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.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.