Rebelling Against the Clean Plate Club

Back in 1917 during World War I, the US government encouraged the formation of the Clean Plate Club. The idea was to provide additional food support to the war effort by reducing food waste at home. Here\’s a poster from that time:

And here\’s another:
Hoover clean plate club
Although that first Clean Plate Club officially ended with World War I, the idea seems to have popped up again over the years, during the Great Depression, during World War II, and at numerous family dinner tables all around the United States ever since.

The latest version is courtesy of the National Resources Defense Council and its \”Save the Food\” project. In radio ads and billboard spots, along with the website, the NDRC often makes a claim: \”A 4-person family loses $1500 a year on wasted food.\” Or as NDRC puts it in a 2017 report: \”In 2012, NRDC published a groundbreaking report that revealed that up to 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten. That is on average 400 pounds of food per person every year. Not only is that irresponsible—it’s expensive. Growing, processing, transporting, and disposing that uneaten food has an annual estimated cost of $218 billion, costing a household of four an average of $1,800 annually.\”

My immediate reaction was that some categories must be getting getting shuffled together here. The emphasis of the public relations campaign and the website is about households savings food. Plan
meals ahead! \”Using up leftovers helps the environment.\” \”It’s okay for veggies to wilt and soften. Really. It happens with time and doesn’t mean they’re bad.\” \”Keep herbs like cut flowers – with their stems in a glass of water.\” \”Use a slice of bread to soften up hardened brown sugar.\”

All fair enough, I suppose. But as a member of a family of five that eats most of its meals at home, I simply don\’t believe that we are on average throwing away \”400 pounds of food per person per year.\” That would be more than a pound of food per day for each of us, every day. That\’s not plausible. (We compost much of our organic waste, and we would know.)

Instead, my strong suspicion–confirmed by a closer reading of the NDRC report–is that the category of household food waste is getting shuffled together with all food waste that happens in every stage of the food industry: in farm fields, storage, processing, wholesale, retail, restaurants, cafeterias, and so on. For another fact-filled website on food waste, see the ReFed web\\site: ReFED is a collaboration of over 50 business, nonprofit, foundation, and government leaders committed to reducing food waste in the United States.

Two main sets of reasons are given for prioritizing a reduction in food waste. One is the environmental costs of food production and waste disposal.The other is the ongoing presence of hunger in America. Both issues are worthy of concern. But I am unpersuaded that eating softened vegetables, keeping our herbs like cut flowers, and using bread to soften up our hardened brown sugar is much of an answer to either concerns.

(It may help if you read the rest of the memo in the tone of an outraged 11 year-old, upon being told to finish his vegetables because there are hungry people in the world.)

1) The environmental protection goal is based on less overall food being consumed. But the feed-the-hungry goal is based on existing food being transferred to those who don\’t now have it. The goal of less food consumed is different and not aligned with the goal of transferring food to those who need it. 

2) Telling households that they are wasting $1500 per year in the food they purchase for home is incorrect, because food saved from farm fields and processing plants and restaurants doesn\’t help my household budget.

3) Most households would be better off monetarily and health-wise if they ate more at home, rather that grabbing meals and snacks from restaurants. If people end up tossing some dodgy aged vegetables now and again, at least they were trying to eat some food found in nature. Telling people about how money spent on food at home is often wasted is not necessarily an incentive to spend more on food at home!

4) The environmental costs of food production are real. There is a long list of ways to address issues of water use, energy use, fertilizer runoff, land erosion, and other issues. Working to reduce the total quantity of food demanded is not obviously the most effective approach. 

5) The problem of hunger and malnourishment in certain US populations is real. But the practical answers aren\’t about reducing household food waste. Instead, they involve greater buying power for low-income families and assuring an availability of food, together with education to help these families spend food resources more effectively–which will often involve more meals eaten at home and, yes, some additional food thrown away at home.

6) The notion of \”waste\” can be elusive. There are economic reasons that some amount of food might be left unharvested in a field, or thrown away from a restaurant. An economist is tempted to infer that \”waste\” really means \”not worth the costs of saving it.\” In the autumn it can be better to buy a large number of fresh apples, even if a few end up going to waste, rather than to risk running out of fruit on a Wednesday night with no time to shop, or not having enough on hand to make an apple crumble.

At the end of the day, it\’s of course hard to oppose reducing waste. But I\’m mildly allergic to policy discussions based on a combination of misleading statistics and  finger-shaking mini-sermons, like this newest version of the Clean Plate Club.

China\’s Belt and Road Initiative: Grand or Grandiose?

China\’s Belt and Road Initiative was first announced five years ago in 2013. Broadly speaking, the grand plans is for a grand set of transportation connections from China across Asia, and reaching to Africa and Europe. Some of the connections would be overland and others would be overseas. Chinese banks and investment funds would provide substantial finance for these projects, and Chinese firms–many with considerable experience building infrastructure in China– would carry out a substantial chunk of the work.

The timeline for a massive set of infrastructure investments that could affect 80 countries and two-thirds of the world\’s population is appropriately measured in decades, not in a few years. Still, five years after the main announcement is a reasonable time to review the record. Jonathan Hillman offers one perspective in \”China\’s Belt and Road Is Full of Holes\” written as a Policy Brief for the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS, September 2018). For additional detail, the Economist magazine ran a cover story on the subject in the July 26 issue, \”China has a vastly ambitious plan to connect the world: What is behind the Belt and Road Initiative?\”

In evaluating the Belt and Road Initiative, the first step it to recognize that there is no list of what projects included, or not included. As Hillman writes: \”The BRI is also breathtakingly ambiguous. There is no official definition for what qualifies as a BRI project. There are Chinese-funded projects in countries not participating in the BRI that share many of the same characteristics. The BRI was officially launched in 2013, but projects started years earlier are often counted. The BRI brand has been extended to fashion shows, art exhibits, marathons, domestic flights, dentistry, and other unrelated activities. The BRI’s loose, ever-expanding nature, and a lack of project transparency, have led many observers to exaggerate its size. When assessing the BRI, there is always a risk of imposing order where, by design, it does not exist.\”

Or as the Economist puts it: \”No definitive BRI map has been published. The scheme has expanded far beyond its original core of Eurasia and the Middle East, from New Zealand to the Arctic, Africa to Latin America and even outer space. Estimates of the BRI’s total intended investment range from $1trn to $8trn.\”

There are a number of motivations, all possibly overlapping, for the Belt and Road Initiative.

