Things I learned at the Economists’ Conference

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
21 July, 2017

If your main exposure to economics is hearing bank economists talk on morning radio, you might not have the most accurate picture of what economists do. Trying to guess what interest rates might do, or telling stories about the latest moves in the stock market, are not really what economics is about.

To get a better picture, you could do worse than attend the New Zealand Economics Association’s annual conference. This year’s conference covered a lot of work on important policy questions in areas ranging from housing to education. Here are just a few of the things I learned.

First up, every new migrant to Auckland is associated with about $60,000 in new construction expenditure. Just think about the improvements in Council ability to handle the infrastructure costs of migration if they received the GST on that expenditure.

Switching over to the minimum wage, the most recent hikes did little for those working less than 30 hours per week because the gain was clawed back through Working for Families.

Increasing the minimum wage might be more helpful for the government’s balance sheets than for many of the households the policy intends to help.

And it looks like most differences in ethnic achievement at university are explained by differences in academic achievement at NCEA Level One. Improving the university statistics then requires fixing things well before the students reach University. The Initiative’s recommendation to charge interest on student loans and put the money towards improving secondary schools could help with that.

Waikato University’s Professor John Gibson was elected Distinguished Fellow of the Association this year. His keynote address reminded economists to pay more than lip-service to decisions over quality of goods.

When we take quality decisions seriously, we find that consumers are resilient to price changes.

Gibson showed that when the price of rice jumped in Vietnam, consumers switched over to cheaper varieties that were a bit less tasty but just as nutritious. Vietnam’s export ban was not needed.

Gibson also showed that when consumers respond to soda taxes by shifting to lower cost brands, it winds up being counted as a drop in soda consumption in public health studies. Why? Spending dropped, and too many studies guess at consumption by counting spending.

Economics is about more than just interest rates – and is rather more interesting too.

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates