Increasing access to private education will add billions to growth

  • The UK’s average annual growth rate between 1960 and 2007 would have been almost 1 percentage point higher had it matched the Netherlands’ long-term level of independent school enrolment since 1960. This in turn means that UK GDP per capita would have been over £5,800 higher in 2007 than it was.
  • Better education boosts economic growth; improving students’ international test scores by 10% raises a country’s average annual growth rate by 0.85 percentage points.
  • UK GDP per capita would have been almost £5,300 higher in 2007 had it performed as well as Taiwan since the mid-twentieth century.

Britain could add billions of pounds to long-term economic growth if it increased access to private education, a new report released today (Tuesday July 29th) by the free-market Adam Smith Institute has found.

The report, “Incentive to Invest: How education affects economic growth”, illustrates how higher educational achievement boosts long-term economic growth, and the important role of private schooling in this process.

Through the use of existing research and new quantitative evidence, the author of the report, Gabriel Heller Sahlgren, establishes that test scores are closely related to growth. Lifting achievement by 10% hikes a country’s average annual growth by 0.85 percentage points.

Furthermore, the report illustrates how competition from independent schools has proven successful in generating higher international test scores, while also driving costs down. Sending 20 percentage points more 15 year olds to independent schools would raise growth by 0.4pp—or about a sixth—via its positive effect on educational achievement.

Based on his findings, Heller Sahlgren calls for the government to radically reform education policy by encouraging more privatisation and competition in the education sector.

Had the UK matched the Netherlands’ long-term level of independent school enrolment since 1960, its GDP per capita would be over £5,800 higher today, the report argues. At a time when policymakers are trying to cement and broaden the economic recovery, the report suggests that expansion of access to private schooling would be an attractive component of a long-term growth strategy.

Commenting on the report, its author Gabriel Heller Sahlgren said:

My research shows that a focus on increasing the number of pupils taking higher qualifications is misguided. There’s in fact no robust impact of average schooling years in the population on economic growth on average.

On the other hand, education quality, proxied by international test scores, has a consistent and strong effect on growth. According to my calculations, the UK’s real GDP per capita in 2007 would have been over £5,000 higher had we performed on par with Taiwan since the mid-20th century. So the dividend of improving children’s attainment is large indeed.

Yet there are different ways to do achieve this. Unlike expensive resource-driven education reforms, which are rarely cost effective, a good option is to raise the level of independent school competition, which other research shows both increases international test scores as well as decreases costs.

According to my calculations, the indirect economic benefit, via higher achievement, of increasing the number of pupils in independent schools to the Netherlands’ level would be a 0.92 percentage point higher long run GDP per capita growth rate. The government should therefore continue their market-based reforms on education and expand choice as widely as possible.

Sam Bowman, Research Director of the Institute, said:

This report shows that we need greater access to private schooling for all pupils regardless of background, not just to improve the welfare of the children themselves but to boost the UK’s overall standard of living and long-term economic growth.

Expanded access to private education through school vouchers and a revival of the assisted places scheme may be an easy, low cost way for the government to boost growth by improving the human capital of British workers. The results may take some time to materialize but studies like this show just how valuable a long-term strategy for expanding access to private schools could be.

Click here to read “Incentive to Invest: How education affects economic growth”.

For further comments or to arrange an interview, contact Kate Andrews, Communications Manager, at kate@adamsmith.org / 07584 778207.

Why get rich?

You might have seen this chart, which shows different professions’ household income during childhood vs their income now:

A lot of people have focused on the fact that artists’ incomes ‘fall’ more than any other group. It reminded me of this quote from the American Founding Father John Adams:

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

Equality: as cheap as 50p?

Peter Oborne argues that Ed Balls’ pledge to raise the 45p top tax rate back up to 50p is a good idea. While the extremely high marginal rates (top main rate 83%, plus a 15% surcharge for “unearned income”) of the 1960s and ’70s might have been driven by “socialist envy”, George Osborne’s dropping the rate from 50p to 45p in was “profoundly shaming and offensive”, Oborne contends. This is because, echoing Stanley Baldwin and his brand of Toryism, the conservatives should represent the whole country, not the rich or any other factional interest.

Apparently the Coalition has “devoted a great deal of effort to lowering the living standards of the poor”, and this move to “make the rich richer” is inappropriate when the poor are getting poorer. I contend this by arguing that inequality is down to 90s levels under chancellor Osborne, while the worst-off in society are the only group to actually see their living standards improve the since the recession hit. And the (ugly, unpleasant, and regrettable) attitudes that have emerged towards benefits claimants are probably driving government rhetoric in that area, rather than vice versa.

In general, it annoys me when a columnist writes something apparently trading on what everyone just knows. Sometimes the common view is incorrect. Funnily enough, politics is the area where people err most profoundly and with the most regularity. And I would argue that Oborne is trading on falsehoods in his piece; would it still be a coherent argument if it started with the factual premise that inequality in the UK fell back below its 1997-8 low in 2011-12, 0.34 measured by the GINI coefficient? That the top 10% of earners endured the biggest blow to their incomes since the onset of the recession? And that the bottom 10% by income were the only one to see a rise in living standards taking inflation into account? I don’t think so.

