Articles of Interest: Mercenaries and Fragmented Forests

How private military contractors are changing the future of warfare…

The private military industry allows you to fight wars without having your own blood on the gambling table. And drones just do that as well. If you think about this as an arms-control issue, both [drones and private military companies] should be part of the same category, because they allow national governments to get involved in fighting without actually having citizens do it. And that creates moral hazard for policymakers, because it lowers the barriers of entry into conflict.

Technology allows [private armed groups] to punch above their weight class. And technology’s ever cheaper, ever more available, and so drones and other types of technologies—weapons systems, night-vision goggles—that’s all on the open market as well. So we’ve got an open market for force, swishing around with these markets of technologies. Supply and demand are going to find each other, and that allows a very small group of people to do some big damage.

Forests are fragmenting, at great cost to biodiversity…

[M]ore than 70% of remaining forest is within just 1km (about 0.6 miles) of an edge, while a 100 metre stroll from an edge would enable you to reach 20% of global forests … In Europe and the U.S., the vast majority of forest is within 1km of an edge – some of the most “remote” areas in these regions are a stones throw from human activity.

If you want remote forests on a large scale you’ll have to head to the Amazon, the Congo, or to a lesser degree, central and far eastern Russia, central Borneo and Papua New Guinea.

[B]y drawing together scientific evidence from seven long-term fragmentation experiments, Haddad and colleagues show that fragmentation reduces biodiversity by up to 75%. This exacerbates the extinction risk of millions of forest species, many of which we still don’t know much about.

The survival of large, carbon-rich trees – the building blocks of any intact forest ecosystem – is reduced in smaller and more isolated forest fragments. These patches thus fail to maintain viable populations, which over time are doomed – an “extinction debt” yet to be paid.

There is nothing wrong with technology in the classroom…

Students who have adapted to and now rely on using technology shouldn’t be cut off from this resource in the classroom. Many students use technological tools to overcome learning differences, to organize information, to engage in discussions that help them think through material. And they are more successful because of it. Some students with learning challenges have adapted to using technology without having to report a disability and announce that disability to their classmates or professors. Professors might not know that students in their classrooms are dealing with learning disabilities and are succeeding because of assistive technology. These students may not be registered with the “Office of Disability Services”, they might not be “diagnosed”, and have their learning differences medicalized — but then again, why should they have to in order to use the tools that help them?

Where the world’s economic elites live…

London is on top, besting New York City, which fell to fourth place. San Francisco, previously number four, has fallen out of the top 20 entirely. Singapore rises into the top 10, to number three, and Hong Kong is up three spots from 2013, to five. The top 10 also has two new European entrants: Frankfurt has the sixth most ultra-high-net individuals, and Paris has the seventh. Osaka, Beijing, and Zurich round out the top 10.

The dominance of Asian cities illustrates a larger trend. For the first time, Asia overtook North America as the region with the second-largest growth in ultra-high-net individuals. The wealthy in Asia also now hold more money overall than those in North America: $5.9 trillion compared to $5.5 trillion. However, Europe still reigns supreme, with the greatest growth in the number of super-rich and with the wealthiest super-rich overall. Europe’s high-net individuals hold $6.4 trillion.

[Adjusted for population,] smaller cities dominate. Geneva tops the list, with 144 super-rich individuals per 100,000 residents, followed by Swiss counterpart Zurich, with 71. Home to fabled Swiss banks, these cities have long been the favored locations of global plutocrats. As the table below shows, Singapore and Hong Kong retain their high placement, ranking third and fifth, respectively. London drops to eighth, New York to 19th, Paris to 24th and Tokyo to 32nd.

Apple Nation

The rise of Apple Inc as a dominant global force in the 21st century could not be better pronounced than with the news that it is currently worth an incredible $700 billion, with $178 billion in profit as of the latest quarter. If the company were a country, it would be the 55th richest in the world, on par with New Zealand and bigger than Vietnam, Morocco, and Ecuador (nations that together have well over 120 million people).

The Atlantic, my source for this news, puts this into perspective:

These sort of comparisons help underscore just how much money Apple has, but they’re not entirely nuanced. For instance, although Apple has made history with its earnings, there have been countries just as rich—and richer—once you adjust for inflation. In that case, Apple still hasn’t hit Microsoft’s high-water mark in 1999. (Microsoft was worth $620 billion then; which would exceed $870 billion in today’s dollars.) But what does that tell us, really, other than how quickly tech fortunes can change? After all, Apple today is worth more than twice as much as Microsoft ($349 billion). In 1999, though, Apple was perhaps notable for making colorful iMacs that dotted high-school computer labs, but not much else.