1) As China becomes the largest economy in the world, it will want to build on trade ties across the region. Many countries in south and east Asia, or on the eastern coast of Africa, have enormous infrastructure needs. One can paint a picture of the BRI as the basis for an \”everybody wins\” expansion of global trade.

2) China is looking for ways to sustain its high growth rate. Using a combination of Chinese finance that supports employment of China\’s construction and infrastructure companies is a potential method of doing that. There is some talk that China would also like to build or transfer some of its lower-margin and environmentally dirtier industries to other countries, as well.

3) From a foreign policy point of view, the Belt and Road Initiative can been seen as a way of projecting Chinese power and influence, both over the governments of countries involved in these projects and also by building ports and other infrastructure that could be used by China\’s military.

There are also some potential economic and political dangers here for China. As an example of issues that can arise, consider the project of building a port in Hambatota, Sri Lanka, as described by a New York Times report earlier this summer (July 1, 2018).

Sri Lanka already has one large port at its capital city of Colombo. However, Mahinda Rajapaksa–who was president a few years back, thought it would be a good idea to have a second big port at another location of Hambatota, which happens to be not far from where he is from. Various possible sources of finance evaluated the proposal, and turned it down as not commercially viable. But then China financial sources stepped in and loaned a few billion dollars.

The Hamabatota port got built, but it goes largely unused. As the Times reported: \”The seaport is not the only grand project built with Chinese loans in Hambantota, a sparsely populated area on Sri Lanka\’s southeastern coast that is still largely overrun by jungle. A cricket stadium with more seats than the population of Hambantota\’s district capital marks the skyline, as does a large international airport – which in June lost the only daily commercial flight it had left when FlyDubai airline ended the route. A highway that cuts through the district is traversed by elephants and used by farmers to rake out and dry the rice plucked fresh from their paddies.\”

In the 2015 election, China dumped a few million dollars into the re-election campaign for Rajapaksa, who lost anyway. The debt payments owed by Sri Lanka for this dysfunctional project were climbing. The government of Sri Lanka ended up handing over Hambatota port, and 15,000 acres around it, to  Chinese financial interests, in exchange for knocking $1 billion off its debt. But according to the Times story, the Sri Lankan Finance ministry estimates that \”[t]his year, the Government is expected to generate $14.8 billion in revenue, but its scheduled debt repayments, to an array of lenders around the world, come to $12.3 billion.\”

Does this kind of experience count as a \”success\” for the Belt and Road Initiative? China now has ownership and  control over a port only a few hundred miles from India–although the current arrangement (subject to later negotiation, of course) is that it will not be used by the Chinese military.

On the other side, this kind of \”success\” comes at a high cost. The funds loaned to Sri Lanka are mostly lost–it\’s just a matter of when the renegotiation happens. Other countries around the region have become quite concerned about going into debt to Chinese sources of finance, and concerned about whether China will end up meddling in their elections or perhaps bribing their local officials, and concerned about how their domestic workers don\’t get many of the construction contracts, and concerned about possible environmental damage.

In the Belt and Road Initiative, China\’s banks and investment funds have often been willing to lend to projects that had been turned down by others potential funding sources like development banks, Japan, Europe, the US, and issuing bonds in global financial markets. The Chinese loans have also often included lots of conditions about business going to Chinese firms, but not many conditions about the environment, local workers, or anything else. The bankers and sources of finance in  high-income countries will testify that when you loan lots  of money to a foreign government which can\’t repay, that government doesn\’t feel appreciative! Instead, that government is likely to regard you as an enemy. And sovereign governments can make life hard on foreign investors within their borders, if they wish to do so.

The Belt and Road Initiative is a spectacular success as a brand name. But on the ground, matters are less clear. For example, Hillman carries out an exercise of looking at six geographic \”corridors\” that have been identified with the Belt and Road Initiative, and then asks whether most of the BRI projects are actually happening in those corridors. He writes: \”For five of the six corridors, there appears to be no significant relationship between corridor participation and project activity …\” The exception is the China-Pakistan corridor, which is also the only corridor which connects China with a single country.

Again, the Belt and Road Initiative will unfold over time, and it\’s far too early for lasting judgments.  But in these projects, China\’s conduct as a business and foreign policy partner is being judged by other nations across the region–and often found wanting.

The Problematic Market for Snakebite Antivenoms

The World Health Organization reports: \”About 5.4 million snake bites occur each year, resulting in 1.8 to 2.7 million cases of envenomings (poisoning from snake bites).There are between 81 410 and 137 880 deaths and around three times as many amputations and other permanent disabilities each year. … Bites by venomous snakes can cause acute medical emergencies involving severe paralysis that may prevent breathing, cause bleeding disorders that can lead to fatal haemorrhage, cause irreversible kidney failure and severe local tissue destruction that can cause permanent disability and limb amputation. … In contrast to many other serious health conditions, a highly effective treatment exists. Most deaths and serious consequences from snake bites are entirely preventable by making safe and effective antivenoms more widely available and accessible. High quality snake antivenoms are the only effective treatment to prevent or reverse most of the venomous effects of snake bites.\”

Many of those who die for lack of antivenom treatments are among the poorest people in the world: about half are in India, and another third in countries of Africa. The antivenom needs to be available quickly, which means nearby, which means facilities for storage.  For the private sector, there isn\’t a lot of profit potential in  researching and manufacturing antivenom, nor for distributing it around the world to appropriate storage facilities. Those who worry about international public health have traditionally focused on diseases, and snakebite isn\’t a disease.

