Bankers earn more than medics: what can we do?!

A common criticism leveled against the financial services industry concerns their remuneration compared to those from more ‘noble’ professions – such as Medical Doctors. Proclamations such as “it’s ridiculous that the average Doctor earns less than the average investment banker” are not unusual to hear in common parlance; Doctors cure ailments and save lives whereas Investment Bankers supposedly wreck households and exploit taxpayers. It is, therefore, unfair that Bankers are paid more than Doctors. The oft-proposed solution is heavier taxation and regulation on Investment Banks.

However, these critics conveniently forget the other side of the coin – the inadequate remuneration for noble professions. Increased taxation and regulation on Investment Banks does nothing to address the inadequate gratitude expressed to them (which these same critics seem to implicitly believe is measured purely by financial compensation).

For Doctors to be remunerated fairly, we need only look at the USA to find that, on that side of the Atlantic, it’s Medics (Anaesthetists, Gynaecologists, General Practitioners etc.) who dominate lists of the most highly paid professions. Their average pay in the USA is higher and their hours worked less than average Investment Bankers. Freer markets ensure fairer, more just remuneration.

Nursing and teaching are also considered noble professions (though they are often undervalued, and wrongly so, relative to Doctors). Fair remuneration and freedom with which they can care and teach in an appropriate, effective and efficient way is only viable in a mostly (if not, completely) free market.

In Higher Education, the phenomenally high research activity of US Universities is unrivalled. This can be attributed to the flourishing mix of private alternatives, the relatively generous remuneration of Professors and the abundance of private funding opportunities available for academic pursuits.

One might argue that healthcare and education must be universally accessible and it would greatly harm society if we repealed the public healthcare available via the NHS. However, a pragmatic compromise would be issuing healthcare vouchers so that individuals are given the money that they can spend freely on their own healthcare. In this way, the public can choose between public and private alternatives with their vouchers.

Free markets lead to an improvement in welfare for all those involved by providing the consumers with more choice (whether they be patients or students) and higher quality products through competitive mechanisms whilst ensuring the fair remuneration of producers – whether they are medical professionals or involved in education.

Maybe Keynes was right after all?

It has to be said that we’re not great fans of macroeconomics around here. Not enough good data from enough different places to definitively answer most questions: and that’s before we get onto Hayek’s point about simply not being able to calculate the economy without using the economy itself to do so. However, this makes us think that Keynes might well have been right on one point:

It took far too long but Britain’s traumatic national pay cut is coming to an end. Even on the somewhat crude median earnings measure, pay is finally going up again, even after accounting for the effects of price rises. Wages are rising a little faster and inflation has collapsed, a golden combination for employees across the country.

Ever since the Industrial Revolution and the spread of capitalism, gradually rising wages have been the norm, apart from in wartime and during brief periods of extreme economic dislocation. The fact that this process went into partial reverse over the past few years despite the recovery came as a shock and helped to explain why so many people began to fall out of love with capitalism. It is therefore excellent news that normality is finally re-establishing itself.

One view of unemployment is simply that it happens when labour is more expensive than people are willing to pay for it. That’s obvious in that one sense of course. The question becomes then well, how quickly will the repricing happen if we do ever get to that stage? There are those who insist that it happens immediately and thus unemployment and recessions cannot happen. Not an entirely convincing view. There are also those who insist that it can take forever and this justifies all sorts of interventions. And then we’ve got the evidence of the past few years.

It could be argued that labour in the UK did become too expensive. We had just had the largest and longest peacetime expansion of the economy after all. So, a repricing was necessary. And this is where Keynes could be said to be correct. It takes time because nominal wages are sticky downwards. People really, really, don’t like lower numbers on their paycheques. They’ll grumble about their real wages falling if it’s disguised with a little bit of inflation but they’ll riot if the equivalent fall were at a steady price level.

We don’t say that the past few years prove it: only that what evidence we have is consistent with this explanation. And, given the paucity of our evidence base, that’s probably the best we can do.

As we’ve been saying, there isn’t really a gender pay gap

But there is a motherhood pay gap. Interesting research:

Studies from countries with laws against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation suggest that gay and lesbian employees report more incidents of harassment and are more likely to report experiencing unfair treatment in the labor market than are heterosexual employees. Gay men are found to earn less than comparably skilled and experienced heterosexual men. For lesbians, the patterns are ambiguous: in some countries they have been found to earn less than their heterosexual counterparts, while in others they earn the same or more.