It is astounding that a private company could accrue enough wealth to rival entire nations, or to give every American $556. I see it as a troubling development, insofar as it is indicative of a wider trend of global inequality, with more wealth becoming concentrated among a small cohort of the population — mostly the shareholders, executives, and financiers involved in the trading and investing of these big companies.

Apple’s beleaguered workers, namely those subcontracted in the developing world, certainly deserve some sort of bonus for helping to make these record-breaking profits possible. If such compensation is a way to reward success, and to encourage productivity and performance, as businesspeople alleged, than does that logic not apply to average people? Or are only the rich who helm the top of these companies entitled (or apparently in need of) such motivation?

It is scary to think that this is hardly an unprecedented development either:

No modern tech company has approached the value of trading companies of the 1700s, though, and the Dutch East India Company trumps them all. The shipping juggernaut was the world’s first publicly traded company. At its height,according to several estimates, it was worth the equivalent of more than $7 trillion in 2015 dollars. That’s a seven with 12 zeros after it—or Apple’s valuation today 10 times over.

The Dutch East India Company was ultimately undone, at least in part, by the weight of corruption and venality among its personnel. It seems a common fate for institutions that become swept up in unchecked growth and the subsequent expectations for more and more. This is not a sustainable model for any organized system, whether it is a government or a tech firm.

The Poor Have It Easy In America

That is a sentiment that appears to be widely held by the nation’s wealthiest citizens, according to a recent Pew survey reported by the Washington Post.

The center surveyed a nationally representative group of people this past fall, and found that the majority of the country’s most financially secure citizens (54 percent at the very top, and 57 percent just below) believe the “poor have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.” America’s least financially secure, meanwhile, vehemently disagree — nearly 70 percent say the poor have hard lives because the benefits “don’t go far enough.” Nationally, the population is almost evenly split.

Here are the results in visual form; note the large minorities of poor and middle-class people that agree with this view.

Unsurprisingly, the report also found that those who identify as conservatives — around 40 percent of the most financially secure groups — are more likely to believe the poor have it good thanks to the government, and that the poor do not work hard enough. Another Pew report confirmed that around 75 percent of conservatives in general feel this way about the poor, regardless of income.

So in essence, if you are wealthy or conservative — but especially both — you are likely to take a dim view of America’s least fortunate — and conversely, to believe that wealthy people have it harder, due to perceived higher taxes, onerous government regulations, and the usual bugbears of the right.

As columnist Christopher Ingraham points out, such a perception of America’s poor is greatly at odds with reality:

But I have a hard time understanding how you could read about the experience of families relying on food stamps to eat, or those trying tomanage chronic conditions with Medicaid, and conclude that these people somehow have it easy. For context, here is a brief and wildly incomplete list of the ways life is “easy” when you’re poor:

Of course, it is no coincidence that those who think the poor have it easy also think the poor do not work hard enough and just live off the government (and by extension, live off the hardworking taxpayer). If you think that poor people get what they deserve for their laziness and irresponsibility, no amount of data demonstrating their difficult circumstances — and by contrast how much better the wealthy are doing — will sway the wealthy’s sympathy; nor will any of the evidence showing the role that external factors — from low wages to unstable business cycles — have contributed to growing and persistent poverty.

Moreover, with many of these same wealthy Americans having a disproportionate influence on our media and politics, it is little wonder that more is not being done to address the mounting socioeconomic conditions faced by a growing proportion of Americans.

As for how so many wealthy people can retain such callous views of the nation’s poor, that can be attributed to a range of factors. Richer people are increasingly holing up in gated communities or gentrified areas where poor people are largely absent. They are more likely to interact with and know only other well off or at least middle-class people. Some evidence even suggests that wealth accumulation itself contributes to an empathy gap with those who are not rich.

Whatever the cause, it goes without saying that this arrangement is not sustainable. No society has ever endured such a wide and growing gap between rich and poor without ultimately subsiding into sociopolitical instability — including revolution. While the U.S. may not necessarily go the way of 18th century France or Bolshevik Russia, it will certainly experience the same sort of underlying tensions and political problems that tend to bode ill for long-term prosperity.

It is time we start caring about the least vulnerable in America and doing more to help them, namely by promoting a more sustainable and equitable economic system. If more companies paid their employees better (perhaps by tapping into those record-breaking profits), that alone would go a long way. Of course, viewing the poor as people that deserve dignified wages and treatment would be the natural place to start — it is a shame that even needs to be a lesson to learn.

Economics and Optimism Around the World

According to research cited by the Wall Street Journal, more than three-quarters of American adults felt their children would be worse off than they are, a sobering testament to the economic malaise and political dysfunction that have been entrenched (if not worsened) these past several years. Who could blame anyone for being so cynical?

But how do other nations compare? Which societies have been brought low by the global recession and the subsequent stagnation, and which ones have managed to remain optimistic? Earlier this month, eminent pollster Pew issued a report that explored these attitudes across dozens of rich and developing countries.

As an article in The Atlantic observed, the findings show a strong connection between economic development, attitudes towards certain economic concepts (like the free market), and thoughts about the future.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Germany, South Korea, and the United States are the advanced countries with the most robust support for the market economy. Among emerging markets, Jordan and Argentina are most opposed to the free market. And among developing economies, which are the poorest in Pew’s sample, the market economy is least popular in Uganda and El Salvador, while Bangladesh, Ghana, and Nicaragua (another country with a socialist government) report the strongest support.In general, the world is inclined to favor the free market (66 percent of all those surveyed by Pew do), but its greatest supporters are in the poorest countries (80 percent in Bangladesh, 75 percent in Ghana, and 74 percent in Kenya). Among emerging economies, 76 percent of Chinese respondents think people do better in a market economy, and that number remains high in India (72 percent), socialist Venezuela (67 percent), and Brazil (60 percent).

Here is a visual representation of the results:

For comparison, here is how respondents from these countries feel about the future of their countries.

Note the strong optimism among developing countries, especially those in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. As The Atlantic notes:

Asia […] is the most optimistic region when it comes to how people view the economic prospects of their children. Europeans and Americans, meanwhile, are quite grim about the future. Pessimism abounds in France, where 86 percent of those surveyed believe that children will be worse off financially than their parents, and the numbers of those who worry about the outlook for younger generations is also high in Japan (79 percent) and Italy (67 percent). In contrast, the expectation that future generations will be better off is widespread in Vietnam (94 percent), China (85 percent), Chile (77 percent), and Bangladesh (71 percent).

Indeed, the following chart shows just much more optimistic Asians are than the rest of the world (although large minorities still remain pessimistic):

So not only does support for the free market correlate with greater optimism, but this pattern applies overwhelmingly to poorer countries. For all their positive views of this economic approach, the average rich-world resident remains skeptical about the future and perhaps doubtful that their vaunted free market is really in place as they would prefer.

I personally suspect that this may have something to do with the rise in inequality, which has been especially well publicized in the rich world, despite being an otherwise global phenomenon. With companies reaping record profits but wages and employment remaining stagnant, even the most enthusiastically pro-business societies like the U.S. cannot help but feel cynical, whatever their support for the principles of the free market.

Indeed, it appears that economic growth was more of a determinant than current economic conditions. Generally, poorer countries are growing faster than richer ones, so even if times are bad now, most residents in the developing world have much to look forward to, especially if they are rising from a much lower base.

So it makes sense why there appears to be a mismatch in optimism between developing and developed countries. Emerging economies probably feel that their support of the free market is being vindicated by growing prosperity, while richer but stagnant states are less optimistic even if they hold true to the ideal of the free market.

Of course, there is the issue of semantics: what exactly is the “free market” in the context of this survey? Like most academic concepts, it is difficult to neatly define, let alone implement in the real world. Moreover, different societies no doubt have different interpretations of it. I imagine Pew accounted for that to some degree, but I am not sure. Just a caveat to keep in mind.

And what about the issue of inequality that I mentioned before? Surely that has an impact on attitudes towards the both free market and the future? Well it does, albeit in an interesting and nuanced way. Citing Pew:

A global median of 60% say that the gap between rich and poor is a very big problem in their country. Concern is somewhat higher among developing economies and emerging markets (median of 60% in each), but is also shared by people in advanced economies (56%).Nonetheless, despite this high level of worry about inequality, the issue only ties or tops the list of economic problems in four of the 44 countries surveyed. In general, people in advanced economies tend to worry more about public debt and unemployment than inequality, while those in emerging markets and developing economies are more concerned about inflation and jobs.

