Ask not what your country can do for you


“Sorry Bilbo, I was going to take you on this *amazing adventure*, but then I checked your expenses from last year, and you seem to be spending your entire budget on food, not travelling.”

Economists can sometimes be a little sceptical of asking people what they want. If we’re trying to provide and finance a public good, for instance, we might be worried that beneficiaries will understate their value of that good to try and get away with paying less for it. Others – often those in the behavioural science camp – can be wary that people may not be reasonably informed as to what is good for them, or might let cognitive quirks and biases undermine their prioritisation.

Over at the African Can End Poverty blog, this scepticism seems to have been extended to Tanzanian businessmen, as Jacques Morisset argues that we should pay less attention to what local firms claim are policy priorities:

Allow me to illustrate. According to the entrepreneurs operating In Tanzania, electricity is their major constraint (85 per cent) followed by access to finance (52 per cent), taxes (37 per cent), and administrative red tape (25 per cent). Source: World Bank. Investment Climate Assessment, 2009. Surprisingly, labor and transports costs are only at the bottom of their concerns (less than 10 per cent). According to this ranking, the priority should be therefore given to reducing electricity costs, increasing access to finance and reducing taxation.

A closer look at the firms’ financial balance sheets provides a different picture. In reality, electricity counts for a marginal share of firms’ operating costs in Tanzania (see Figure). For example, it is equivalent to only 3 per cent for a standard firm operating in the apparel sector. In other words, a decline, say, of 50 per cent in electricity prices would only reduce its costs by 1.5 per cent – hardly a high number for such a big effort. By contrast, transport and labor costs are equivalent to 41 per cent and 38 per cent of its total operating costs. This means that reducing transport costs by only 4 per cent would achieve the same gains for the enterprise than cutting by half its energy costs.

I’m not entirely convinced by Morissets argument: he only presents data on the current breakdown of firm’s operating costs, but no evidence on how firm electricity usage might change if prices did come down. This is a little like arguing that that since poor, stunted children in a rural village only appear to consume maize, there’s little point in subsidising the cost of protein-rich foods.

Morisset admits that electricity access might be an issue, but then goes on to make his argumet based on the static view: that we should target inputs which are currently the most costly for Tanzanian firms. Perhaps this it the right course, but a difficult argument to make without more information on how firms change their behaviour when relative prices change.