Efficiency vs happiness, talent vs practice – and military service vs crime?

Top of the Charts 'Insights' round-up: September 2019

The latest from Resolution Foundation Chief Executive Torsten Bell’s weekly Observer column, Insights. Read more of the latest economics and policy research in our weekly reading email, Top of the Charts (sign up here).

Military service is not a magic bullet for reducing crime

We’re in an era of “bring-backery” – blue passports are on the way and grammar schools would be if Theresa May had got her way. Any day now a politician is bound to call for the return of military conscription of our youths into national service. David Cameron was trying to get there with his National Citizens Service, before events, as they say, got in the way.

Lots of countries still do this, especially if they’re near to Russia and its tendency to annex bits of other states. That’s not the issue for the UK, but politicians like the idea of military service knocking our wayward teenagers into shape, physically and otherwise.

So is military conscription what 21st-century Britain needs to get discipline up and crime down? No, says an Economic Journal study of conscription in Sweden. Indeed, it has the exact opposite effect, with military service significantly increasing the chances of young men committing crime afterwards – convictions go up by 32%. The effect is driven by young men from disadvantaged groups or who had criminal histories. In part that is because military service means they are less likely to get established in jobs. In fact, conscription (even of the Swedish variety) widened inequality – reducing earnings and employment for those from disadvantaged groups while increasing incomes for those from more wealthy backgrounds.

So there’s a lot more our politicians can do to help the youth of today – from providing better job or housing security to doing something about climate change. If any of them veer off track and start banging on about national service, consider it your national duty to put them straight.

Originally published in The Observer.

Insights… efficiency is fine, but happiness at work is another kettle of fish

We are having a productivity crisis. More of us are working, but since the crash we’ve made almost no progress in getting more out of each hour. In part, that’s why we’ve had the longest pay squeeze in two centuries. But what affects our productivity? An answer has come from an unlikely source – fishmongers in Vietnam. And those of a sociable disposition are not going to like it.

Many economists recognise the benefits of having similar companies in proximity. The story goes that “clusters” of particular types of businesses lead to higher productivity because people learn from each other. But does this apply to proximity of workers within a firm? Not so much is the answer from intriguing research by the University of Hong Kong. The author took a seafood-processing plant in Vietnam and compared how many kilograms of fish were filleted when people were randomly allocated work stations as against choosing their neighbours. Ten per cent more fish were gutted when people were randomly allocated and less able to chat to their mates. But before employers start segregating staff it’s worth noting that people like to chat – the study found that workers would forgo nearly 5% of their wages to work around friends.

Personally, I prefer acting on separate Bank of England research that says we face a “crisis of attention” at work courtesy of emails and social media. Our virtual friends, rather than close work colleagues, are the real distraction.

Originally published in The Observer.

Even the mere sight of a policewoman can lead to a fall in crime rates

Friday brought very grim news, with data from police forces showing that domestic violence-related killings reached a five-year high last year. The victims in the majority of the 173 homicides were women.

But what is to be done? The government is promising to return to domestic abuse legislation when parliament returns, and policy discussions often make the link to knife crime, given the number of such murders involving knives.

It may be worthwhile for policymakers to focus not only on what powers exist within our criminal justice system, but on who is using those powers. That is the lesson from recent research examining women’s integration into the US police force from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, when the proportion of women in active policing roles tripled from 3.4% to (a still tiny) 10.1%.

What difference did that make? Quite a significant one in some areas. The study showed that women were more likely to report violent crime in areas where there was a higher proportion of female officers. The improvement wasn’t just in the reporting of crimes; in these areas, there were falls in domestic violence offences and rates of intimate partner homicides. However, the effects were only seen if women were employed as police officers rather than in other roles within the force.

Having this evidence at the forefront of our minds could make a difference: last week, a campaign to recruit 20,000 police officers was launched in Britain, where more than two-thirds of officers are still male. Who the police are, not just how many of them there are, matters to tackling crime.

Originally published in The Observer.

‘Big girl’s blouse’, ‘girly swot’? The prime minister should choose his insults more carefully

Words matter, something lost on a participant or two in recent political fandangos. We’re not debating our opponents – we’re calling them surrender monkeys or fascists.

Jacob Rees-Mogg rightly apologised for equating a doctor disagreeing with him over Brexit with Andrew Wakefield’s false linking of vaccines to autism. Boris Johnson didn’t apologise for calling Jeremy Corbyn a “great big girl’s blouse”, but did at least make his “denigration via feminisation” policy cross party: David Cameron is, apparently, a “girly swot”.

Things are a whole lot worse in the US, especially when it comes to the issue of race. For two centuries American politicians have sought to fashion national unity from a truly diverse population. But how does the language that leaders use affect how Americans feel about their overlapping ethnic and national identities?

New US research takes on this tough question. Focusing on whites and Latinos, it reaches some challenging conclusions. The first is that politicians’ words matter – they really do change attitudes.

The quickest way for politicians to tap into the national identity of white people? Rhetoric portraying ethnic and national identity as in conflict (hello Donald Trump). Depressingly, this has little effect on many Latinos, who have got used to it.

But there are challenges, too, for politicians wanting to engage Latinos in national unity. Simply celebrating diversity doesn’t work – only arguing that Latino identity is compatible with American identity does.

We are all from diverse backgrounds but share a sense of national attachment, yet even well-intentioned politics needs to recognise that different groups respond differently to the same rhetoric. So choose your words carefully.

Originally published in The Observer.

Practise all you want but only natural talent takes you to the top

Practice makes perfect, so the saying goes. Which may be the best argument for just keeping going on and on with the Brexit negotiations. In a highly influential book, Malcolm Gladwell argued 10 years ago that the key to perfection, be it at sport or a musical instrument, was putting in 10,000 hours of practice.

“In cognitively demanding fields,” he argued, “there are no naturals.” This argument rested on a 1990s study that focused on the differences between simply good and the very best violinists, which argued that the gaps could be explained by sheer volume of practice. The conclusion? Talent per se is overrated and a Protestant work ethic would pay off.

This was always slightly worrying for me – having put in a moderate amount of violin practice as a youth but been consistently catastrophic – but gave meaning to the lives of sports and music teachers everywhere.

But 25 years on, new research replicates that study with improved techniques. It still finds that practice makes you a better violinist, in particular helping explain gaps between less accomplished and good performers – but it certainly cannot explain all the difference between the simply good and the very best.

Personally, this is very reassuring – parental genes can take at least some of the blame for musical failure. More generally, we can conclude that yes, practice matters, but maybe not quite as much when you’re at the top of your game. There, some actual talent comes in handy.

Originally published in The Observer.