The top culprit for income inequality cited by publics around the world is their national government’s economic policies. A global median of 29% say their government’s policies are to blame for the gap between the rich and the poor, while the amount workers are paid is a close second at 23%. Globally, people place less blame on the educational system (11%), a lack of individual hard work (10%), trade between countries (8%) and the structure of the tax system (8%).

Advanced economies in particular lean toward the notion that their governments are to blame for inequality (median of 32%). The Greeks (54%), Spanish (52%) and South Koreans (46%) are government’s harshest critics. Significant percentages among advanced economies also fault workers’ wages for the gap between the rich and the poor, including 29% in Japan and 26% each in France and Germany. The Americans and British are two of the few publics to blame individuals’ lack of hard work (24%) about as much as they do their government’s policies (24% in U.S., 23% in UK).

Emerging markets are more divided. Pluralities in nine of the 25 countries surveyed blame their government for inequality in their country, including roughly four-in-ten or more in Ukraine (45%), India (45%), Lebanon (43%), China (43%), Tunisia (43%), Turkey (42%) and Nigeria (39%). Meanwhile, pluralities in another six countries say workers’ wages are the primary scapegoat. Latin American publics – such as Brazilians (44%), Chileans (39%) and Colombians (39%) – are particularly likely to blame inadequate take-home pay for the gap between the rich and poor.

People in developing economies are also split between blaming the government for income inequality in their country and faulting workers’ wages. Pluralities in Kenya (36%), Ghana (29%) and Tanzania (29%) say inequality is their government’s fault, while Salvadorans (32%) tend to blame the amount workers are paid. Nearly equal percentages in the Palestinian territories, Bangladesh, Senegal and Uganda say both the government and wages are the culprits. Nicaragua (31%) is the country with the highest percentage who say a lack of individual hard work is the problem.

And what do most respondents think is the solution? Well, given that government is perceived to be the problem, it stands to reason that the most popular solution would be to weaken the public sector in favor of strengthening the private one, as the results indeed show:

Pluralities or majorities in 22 of the 44 countries surveyed say to reduce inequality it is more effective to have low taxes on the wealthy and corporations to encourage investment and economic growth rather than high taxes on the wealthy and corporations to fund programs that help the poor. Publics in 13 countries prefer the high tax option.

Overall, advanced economies (median of 48%) are somewhat more supportive than either developing (40%) or emerging (31%) countries of using high taxes on the wealthy and corporations to address income inequality. The broadest support comes from Germany, where 61% favor using high taxes to fund poverty programs. Roughly half or more in Spain (54%), South Korea (53%), the UK (50%) and the U.S. (49%) agree. In Italy (68%), France (61%) and Greece (50%), opinion leans toward low taxes to encourage investment.In most advanced economies, people who say they are very concerned about inequality are particularly supportive of income redistribution to reduce the gap between the rich and poor.

There is also a large ideological divide over taxes in Europe and the U.S. In general, individuals on the left are much more likely than those on the right to prefer high taxes on the wealthy and corporations. For example, 71% of those on the left in Spain support redistribution, compared with 45% of people on the right. In the U.S., 70% of liberals say high taxes are more effective to combat inequality while just 33% of conservatives agree.

The prevailing view in most emerging markets surveyed is that low taxes on the rich and businesses to stimulate growth are a better way to address inequality. Roughly six-in-ten or more express this opinion in Brazil (77%), Argentina (60%), Vietnam (60%) and the Philippines (59%). In just five of the 25 emerging countries do pluralities or majorities pick high taxes as the preferred means of reducing the gap between the rich and poor, including 57% in Jordan, 53% each in Egypt and Chile, 48% in Ukraine and 42% in China.

Developing economies also lean more toward low taxes on the wealthy and corporations to encourage investment rather than high taxes for redistribution. At least half prefer low taxes in Uganda (64%), Ghana (57%), Kenya (52%) and Nicaragua (52%). El Salvador is the only developing economy where a majority (58%) chooses high taxes.