The results for the UK are that gay men earn less than hetero, lesbians more than hetero women. In fact, lesbians earn around what men do and gay men earn around what hetero women do.

We could, as this report does, speculate about societal standards, the idea that lesbian women have, in some manner, “male traits” which lead to that higher pay.

A much simpler observation of the evidence would be the influence of children. We know that fathers earn more than non-fathers among hetero men (yes, even after adjusting for age and education etc). Also that mothers earn less than non-mothers. Gay men tend not to be fathers (this is not being categorical of course, “tend”) as lesbians tend not to be mothers.

If the so-called gender pay gap were simply the influence of children upon earning patterns, as we largely think it is, then we would expect to see what we do see when looking at the earnings of non-hetero society. This does not prove we are correct of course, but it is supportive of our view.

Free movement and discrimination: the case of football

The more you open markets up, the less discrimination you get on grounds of ‘taste’ (racism). The stuff left over is usually ‘statistical‘ (i.e. where certain groups are different in their average levels of job-relevant criteria). There was already a great paper showing this for the Fantasy Premier League (which I play avidly), but now there’s also one for the real Premiership!

Pierre Deschamps and José de Sousa look at the impact of the 1995 Bosman Ruling on the gap between black and white footballer wages in the English league. They find that when only 20 clubs competed for their skills, black players were underpaid relative to white ones, indicating that owners were able to indulge their preference against non-whites (or indulge their fans’ preferences).

But once the whole of Europe were effectively on an equal footing, blacks became highly mobile and garnered equal pay for their efforts:

This paper assesses the impact of labor mobility on racial discrimination. We present an equilibrium search model that reveals an inverted U-shaped relationship between labor mobility and race-based wage differentials. We explore this relationship empirically with an exogenous mobility shock on the European soccer labor market. The Bosman ruling by the European Court of Justice in 1995 lifted restrictions on soccer player mobility.

Using a panel of all clubs in the English first division from 1981 to 2008, we compare the pre- and post-Bosman ruling market to identify the causal effect of intensified mobility on race-based wage differentials. Consistent with a taste-based explanation, we find evidence that increasing labor market mobility decreases racial discrimination.

The figure below shows how the ‘turnover’ (i.e. churn between clubs) of black English players jumped when European markets opened up. Market freedoms; exit; a sort of ‘voting with their feet’, outperformed voice in bringing equality. And we know from ASI research that this did not harm the English national team.

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This is in line with a lot of what we have been saying recently—markets are a good way to bring about justice!

People respond to incentives

That people respond to incentives is an obvious point but I feel like every reiteration is worth it. One of the clearest examples of where people respond strongly to incentives is retirement. If you raise the retirement age, many people who’d otherwise be eligible continue to work.

Since retirement probably increases life satisfaction/happiness and perhaps even health we obviously want it to happen at some point, but since it’s also very costly in terms of benefits paid and productive activity not done, we want to be mindful of both costs and benefits.

A new paper in The Review of Economics and Statistics by Kadir Atalay and Garry F. Barrett at the University of Sydney adds to a large literature:

Governments around the world are reforming their social security systems in light of the challenges posed by population aging. We study the 1993 Australian Age Pension reform, which progressively increased the eligibility age for women from 60 to 65 years. We find economically significant responses to the reform. An increase in the eligibility age of one year induced a decline in the probability of retirement by 12 to 19 percentage points. In addition, the reform induced significant program substitution, with increases in enrollment in other social insurance programs, particularly the disability support pension, which effectively functioned as an alternative source of retirement income.

Raising the retirement age for women led to lots more of them working, but also more of them claiming other benefits.

Every single paper I’ve ever seen on the topic has found a similar result. For example in the UK raising the pension age from 60 to 61 led to 7.3pp more women in employment at age 60 (separate paper with more evidence). In Spain, people with worse health were more responsive to financial incentives. Less generous pension payouts in France (normal retirement rather than disability insurance retirement) meant 14% higher total work hours, on average, between the ages of 55 and 64. Another paper found that pensioners respond to incentives in a different way: if they stand to gain more by waiting before they claim then they are more likely to wait.

The point of all this is not to say that we should pack the elderly off to the workhouse until they’re 90, but more to note that incentives matter, against the common claims that the homo economicus model is rarely or never a good approximation for real humans.