But in the last year or two, snakebite antivenom has gotten more attention. Organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières have been raising the issue for years. In a meeting in May, the \”World Health Assembly in Geneva [the decision-making body for the World Health Organization] demanded action\” and passed a resolution. So there\’s that. But a number of obstacles remain.

The current method of producing antivenom is done via animals. As noted in an article in the journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry:

\”Meanwhile, new approaches to make antivenom production simpler and cheaper are being developed. Currently, anti-venom production is laborious. Venom is extracted from a snake, then administered to a horse or a sheep in small doses to evoke an immune response. The animal’s blood is then drawn and purified to obtain antibodies that act against venoms. One promising approach that would make antivenom production quicker and cheaper is recombinant antivenoms. These antivenoms are produced by expressing therapeutic monoclonal antibodies, which can bind to a specific protein or a toxin in snake venom, in an engineered cell line.\”

Different snakes have different venoms, and thus require different antivenoms. Ideally, there would be a universal antivenom, but researchers say this seems a decade away.

There seems to be a race-to-the-bottom phenomenon in this market. Potential producers of antivenoms in high-income countries face high research costs. In the areas where snakebite occurs, doses of high-quality antivenom are quite expensive relative to people\’s incomes, and sometimes several doses are needed. Thus, it becomes common to give patients less than a full dose, and hope for the best. The health care providers who administer the venom often lack training. It becomes common for low-quality medications to enter the market, which in these countries is largely unregulated. In fact, most antivenom products available in these countries have almost never been through a standard clinical trial, looking at effectiveness and possible side-effects. Potential producers for high quality antivenom have been withdrawing from the market.

And the market itself isn\’t all that big: \”Added into all this is the issue that the antivenom market simply isn’t that lucrative for big pharma. Market research firm Transparency Market Research put the global antivenom market at $1.7 billion (£1.3 billion) in 2016. Sanofi Pasteur halted production of its FAV-Afrique antivenom, effective for several African snakes, in 2010. Sanofi cited cut-price competition for the withdrawal.\”

There has been a string of articles over the last few years expressing concerns that supplies of antivenom are about to run out. It seems as if some institution-building is needed here if the supply of antivenoms is going to rise to meet the scale of the problem.

 Here\’s an overview from a few years ago of the state of the research pipeline for snake antivenom. Here\’s a more recent overview from the World Health Organization on guidelines for production, control, and regulation of snake antivenoms.

What Causes Inequality to Erupt Into Riots? Revisiting the Kerner Commission

\”The Kerner report was the final report of a commission appointed by the U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 28, 1967, as a response to preceding and ongoing racial riots across many urban cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, and Newark. These riots largely took place in African American neighborhoods, then commonly called ghettos. On February 29, 1968, seven months after the commission was formed, it issued its final report. The report was an instant success, selling more than two million copies. …  The Kerner report documents 164 civil disorders that occurred in 128 cities across the forty-eight continental states and the District of Columbia in 1967 (1968, 65). Other reports indicate a total of 957 riots in 133 cities from 1963 until 1968, a particular explosion of violence following the assassination of King in April 1968 (Olzak 2015).\”

 The September 2018 issue of the  Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences includes a 10-paper symposium from a range of social scientists concerning \”The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report.\” The introductory essay by Susan T. Gooden and Samuel L. Myers Jr., \”The Kerner Commission Report Fifty Years Later: Revisiting the American Dream\” (pp.  1–17) does an excellent job of setting the historical context and contemporary reactions to the report, along with offering some comparisons that I at least had not seen before about difference between rioting and non-rioting cities over over time.

The opening paragraph above is quoted from the Gooden/Myers paper. As they point out, perhaps the most commonly repeated comment from the report was that it baldly named white racism as an underlying cause of the problems. As one example, to quote from the Kerner report: “What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

Although the report was widely disseminated, it was not popular. As Gooden and Myers report:

\”President Johnson was enormously displeased with the report, which in his view grossly ignored his Great Society efforts. The report also received considerable backlash from many whites and conservatives for its identification of attitudes and racism of whites as a cause of the riots. `So Johnson ignored the report. He refused to formally receive the publication in front of reporters. He didn’t talk about the Kerner Commission report when asked by the media,\’ and he refused to sign thank-you letters for the commissioners (Zelizer 2016, xxxii–xxxiii).\”

Other contemporary critics of the report complained that by emphasizing white racism, the report seemed to imply that changes in the beliefs of whites should be the main topic, while not paying attention to institutions and behaviors. Gooden and Myers cite a pungent comment from the American political scientist Michael Parenti, who wrote back in 1970:

\”The Kerner Report demands no changes in the way power and wealth are distributed among the classes; it never gets beyond its indictment of “white racism” to specify the forces in the political economy which brought the black man to riot; it treats the obviously abominable ghetto living conditions as “cause” of disturbance but never really inquires into the causes of the “causes,” viz., the ruthless enclosure of Southern sharecroppers by big corporate farming interests, the subsequent mistreatment of the black migrant by Northern rent-gorging landlords, price-gorging merchants, urban “redevelopers,” discriminating employers, insufficient schools, hospitals and welfare, brutal police, hostile political machines and state legislators, and finally the whole system of values, material interests and public power distributions from the state to the federal Capitols which gives greater priority to “haves” than to “have-nots,” servicing and subsidizing the bloated interests of private corporations while neglecting the often desperate needs of the municipalities. . . . . To treat the symptoms of social dislocation (e.g., slum conditions) as the causes of social ills is an inversion not peculiar to the Kerner Report. Unable or unwilling to pursue the implications of our own data, we tend to see the effects of a problem as the problem itself. The victims, rather than the victimizers, are defined as “the poverty problem.” It is a little like blaming the corpse for the murder.\” 