Again, this reflects greater faith on private sector forces — businesses, entrepreneurs, and civil society — as avenues of prosperity than public ones, namely the state and its policies. Given that corruption and inefficiency are endemic in most developing world governments, such pessimism towards public officialdom is perhaps expected, especially when those societies are otherwise more optimistic about the future and their own economic potential — and thus more wary of historically inept states getting in the way.

The conflicted solutions offered by respondents in richer countries may reflect the fact that both the public and business sectors have been disappointing, with trust in all institutions at a record low. There is plenty of blame to go around, but where does the answer life if both economic and political elites are culpable? That is a question deserving of its own blog altogether, so I will leave that to you all.

Anyway, Pew looked at attitudes to more than just the free market. There is also the universally important matter of how someone gets ahead in life. Participants were asked to rank the importance of several factors of success from zero (“not important”) to 10 (“very important”). The results were largely in favor of “getting a better education”, which 60 percent of respondents checked as maximally important. Here’s the Pew report again:

Among those surveyed in the most advanced economies, Spaniards place the greatest value on education as a factor of success, with 71 percent saying that it is very important. Not so in France, where the value of education was given its lowest marks among all surveyed countries with only 24 percent characterizing education as a critical factor. Ironically, by international standards the quality of education in France is higher than in countries where a much greater percentage felt a good education was a very important precursor to success (86 percent of Venezuelans, for example).

Half of the survey’s respondents believe that “hard work” is very important for success, while 37 percent say the same about “knowing the right people”, 33 percent about being “lucky”, and 20 percent about belonging “to a wealthy family”. Seventeen percent of those polled view being male as critical to success, and just 5 percent feel the same way about giving bribes. The countries where the greatest percentage of people believe that family money is very important for getting ahead in life are Tunisia (46 percent) and Nigeria (45 percent). These are also two of the countries where respondents ranked bribery among the most important determinants of success.

Here are how the results played out from country to country (again, the question was what is most important for getting ahead in life).

Another interesting result to point out: in 32 of the 44 countries surveyed, more men believed that being male was an advantage to success than women. With more women taking change of their economic and political future (as evidenced by higher rates of female employment and civic participation), they feel more hopeful and emboldened that the system can and does work in their favor. But that is just my own (optimistic) speculation.

Still, there does appear to be a consensus across all these different societies: economic prosperity is dependent largely on factors beyond one’s control, an attitude that even the most optimistic countries shared.

Pretty interesting stuff, and a lot to ruminate on. My time is short and my analysis is spotty, so I encourage you all to check out the report for yourself and draw your own conclusions. As always, I welcome feedback.

Chart: Global Wealth Distribution

Since I have been on a bit of an infographic kick lately, here is yet another interesting chart courtesy of The Economist, which measures an issue dear to my heart: wealth inequality. The contrasts inherent in it are quite sobering:

To recap, there are around 35 million millionaires in the world, constituting just 0.7 percent of the adult population — yet together, they hold 44 percent of the world’s total wealth of $262 trillion (up from $117 trillion in 2000). This is an increasingly common arrangement in most parts of the world, so it is little surprise that the same plays out on the international stage, especially as globalization proliferates the systems and trends that contribute to this top-heavy concentration of wealth.

Here are some additional details from the article:

Today 94.5% of the world’s household wealth is held by 20% of the adult population, according to new data from Credit Suisse. Wealth is so unevenly distributed, that you need just $3,650 (less debts) to count yourself among the richest half of the world’s population. A mere $77,000 brings you among the wealthiest 10%. And just $798,000 puts you into the ranks of the 1%—within the reach of many white-collar urban professionals in the West. Hence, more than 35m people carry such a plump purse. Among the three billion adults at the bottom with less than $10,000 in wealth, 90% reside in developing countries. Yet 15% of millionaires live in developing countries too.

Such a stark contrast in fortunes, especially with so much of the world remaining poor despite all the growth in wealth, does not bode well for the economic and sociopolitical stability of this planet (much less of many individual nations, where circumstances are even more dire). What are your thoughts and reactions?

Graph: The U.S. Leads the Way in Low-Wage Work and Pay

As has sadly been the case all too often these days, one of the latest reports from the Economic Policy Institute, an American think-tank, is grim: low-wage workers (the 10th percentile of wage earners) have seen their real pay decline by five percent over the 1979-2013 period, despite concurrent productivity gains of 64.9 percent.

