Scarcity and its implications

Scarcity defines the economic way of thinking

Scarcity is a simple idea, yet it has major implications.

If, as individuals or as a society, we have multiple objectives, and if our desires for these goals exceed the time and resources that can be used to attain them, then given that these resources can be used in different ways it matters how we allocate them. It matters because our goals differ in their significance.

Robbins
Lionel Robbins, who taught at the London School of Economics, defined economics as “the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative use” in a book published in 1935.

We have to choose, we have to recognize the terms of the trade-offs between the choices available to us, and we have to do this in a way that gets us as much as we possibly can from the scarce resources available to us.

The economic way of thinking gives us guideposts for making these choices, most notably that we should pursue an objective up to the point that the additional benefit we get from taking an extra step toward it just equals the additional cost in all the things we have to give up in making that step.

Economics certainly should not inform all public policy discussions.

But when it should and doesn’t, the decisions made are usually done from an overly short-term perspective, are not mutually consistent, generally have hidden or unintended consequences, and are not sustainable in the long-term.

In the next two lectures of our course Economics for Everyone we detail the logic of scarcity, the rules it implies for maximizing our social benefit, and the pitfalls that sometimes confound policy makers. Scarcity also takes us toward a discussion of an important policy, “Free Trade,” and our discussion also helps us highlight some of the blind spots of simplistic economic reasoning.

Download the presentation for Lectures 2 and 3, but if you want to prepare in an entertaining way listen to Billy Bragg sing out his thoughts on Free Trade, a 2010 song from Britain foreshadowing many of the debates that have motivated recent American policies.

Here are the lyrics, but I’ve added a quote from another famous economist, David Ricardo, who has a very different view. Our goal is to understand these two competing perspectives on the benefits and costs of Free Trade.

Poverty and equality of opportunity: three pictures to motivate policy for social mobility

Read my comments presented to the Public Economics Forum on “Intergenerationally Disadvantaged: Newest Evidence and What it Means for Policy,” organized by the Melbourne Institute for Applied Economic and Social Research, on November 26th, 2019 in Canberra, Australia.

Social mobility varies across countries, but it varies in a particular way, a way that I argue is relevant for the conduct of public policy.

Inequality begets inequality. Up to 50% of income inequality is passed on to the next generation in countries like the United Kingdom, Italy, and the United States, but only 20% or even less in countries like Norway, Denmark and Finland, where there is a much smaller gap between parent incomes.

Incomes are stickier across generations where inequality is higher

But different kinds of inequality matter in different ways for social mobility.

Research using the variation of social mobility within countries like the United States and Canada shows that intergenerational cycles of low income are more likely in communities that have more bottom half inequality, the correlation with overall inequality and with top end inequality being much weaker. Upward mobility is easier when the poorest incomes are not that far off from middle incomes.

The bottom line for public policy is don’t let inequality increase in the bottom half of the income distribution, indeed strive to reduce it in a way that encourages labour market and social engagement.

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The Canada Child Benefit is an important innovation in cash benefits to families with children

The Canada Child Benefit offers a policy option that the United States should consider in pursuing a goal to reduce child poverty by half.

The commitment to address child poverty has waxed and waned in Canada since an all-party resolution was passed in the House of Commons in late 1989 committing the federal government to “seek to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000.”

Poverty and social policy are now high on the agenda of the current federal government, which intends—over the course of the next six months—to articulate a poverty reduction strategy, but which has already taken a major step toward this goal by introducing the “Canada Child Benefit” in its first budget. This program came into effect in July 2016, and represents a major revamping of cash support to families with children.

The Canada Child Benefit represents an important improvement in the incomes of families with children, the government forecasting that by the end of its first full year of operation in 2017 the program would almost halve the number of children in poverty from the level prevailing in 2013. This innovation merits attention from policy makers in the United States and other countries.

I made a presentation to the “The Committee on Building an Agenda to Reduce the Number of Children in Poverty by Half in 10 Years” of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The program of the June 20th public information gathering included presentations from eight experts. I was the only participant from outside of the United States. Download the slides of my presentation: Presentation-Corak-National-Academy-Sciences-Engineering-Medicine-Child-Poverty.

It was based on a background report I prepared for the committee, which you can also download: Text-Corak-National-Academy-Sciences-Engineering-Medicine-Child-Poverty. The report details the nature of the program, compares it to the programs it replaced, and offers links to additional resources helpful in simulating the impact a similar design could have in other countries.

An inclusive society seeks to eliminate child poverty

Wellington New Zealand

My meeting with senior Treasury officials began with the nonchalantly stated advice “In the event of an earthquake we like to get under the tables and hold on to the legs so that they don’t get away from us.”

As a Canadian, albeit one who has visited New Zealand three times in the past decade, I naively took this as a metaphor for the earth-shattering ideas the public service expects from its consultations with outside experts.

I assure you that the dozen or more participants gathered to discuss how the government might contribute to building “a more inclusive New Zealand” offered advice that was far from ground breaking.

How possibly could they?

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“After Piketty”, 12 policy proposes to reduce inequality of outcomes

“The media storm surrounding the publication of Thomas Piketty’s remarkable Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) has ensured that inequality is now in the forefront of public debate. But what next?”

Sir Tony Atkinson

Thus begins an essay in The British Journal of Sociology by the dean of inequality studies, A. B. Atkinson of Oxford University. This is a must read for anyone interested in public policy addressed to the growing inequality in the rich countries.

Professor Atkinson’s focus is on the United Kingdom, but his far-reaching set of policy prescriptions address many aspects of public policy (not just tax and transfer policy), and have relevance well beyond the European context.

Tony Atkinson is an economist of the highest order who has been studying and contributing to the economics of inequality since the 1960s. In this paper he offers 12 proposals that, he says, “could bring about a genuine shift in the distribution of income towards less inequality.”

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UNICEF gives Canada a passing grade, child poverty actually fell during the recession … or did it?

UNICEF Children of the Recession Innocenti Report Card 12 CoverLet’s see if we can make sense of this.

UNICEF has just given Canada a passing grade, mind you barely a pass, when it comes to the fight against child poverty. In a report released today it claims that 21% of Canadian children live in poverty, nothing to brag about, but at least this is lower than the 23% who were poor just before the recession started in 2008.

Interestingly, Statistics Canada also says child poverty is down, but that only 8.5% of kids are poor. However, at the same time it says child poverty is up, reaching almost 14%. And finally, if this is not confusing enough, it says that, yes, 14% of kids are poor, but this is down since 2008.

Up or down? One-in-five kids poor, or one-in-seven, or maybe even as few as only one-in-eleven?

Continue reading “UNICEF gives Canada a passing grade, child poverty actually fell during the recession … or did it?”