Gooden and Myers point to another issue with the report that social scientists immediately point out. The members of the Kerner Commission made personal visits to cities that had experienced rioting, and made an effort to talk with people in the affected communities. But they made essentially no effort to visit cities that had not experienced riots. It\’s hard to draw inferences about the causes of riots without making some effort to look at what differs across rioting and non-rioting cities. 

They offer a preliminary look at some of the economic differences across rioting and non-rioting cities. For example, this figure shows the black-white ratio of family incomes in rioting (blue) and nonrioting (orange) cities. The ratio hasn\’t moved much in the cities that had 1960s riots, while it increased substantially in the cities without riots. Indeed, the cities that did not riot have had 

These sorts of patterns are open to a range of interpretations. Perhaps cities were less likely to riot in the 1960s if more immediate progress was apparent. Perhaps something about having a higher black-white income ratio at the start made rioting more likely. Perhaps rioting led to an outmigration of middle- and upper-class families of both races, which could contribute to a stagnation of the black-white ratio stagnated. The cities that rioted were mainly the northeast, midwest, and west, and so political, social, and economic differences across the geography of the US surely also have played a role. 
In other measures like the black-white ratios of unemployment rates, high school graduation rates, and poverty rates, the rioting and non-rioting cities look very similar. As Gooden and Myers write: 

\”This evidence points to a possible flaw in the Kerner Commission’s report. Although the evidence clearly points to a divided America—a divide that continues today—the trajectories of the riot cities and the nonriot cities are remarkably similar. Thus, it is a bit more difficult to embrace the conclusion that this racial divide was the cause of the riots given that the racial divide was evident in both riot cities and nonriot cities and perhaps was even more pronounced in the nonriot cities than in the riot cities before the riots.\”

For a take on the Kerner Commission report earlier this year, see \”Black/White Disparities: 50 Years After the Kerner Commission\” (February 27, 2018). Here\’s the Table of Contents of this issue of the Russell Sage Foundation Journal, with links to the papers:

How US Multinationals Shifting Income to Foreign Countries Reduces Measured GDP

US corporations work their accounting system so that sales and profits turn up in non-U.S. jurisdictions (for example, here\’ s description of the Double Irish Dutch Sandwich technique). One implication is that corporations pay lower US and overall taxes; another is that because of this shifting, measured US GDP is smaller than it would otherwise be. 

Karen Dynan and Louise Sheiner provide a nice overview of this mechanism in their essay \”GDP as a Measure of Economic Well-being,\” written for the Hutchins Center at the Brookings Institutions (Working Paper #43, August 2018). Their paper offers a detailed and readable overview of man problems that arise in measurement of real GDP: problems in measuring the size of the digital economy, problems in adjusting for changes in the size of nonmarket work, and potential biases in the measure of inflation (which in turn lead to errors in estimating the size of the real economy), and others.

Here, I\’ll just focus on their comments about how US multinationals shift sales and profits to other countries (footnotes omitted).

\”[T]he rise of global supply chains and the legal latitude that companies have in declaring in which countries their economic activity takes place lend material downward bias to estimates of U.S. nominal GDP. In particular, “transfer pricing” and other practices allow multinational enterprises (MNEs) operating in the United States to underprice the sale or lease of intangible assets—such as blueprints, software, or new drug formulas—to affiliates in low-tax jurisdictions so that more of their profits are booked in these countries. The economic importance of such transactions has been documented in a variety of ways. For instance, in 2012, a Senate subcommittee questioned Microsoft about its agreements to shift some R&D costs and regional royalty rights to affiliates in Singapore and Ireland (U.S. Congress Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, 2012). In 2013, the subcommittee found that Apple used favorable transfer pricing agreements to shift billions of dollars of profits from the United States to Ireland (U.S. Congress Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, 2013). More generally, Hines (2005) and Lipsey (2006) show that U.S. MNEs register more profits in tax havens than can plausibly be accounted for by economic activity. Jenniges, Mataloni, Stutzman, and Xin (2018) find that U.S. companies that have a cost sharing agreement with a foreign entity appear less productive than similar companies without such an agreement, and foreign companies that have a cost sharing agreement with a parent company in the U.S. appear more productive than similar foreign companies. A 2016 OECD brief described how such transactions drove a 26 percent increase in measured GDP in Ireland in 2015. And, Tørsløv, Wier, and Zucman (2018) estimated that nearly 40 percent of multinational profits are shifted to low-tax countries each year.

\”Under current methods, transfer pricing and profit shifting have led to an understatement of both nominal GDP and nominal gross domestic income (GDI). Consider the example of a smartphone whose software, blueprints, and branding are developed in the United States. If the phone is assembled in the United States, then the full value of the phone (priced at its market price) is included in GDP. If the phone is assembled abroad, then so long as the contract between the company doing the assembly (e.g. Foxconn) is an arm’s length transaction, GDP will still be correctly measured, as it will include the value of the phone less the amount paid to the foreign assembler. However, if a foreign-affiliate of the U.S. company is introduced in the transaction, GDP could end up understated.

