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Social Costs

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Social Costs

What do a noisy neighbor, a roommate who leaves dirty dishes in the sink, and a polluting factory have in common? Their activities all impose an external cost on other people. In other words, the social costs of their activities are higher than the private costs that they face. What are some potential ways that we can deal with this kind of problems? This explanation may be able to give you some inspiration, so read on!

Social Costs Definition

What do we mean by social costs? As the name suggests, social costs are the costs incurred by society as a whole.

Social costs are the sum of private costs borne by the economic actor and the external costs imposed on others by an activity.

External costs are costs that are imposed on others that are not compensated for.

Are you a little bit confused by these terms? No worries, let's illustrate with an example.

Social and Private Costs Differences: An Example

Let's say that you enjoy listening to loud music. You turn up the speaker volume to the maximum - what is the private cost to you? Well, maybe the batteries in your speaker will run out a bit sooner; or if your speaker is plugged in, you pay a tiny bit more in electricity charges. Either way, this will be a small cost to you. Also, you know that listening to loud music is not that good for your hearing, but you are still young, so you don't really care about that and don't even hesitate a little bit before you reach to turn up the volume.

Imagine that you have a neighbor who lives in the apartment next door and would like to relax at home. The soundproofing between your two apartments is not that good, and he can hear your loud music very well next door. The disturbance that your loud music causes to your neighbor's well-being is an external cost - you don't bear this disturbance yourself, and you are not compensating your neighbor for it.

The social cost is the sum of the private cost and the external cost. In this situation, the social cost of playing your loud music is the extra battery or electricity cost, the damage to your hearing, plus the disturbance to your neighbor.

Marginal Social Cost

Economics is about making decisions at the margin. So with regard to social costs, economists use the measure of marginal social cost to decide the socially optimal level of an activity.

The marginal social cost (MSC) of an activity is the sum of the marginal private cost (MPC) and the marginal external cost (MEC):

.

In situations where there are negative externalities, the marginal social cost would be higher than the marginal private cost: . A classic example of this is a polluting firm. Let's say there is a factory that pumps heavily polluted air in its production process. Residents in the surrounding area have to suffer lung problems as a result of the firm's activity. The additional damage to the residents' lungs for each additional unit that the factory produces is the marginal external cost. Because the factory doesn't take this into account and only considers its own marginal private cost in deciding how many goods to produce, it will result in over-production and social welfare loss.

Figure 1 shows the case of the polluting factory. Its supply curve is given by its marginal private cost (MPC) curve. We are assuming that there is no external benefit to its production activity, so the marginal social benefit (MSB) curve is the same as the marginal private benefit (MPB) curve. To maximize profit, it produces a quantity of Q1 where marginal private benefit (MPB) equals marginal private cost (MPC). But the socially optimal quantity is where marginal social benefit (MSB) equals marginal social cost (MSC) at the quantity of Q2. The triangle in red represents the social welfare loss from over-production.

social costs marginal social cost higher studysmarterFigure 1. Marginal social cost is higher than the marginal private cost, StudySmarter Originals

Types of Social Costs: Positive and Negative Externalities

There are two types of externalities: positive and negative. You are probably more familiar with the negative ones. Things like noise disturbance and pollution are negative externalities because they have a negative external impact on other people. Positive externalities occur when our actions bring a positive impact on other people. For example, when we get the flu vaccine, it also gives partial protection to those around us, so that's a positive externality of us getting the vaccine.

In this article and elsewhere in this Study Set, we follow the terminologies used in US textbooks: we refer to negative externalities as external costs, and we refer to positive externalities as external benefits. You see, we separate negative and positive externalities into two different terms. But you might come across different terminologies from other countries when you look things up online - after all, English is an international language.

Some textbooks in the UK refer to both negative and positive externalities as external costs. How does that work? Basically, they think of external benefits as negative external costs. So, you might see a graph from a UK textbook that has the marginal social cost curve below the marginal private cost curve, when there's an external benefit involved.

The more you know! Or, just stick to studysmarter.us to avoid confusion like this :)

Social Costs: Why Do External Costs Exist?

Why do externalities exist in the first place? Why can't the free market just take care of it and find the optimal solution for everyone involved? Well, there are two reasons that prevent the free market from reaching the socially optimal outcome: the lack of well-defined property rights and the existence of high transaction costs.

Lack of well-defined property rights

Imagine if someone hits your car in an accident. The other person would have to pay for the damage to your car if it's their fault. The property rights here are well-defined: you clearly own your car. Someone has to compensate you for damages they cause to your car.

But when it comes to public resources or public goods, the property rights are way less clear. Clean air is a public good - everyone has to breathe, and everyone is affected by the air quality. But legally, the property rights involved are not so clear. The law doesn't explicitly say that everyone has partial ownership of the air. When a factory pollutes the air, it is not always easy legally for someone to sue the factory and demand compensation.

