321 – Communicating economics to policy makers

When it comes to communicating research results to policy makers, economists have some advantages over other disciplines. But economists commonly make a range of mistakes when trying to communicate to policy makers.

Included amongst the advantages that economists have are that economics can be used to clarify the pro’s and cons of different decision options, and this is exactly what policy makers need in many cases.

Secondly, a good economic analysis is holistic, bringing together all, or at least most, of the relevant elements, including social, biological, physical, financial, behavioural elements, accounting for risk and uncertainty.

Thirdly, economics tries to assess outcomes from the perspective of society as a whole, rather than a particular interest group, so it can be seen as more balanced and independent than some other disciplines.

On the other hand, economists often squander these advantages by making basic communication mistakes. Too often they fail to cut out the technical jargon that is meaningless and perhaps annoying to their audience. They focus too much on abstruse technical details of their analysis, rather than focusing on why it is important and what the results mean. They explain things in abstract, conceptual terms, rather than giving examples and telling stories to make things tangible and real. In short, they are often not tuned into, or don’t understand, the perceptions and needs of their policy-maker audience.

In July I attended the annual meeting of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, in Atlanta, Georgia. One of the highlights for me was the presidential address by new president Keith Coble from Mississippi State University. His address was on “Relevant and/or Elegant Economics”, but mainly on making sure economics is relevant. I got a nice surprise when, about half way through the talk, he started talking positively about an old paper of mine on communicating economics to policy makers (Pannell 2004).

In that paper, I reported results from a small survey, including responses from economists who work in the policy world, senior bureaucrats, past or present politicians and a former ministerial adviser.

The most strongly emphasised advice provided by these people was to understand the policy maker’s situation and perspective.

Other messages included to be practical and pragmatic, to be persistent, to understand the importance of timing, to establish networks in order to build support, to not tell your target audience that they are wrong, and to keep your communication brief and clear.

There are many other useful pieces of advice in the Pannell (2004) paper, so have a read.

Further reading

Pannell, D.J. (2004). Effectively communicating economics to policy makers. Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 48(3), 535-555. AgEcon SearchJournal web page * IDEAS page

Gibson, F.L., Rogers, A.A., Smith, A.D.M., Roberts, A., Possingham, H., McCarthy, M. and Pannell, D.J., (2017). Factors influencing the use of decision support tools in the development and design of conservation policy, Environmental Science and Policy 70(1): 1-8. Journal web page * Pre-publication version * IDEAS page

320 – Fixed costs and input rates

Optimal input rates (e.g. of fertilizer to a crop) are not affected by fixed costs. I had an interesting discussion with a Canadian poultry farmer last month, who needed to be convinced of this fact.

In Canada last month I gave a seminar at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs on water pollution from agricultural fertilizers, and how an understanding of the economics of fertilizer application can help identify cost-effective policy strategies for reducing pollution.

One thing I talked about was the economics of applying too much fertilizer (more than would be in the farmer’s own financial interests).

One attendee at the seminar was a poultry farmer (who was also a scientist) who later wanted to talk to me about a reason for increasing input rates that I had not mentioned. The reason he suggested was that, by increasing input rates a farmer can increase his or her production, and even if the resulting increase in revenue is not enough to cover the additional input costs, it helps to dilute the fixed costs of production over a larger value of outputs, making the farmer better off overall.

He said that this is an idea that is common amongst poultry farmers, at least in Ontario. The problem is that it’s completely wrong. There is no way that increasing input rates above the level that maximises the difference between revenue and input costs can make a farmer better off, even if it does mean that the average fixed costs per unit of output is lower.

A simple numerical example will make this clear.

Fixed costs ($/ha)Fertilizer cost ($/ha)Yield (tonne/ha)Revenue ($/ha)Net revenue ($/ha)Average fixed cost ($/tonne)
5001.122017045.45
50201.530023033.33
50401.836027027.77
50602.040029025.00
50802.0541028024.39
501002.0841626624.04
501202.142025023.81

In this example, there is a production cost of $50/ha which is not affected by the rate of fertilizer used. In this sense it is “fixed”.

As the rate of fertilizer applied increases, the input cost goes up, and so does the crop yield, although it increases at a decreasing rate.

The net revenue is the difference between the revenue and the total costs (fixed costs plus fertilizer costs). Given this pattern of revenue and costs, the fertilizer rate that maximises net revenue is the rate corresponding to a cost of $60/ha (the fourth row of numbers in the table), giving a net revenue of $290/ha. This is the fertilizer rate that maximises profit to the farmer.

The last column shows the fixed cost per unit of production. Because the yield keeps increasing at fertilizer rates above the economic optimum, the fixed cost per unit of production keeps falling. The lowest fixed cost per unit of production is in the last row of the table, but this clearly doesn’t have the highest profit.

When you are considering the optimal level of an input, the only costs that matter are the costs that vary as you vary the level of the input. Fixed costs cannot possibly affect the optimal rate of an input because they are fixed. They stay the same at all input rates. The fact that average fixed costs per unit of output might fall at higher input rates is completely irrelevant.

I think I convinced the Canadian poultry farmer. He said he was going to talk to his other farmer friends about it.

Although boosting an input rate loses a farmer money, in many cases the amount lost will be quite small unless the input rate is especially high (due to “flat payoff functions” – see Pannell 2006). That may be why the error has not been detected by the farmer or his friends. The loss may be too small to be noticeable.

To the extent that farmers think that diluting fixed costs is a good idea, explaining to them that it is pointless may help to reduce some farmers’ tendency to apply too much fertilizer. If successful, this may contribute to reducing water pollution.

Further reading

Pannell, D.J. (2006). Flat-earth economics: The far-reaching consequences of flat payoff functions in economic decision making, Review of Agricultural Economics 28(4), 553-566. Journal web page * Prepublication version here (44K). * IDEAS page

Pannell, D.J. (2017). Economic perspectives on nitrogen in farming systems: managing trade-offs between production, risk and the environment, Soil Research 55, 473-478. Journal web page