Obesity it turns out is actually good for the economy. More consumption of food, particularly processed food, contributes to more economic growth. Poor health, strangely enough, can be considered an economic bonus. Bad food, too much food and drink, might be tragic in health terms but when it comes to the economy it would seem that obesity pays. But obesity doesn’t pay when it comes to the natural capital of the planet. Some economists have seen this obesity issue as indicative of wider economic, environmental and social problems. They take the economic argument one step further and link obesity to greenhouse gas emissions. Unnecessary over consumption of food is putting pressure on the environment through farming and manufacturing processes and hence contributing to its degradation.
There is proof to support the belief that while economic development is for the most part undoubtedly associated with human health, this is not always the case. The measure of economic growth – GDP – the value of the output of goods and services, does not consider the negative contributions that it might make to an economy. Ten percent of the developed world is made up of drug alcohol and cigarette sales and dealing with all these, medically of course, adds to the GDP and it is ironic that some cigarette manufacturers also produce surgical equipment and therefore making and doubling the benefit for GDP from smoking.
However growth is related to people living longer and this has been apparent with the improvements in healthcare in developed countries over the last century. In the developing world there has been a change from a high presence of infectious diseases to that of persistent illnesses including heart disease, strokes etc and is reflected, in some cases, in a disability for life. According to Garry Egger and Boyd Swinborne obesity is not a disease but a signal. It’s the canary in the coalmine, which should alert us to bigger structural problems in society. There are a number of areas where humans have achieved a peak of success, a sweet spot, but now that very success is turning on us and threatening to unravel centuries of achievement.
On the one hand, economic growth has over centuries led to a steadily improving standard of living, better levels of health and ever increasing life spans. In economic terms this reflects the start of a point of diminishing marginal rates of return from continued investment in the growth model.
Diminishing rates of return for the growth model
Mortality and economic growth data collected on the Swedish economy between 1800 to 2000 has shown the commencement of a diminishing rate of return on economic growth in relation to mortality rates. This coincides, not unexpectedly, with the leveling of improvements in health made from the decrease in infectious diseases associated with development, but with the consequent increase in chronic diseases associated with modern lifestyles, driven as they are by the modern environment. It is this switch, from predominantly infectious disease, to lifestyle-related chronic disease, and the consequent breakdown in the human immune system that differentiates the early from late stages of economic development. Several developing countries, such as China and India, appear to be experiencing this issue of chronic disease and at a more rapid pace because of their levels of GDP. In China for instance more than a quarter of the adult population are overweight or obese, as people add more meat and dairy products to their diet, causing chronic disease. According to a study in the Journal of Health Affairs “we need to find the right investments and regulations to encourage people to adopt a healthy lifestyle, or we risk facing higher rates of death, disease, and disability and the related costs.”
The reverse applies to Cuba where they experienced improved health conditions with the withdrawal of the Soviets in 1989. Over the next decade there was a significant improvement in health:
• Decrease in food intake of 1000 kcal/day average
• Mortality rate decrease by 20%
• Obesity reduced by approximately 50%
• Deaths from heart disease reduced by 35%
• Deaths from stroke reduced by 18%
It seems to be apparent that the current economic growth system cannot keep going in perpetuity. As developed economies grow there comes a point where there is a diminishing marginal rate of return on investment in terms of climate change and in particular human health. As Keynes indicated at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944 this current model of economics, ie. growth driven, will need to change in the next 100 years.
Obesity, Chronic Disease, and Economic Growth: A Case for “Big Picture” Prevention by Garry Egger http://www.sage-hindawi.com/journals/apm/2011/149158/
Radio New Zealand – 30-1-11 Interview with Garry Egger
The December 2015 edition of the New Internationalist discussed 10 Economic Myths that need to be addressed especially after the GFC. Below is the list and the NI goes through each in detail – click here to go to the NI website.