The IFS reports I link above predict that by 2015-16 inequality will rise back to roughly its pre-recession level, so perhaps Oborne could refocus his attack on the future inequality Osborne possibly has a hand in. But in all likelihood there is probably little the government can do about inequality over the long-term, caused as it is by very fundamental trends and robust as it is to institutions even such as the USSR’s. Most of the extra inequality since the 60s and 70s has come from couples engaging in much more assortative mating. And very long-term trends are mainly dominated by heritability of social class—those with Norman surnames are 28% more likely than a random sample of similar others to get an Oxford place.

Bubbles and balloons

Quite a few people criticised the title of my last post — There was no British housing bubble — on the basis that, even if there was no overconstruction of housing (and thus no Austrian-style distortion in the structure of production), there was a bubble in the sense that prices rose rapidly, and so on.

But is this right? I suppose it depends on what you mean by a ‘bubble’. As far as I can tell, there are at least three different meanings of the word ‘bubble’:

  1. A speculative bubble, like the Beanie Baby craze. As Arnold Kling put it recently, “If investors who are buying the asset have estimates of the discounted present value of the income from that asset that imply a negative real return, then it is a bubble.”
  2. An Austrian-style bubble that distorts the real economy by incentivising production in an area where much of the demand is illusory (typically created by credit expansion, according to the Austrians).
  3. A government-created rise in price above ‘real’ (or endogenous) factors.

Take the third kind of bubble, which I think is what we are currently seeing in the British housing market. A ban on the construction of new houses would cause the price of housing to rise significantly, for instance (and this isn’t a million miles away from current government policy). Though the government policy is probably very harmful, given that it exists it is perfectly rational for markets to drive the price up, and that price should stay up for as long as the political factors dictate. The policy might be crazy, but the market’s reaction isn’t.

Let’s take a look at historical UK house prices (in real terms).

Clearly, prices were above trend in the 2000s and then fell after 2008, but compared to the early 1990s prices are still extremely high. I’m willing to believe that quite a bit of that rise was a type-1 or type-2 bubble, but unless you think we’re still in the midst of that kind of bubble (which could pop at any time), it’s not the whole story and doesn’t even seem to be most of the story. (As some commenters have pointed out, some aspects of this price increase were likely attributable to foolish financial wizardry, probably driven by regulation.)

More likely, that rise in house prices since the 1990s, since it is still high, is a type-3 bubble — a sensible reaction by markets to foolish government policies constraining the construction of new homes. I can’t explain why this rise only took place in the 1990s (population growth and decreases in household sizes may explain this, but I don’t know), but unless you’re saying that right now markets are wrong and you know better, that rise doesn’t seem like the sort of unsustainable bubble that leads to sudden crashes.

Type-3 bubbles are different to type-1 and -2 bubbles in that they do not run the risk of sudden crashes. A type-3 bubble is created by government fiat and it can only be undone by government fiat. This difference is sufficiently great that I suggest a new term for type-3 bubbles: “balloons”. A term like that might communicate the fact that prices have been blown up by human agency and, unlike bubbles, require an active popping or disinflating before they go away.

There’s no such thing as a free minimum wage hike

Paul Kirby, who was head of the No. 10 Policy Unit until last year, has a long post calling for a “dramatic, historic increase” to the minimum wage, bringing the levels from the current £6.10/hour to £10/hour in London and £8/hour in the rest of the country. It’s a bold post, but ultimately most of his arguments fail. In this post I try to address the key points he makes in favour of a hike.

Low wage earners are, overwhelmingly, providing services for domestic consumers within the UK economy. They work in shops, cafes and hotels. They cut our hair, they clean our houses, they look after our kids and they care for our elderly.  They are not  in manufacturing, competing on the price of their labour with other countries. What they do has to be done in this country. Nor is it tradable with other countries. If the Minimum Wage increases, it impacts equally on all of an employer’s competitors, so there is no disadvantage.

Even though nobody can switch to a cheaper hairdresser in India, they can get their hair cut less often, or have their homes cleaned less frequently, or send their children to creches with fewer minders per child or their parents to care homes with fewer carers. Kirby is assuming that demand for domestic services is inelastic – that is, it does not change much according to price. Obviously, this may differ between different services, but in without evidence to the contrary (Kirby gives none) it does not seem reasonable to assume that people’s demand for services will stay the same even if the prices of those services rise.

Bear in mind that a minimum wage increase would only affect the bottom of the market, where you would expect customers to be the most price-sensitive. The economic evidence suggests that increases in the minimum wage lead to slower job growth, particularly for young workers and in industries with a high proportion of low-paid staff.

