Posts Tagged ‘Behavioural Economics’

Breaking News: Price rises reduce demand

July 25, 2011 2 comments

Michael Sanders

Third Sector Online[1] is reporting the results of a survey by website, finding that of 400 people surveyed, some 53% would not give more money to charity if the government were to cut income tax.

Although such a cut is not currently on the cards (although proposals to significantly increase personal allowances over the course of this parliament, if implemented, would reduce the marginal rate of taxation for some and the average rate for most), this finding is interesting (I will ignore for now questions of selection bias raised in TSO’s comment section).

Gary Thompson, the managing director of, identifies income tax as an “annoyance”, but is reportedly surprised at the finding that only 47% of the population would choose to spend their windfall on charitable donations, suggesting that: “As a result of the increasing cost of living in Britain, many are facing a difficult time financially, and the coalition government’s public sector cuts and changes to family benefits are clearly having a growing impact on our finances and ability to support charitable causes.”

A lack of financial stability and rising prices are pertinent factors, but even were they not, this result should not be as surprising as it made out.

If income tax were cut, there would be two primary effects. First would be a rise in income; if, let us say, the basic rate of tax were decreased from 20% to 18%, workers would have more money in their pay packet each month. The expected effect of this rise in income would be that individuals may consume more of a variety of goods[2], including, potentially, charitable donations; it is the absence of this effect which is causing surprise here.

However, there is a second effect to consider here. All giving by taxpayers in the UK is eligible for Gift-Aid, whereby charities can reclaim income tax at the basic rate. Hence, the price of giving changes with the income tax rate. At the moment, if a worker wishes the charity to receive £1, she must sacrifice 80 pence of other goods; if income tax fell to 18pence, her donation would have to rise to 82p for the charity to receive the same amount. She will be paying more for the same amount of “good” done. If, as seems likely, tax incentives like Gift Aid make giving more attractive, this rise in the price of giving will make it less, and will lead to a fall in donations.

The results of the survey suggest that for 53% of the population, the price elasticity of demand for donations is larger than the income elasticity of demand; not a damning critique of society or the times we live in.


[2] If this money is financed from borrowing (as seems likely in the current state of nature), and Ricardian equivalence, a controversial but not disproven theory, holds, then any rise in income will be perfectly offset by a rise in savings as workers seek to cover themselves against future tax rises to repay the debt.

To Profit, or not for profit?

Michael Sanders

As part of David Cameron’s commitment to building a “Big Society”, as well as to engaging in some of the most sweeping cuts to public spending in living memory, there has naturally been discussion about the outsourcing of public services to private-sector organisations.

At one end of this debate is a discussion about whether any non-governmental organisation should be involved in the delivery of vital public services. At the other, perhaps more reasonable end of the debate, is a discussion about what kind of organisations should step in to fill the gap left by the state’s withdrawal from service provision – in particular, whether these organisations should be allowed to make a profit.

In education, Michael Gove, the secretary of state, is quoted in this week’s economist[1] as saying “We don’t need the profit motive”, in what may well be regarded by some as a statement of political convenience more than firmly-held belief. Nick Seddon, from Reform, a think-tank, has said “It’s a fallacy to think you can choke off the profit motive without losing momentum and innovation”.

The evidence is somewhat less certain that Mr Seddon makes out. Two large areas of spending where the government stands accused either of outsourcing to private firms or conspiring to are Education and Health, where great weight is put on the tendency of the best practitioners to “go the extra mile”, be that in the form of higher quality pastoral care or extra tuition in schools, or unpaid overtime and a superior bedside manner in hospitals. In both cases, the provision of the extra-mile of care is time consuming and often uncompensated. Evidence from researchers at the CMPO (Gregg et al (2008))[2] , suggests that in non-profit “caring” environments, workers provide on average 75 minutes extra unpaid overtime a week than do their colleagues in for-profit caring firms.

Sloan (2000)[3], in his comprehensive review of ownership forms for hospitals in the United States, found that for-profit and not-for-profit hospitals were more alike than different across a number of dimensions. Importantly for the claim that ‘innovation’ would disappear along with the profit motive, he finds (although evidence is relatively sparse), that the rate at which hospitals adopt new technologies is influenced by the extent to which they are competing with other hospitals for patients, but not by their ownership type (for profit vs. not for profit).