Myth 1: Austerity will lead to ‘jobs and growth – ‘
It’s wrong to sell austerity as a cure for economic woes
Myth 2: Deficit reduction is the only way out of a slump - Don’t rely on those who caused the crash to resolve it
Myth 3: Taxing the rich scares off investors and stalls economic performance – Taxation creates prosperity just as much as private enterprise
Myth 4: Economic migrants are a drain on rich world economies – Migration follows a demand for labour and benefits the receiving country
Myth 5: The private sector is more efficient than the public sector – There is no evidence of greater efficiency
Myth 6: Fossil fuels are more economically viable than renewables – Not if you look at the environmental costs
Myth 7: Financial regulation will destroy a profitable banking sector – Why should financial markets be accountable only to themselves?
Myth 8: Organized labour is regressive – It can be argued that the opposite is actually true.
Myth 9: Everyone has to pay their debts – We need debt management not reduction
Myth 10: Growth is the only way – why we need to find another way, fast.
Although it is repetitive in places especially when they talk of debt and austerity it does provide some valid arguments. I think that the last myth ‘Growth is the only way’ is of particular importance in that GDP growth at all costs has led to wasteful resource use, particularly by the wealthier countries, on an unparalleled scale and without a backward glance. It is often noted that the economy is a subset of the ecological system, but equally there seems to be a belief that nature can cope with anything we throw at it. However, an assessment by the Global Footprint Network indicates we are running a dangerous ecological debt. Currently the global use of resources and amounts of waste generated per year would require one and a half planet Earths to be sustainable (see graph below). The price to be paid for this overshoot is ecological crises (think forests, fisheries, freshwater and the climatic system), a price that is again paid disproportionately by the poor.
Ken Rogoff (Harvard University) recently wrote a very informative piece on the Project Syndicate website. He discussed the relationship between the drop in oil prices and its impact on economic growth. The price of oil has dropped from US$114 in June 2014 to $45 in December 2015 but the global GDP increase has only been around 0.5%. Over the last 20 years there have been a number of rapid fall in oil prices.
1985-86 – OPEC members decided to ignore quotas in the hope of regaining market share
2008-09 – The GFC saw a demand shock which shouldn’t have a significant impact as in the past the supply has adjusted to the reduced demand.
2014-2015 – the reduction in the price of oil has both demand and supply factors. A slowing Chinese economy has seen a downward movement in commodity prices – less demand for oil. This has been accompanied by increasing oil supply mainly from the fracking industry in the USA:
2008 – 5 million barrels a day.
2015 – 9.3 million barrels a day
Lower prices = more disposable income.
With lower prices consumers should have greater disposable income but it hasn’t stimulated a significant amount of extra demand. However Rogoff does mention that the emerging-market importers have a much larger global economic footprint than they did in the 1980’s, and their approach to oil markets is much more interventionist than the advanced countries.
China and India subsidise retail energy markets to keep prices lower for consumers but the drop in oil prices has meant that lower subsidies are now required and what government’s have saved has gone towards other areas of spending.
Oil is now seen to be less of a driver of global business cycles and even with investment in exploration falling by $150 billion in 2015 futures market have oil prices rising to $60 a barrel only by 2020.
2016 brings its challenges to oil producers with a forecast of tightening monetary conditions.
Although Norway is a capitalist country, it is state-owned enterprises that seem to be most prevalent in business circles. Oil revenues have been at the forefront of Norway’s development and it is, behind Luxembourg, the richest country in Europe. Ultimately the economic welfare of the country is heavily influenced by the price of oil and the peak of $150 a barrel in 2008 had huge benefits for the government purse. Oil and gas now account for about 25% of Norway’s GDP and almost 50% of its exports. However with the recent fall in oil prices to below $50 a barrel, oil companies have had to lay off workers – estimated to be 30%. According to The Economist the falling oil price has exposed two weaknesses in the Norwegian economy.
- Bureaucracy is a problem in Norway with the government owning about 40% of the stockmarket. Furthermore, as the vast majority of the country’s top executives attend the Norwegian School of Economics there is an unhealthy cultural uniformity which is not a catalyst to change.