Raising the lowest wages does not mean that employers simply have to, or will, just cut jobs or working hours to keep the wage bill constant. The evidence is clear that employers find a variety of solutions.  Firstly, they restrain pay growth for their better paid staff. Secondly, they increase prices to consumers. Thirdly, they improve productivity and get more out of each hour that they are paying for. And then they squeeze their profits. Through productivity gains, they either earn more revenue or cut the amount of labour they need.

Employers do not try to ‘keep the wage bill constant’. They try to make a profit on the labour they hire. If hiring an extra manager led to extra profits, it wouldn’t matter that doing so also increased the overall wage bill. A minimum wage imposes a price floor on labour, so any worker whose total productivity is less than the minimum wage floor represents a net loss to their employer – which a profit-maximising firm will respond to by firing the worker. It makes no difference whether or not that firm has ‘restrained pay growth’ for its other workers: if an employee is loss-making at the lowest wage a firm can pay them, a profit-maximising firm will fire them. (Or simply not hire additional workers who would be loss making on net.) Even if firms can only tell the average productivity of their workers, because of information problems, they will demand less labour in total.

On the possibility of raising prices to make the worker profitable, see the previous point: if demand for the service is price inelastic, this might work, but it’s quite a claim to say that this is the case for most minimum wage-supplied labour.

Wages are not the only cost of labour to firms, either. Firms may reduce costs in response to minimum wage increases by cutting back on perks like lunch breaks and sick leave, as Starbucks did after it agreed to pay additional corporation tax in 2012.

Increasing low pay has a limited impact on the overall costs of most businesses. In some sectors, very few earn less than the living wage, e.g only 6% in manufacturing. Even in hotels and catering, which is one of the biggest sector for the Minimum Wage, only 17% of jobs are below the living wage and raising the Minimum Wage to the Living Wage would only add 6% to the wage bill. This is the highest impact for any sector. More importantly, labour is only a proportion of all costs, e.g. 25-35% for restaurants.

Is a 2.1% increase in costs for labour-intensive firms not something to be concerned about? The fact that ‘most businesses’ would not be affected seems beside the point. (The reverse of this is true too: if Kirby’s other points were correct, would his suggested minimum wage hike be a bad idea because it would affect “only” 17% of workers?)

There is no real evidence of any minimum wages in the world adversely effecting employment levels.

This is totally wrong. In 2006 Neumark and Wascher reviewed over one hundred existing studies of the employment impact of the minimum wage. Of these, two-thirds showed a relatively consistent indication that minimum wage increases cause increases in unemployment. Of the thirty-three strongest studies, 85 per cent showed unemployment effects. And “when researchers focus on the least-skilled groups most likely to be adversely affected by minimum wages, the evidence for disemployment effects seems especially strong”.

Few people stay on low-wage jobs for their whole lives: minimum wage work is usually a stepping-stone to something better where employees can acquire human capital. There is evidence that suggests that minimum wages deter young workers from acquiring these skills that allow them to get better jobs in the long run. Note also that minimum wages have been used explicitly to kick away the ladder for minorities: by whites in pre-Apartheid South Africa; by anti-Hispanic campaigner Ron Unz in California; and by, er, Polly Toynbee in a recent Guardian column.

Tyler Cowen reminds us to make sure our views of sticky wages and minimum wages are consistent: if “worker-imposed minimum wages” (sticky wages) lead to unemployment, as most Keynesians (among others, including me) believe, why would “state-imposed minimum wages” not also do so? (“Have you no respect for the law (of demand)?”, asks Will Wilkinson.)

Given that we know that minimum wage increases usually cause some unemployment, why take this chance when we could just give money to poor people directly? As we’ve been saying for years, the difference between the current pre-tax minimum wage and the post-tax “living wage” is roughly as much as a minimum wage worker pays in income tax and national insurance: in other words, if that worker didn’t pay tax, they would be earning a living wage. It looks as if the personal allowance will soon rise to the minimum wage level, but the national insurance contribution threshold needs to rise too.

But let’s go even further: if we replaced the tax credit and welfare systems with a Negative Income Tax (or Basic Income – call it whatever you want), we would top-up the wages of low-paid workers directly. Jeremy Warner calls for this in the Telegraph today, and I outlined something similar a few weeks ago. Yes, I’d like all the standard supply-side deregulations as well, but a Negative Income Tax would act as an insurance policy against the potential down-sides of such deregulations, strengthening workers’ bargaining power and addressing the fears of those who worry that deregulations will hurt some workers.

I understand that many Conservatives are coming to see a minimum wage hike as a political ‘free lunch’ – a popular and surprising way of showing an interest in the welfare of the poor that does not affect the government’s balance sheet. I hope this is not true. Contrary to Kirby’s claims, there are good empirical and theoretical reasons to think that raising the floor on the price of labour will cause more unemployment. And unemployment destroys lives. There are lots of things we can and should do to help the poor right now. Raising the minimum wage isn’t one of them.