\”Here’s one way this could happen: the U.S. company leases the rights to the intangible capital—the software, blueprints, and branding—to an affiliate in a low-tax country (say, Ireland) and it prices that lease at a value that is much less than its market value. Then the Irish affiliate contracts with Foxconn to do the assembly. Phones are then exported from Ireland to the United States and from Ireland to the rest of the world. In this case, only the value of the lease from the U.S. company to the Irish company will be included in U.S. GDP, and if this lease is priced at an artificially low level, U.S. GDP will be too low as well. Under current methods, estimates of imports associated with sales of the phone in the United States will be too high because the economic activity associated with the leased assets is unlikely to be attributed to this country. In particular, imports will be too high (because they will overstate the Irish content of the phone imported from Ireland), and exports will be too low (because they will understate the U.S. content of phones exported from Ireland to the rest of the world). The same bias would occur in GDI because of the understatement of the company’s U.S. earnings. Note that this transaction works because there is intangible capital that is hard to value and hard to pin to a location, and because the Irish company is an affiliate of the U.S. company, so that it does not matter to shareholders whether the Irish affiliate or the U.S. headquarters books the profits. 

\”This problem is of increasing concern both because of the evidence discussed above regarding the importance of profit-shifting in today’s economy and, more generally, because of the growth in MNE activity in recent decades. MNEs are now a large part of the global economy—according to Guvenon et  al. (2017), they accounted for $4.7 trillion of global value-added in 2017, an amount that was about the size of the fourth largest economy in the world at the time. The statistical community recognizes the issue, and the international statistical guidelines most recently adopted by the United Nations Statistical Commission (System of National Accounts 2008) called for estimates of the production activity of MNEs to reflect the economic ownership of intangible assets rather than the legal ownership (Moulton, van de Ven 2018). There are practical challenges associated with how to do so, and the BEA has yet to change its official methods to follow this guideline. 

\”Guvenon et al. (2017) explore one way in which the guidelines might be at least partially implemented. The authors use confidential MNE survey data collected by the Bureau of Economic Analysis and reapportion the earnings of U.S. MNE foreign affiliates based on labor compensation and sales to unaffiliated parties. The authors’ findings suggest that current practices have materially distorted estimated productivity growth at some points in the past—with an average annual understatement of growth of 0.1 percentage point from 1994 through 2004 and 0.25 percentage point from 2004 through 2008 (though no effect between 2008 and 2014). These figures represent a lower bound on the distortion, as foreign MNEs are probably also shifting some of their profits out of United States. Using this method, Bruner, Rassier, and Ruhl (2018) find that accounting for profit sharing would increase the level of U.S. measured GDP by 1.5 percent in 2014.\”

Regional Trade Agreements: A Popularity Nosedive

The Doha round of the World Trade Organization talks started way back in 2001, and seems to have come to a standstill. Regional trade agreements became the preferred path for many nations, with 20-25 per year being negotiated most years from 2002-2016. Then the number drops off sharply in 2017, and falls almost to zero so far in 2018.

Here\’s an illustrative figure from the World Trade Organization Regional Trade Agreements Information System.  There\’s a lot more background on regional trade agreements at the website.

Back in the 1990s, there was a fear that regional trade agreements might lead to less overall freedom of international trade, by instead creating many trade blocs and rules that could hinder trade. That fear turned out to be wrong. As Richard Baldwin wrote a few years ago in the Winter 2016 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives:

\”Despite its manifest success, the WTO is widely regarded as suffering from a deep malaise. The main reason is that the latest WTO negotiation, the Doha Round, has staggered between failures, flops, and false dawns since it was launched in 2001. But the Doha logjam has not inhibited tariff liberalization—far from it. During the last 15 years, most WTO members have massively lowered barriers to trade, investment, and services bilaterally, regionally, and unilaterally—indeed, everywhere except through the WTO. The massive tariff cutting that has taken place around the world, shown in Table 1, has been at least as great as in the previous successful WTO rounds. Moreover, the Doha gridlock has also not dampened nations’ interest in the WTO; 20 nations, including China and Russia, have joined since 2001.\”

At that time, Baldwin was making the argument that the many regional trade agreements, along with literally thousands of bilateral investment agreements, were a deeper form of trade negotiation: that is, when negotiating over issues like international trade in financial services, or protection of intellectual property, or certain kinds of health and safety regulation.

He further pointed out that many of these regional trade agreements (along with several thousand international investment treaties) often included many similar rules. Thus, it could be possible to combine regional agreements into \”mega-regional\” agreements like the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.  But those agreements have now fallen by the wayside.

We left the time period in which the World Trade Organization dominated world trade talks about 20-25 years ago. We seem to now be leaving the time in which regional or bilateral agreements about international trade and investment were a major tool for reducing trade barriers. What comes next is still unfolding.

The Origins of Labor Day

[This post originally ran on Labor Day, 2011.]

It\’s clear that the first Labor Day celebration was held on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, and organized by the Central Labor Union, an early trade union organization operating in the greater New York City area in the 1880s. By the early 1890s, more than 20 states had adopted the holiday. On June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed into law: \’\’The first Monday of September in each year, being the day celebrated and known as Labor\’s Holiday, is hereby made a legal public holiday, to all intents and purposes, in the same manner as Christmas, the first day of January, the twenty-second day of February, the thirtieth day of May, and the fourth day of July are now made by law public holidays.\” (Note: This post has been reprinted on this blog on Labor Day since 2011.)

What is less well-known, at least to me, is that the very first Labor Day parade almost didn\’t happen, and that historians now dispute which person is most responsible for that first Labor Day. The U.S. Department of Labor tells how first Labor Day almost didn\’t happen, for lack of a band:

\”On the morning of September 5, 1882, a crowd of spectators filled the sidewalks of lower Manhattan near city hall and along Broadway. They had come early, well before the Labor Day Parade marchers, to claim the best vantage points from which to view the first Labor Day Parade. A newspaper account of the day described \”…men on horseback, men wearing regalia, men with society aprons, and men with flags, musical instruments, badges, and all the other paraphernalia of a procession.