High transaction costs

A the same time, the consumption of a public good such as clean air involves a lot of people. The transaction costs can be so high that it effectively prevents a resolution between all the parties involved.

Transaction cost is the cost of making an economic trade for the participants involved.

High transaction costs are a very real problem for the market to find a resolution in the case of pollution. There are simply too many parties involved. Imagine that even if the law allows you to sue the polluters for worsening air quality, it would still be nearly impossible for you to do so. There are countless factories that are polluting the air in a region, not to mention all the vehicles on the road. It would be impossible to even identify all of them, let alone to ask all of them for monetary compensation.

Social costs Traffic pollution StudySmarterIt would be very difficult for an individual to ask all car drivers to compensate for the pollution that they cause, pixabay

Social Costs: Examples of External Costs

Where can we find examples of external costs? Well, external costs are everywhere in everyday life. Every time when someone or some firm imposes some harm on others without compensating for it, that's an external cost. Examples include when someone is being loud and disturbs their neighbors; when a roommate leaves dirty dishes in the sink; and the noise and air pollution from vehicle traffic. In all of these examples, the social costs of the activities are higher than the private costs to the person doing the action because of the external costs that these actions impose on other people.

The social cost of carbon

With the serious consequences of climate change, we are paying more and more attention to the external cost of carbon emissions. Many countries around the world are thinking of ways to properly account for this external cost. There are two main ways to make firms internalize the cost of carbon emissions in their production decisions - through a tax on carbon or a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions permits. An optimal carbon tax should be equal to the social cost of carbon, and in a cap-and-trade system, the optimal target price should be equal to the social cost of carbon as well.

A Pigouvian tax is a tax that is designed to make economic actors internalize the external costs of their actions.

A tax on carbon emissions is an example of a Pigouvian tax.

The question then becomes: what exactly is the social cost of carbon? Well, the answer is not always straightforward. The estimation of the social cost of carbon is a highly contested analysis both because of the scientific challenges and also the underlying socioeconomic implications.

For instance, during the Obama Administration, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated the social cost of carbon and came up with a value of approximately $45 per ton of CO2 emissions in 2020, using a 3% discount rate. However, the cost of carbon was changed to $1 - $6 per ton under the Trump administration, using a 7% discount rate.1 When the government uses a higher discount rate to calculate the cost of carbon, it discounts the future damage of carbon emissions more, therefore it will get to a lower present value of the cost of carbon.

Issues with estimating the social cost of carbon

The calculations for the social cost of carbon stem from 4 specific inputs:

a) What changes in climate result from additional emissions?

b) What damages result from these changes to the climate?

c) What is the cost of these additional damages?

d) How do we estimate the present cost of future damages?

There remain many challenges in trying to find the right estimates of the cost of carbon:

1) It is difficult to determine with certainty what damage climate change has caused or what the damage will be. There are many omissions when inputting important costs, especially when researchers assume some costs are zero. Costs such as loss of eco-system are excluded or underestimated because we don't have a clear financial value.

2) It is hard to determine whether the modeling is suitable for large climate changes, including catastrophe risk. Climate-related damages may increase slowly with small temperature changes and perhaps accelerate catastrophically when we reach certain temperatures. This kind of risk is often not represented in these models.

3) Carbon price analysis often excludes some risks that are difficult to model, such as some types of climate repercussions.

4) A framework based on marginal changes due to cumulative emissions may not be suitable for capturing the cost of the risk of a catastrophe which is often the most serious concern.

5) It's not clear which discount rate should be used and whether it should remain constant over time. The choice of discount rate makes a huge difference in calculating the cost of carbon.

6) There are other co-benefits to reducing carbon emissions, most importantly health benefits as a result of less air pollution. It's unclear how we should factor in these co-benefits.

These uncertainties and limitations imply that the calculations are likely to underestimate the actual social cost of carbon emissions. Therefore, any emission reduction measures with a price below the calculated social cost of carbon are cost-effective; however, other expensive efforts may still be worthwhile considering that the actual cost of carbon emissions may be much higher than the estimated number.

Social Costs - Key takeaways

  • Social costs are the sum of private costs borne by the economic actor and the external costs imposed on others by an activity.
  • External costs are costs that are imposed on others that are not compensated for.
  • External costs exist because of the lack of well-defined property rights and high transaction costs.
  • When there are external costs, rational actors only respond to their private costs and benefits and would not consider the external costs of their actions.
  • A Pigouvian tax is a tax that is designed to make economic actors internalize the external costs of their actions. A tax on carbon emissions is an example of a Pigouvian tax.