- The welfare state has been too generous. The public sector employs 33% of the workforce (compared to 19% for the OECD countries) and as people enjoy a 37 hour week and sometimes a 3 day weekend there is a concern that the state is undermining the work ethic. In 2011 Norway spent 3.9% of GDP on incapacity benefits and early retirement, compared with an OECD average of 2.2%.
However, the government has been very prudent with its saving in that it now has the biggest sovereign-wealth fund in the world at $873 billion. The country also has a fish industry which is worth $10 billion a year.
Where to from here?
Are we seeing a classic resource curse where an economy has become reliant on a particular resource? Does Norway have a real alternative to oil to generate revenue for its economy?
Norway needs to allow the entrepreneurial spirit more room to grow and also apply some free market reforms to the welfare state. Shrinking the role of the state will help as the private sector cold start to be more involved in the running of schools, hospitals, and surgeries. So far the country’s reaction to the oil price drop is to be become even more left wing especially in the cities of Bergen and Oslo.
Source: The Economist – Norwegian Blues – October 10th 2015
Part of the Cambridge A2 syllabus studies Macro Economic conflicts of Policy Objectives. Here I am looking at GDP, Unemployment, and Inflation (improving Trade figures is another objective also). The objectives are:
* Stable low inflation with prices rising within the target range of 1% – 3% per year
* Sustainable growth – as measured by the rate of growth of real gross domestic product
* Low unemployment – the government wants to achieve full-employment
New Zealand Growth, Jobs and Prices — 3 Key Macro Objectives Inflation, jobs and growth
1. Inflation and unemployment:
From the graph above you can see that low levels of unemployment have created higher prices – demand-pull inflation. Also note that as unemployment has increased there is a short-term trade-off between unemployment and inflation. Notice the increase in inflation in 2010-2011 as this is when the rate of GST was increased from 12.5% to 15%. Also today we have falling inflation (0.4% below the 1-3% band set by the RBNZ) and unemployment is on the rise – approximately 6%
2. Economic growth and inflation
With increasing growth levels prices started to increase in 2007 going above the 3% threshold in 2008. This suggests that there were capacity issues in the economy and the aggregate supply curve was becoming very inelastic. In subsequent years the level of growth has dropped and with it the inflation rate.
3. Economic Growth and Unemployment
With increasing levels of GDP growth unemployment figures have tended to gravitate downward. This was apparent between 2006-2008 – GDP was positive and unemployment did fall to approximately 3.6%. From 2009 onwards you can see that growth has been positive with unemployment falling. 2015 saw the unemployment rate rising with lower annual growth rate.
Below are some interesting graphs and comments from a recent ANZ Bank presentation which address the issue of
Both cyclical and structural factors seem to have played an important role in the recent recession. From a cyclical point of view output and the unemployment rate of the economy reflect this and should recover to pre recession levels. Structural change involves the shift of resources from slower growing areas of the economy to faster growing areas. Indicators such as the savings rate and employment in the different sectors of an economy, seem to be driven more by structural changes and might not return to levels seen before the recent recession.
Economists spend a lot of time talking about the “cycle”, but this can be at the expense of the “trend”.
- And isn’t it the trend that is more important for businesses?
- We can get bogged down in the detail and forget about some of the high level themes that dominant
- Often these trends or themes can be relatively clear. But a lot of the time they are not.
- Arguably, today’s economic backdrop is one where there are more questions over the overarching trends than the cycle itself (although that is not that clear either!).
I got this very informative image from a colleague. Put together by the ANZ Bank it shows how New Zealand, Australia, USA, Euro area and the UK rank over a range of variables. How it works is that 1st place in each category shaded dark blue, 2nd place shaded light blue, and last place shaded red.
When they are combined the overall rank has: 1st New Zealand – 2nd Australia. However in the major indicators of Growth, Inflation and unemployment has Australia ranked one in each. As for the Euro area it is ranked last in three categories and ultimately last overall. A useful exercise for students would be to research these categories in major economies and get them to rank them as below.