The police, wary that a riot would break out, were out in force that morning as well. By 9 a.m., columns of police and club-wielding officers on horseback surrounded city hall. By 10 a.m., the Grand Marshall of the parade, William McCabe, his aides and their police escort were all in place for the start of the parade. There was only one problem: none of the men had moved. The few marchers that had shown up had no music.

According to McCabe, the spectators began to suggest that he give up the idea of parading, but he was determined to start on time with the few marchers that had shown up. Suddenly, Mathew Maguire of the Central Labor Union of New York (and probably the father of Labor Day) ran across the lawn and told McCabe that two hundred marchers from the Jewelers Union of Newark Two had just crossed the ferry — and they had a band!

Just after 10 a.m., the marching jewelers turned onto lower Broadway — they were playing \”When I First Put This Uniform On,\” from Patience, an opera by Gilbert and Sullivan. The police escort then took its place in the street. When the jewelers marched past McCabe and his aides, they followed in behind. Then, spectators began to join the march. Eventually there were 700 men in line in the first of three divisions of Labor Day marchers.

With all of the pieces in place, the parade marched through lower Manhattan. The New York Tribune reported that, \”The windows and roofs and even the lamp posts and awning frames were occupied by persons anxious to get a good view of the first parade in New York of workingmen of all trades united in one organization.

At noon, the marchers arrived at Reservoir Park, the termination point of the parade. While some returned to work, most continued on to the post-parade party at Wendel\’s Elm Park at 92nd Street and Ninth Avenue; even some unions that had not participated in the parade showed up to join in the post-parade festivities that included speeches, a picnic, an abundance of cigars and, \”Lager beer kegs… mounted in every conceivable place.

From 1 p.m. until 9 p.m. that night, nearly 25,000 union members and their families filled the park and celebrated the very first, and almost entirely disastrous, Labor Day.\”

As to the originator of Labor Day, the traditional story I learned back in the day gave credit to Peter McGuire, the founder of the Carpenters Union and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor. At a meeting of the Central Labor Union of New York on May 8, 1882, the story went, he recommended that Labor Day be designated to honor \”those who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.\” McGuire also typically received credit for suggesting the first Monday in September for the holiday,\” as it would come at the most pleasant season of the year, nearly midway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, and would fill a wide gap in the chronology of legal holidays.\” He envisioned that the day would begin with a parade, \”which would publicly show the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations,\” and then continue with \”a picnic or festival in some grove.\”

But in recent years, the International Association of Machinists have also staked their claim, because one of their members named Matthew Maguire, a machinist, was serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York in 1882 and clearly played a major role in organizing the day. The U.S. Department of Labor has a quick summary of the controversy.

\”According to the New Jersey Historical Society, after President Cleveland signed into law the creation of a national Labor Day, The Paterson (N.J.) Morning Call published an opinion piece entitled, \”Honor to Whom Honor is Due,\” which stated that \”the souvenir pen should go to Alderman Matthew Maguire of this city, who is the undisputed author of Labor Day as a holiday.\” This editorial also referred to Maguire as the \”Father of the Labor Day holiday.

So why has Matthew Maguire been overlooked as the \”Father of Labor Day\”? According to The First Labor Day Parade, by Ted Watts, Maguire held some political beliefs that were considered fairly radical for the day and also for Samuel Gompers and his American Federation of Labor. Allegedly, Gompers did not want Labor Day to become associated with the sort of \”radical\” politics of Matthew Maguire, so in a 1897 interview, Gompers\’ close friend Peter J. McGuire was assigned the credit for the origination of Labor Day.\”

Some Economics For Labor Day

For those who need the sweet and savory flavor of economics to accompany their end-of-summer Labor Day picnic (and really, don\’t we all need that?), here are links to some posts on labor market topics, mostly from earlier this year.

1) Rebalancing the Economy Toward Workers and Wages (March 5, 2018)

I quote John Bates Clark , probably the most eminent American economist of his time in his 1907 book, Essentials of Economic Theory

\”In the making of the wages contract the individual laborer is at a disadvantage. He has something which he must sell and which his employer is not obliged to take, since he [that is, the employer] can reject single men with impunity. … A period of idleness may increase this disability to any extent. The vender of anything which must be sold at once is like a starving man pawning his coat—he must take whatever is offered.\”

Are there some ways to tip the balance a bit more toward workers? Jay Shambaugh and Ryan Nunn have edited an ebook, Revitalizing Wage Growth: Policies to Get American Workers a Raise, with nine chapters on causes of wage stagnation and policy proposals to address it

2) \”The Job Guarantee Controversy\” (April 30, 2018)

With Senator Bernie Sanders in the forefront, some Democratic members of Congress are planning a bill to guarantee jobs that pay $15 per hour, not including mandatory benefits packages, for all Americans. Legislative details have not yet been announced (!), but several sets of plan have been published recently, including on the website of the Sanders Institute, which was founded by Jane O\’Meara Sanders, wife of the senator. Here, let\’s run through a couple of the more prominent plans, and then list on criticisms that have been bubbling up–with a focus on critiques from writers typically identified as being on the political left. …

Ultimately, it feels to me as if proposals for a federal job guarantee proposal are a cry of despair, erupting from an exhausted patience. To me, the underlying message is: \”Stop being distracted by small-scale arguments and day-to-day political compromises, drop the cautious incrementalism, and pay the money to help those who want to work. Stop quibbling, and just make it happen!\” Righteous exasperation always has a rhetorical appeal. But the real world is full of costs and tradeoffs, and if the US political system wants to make some dramatic moves to help US workers, considerably better options than a federal job guarantee are available.

