Some evidence that sweatshops are good for Bangladeshi women

I recently read an interesting paper by Rachel Heath and A. Mushfiq Mobarak, of the Universities of Washington and Yale, which looks at the impact that the garment industry has on young girls and women in Bangladesh. 

The results are quite amazing. According to the study, girls in villages close to garment factories (or sweatshops, as they are sometimes called):

  1. Delay marriage. On average, a young girl living near a garment factory was 28% less likely to get married in the study year than the average Bangladeshi girl. This effect was strongest among 12-18 year olds.
  2. Delay childbirth. On average, a young girl living near a garment factory was 29% less likely to give birth in the study year than average. Again, this effect was strongest among 12-18 year olds.
  3. Are much more likely to go to school. Exposure to garment factory jobs was associated with a 38.6% increase in school enrolment rates. Broken down, this translated into a slightly lower enrolment rate for 17-18 year old girls, who presumably were more likely to be in work, and a considerably higher enrolment rate for girls younger than that.

According to the study’s authors, these findings are probably due to some combination of wealth effects (richer families need to marry off their daughters less early, and can afford to send their daughters to school for longer) and the fact that garment factory jobs reward skills, increasing the value of education.

The paper is an important reminder that sweatshops may provide significant benefits to their employees and the places they are located. They are by no means all good, but they are not all bad either, which well-meaning campaigners against sweatshops would do well to remember. A working version of the whole paper can be accessed here.

Switching mobile networks is easier than switching governments

Unlike lots of people on the right, I like Owen Jones. He’s good natured and often challenges orthodoxy on his own side, and he’s a thought-provoking writer. 

Having said that, I usually disagree with what he writes on economics. His Guardian piece this week, which called for the nationalisation of the UK’s mobile network operators, was a good example. It’s tempting to dismiss it as clickbait, but it represents a train of thought that is increasing in popularity. And if nothing else it may shift the Overton Window.

Jones starts by pointing out that nationalisation of big industries is very popular among the public at large. “While our political overlords are besotted with Milton Friedman, the public seem to be lodged somewhere between John Maynard Keynes and Karl Marx.” 

A fair point. He might also have noted that the public disagrees with him about lots of other things: the obvious example is hanging, where the public is somewhere between Roger Helmer and Oswald Mosley, but there’s also immigration, which 55% of people want reduced ‘a lot’ (and another 21% want reduced ‘a little’). The Great British public thinks the benefits system is too generous by a 2-to-1 margin, and think that ‘politicians need to do more to reduce the amount of money paid out in benefits’ by a 3-to-1 margin. And so on. On these issues, and presumably many others, I assume Jones thinks the public needs further persuasion.

It isn’t necessarily that the public really is bloodthirsty or xenophobic or anti-poor or quasi-Marxist; it’s that the public is extremely uninformed about most things. How could you judge whether we needed more or less immigration if you thought we had more than twice as much immigration as we actually do? How could you judge whether the railroads should be nationalised or not if you did not know that passenger numbers had doubled since privatization, after decades of decline under the state?

Jones claims that mobile phone networks are an inefficient natural monopoly, without any real reasons given. This claim is untrue. The UK has four competing mobile networks (Vodafone, O2, Three and EE, which was formed by a merger by T-Mobile and Orange) and dozens of aftermarket “mobile virtual network operators” that lease wireless spectrum from those four networks (GiffGaff and Tesco Mobile are two popular examples). None of these networks are unusually profitable and all spend enormous amounts on marketing. Try spending a day in a city without seeing at least one advert for each company. This is not the behaviour of monopolistic industry!

(There are a couple of other frustrating errors in the piece. For instance, a typical £32-a-month 24-month contract can get you an iPhone worth £550, not a device worth £200 as Jones claims.)

Yes, signal blackspots are annoying. (Take it from someone who spent his teenage life having to walk into the garden to send a text message.) And mobile networks’ customer service really does suck sometimes! But Jones is comparing reality with an ideal where resources are infinite. Since resources are not infinite, we have to have some way of deciding what imperfections are tolerable. 

For example, as annoying as blackspots are, the optimal amount of coverage is obviously less than 100%. The phone networks reckon they cover around 99% of the population, and as frustrating as it is when you’re in that last 1%, the marginal costs rise dramatically when you try to cover that last 1%. We could cover them at great cost, meaning that we have less money to spend on other important things elsewhere. The question is one of priorities.

Ultimately, the important question that Jones does not answer (or ask) is, compared to what? Private sector firms might be irritating sometimes. Unless you can show that nationalised firms would be less irritating and better overall, that doesn’t tell us anything about what we should do. 

There are lots of examples of nationalised firms that were absolutely terrible. Tim remembers waiting three months for a landline when the GPO ran the phones; and then there is the huge drop-off in rail passenger numbers under British Rail, followed by an equally huge recovery after privatisation:


The fact that the state funded some of the scientific research that led to the iPhone doesn’t mean that we’d have better phones if we nationalised Apple. (It might be a case for state funding for scientific research that is released into the public domain, though.) As Tim says, “The State can be just as good as the market at invention, the creation of really cool new technologies. But it’s terrible compared to the market at innovation, the getting of that new technology into peoples’ hands so that they can do cool and interesting new things with it.” 

Economies of scale exist, as Jones suggests, but so do diseconomies of scale. Firms can be too big. And when you have a single network (whether it’s privately or publicly owned), customers lose all ability to ‘exit’ a firm that is giving them a bad service, so the only recourse they have is at the ballot box. 