Consequently, American low-wage workers fare the worst in the developed world: according to the OECD, as of 2012, they earned just 46.7 percent of what a median worker worker does, far below the OECD average of 59.9 percent; to catch up to that average, U.S. low wage workers would need a 28 percent raise in their wages.

The graph below highlights this issue rather starkly:

Note that over a quarter of America’s labor force — 25.3 percent to be exact — is low wage, which is defined as earning less than two-thirds of the median wage. On this metric, too, the United States ranks the highest among the 26 countries surveyed, and far higher than the OECD average of 16.3 percent.

Thus, the U.S. has the largest number of low-paid workers in the developed world, and they in turn are the lowest paid in the developed world. And while several countries, such as the U.K., Ireland, and Canada, come close, most of them at the very least have more developed social safety nets to offset the shortfall among low-wage workers (universal healthcare alone is a major mitigating factor, given that medical bills account for many cases of bankruptcies among the American poor).

Setting aside the considerable amount of misery that comes with low paying and often menial labor, the broader impact on the long-term prosperity of the nation cannot be understated: with one out of four workers (and their dependents) having so little income, consumer demand — the lifeblood of the economy — stagnates. Fewer people are able to afford an education or vocational training, leading to a lot of untapped and desperately needed potential.

All this despite the nation’s economic elites — its executives, shareholders, and investors — broadly doing better than ever. Is it really so untenable for companies to spare some of their record, post-recession profits to improve the plight of their beleaguered workers — i.e. the consumers and patrons they all so badly need?

 

In any case, this is a point I have made too many times before, so instead of retreading it once more, I will leave you with this illuminating report by  Elise Gould (also from EPI) on Why America’s Workers Need Faster Wage Growth—And What We Can Do About It. As always, feel free to share your thoughts and feedback.

No Representation Without Taxation

Well, that is not quite the argument that Amy B. Dean made in her opinion piece for Al-Jazeera America, titled Not Enough Taxation and Too Much RepresentationBut she does point out the discrepancy between how little modern corporations invest in their community — whether through paying taxes or through offering decent employment — and how much they nonetheless continue to exercise disproportionate political influence.

For decades now, U.S. corporations have been cutting ties with the communities that enabled their success in the first place. The trend began in manufacturing, a sector that has slashed nearly 8 million jobs since 1979. It has since spread as companies have outsourced and offshored an expanding array of jobs. A good example comes from the semiconductor industry. According to the Government Accountability Office, beginning in the 1960s, semiconductor manufacturers began to move assembly plants to Asia. In the 1980s they followed these with wafer foundries and, beginning in the 2000s, design and engineering jobs as well. A survey of over 500 companies by the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton affirms this trend, finding “a salient shift toward locating more sophisticated and mission-critical work in countries such as India, China, Hungary, Brazil and the Philippines.”

From 2010 to 2012, three-quarters of the jobs created by the 35 largest U.S. companies from were outside the country, according to The Wall Street Journal. And for the 2000s, the newspaper reports, “U.S. multinational corporations, the big brand-name companies that employ a fifth of all American workers, have been hiring abroad while cutting back at home” — with domestic payrolls reduced by 2.9 million while 2.4 million jobs were established overseas.

As it is, the complaint about high statutory corporate tax rates is a red herring. As the Economic Policy Institute reports, the effective corporate tax rate has stayed at a relatively low 27.7 percent, on par with those of other economically advanced countries. In fact, the effective rate has remained well below the statutory rate since the early 1980s, making corporations’ complaints about their tax rate here seem hyperbolic. The fact remains that almost all the benefits of higher productivity have gone to corporations, and their profits are at an all-time high.

One could argue that this trend could be tolerated, were it not for companies nevertheless wanting to play an ever bigger role in domestic issues and local governance:

As corporate culture has grown more and more disconnected from American communities, it has demanded a greater and greater say in the country’s elections. Since 2000, independent expenditures in electoral campaigns have increased over 60-fold, from under $3 million to $186 million today. And an increasing amount of this money has come from avenues opened by the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United, in which it upheld the idea that corporate money should be regarded as speech and thus be covered by First Amendment protections.

Given the long-term shift in corporate loyalties away from being invested in American communities, we should be moving in the opposite direction, taking action against corporations that have such a dominant role in our democracy. The ability to participate in democratic deliberations should be predicated on embracing the responsibilities of citizenship and being invested in the well-being of our communities.

