GE2019: Conservatism and the Minimum Wage

By Prof Duncan Watson

Project Fear? You may think it’s a recent Brexit hullaballoo. I instead remember it as the Conservative Party’s 1998 reaction to New Labour’s National Minimum Wage. John Bercow, before becoming Mr Popular as the Speaker of the House, groaned that it “is bad for small business, bad for investment, bad for competitiveness and bad for exports and jobs”. Continue reading “GE2019: Conservatism and the Minimum Wage”

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Feminist

By Prof Duncan Watson

Who makes the best ultra-endurance athlete? Are they male or are they female? It’s a question thrown out by a media eager to gobsmack. Jasmin Paris runs away with the 268-mile Montane Spine Race. Katie Wright slogs 30 hours nonstop to scoop the Riverhead Backyard ReLaps Ultra-marathon. Reporters collapse into quizzical fluster: what, how and why? Aided by interviews with willing scientists, gender differences are carefully weighed and given a tabloid twist. Men benefit from greater aerobic power, but muscled physiques weigh heavy in any winning diatribe. Women, in contrast, are deemed superior at managing fatigue. Coping strategies are adopted to successfully re-frame emotional responses to side-line pain. Steadier performance is enabled, fabricating a winning mentality. I rehash this debate to my partner, trusting for a female perspective. She doesn’t entertain my prance. Bored, she shushes me: “we’re both inept at running”.

This could become an economic indulgence over shiny statistical tools. We understand distribution. These athletes are outliers and have running abilities far beyond Joe and Joan Average. However, there is an alternative debate here which has potentially more grunt repercussion. The economist, embracing what can be quantified, will typically construct their analysis around inputs and outputs. It is a deliberately rigid concentration on ‘means and ends’ to guarantee empirical testing of hypothesis. Its advertised by the economic consideration of the family. That scrutiny blossoms over issues such as joint labour supply. Re-configuring standard concepts such as division of labour, an optimal family decision can be suitably mapped. Theory and data allow for concrete conclusion. Those moaning that individual relations within the family are ignored are swept aside. Quantitative analysis out-trumps all.

The long-distance runner debate now becomes opportune. It becomes a metaphor befitting the questioning of the validity of this standard approach. Career success is taken to be akin to winning the ultra-marathon. Labour markets are ultimately seen as contests, with the wage winner permitted champagne celebration over their superior productivity. It’s a simple understanding of success and failure; effort in, performance out. Earnings are then explained through the construction of a wage equation capable of assessing the individual’s willingness to ‘train’. Differences in gender outcomes reflect endurance. Women apparently trip up early, giving up career opportunity to raise a family. They are apparently hardwired to be less career minded. The man, brought up on a diet of machismo, is more likely to see the opportunity in embracing danger. Keen to maximise over all aspects of the career slog, they receive compensation for accepting any elevated risk. Mind you, a slither of unexplained wage differential is still admitted. There is discrimination at play. It is a problem easily solved mind you; passive policies, such as equal pay legislation, can ensure a fair race.

Are you content with that approach? I personally struggle with it. The wage equation, after all, is just a minor adaptation of a supply and demand model used to explain markets for inanimate objects. Interpersonal relationships, while certainly irrelevant for the market for lard, are a key part of family life. What happens when we do consider them? Take my own circumstances. My partner, Louise, has a PhD in Welsh Literature. It would be folly to suggest, through my career switch from Swansea University to UEA, that Louise’s economic opportunities remain unhindered. The East Anglian interest in ‘all things Welsh’ is unforgivably rather niche. The choice to re-locate is in my favour and against hers. The decision reinforces my labour market dominance in family decision-making.

What does this mean? To have a full understanding of economic outcome arguably requires you to reject rigid focus on gender characteristic differences. Instead, shouldn’t the attention be on these differentials of power? It’s those power divides, after all, that guarantee observed differences in economic outcome. Without an understanding of power, can we really comprehend differential male-female performance outcomes? And it isn’t just about gender. Could we, for example, also understand social class without reference to how power divides hinder income mobility? Ultimately, our desire to quantify may have ironically guaranteed only a half measure in what we do.

Let’s conclude with one more reference to the long-distance metaphor. Might there be additional comment relevant to the transformation in how economics is taught? Economists often disagree. Their quarrel is a celebration. Given economics is a pluralist subject, any consensus would perturb. Economics, at the very least, should embrace a comparison of conflicting schools of thought. That comparison must include the inclusion of the impact of differential power on economic modelling. Economics would then automatically spring towards a feminist perspective. But how can you, as someone interested in economics, achieve that? It ultimately requires endurance as, over the long term, you keep up with mainstream economic models and then challenge their position. I’m already running that marathon. Put on your running shoes and join me.

Banner Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

The Behavioural Economics of a Take-away Latte: A Recycling Conundrum

Dr Mike Brock (UEA Economics) & Ben Plummer (UEA Environmental Sciences)

In the UK, we are now estimated to use around 7 million take away cups each day [1] and with the ever-growing culture of on-the-go consumption for people living in the developed world this number is only expected to rise.

This begs an interesting question: why have take-out coffee cups not become a recyclable commodity? Continue reading “The Behavioural Economics of a Take-away Latte: A Recycling Conundrum”

The Dog Walker’s Tragedy of the Commons

By Prof Duncan Watson

A common resource, or so they say, is a tragedy. Meadowlands will be overgrazed; the sea overfished. The pursuit for personal gain guarantees it. But the killjoy here isn’t self-interest. Nah, any scolding is left to insufficient property rights. Privatisation can end this dystopia, with profit maximisers then creating a patchwork sea of optimally grazed fields. Inspired by walking my dog, this dreamscape is today’s topic of investigation. Continue reading “The Dog Walker’s Tragedy of the Commons”

Social Housing – An Economist’s Project

by Nick Lansdowne and Dr Emiliya Lazarova

Social housing became one of the pillars of the welfare state 100 years ago with the 1919 ‘Addison Act’.  It instructed councils to build 500,000 high-quality, spacious social homes that would be ‘fit for heroes’ returning from the war and were provided at sub-market rents for those who needed them. The goals were clear – provide good quality housing for those in need, help build communities and boost local economic activities. Putting aside the question of whether social housing was fit to reach the wider welfare objectives, every novice economist would quickly recognise an intrinsic problem with a scheme such as this where normal (and essential) goods are made available at sub-market prices: it will quickly face the pressure of excess demand and financial unsustainability. Continue reading “Social Housing – An Economist’s Project”

The Eternal Sunshine of the Post-Brexit Mind

By Prof Duncan Watson

A Downbeat Dawn

My partner is from Stoke-on-Trent. I know Stoke as the birth place of the greatest sportsman in the world, Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor. For those unforgivably innocent of Darts, you might instead know it as the world capital of ceramics. Born myself in East Bergholt, where many as hour is spent saying ‘crikey, that Suffolk Punch is a big horse’, I’d argue back and forth with my Stokie love over word pronunciations and the origins of the oatcake. Brexit slaughters this innocence. The day after a hefty 69.4% Leave vote, the BBC unleashes its reporters on Stoke to repetitively patronise the locals: ‘what were you thinking?’. Continue reading “The Eternal Sunshine of the Post-Brexit Mind”

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