Every silver lining has a cloud

In economics, there's nothing fully good.

From the department of counterintuitive findings come two findings showing the downsides of good news.

First up, the Washington Post reports on a new explanation for why it is that people start to die when the economy gets better. For every percentage point decrease in the unemployment rate, there is a 0.004 per cent increase in the number of deaths (a low, but statistically significant amount), which corresponds to about 6,700 dead people.

Suzy Khimm writes:

In a new paper, researchers argue that economic boom times create a scarcity of caregivers in nursing homes, raising the mortality rate through a disproportionately high numbers of deaths among the elderly.

The Center for Retirement Research explains that a strong job market creates “greater scarcity in front-line caregivers in nursing homes, which may cause more deaths among the elderly.” When the overall unemployment rate goes down, for instance, employment declines are particularly noticeable among certified aides and nurses in these facilities.

Meanwhile, in Investors Chronicle, Chris Dillow addresses the upside of a downside (so to speak).

Since 2007, labour productivity has fallen in the UK, meaning that the one hour of work now produces less output than it did five years ago – 3.4 per cent less, to be specific. This is pretty bad news. Historically, a lot of growth has come from population growth. A more populous country can make more stuff than a smaller one, after all. But now that much of the west appears to have a stable population, we need productivity to grow if we are to have any growth at all. If we can't have more people making stuff, we need to have each person making more stuff.

But this prductivity slump isn't entirely bad news:

If the relationship between GDP and employment in the last four years had been the same as it was in the previous 20, there would now (mathematically speaking) be 3.1 million fewer people in work. If all these had registered as unemployed, there'd be 5.8 million out of work - an unemployment rate of 18.2 per cent. Imagine the political effects of that.

On his personal blog, Dillow elaborates:

You might think that the very fact that workers are more productive in this alternative universe would cause firms to hire more of them. But things aren’t so simple. Firms only hire if they anticipate sufficient demand for the additional output. And where would this demand come from? The tendency for higher unemploymentwould depress consumer spending. On the other hand, it’s likely that business investment would be higher - not least because a world of growing productivity is a world in which there are more investment opportunities and easier access to finance.  But as business investment is only 8.3% of GDP, it’s unlikely that it would be so much higher as to create three million jobs.

Sometimes, good news can be bad news, and bad news can be good.

We may not be getting more productive, but there's an upside to that. (Getty)

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.