Top of the Charts: Counting snores and learning from wars

Published on

Sign up for our weekly Top of the Charts emails here

Afternoon all,

Had enough of the Brexit chat yet? Thought so. Luckily we’re definitely not going to spend the next 10 years having the same conversation over and over and over again… Oh yes we are. It’s going to be like Groundhog Day. Without the happy ending.

To get through the week I’ve been focusing on the big issues and stepping up the campaign against the increasing dominance of standing desks in the RF office (used by around half our staff and 100% of our vegans at the last count). A helpful article this week has provided ample ammunition, showing that far from bringing health benefits standing all day is DANGEROUS. It also shows that standing doesn’t substitute for proper exercise (who knew?), so the advocates for vertical working can both get down off their high horse as well as their looming desks. You almost certainly can’t get the Brexit you want (or don’t) but it’s important in life to take the small wins where you can get them.

Torsten Bell,
Director, Resolution Foundation

Stop snoozing. The standard intuition about sleep in modern society is that we’re getting less of it. An industry has grown, and people like Arianna Huffington now tour the world of TED talks worrying about our ‘sleep deprivation crisis’. But is this actually true? Most of the data on sleep patterns comes from surveys where people are asked just to estimate how much sleep they typically get. The only trouble is… it isn’t very accurate. A new paper from researchers at Oxford uses much better data – time diaries where people have to record their actual activities every ten minutes. The result: contrary to popular intuition, we are actually sleeping longer today than in the 1970s – a massive 43 minutes more per day as we go to sleep earlier and wake up later. Good news for those of you that like zzzzzz, even if not for those trying to make ££££££ out of our lack of it.

Pretend jobs? One of the questions I most regularly get asked is whether all the headlines about record employment levels are bogus because it’s just rubbish jobs being created on short or zero hour contracts. An answer to that is provided in a helpful blog from Jonathan Athow (the head economic type at the ONS). It provides food for conspiracy theorists by noting that yes anyone working more than one hour a week is counted as employed, but then dashes their hopes that this explains the high employment figures by showing that just 1.5% of those in employment work fewer than 6 hours. In fact he shows that longer term there has been a reduction in the number of us working at either extreme of very long or very short hours – which might help explain all the extra sleeping… The big picture of course remains that there has been a significant increase in atypical work since the financial crisis (self-employment, zero hours, agency work) but those increases largely stopped a while back with recent employment growth being driven by full time work.

Wall building. Donald Trump wants to build a wall. You’ll have heard about this. If you haven’t let us know where you’ve been hiding and we’ll join you. But what would the effect of a USA-Mexico wall be? A new working paper (incomplete open-access draft here) looks at the expansion of the existing border wall in 2007-2010, and how the resulting change in migration flows affected workers’ incomes on both sides of the border. The conclusion: building the wall cost around $7 per person in the USA, and it harmed the wages of Mexican workers and high-skill US workers, while benefiting the wages of low-skill US workers by the equivalent of…. $0.36 per person. The authors as you can guess are not pro-wall and compare it with a policy of reducing trade costs between the two countries by 25% – this would both reduce migration and bring welfare gains for all workers. But while the wall may not be the answer to the complexities of migration, it might just be the answer for those of you panicking about what to buy your kids for Christmas…

Talking poverty. That UN report on poverty in the UK from last week, that people are still talking about, is available here. Whether or not you agree with Amber Rudd that the tone is overtly political, the substance it raises of increased rough sleeping and relative child poverty are very real.

China calling. The huge surge in living standards in China relative to the rest of the world is shown impressively in some New York Times infographics, spelling out how the world’s most populous country ‘used to make up much of the world’s poor’ – but that now it makes up much of the global middle class. This matters when thinking about global inequality – indeed the shift of much of the Chinese population into that middle class underpins our critique of the famous ‘elephant curve’ that gets waved around as proof of stagnant wages across the developed world for decades. As a report by RF’s Adam Corlett showed a while back, when interpreting charts like this we need to remember that that the same countries can occupy very different parts of the global income distribution over time.

War economics. We mentioned the centenary of the WW1 armistice last week, when remembering those involved was obviously top of the agenda. But there are broader lessons to learn from such global events. A new e-book (summary) attempts to provide a comprehensive set of economic reflections on the causes, conduct and consequences of the Great War. On the consequences it helpfully reminds us not just to focus on the most famous one – the next war – but also on big economic shifts that followed. Two stand out: the ending of the era of largely uncontrolled migration and major reductions in inequality in many countries driven by both political and economic change.

Chart of the Week. Wednesday marked the centenary of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, the historic law which allowed women to be elected as MPs. Well worth celebrating, albeit while noting how far we still have to go: since then fewer than 500 women have been elected vs nine times as many men. This is what you call slow progress. To mark the occasion the Equalities Minister Penny Mordaunt gave a speech, noting that work to tackle gender gaps needs to focus not just on getting high-paid women onto corporate boards but on the reality that “women are more likely to be low paid than men and far more likely to get stuck in low pay” (as shown in RF research last year). She’s certainly right that the fight for gender equality can’t just be about the lucky few that get to work at the BBC (crucial though equal pay there is). This week’s chart of the week shows that women still do 6 in 10 low-paid jobs, but also sets out the longer term trend towards men making up a much bigger proportion of the low paid as they are twice as likely to be low paid as they were in the 1970s. Far fewer young men work in manufacturing (down 40% since the 90s) while many more work part time and in traditional female sectors like retail and hospitality. This is what social change looks like.