References

  1. "Trump vs. Obama on the Social Cost of Carbon–and Why It Matters." Columbia University, SIPA Center on Global Energy Policy. https://www.energypolicy.columbia.edu/research/op-ed/trump-vs-obama-social-cost-carbon-and-why-it-matters

Frequently Asked Questions about Social Costs

Social costs are the sum of private costs borne by the economic actor and the external costs imposed on others by an activity.

Every time when someone or some firm imposes some harm on others without compensating for it, that's an external cost. Examples include when someone is being loud and disturbs their neighbors; when a roommate leaves dirty dishes in the sink; and the noise and air pollution from vehicle traffic. 

(Marginal) Social cost = (marginal) private cost + (marginal) external cost

Private cost is the cost borne by the economic actor. Social cost is the sum of private cost and external cost.

The social cost of production is the private cost of production plus the external cost of production that is imposed on others (pollution for example).

Final Social Costs Quiz

Question

Which two costs contribute to the Social Cost?

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Answer

1. Private Cost.

2. External Cost

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Question

How do external costs lead to market failures?

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Answer

When there are external costs, rational agents only respond to their private costs and private benefits, leading to overproduction or overconsumption at the point where the marginal social cost is greater than the marginal social benefit.

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Question

Which economic term is used to describe the uncompensated costs that are imposed on others?

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Answer

External costs

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Question

Which type of externalities are associated with the social cost?

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Answer

External costs (negative externalities)

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Question

Interpret this expression.
MSC > MPC

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Answer

The marginal social cost is higher than the marginal private cost, meaning that external costs exist in this situation.

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Question

What is the social cost of carbon?

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Answer

The social cost of carbon describes the burden that carbon emissions place on society as a whole

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Question

What is the purpose of putting a price on a ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted?

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Answer

To make economic actors internalize the external cost of carbon emissions.

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Question

What is transaction cost?

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Answer

Transaction cost is the cost of making an economic trade for the participants involved.

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Question

A tax on carbon is an example of a ______?

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Answer

Pigouvian tax

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Question

What is the marginal social cost formula?

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Answer

MSC = MPC + MEC 

Marginal social cost = marginal private cost + marginal external cost

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Question

Why do external costs exist?

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Answer

1. Lack of well-defined property rights;

2. High transaction cost.

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Question

What is an example of an external cost?

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When the social costs of the activities are higher than the private costs to the person doing the action because of the external costs that these actions impose on other people. Examples include when someone is being loud and disturbs their neighbors; when a roommate leaves dirty dishes in the sink; and the noise and air pollution from vehicle traffic.

Show question

Question

Define external costs.

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Answer

External costs are costs that are imposed on others that are not compensated for

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Question

Fill the blank in the following definition

... are the sum of private costs borne by the economic actor and the external costs imposed on others by an activity. 


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Answer

Social costs

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Question

Fill the blank in the following definition:

... are costs that are imposed on others that are not compensated for.


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Answer

External costs


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Question

In the following definition identify the incorrect segment out of the highlighted options.

The social cost is the difference between the private cost and the external cost.

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Answer

difference between

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Question

What does MSC stand for?

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Answer

Marginal social cost

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Question

What is an example of the Pigouvian tax?

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Answer

A tax on carbon emissions is an example of a Pigouvian tax.


Show question

Question

What is the cost of making an economic trade for the participants involved?



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Answer

Transaction cost 

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Question

Fill the blanks in the following definition:



... tax is a tax that is designed to make economic actors internalize the ... costs of their actions. 


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Answer

Pigouvian/external

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Question

What does MEC stand for?

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Answer

 marginal external cost 

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Question

Economics is about making decisions at the margin. So with regard to social costs, what do the economists use to decide the socially optimal level of an activity?


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Answer

the measure of marginal social cost

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Question

Give example for the negative externalities.

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Answer

Things like noise disturbance and pollution are negative externalities because they have a negative external impact on other people.

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When do positive externalities occur?

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Answer

Positive externalities occur when our actions bring a positive impact on other people.

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Give an example of when positive externalities occur.

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Answer

For example, when we get the flu vaccine, it also gives partial protection to those around us, so that's a positive externality of us getting the vaccine.


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Question

When someone is being loud and disturbs their neighbors; when a roommate leaves dirty dishes in the sink; and the noise and air pollution from vehicle traffic, we see an example of what?

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Answer

External cost

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Question

What are two main ways to make firms internalize the cost of carbon emissions in their production decision?

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Answer

through a tax on carbon or a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions permits.

Show question

Question

An optimal carbon tax should be equal to what? 

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Answer

to the social cost of carbon

Show question

Question

In a cap-and-trade system, the optimal target price should be equal to ...?

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Answer

to the social cost of carbon

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