If it is not obvious that not-for-profit hospitals or schools would perform worse (or indeed, differently), than profit-making counterparts, this may be driven by the similarities between the people running them. Glaeser and Schleifer (2001)[4] model the utility functions for individuals forming not-for-profit firms as the same as individuals starting for-profit companies. As not-for-profits are more trusted (as the response to the government’s plans would seem to suggest), a utility maximising agent may find it preferable to run a not-for-profit “free-school” or academy, and to extract their utility in the form of perks; more control over the curriculum and timetable than in a standard school, and more “Warm Glow” from having contributed something to society. In a hospital context, this resembles the possibility of “cartels” of doctors running (not-for-profit) hospitals efficiently so as to maximise their own utility, as suggested by Sloan.

In summary, the potential hazards of not-for-profit ownership of public services, when compared with for-profit ownership, may be overstated. This appears to be a confusion of the ‘profit motive’ for an ‘efficiency motive’ – there is evidence suggesting that the latter may be achieved without the former, and that not-for-profits have a lower incentive to sacrifice non-contractible quality for more profit. Perhaps, on this occasion, Mr Gove is correct.

[2] Gregg, Grout, Ratcliffe, Smith and Windmeijer (2008) “How important is pro-social motivation in the delivery of public services” CMPO working paper

[3] Sloan (2000) “Not-for-profit ownership and hospital performance”  Handbook of health economics, vol 1 pp1141-1174

[4] Glaeser & Schleifer (2001) “Not-for-profit entrepreneurs” Journal of Public Economics Vol 81 Issue 1 pp99-115

Charitable Giving – How hard can it be?

Michael Sanders

Jeremy Clarkson, of Top Gear fame (among other things), made use of his column in this Sunday’s News Review[1] (in the Sunday Times, paywalled), to bemoan the death of philanthropy, and to propose a surprisingly economist-friendly explanation; the arrival of substitutes.

As Mr Clarkson says, “it’s because in the days of (William) Morris, and my great-granddad there wasn’t much you could actually buy”. Certainly it is true that since the 1930s the sheer number of status symbols required to maintain the kind of upper-middle-class lifestyle expected of a Times columnist has increased dramatically, and it is also true that charitable giving is, for many parts of society, on the decline[2]. That people, when given the choice between buying mosquito nets for others half way around the world or a new iPad for themselves, choose the iPad, seems intuitively simple. It is also on sound footing economically; if a preferred substitute comes along, from which you extract greater utility, substituting from one into another is only natural, and as the relative price of the substitute declines (as is typical for technology), we might expect the level of this substitution to increase.

Governments of all stripes appear to have agreed with this basic assessment, with the last Labour government reducing the ‘price’ of giving by making Gift Aid, a tax-efficient means of giving, available on donations of all sizes (previously it was available only on donations of £250 of more), and the current, coalition government, aiming to increase the ‘return’ on giving through rises in the Gift Aid Benefit Limit to “enable charities to give ‘thank you’ gifts”[3].

If all this seems sensible, what can we say about the conclusion to the article, that for Philanthropists, “their investment is going to make them a damn sight happier than the man who spent his cash…” on something more frivolous. Traditional economic theory suggests that this should not be the case. Following the Weak Axiom of Revealed Preference (WARP), if an individual chooses to buy a grande skimmed-milk extra shot mocha rather than mosquito nets, we can conclude that he prefers, given his income constraints, coffee to mosquito nets. Simplistically, this situation appears to be Pareto optimal – it is impossible to make one party (those at risk of mosquito-borne-disease) better off, without worsening the lot of another (our coffee drinker). Although it is possible to make a moral argument for redistribution from coffee to mosquito nets to improve social welfare, we might expect Clarkson’s pleading with us to give more to charity to fall upon deaf ears.

Some insight into why a narrow view of economics might seem to be wrong, and the Sunday Times’ most controversial columnist might be right, can be found in Behavioural Economics. A large quantity of research, summarized by Dellavigna (2009)[4] and Bernheim & Rangel (1995)[5], suggests that individuals may make decisions which are not only socially undesirable, but personally undesirable as well.

While changes in the relative price or value of giving may increase individuals giving, it is, of course, costly to do so, and will be less effective than governments might hope if, as the literature suggests, would-be donors are inattentive to the benefits of giving, or to the changes in policy.

In the coffee vs nets example, we can see another reason for the government to explore in depth the lessons of behavioural economics when planning the “Big Society” – these lessons are already being learned, and to great effect, by the firms with which charities are competing for funds. The placement of biscotti, mints and caramel waffles near the till in coffee shops, the offer made by baristas or their local equivalent (“would you like to go large on that?”), and defaulting to a mid-sized cups, are all Nudges; examples of behavioural economics put into practice.