Which brings us back to the first problem with Jones’s piece: politics is a complicated business about which we know little. If we don’t like what we’ve got, we have to hope that a majority of other voters agrees with us – and even if we’re right, they may not be informed enough to agree with us. 

It’s a lot easier to switch mobile phone providers than it is to switch governments. Ultimately, it’s that pluralism and freedom of exit that drives improvements in markets, and tends to make governments relatively bad at doing things. For all the mobile network industry’s problems, the question is: compared to what?

Goodbye, Green Belt!

Last night BBC London News aired a short film I took part in about the Green Belt. As part of a series of ‘authored’ pieces about various solutions to London’s housing crisis, I suggested that we should allow construction on the Green Belt around London to increase the supply of developable land.

Cheshire-htg-fig-1Land, as Paul Cheshire likes to point out, is the key. The graph above shows how closely house price rises have tracked land price rises. Land-use restrictions on the Green Belt are quite strict: under the National Planning Policy Framework, local councils face a very high burden of proof to approve new developments on Green Belt land. If they were made less strict, then the supply of land and housing would increase and the price of both would fall.

I usually think of people who want to preserve the Green Belt as being motivated by financial considerations. If you own your house, you don’t want its value to fall, so you have a strong incentive to oppose any measure that will increase supply. Perhaps a large proportion of people involved in campaigns to ‘protect the Green Belt’ own their own homes. (And if not, that would certainly falsify this view.)

But filming with the BBC made me realize that this explanation is too neat and too unfair. The preservationist I interviewed, Dr Ann Goddard, was not preoccupied with preserving the value of her home – she believed, as many do, that relatively unspoiled natural areas are valuable and important to protect from development. The meadow she took us to was very pretty and I would regret losing places like it as well. Throughout our conversation Ann made it clear that her idea of England was entwined with its image as a ‘green and pleasant land’, not just somewhere for endless suburban sprawl.

Much of that greenery is worth keeping, but I suggest that the question is not ‘what’ but ‘where’. Since Green Belt land rings cities, it is much more difficult for city slickers to access than, say, gardens or parks. And lots of London already is covered in gardens or parks – more than half, according to one estimate. Allowing London to expand outwards would eat away at the Green Belt, but also allow more people to have gardens and for more (and bigger) parks to be built.

I also realized how important symbols can be: to Ann the meadow we went to WAS the Green Belt. If we’d taken her to a piece of intensive farmland (34% of the Green Belt around London) maybe she would have cared less about the prospect of that being turned into a village. And I wonder if focusing on intensive farmland is the key to changing people’s minds. In the end, if the battle over the Green Belt is about ideas and symbols rather than pocketbooks, a change of language might help us.

Why golf is a rubbish sport

The LSE’s Paul Cheshire has a good post up on the Spatial Economics Research Centre blog today on green- and brown-field development. Among other things, he explains why there are so many golf courses on the green belt:

Nothing wrong with golf or horsey culture but what we have to understand is that Greenbelt designation gives those land uses a massive subsidy. House building cannot compete for agricultural land but golf and horses can. I recently discovered another reason why we have so many golf courses around our cities: they are substitutes for landfill sites. It costs £80 a ton to dispose of ‘inert material’ in registered landfill sites but nothing if it goes into building bunkers! To quote Paul Robinson, Derby Council’s Strategic Director for Neighbourhoods, in defending the potential to capitalise on the value of the sites of the Councils two golf courses: “Effectively you go out to the waste industry and you say we will allow you to put your inert waste in our golf course…So you create mounds and bunker areas using the waste and at the core of those is inert waste.” .

This is one factor which underlies the proliferation of golf courses close to sources of builders’ waste and on land where there is no competition from houses. As noted in The Economist there is a serious oversupply of them. So the combination of Greenbelt designation and landfill costs means we can build as many golf courses as the market demands at their subsidised price but we cannot build houses. It is time to start turning some of our excess supply of golf courses into gardens; with houses on them!

The whole thing is a good read, particular the estimate of how much greenfield land is currently available to build on within a ten minute walk of a train station. (Quite a lot.)

The new Adam Smith Institute website


If you’re a regular reader of the Adam Smith Institute, you’ll have noticed that we have a new website. I’m a big fan of the design – that and the rest of the site has been done by freelancer Rob Bell (who I strongly recommend for quality, value and ease-of-doing-business if you’re thinking of getting a site designed yourself).

But the changes have been a little more than cosmetic: moving to WordPress from Drupal means that we can manage the site at the back end more cheaply and easily than ever before, and if/when we want to redesign the site in the future it should be relatively simple.

Most importantly, the site is now fully responsive to mobile and table screen sizes, so reading on your phone should be a very pleasant experience from now on.

Naturally, there have been a few hiccups – we’ve imported all our old research and blogposts and maintained most URLs, but some old images have been lost and some posts with special characters in their URL may not be working. Thanks in part to Google’s caching of old pages and the Wayback Machine, all of these things can be fixed manually. If you spot anything amiss, just let us know in the comments here.

There are some other minor niggles that need to be sorted out – we have pages about (for instance) Adam Smith that were almost never visited on the old site and we haven’t found a good way to link to on the new site just yet. As is often the case, the balance is between style and function, and it will take a while to get everything working properly.

We’ll be experimenting with some other changes, like keeping the Research section for ASI reports only and putting longer think pieces (clearly labeled as such) on the blog. We’re also using tags for posts to make it easier to find what you want from our archives.

If you have any comments or suggestions, do please let us know!