3) \”The Rising Importance of Soft Skills\” (January 30, 2018)

Leading tech companies like Google have found that their most productive and valuable employeees are often not those with the most technical skills or cognitive ability. Instead, the most valuable employees have the soft skills in communication, teamwork, and seeing the big picture.

The evidence for the rising importance of soft skills goes beyond the anecdotal. David J. Deming provides an overview of economic research on this topic in \”The Value of Soft Skills in the Labor Market\” (NBER Reporter, 2017 Number 4). Deming cites evidence that for the US economy as a whole, the number of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) jobs rose rapidly from 1980 to 2000, but has declined since then. Moreover, the labor market returns to higher levels of cognitive skill have declined, too.

\”While cognitive skills are still important predictors of labor market success, their importance has declined since 2000. An important recent paper finds significantly smaller labor market returns to cognitive skills in the early and mid-2000s, compared with the late 1980s and early 1990s. … In a 2017 study, I replicate this finding and also show that returns to soft skills increased between the 1979 and 1997 NLSY waves. … We are not witnessing an end to the importance of cognitive skills — rather, strong cognitive skills are increasingly a necessary — but not a sufficient — condition for obtaining a good, high-paying job. You also need to have social skills. Between 1980 and 2012, social skill-intensive occupations grew by nearly 12 percentage points as a share of all U.S. jobs. Wages also grew more rapidly for social skill-intensive occupations than for other occupations over this period.\”

4) The Modern Shape-up Labor Market (July 23, 2018)

The “shape-up” system of hiring was described by journalist Malcolm Johnson in his Pulitzer-prize winning articles about crime on the docks of New York City in the late 1940s (Crime on the Labor Front, quotation from pp. 133-35). The description is perhaps best-remembered today for how it was depicted in the 1954 movie “On the Waterfront.” But it\’s a scenario that I think also captures some of the concerns of modern workers in the \”gig\” economy, where more and more workers are dependent on finding a new gig every month or week or day. Johnson described the process for a longshoreman of seeking and getting a job back in the 1940s in this way:

“The scene is any pier along New York’s waterfront. At a designated hour, the longshoremen gather in a semicircle at the entrance to the pier. They are the men who load and unload the ships. They are looking for jobs and as they stand there in a semicircle their eyes are fixed on one man. He is the hiring stevedore and he stands alone, surveying the waiting men. At this crucial moment he possesses the crucial power of economic life or death over them and the men know it. Their faces betray that knowledge in tense anxiety, eagerness, and fear. They know that the hiring boss, a union man like themselves, can accept them or reject them at will. He can hire them or ignore them, for any reason or for no reason at all. Now the hiring boss moves among them, choosing the man he wants, passing over others. He nod or points to the favored ones or calls out their names, indicating that they are hired. For those accepted, relief and joy. The pinched faces of the others reflect bleak disappointment, despair. …

“Under the shape-up, the longshoreman never knows from one day to the next whether he has a job or not. Under the shape-up, he may be hired today and rejected tomorrow, or hired in the morning and turned away in the afternoon. There is no security, no dignity, and no justice in the shape-up. … The shape-up fosters fear. Fear of not working. Fear of incurring the displeasure of the hiring boss.”

5) \”Four Examples from the Automation Frontier\” (February 12, 2018)

Cotton pickers. Shelf-scanners at Walmart. Quality control at building sites. Radiologists. These are just four examples of jobs that are being transformed and even sometime eliminated by the newest wave of automated and programmable machinery. Here are four short stories from various sources, which of course represent a much broader transformation happening across the global economy.

Paying unemployment insurance is a \”passive\” labor market policy. Assistance with job search and training is an \”active\” policy. Compared with other high-income economies, the US does relatively little \”active\” labor market policy–and should consider doing more. See also this follow-up post, \”Improving How Job Markets Function: Active Labor Market Policies\” (December 30, 2016)
The welfare reform legislation of 1996 overall seemed to benefit many families that were fairly close to the poverty line–but it has worsened the condition of families in \”deep poverty.\” Robert A. Moffitt and Stephanie Garlow write:

\”The welfare rolls indeed plummeted under the influence of welfare reform. If anything, some of the early studies underestimated the causal effect of welfare reform itself (as against the effects of economic expansion). Did it increase employment? Although there remains some ambiguity on the relative importance of the EITC and welfare reform in accounting for changes in employment, it is clear that welfare reform played an important role. In the initial years after reform, many more women joined the labor force than even the reform’s most ardent supporters had hoped. Did it reduce poverty? There are two sides to the answer to this question. It would appear that, while welfare reform assisted families with incomes close to the poverty threshold, it did less to help families in deep or extreme poverty. Under the current welfare regime, many single mothers are struggling to support their families without income or cash benefits. Even women who are willing to work often cannot find good-paying, steady employment.\”

The Winter 2018 issue of Pathways, published by the Stanford Center on Poverty & Inequality, offers nine short and readable essays by social scientists and a few politicians on what happened with the 1996 welfare reform, and what should happen next

A Shorter Work Week?

The biggest European union has managed to achieve a long-standing goal: German metal-workers can now work a 28-hour week, if  they wish. John Pencavel tells the story and draws out some implications for US labor markets in \”The Future of Hours of Work?\” a Policy Brief written for the Stanford Institute of Economic Policy Research (September 2018). Pencavel writes:

\”In February 2018, following three 24- hour strikes at companies including Daimler, Siemens, and Airbus, Europe’s largest industrial labor union, IG Metall, in an agreement with employers, secured for each German metal worker the right to work less than the standard weekly hours of 35 and as few as 28 hours a week, if a worker so chooses. Those who work fewer hours will be paid only for hours worked, so they will see their weekly earnings fall below those who work longer. 