It is clear that if the government is to achieve a ‘step change’ in the level of giving in the UK, and in so doing make both donors and recipients happier, charities will need the tools to compete with private firms and the willingness to use them – behavioural economics has the potential to offer those tools, and they are already being used to great effect by the competition.

[2] Smith et al (2011): “The State of Donation” Centre for giving and philanthropy.

[3] HM Treasury (2011) “Budget 2011” HM Treasury, HC836

[4] Dellavigna (2009): “Psychology and Economics: Evidence from the Field” Journal of Economic Literature Vol 47 No 2 pp315-372

[5] Bernheim & Rangel (1995): “Behavioural Public Economics: Welfare Policy Analysis with Non-Standard Decision Makers” NBER Working Paper 11518

Opting into “Opting Out” of charitable giving

March 23, 2011 Leave a comment

Michael Sanders

A recent poll by Workplace Giving, a payroll giving company, indicated that of 1000 respondents, 68% would favour the introduction of an automatic-enrolment system for payroll-giving. This kind of system would make the default for all workers in participating firms to be enrolled in a the scheme, giving to a given charity at a given level – they could then, if they so wished, opt-out of the scheme, or change the amount they give, and/or the charity to which they are giving (64% of respondents indicated a preference for having a hand in choosing the charity in the first place).

Why should this be the case? Only a minority of workers (only 6% of workers in participating firms, 2.4% of all workers)[1], actually give through payroll giving at the moment. While it is natural to suspect some selection bias in the answers to these questions, the magnitude of the difference suggests that at least some respondents who answered positively about the automatic enrolment system are not currently enrolled in payroll giving schemes in their firms.

If they are so keen to give to charity that they would favour and opt-out arrangement, why do they simply not enrol themselves in existing schemes, or set up a direct debit of their own accord? Work from across the field of Behavioural Economics appears to suggest some answers.

The first, and most obvious suggestion, is that individuals have a self-control problem, and continue to put off the act of enrolling. In these cases, a self-aware individual may prefer a “commitment device” such as an automatic-enrolment system, which compels (or in this case forces) them to partake. Evidence from the pensions literature in the united states suggests that automatic enrolment can have powerful effects on individuals’ behaviour in overcoming their self-control problems[2].

Respondents to the survey may also be demonstrating systematic overconfidence. Although the existence of this phenomenon is observed in previous research, for example finding that 93% of all drivers believe they are above the median ability[3], it is particularly interesting when combined with self-control problems. Despite previous evidence to the contrary, for example not yet having signed up to Payroll Giving, individuals strongly believe that they are more likely to overcome their self-control issues in the future. Given their expectation that they will sign up to payroll giving…tomorrow, and that their colleagues will not, automatic enrolment will make no difference to them in the long run, but will have a larger impact on others’ giving.

Finally, the institution of an opt-out is likely to induce more homogeneity of charity choice (among those passively remaining in the scheme), compared with softer policies such as “active enrolment”, whereby individuals are compelled to make a decision for themselves (often through a mandatory form)[4]. If the respondents were motivated by a particular cause (heart disease, for example), and believe themselves a more active participant in decision making, a prescriptive policy may be better for them, albeit at the cost of social welfare.

These phenomena, and others like them, may pose significant obstacles to the Government’s plan to induce a ‘step change’ in giving in the UK – something which, as this blog has previously discussed, will be very hard to do. They also point to a more nuanced problem with giving; instituting auto-enrolment may increase the level of giving, but if workers are heterogeneous in their charity preferences, it may decrease social welfare, or be a second best policy compared to a softer intervention. Although the results of this poll are positive for those who support payroll giving schemes, it is clear that more research must take place before we are able to accurately predict its effects.


[1] Potter & Scales (2008) “Review of Payroll Giving”  Strategy Complete Ltd. Commissioned by Institute of Fundraising

[2] Choi,  Laibson, Madrian, Metrick (2006)  “Saving for Retirement on the Path of Least Resistance”. Behavioral Public FinanceToward a New Agenda. Ed McCaffrey and Joel Slemrod, eds. New York: Russell Sage Foundation pp304-51.

[3] Svenson (1981): “Are we all less risky and more skilful than our fellow drivers?” Acta Psychologica 47: 143-148.

[4] Carroll,  Choi, Laibson, Madrian, & Andrew Metrick (Forthcoming) “Optimal Defaults and Active Decisions.” Quarterly Journal of Economics