Tuesday, 24 November 2015

It's Important To Understand The Difference Between Complements & Substitutes

To have a basic grasp of what is likely to be a good policy, it is important that politicians understand the vital economic distinction between substitutes and complements. The evidence for most of my life is that many do not. When it comes to substitutes and complements the clue is in the words themselves. For example, in a pub you might find you can get peanuts for free in a dish on the bar and tap water for free by asking for a glass of it. Tap water is a substitute for bought drinks, whereas peanuts are free items that go alongside the drinks you buy. Obviously if you eat a lot of peanuts you're more likely to buy a drink, whereas if you drink lots of tap water you're less likely to. That's a simple illustration of complements and substitutes.

Elasticity in the market means that substitutes and complements affect prices. When the price increases for one good, the demand for the substitute will be likely to increase; whereas with goods that complement each other if the price of one increases the demand for the other will be likely to decrease. That's only a simple summation - things get more involved when we start to look at the relationship between different goods, but that basic distinction will do here.
In the UK it has recently become a crime for shops to sell e-cigarettes or e-liquids to someone under 18. Now I don’t know how extensive the research has been in the UK, but we know from this recent well-publicised report that in America more than 40 states have banned the sale of e-cigarettes to under-age buyers, and in pretty much every state in which this happened they've seen increased usage of standard cigarettes from minors.
Now I'm not suggesting these studies are all that informative, given the complexity of society and numerous other concomitant factors, but it does seem at first glance that the question of whether e-cigarettes are a substitute for standard cigarettes is not really factored in much in our politicians' thinking. If there is a problem with under-age smoking in the UK, and e-cigarettes are a viable, less-unhealthy substitute for the much more harmful standard cigarettes, it might well be the case that allowing them to be sold to minors is a better alternative than banning them outright, particularly given that the American studies indicate that they could increase the usage of more harmful cigarettes.
Then again, it might be the case that there is a tangible stigma to smoking (not to mention the cost and bad teeth on top of health deterioration) that's gathering momentum all the time, meaning that the ban of standard cigarettes and e-cigarettes are merely precursors to a diminution in habit that will play out alongside this legislation (apparently, proportionally fewer people smoke now than ever before).
Either way, an important rule of thumb for any politician considering any type of legislation that looks to lessen the usage of a thing, is that they must first ensure they can develop a justified confidence that the thing in question is not a substitute for something else that's even more undesirable.
Ironically this might be a particularly pertinent distinction to bear in mind with the upcoming debate over the costly renewal of Trident. Those that claim it is an unnecessary expense that could be channelled elsewhere may like to consider that, actually, the prodigious nuclear capability of the world's leading nations is very probably a desirable substitute in place of the global carnage that could be wreaked by some of the less stable nations led by dangerous fundamentalists and megalomaniacal dictators were those deterrents not in place. Given how many centuries it has taken for the world's most developed countries to reach the stage they have in terms of stability and prosperity, it is quite understandable that they would want to guard against having all that undone by failing to invest properly in national security.


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