability.

The Myths of Green Jobs – from the Classical Economists and a Beancounter

The Adam Smith blog posts (here) on the seven myths of green jobs (by the Policy Network). They are useful as a criticism, but more fundamentally the classical economists gave a rebuttal over a century ago.

From Adam Smith, you get increased prosperity from division of labour. Localism reduces the division of labour, thus reduces the wealth of nations

From David Ricardo this is augmented with the idea of comparative advantage. Trading nations gain advantage by specialisation in areas where they have a comparative advantage. Green economics ignores this. (Mises applies this concept to the labour markets. Low productivity, green, jobs will be created at  the expense of high productivity, conventional jobs.)

From Alfred Marshall there is concept of opportunity costs. In evaluating a measure you should not only look at the benefits of a choice, but the alternatives forgone. Green jobs will be creating, but at the expense of conventional, higher productivity jobs along with higher taxes.

From Karl Marx, you should look at the distribution of the national pie. Green jobs will only be created by forcibly reducing non-green industries. This enforced tendency towards monopoly will increase the profits accruing to the bourgeoisie, at the expense of the working classes. Given that the rate of return on Capital has fallen dramatically over the past two decades, is the Green Movement just a puppet of a degenerate Capitalist Class?

But as a (slightly manic) Beancounter, the economist’s arguments pale into insignificance beside a project management issue. In a major project, if you have no dynamic concept of how to control and continually reduce costs, or a clear idea of how to achieve objectives, along with ridiculing of any questioning of the attainability of the objectives –  then you have a recipe for massive cost overruns, and benefits failing to be achieved on a massive scale.  In the UK, the NHS computer system, the Scottish Parliament and the New Deal for jobs were all massive policy failures for these reasons. But they all pale into insignificance beside the global attempt to stop global warming by reducing CO2 emissions. Not just the scale, but also the lack of clarity as well.

(Roger Pielke Jnr’s recent talk is instructive on the perspective here)