\”This arrangement comes into effect in January 2019 and will be revisited and perhaps revised in two years when the agreement comes to an end. Some newspaper reports claim that the union turned down a 6.8 percent pay increase to achieve its goal of obtaining for workers a wider choice in their working hours. For their part, employers won the right to offer more workers longer 40-hour contracts. Workers are not required to accept longer hours. In short, both employers and employees have secured greater flexibility in their choice of working hours. This change in work schedules in Germany has been preceded by experiments with shorter hours in Sweden and with calls from workers in Britain for a standard four-day working week. 

\”German workers already work substantially fewer hours than the typical American worker. Their standard workweek is 35 hours and their vacations are weeks longer than those of American workers. By law, full-time German employees are currently entitled to a minimum of four weeks of paid vacation in addition to a number of public holidays, the precise number varying from one state to another; there is no such legal right for American employees. Consequently, one estimate from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is that the average annual hours of work of the typical German worker are about 400 hours fewer than those of the American worker — or about 10 weeks shorter based on a 40-hour workweek.\” 

What do German employers get out of this deal? They get flexibility, in the sense that if some workers want to work longer hours, the firm can hire them to do so. Furthermore, Pencavel argues that for many workers, labor exhibits diminishing marginal productivity over the work-week: that is, the 25th hour worked in a week is on average more productive than the 35th or the 45th hour worked. Thus, employers will be getting the more productive hours from workers, for the same hourly pay.

Does a drive for lower hours have any resonance in the US economy? Pencavel points out that in the US labor market, weekly hours worked dropped sharply in the decades leading up to 1930 or so, but since then, the decline has largely stopped. (And for the record, American unions in certain induistries remained quite powerful in the 1950s and 1960s, and they might well have succeeded in pushing for lower weekly hours if it had been a priority for them.)

Here\’s a different figure, not from Pencavel\’s brief, showing average weekly hours for production and nonsupervisory workers in all industries, not just manufacturing. This average includes part-timers.  This shows an ongoing drop over time, although it may have levelled out around the year 2000.  Specifically: \”Average weekly hours relate to the average hours per worker for which pay was received and is different from standard or scheduled hours. Factors such as unpaid absenteeism, labor turnover, part-time work, and stoppages cause average weekly hours to be lower than scheduled hours of work for an establishment. …  Average weekly hours are the total weekly hours divided by the employees paid for those hours.\”
It\’s an interesting Labor Day question as to how many US workers would we willing to make the tradeoff of lower hours for less total income (assuming they would not see diminished job security as a result). From a US context, one interesting pattern is that lower-wage workers used to be the ones who on average worked the longest hours, but now it\’s higher-wage workers. Pencavel writes: 

\”One study reports that the fraction of [US] men who usually work 50 or more weekly hours increased between 1979 and 2006 — the increase greatest for college graduates and salaried workers: The fraction of men in the top hourly earnings quintile who usually work 50 or more hours increased from 15 percent in 1979 to 27 percent in 2006. Whereas a century ago, the lowest-paid workers worked the longest hours, today the longest hours are worked by the top 10 percentile of earners. This conforms to the perception that, in some sectors, a culture of long working hours has emerged where an individual’s long hours are a rite of passage into the upper echelons of a company’s hierarchy. Insofar as it is those at the top of the earnings distribution who set society’s agenda, will we hear more agitation for a shorter workweek and more flexible work schedules over the next decade?\”

China and Korea Crash the Party in the Global Knowledge Economy

For many years, when you looked at international comparisons involving research and development or patents, you could summarize global patterns pretty well with just the US, Japan and Germany (and maybe a few other European countries, if you were feeling energetic). But now any sketch of the global science and technology economy would be incomplete without including China and Korea, too.  Johannes Eugster, Giang Ho, Florence Jaumotte, and Roberto Piazza provide an overview in \”How Knowledge Spreads: More rapid diffusion of know-how is an important benefit of globalization,\” in the September 2018 issue of Finance & Development (pp. 52-55).  
Here are some illustrations. The top figure shows national R&D spending in absolute terms (that is, not as a percentage of GDP). The US leads the way, but China is now in second place, well ahead of the EU G3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom). And Korea is catching up to Japan.
The bottom figure shows total patents. The article reports: 

\”An examination of international patent families—using a patent-count measure that includes only applications to at least two distinct patent offices, in order to exclude low-value patents—shows that China and Korea each patent about 20,000 inventions a year. Although this is still substantially below patenting in Japan and the United States (about 60,000 each), patenting activity in China and Korea is comparable to the average of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. A deeper investigation into the types of patents by economic sector reveals that the rise of patenting in China and Korea is particularly pronounced in the electrical and optical equipment sectors and, in Korea, for machinery equipment as well.\”

Another way to gain some insight as to whether the patents from China and Korea are low-value or high-value is to look at how new patents from say, the US or Japan, cite earlier patents from, say, China or Korea. he red lines show patent citations within regions. he blue lines show patent citations between regions. he thickness of the lines is scaled to the number of patents. So in 1995, for example, the Korea/China area looks very small, both in number of patents cited within and outside the region. By 2014, it looks like a more-or-less equal partner in patent citations with the US, the EU, and Japan. 
The article also includes a brief discussion of whether this shift should be viewed as a good thing from the perspective of the US economy. For example, does a rise of innovation in China and Korea in some way discourage innovation in the US economy? Or hurt the US economy in some other way? The authors take what I think is ultimately the correct  position, which is that world economic output and US economic output are better off with more new ideas, growing incomes, and larger markets. But new ideas and markets can be a source of economic stress and worker dislocation, too.