The McJob index

See one McDonalds, you've seen them all, and that's useful to economists

The Economist's famous Big Mac Index now has a sister: the McJob index.

The idea behind both is that the fast-food chain, which operates in hundreds of countries world-wide, deliberately tries to provide one of the most consistent experiences for customers of any company. You can't compare a restaurant in london with a dim-sum stand in Hong-Kong, but you can compare McDonalds' in both to each other.

With the Big Mac Index, that takes the form of looking at the price of Big Macs – one of the items guaranteed to be on every menu worldwide – and comparing across nations. The most recent examination found that the price of Big Macs in Switzerland was over 60 per cent higher, in dollar terms, than it was in the US, which implies that the Swiss franc was heavily overvalued.

Via Tim Taylor comes news that Orley Ashenfelter, an American economist, decided to hunt around (warning: .doc link) for a similar comparator at the other end of the chain; not produce, but labour. And again, McDonalds provides the answer. Work in one, and you're likely doing the same job you would be in any other branch around the world:

There is a reason that McDonald’s products are similar. These restaurants operate with a standardized protocol for employee work. Food ingredients are delivered to the restaurants and stored in coolers and freezers. The ingredients and food preparation system are specifically designed to differ very little from place to place. Although the skills necessary to handle contracts with suppliers or to manage and select employees may differ among restaurants, the basic food preparation work in each restaurant is highly standardized. Operations are monitored using the 600-page Operations and Training Manual, which covers every aspect of food preparation and includes precise time tables as well as color photographs. . . As a result of the standardization of both the product and the workers’ tasks, international comparisons of wages of McDonald’s crew members are free of interpretation problems stemming from differences in skill content or compensating wage differentials.

Ordinarily, the results would be much the same as the Big Mac Index, and tell us more about the relative strengths of countries currencies than anything else. But Ashenfelter also compares those wages to the cost of a Big Mac in the same country, to work out how many Big Macs Per Hour the "crew members" (that's the official terminology, apparently, of the Good Ship McDonalds) earn. That should tell us about the relative value of low skilled labour in the various countries examined. Here are his results:

What's really interesting about the figures is how well they map onto the overall productivity of the countries. There's an almost 1:1 ratio between the average output per hour in the country and the wage paid:

Note that this compares nationwide output per hour, not the output per hour of the actual McDonalds employees. That metric wouldn't vary much at all, since all the workers are trained the same way and using the same tools. Which makes this a fantastic demonstration of the fact that it's the market, not the company, which sets the wages. Places with low productivity have low wages, which McDonalds takes advantage of. Just because they then train their employees into high productivity workers, doesn't mean they'll start paying them the more.

A flooded McDonalds in Bangkok. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.