Personally, I agree with this sentiment. Although I see myself as a citizen of the world, and think we have an obligation towards bettering the lives of others beyond the borders we happen to be born within, what is going on here is different: companies are decoupling from any sense of social responsibility towards their communities while still feeling entitled to disproportionately influence the policies of the very areas they have essentially abandoned.

Moreover, the fact that record profits have not translated to better pay or treatment for workers — in or out of the country — makes this practice all the more reprehensible. Many of these companies have the resources at their disposal, and can in fact continue making good profits while looking after communities both here and abroad; but alas, the demand for ever-higher payouts to shareholders and executives eats a bigger chunk of the profit that could be reinvested through better pay, benefits, and the like.

In short, what we see is part of a wider trend in which economic elites feel little social obligation towards the rest of society. They have the resources to isolate themselves geographically from the non-wealthy, or indeed to leave their communities altogether (whether local, state, or national). Globalization has only amplified this disconnection, as the wealthiest citizens can simply move themselves and their great resources wherever suits them.

But in a world where overall wealth is higher than ever — yet concentrated so that 85 individuals have more than 3.5 billion people — is this sort of decoupling morally justifiable? Cannot these prosperous companies and their investors spare even a fraction of what they have towards bettering the lives of the workers worldwide who contributed to that prosperity, rather than try to dominate them further by supporting even more onerous policies? It would appear that our business culture and economic system do not allow it.

What do you think? Do companies have an obligation to their communities? Should they refrain from exercising influence if they are going to be leaving their localities or even countries behind?

Work and Worth

What someone is paid has little or no relationship to what their work is worth to society.

Does anyone seriously believe hedge-fund mogul Steven A. Cohen is worth the $2.3 billion he raked in last year, despite being slapped with a $1.8 billion fine after his firm pleaded guilty to insider trading?

On the other hand, what’s the worth to society of social workers who put in long and difficult hours dealing with patients suffering from mental illness or substance abuse? Probably higher than their average pay of $18.14 an hour, which translates into less than $38,000 a year.

How much does society gain from personal-care aides who assist the elderly, convalescents, and persons with disabilities? Likely more than their average pay of $9.67 an hour, or just over $20,000 a year.

What’s the social worth of hospital orderlies who feed, bathe, dress, and move patients, and empty their ben pans? Surely higher than their median wage of$11.63 an hour, or $24,190 a year.

Or of child care workers, who get $10.33 an hour, $21.490 a year? And preschool teachers, who earn $13.26 an hour, $27,570 a year?

Yet what would the rest of us do without these dedicated people?

Or consider kindergarten teachers, who make an average of $53,590 a year.

Before you conclude that’s generous, consider that a good kindergarten teacher is worth his or her weight in gold, almost.

One study found that children with outstanding kindergarten teachers are more likely to go to college and less likely to become single parents than a random set of children similar to them in every way other than being assigned a superb teacher.

And what of writers, actors, painters, and poets? Only a tiny fraction ever become rich and famous. Most barely make enough to live on (many don’t, and are forced to take paying jobs to pursue their art). But society is surely all the richer for their efforts.

At the other extreme are hedge-fund and private-equity managers, investment bankers, corporate lawyers, management consultants, high-frequency traders, and top Washington lobbyists.

They’re getting paid vast sums for their labors. Yet it seems doubtful that society is really that much better off because of what they do.

I don’t mean to sound unduly harsh, but I’ve never heard of a hedge-fund manager whose jobs entails attending to basic human needs (unless you consider having more money as basic human need) or enriching our culture (except through the myriad novels, exposes, and movies made about greedy hedge-fund managers and investment bankers).

They don’t even build the economy.

Most financiers, corporate lawyers, lobbyists, and management consultants are competing with other financiers, lawyers, lobbyists, and management consultants in zero-sum games that take money out of one set of pockets and put it into another.

They’re paid gigantic amounts because winning these games can generate far bigger sums, while losing them can be extremely costly.

It’s said that by moving money to where it can make more money, these games make the economy more efficient.

In fact, the games amount to a mammoth waste of societal resources.

They demand ever more cunning innovations but they create no social value. High-frequency traders who win by a thousandth of a second can reap a fortune, but society as a whole is no better off.

Meanwhile, the games consume the energies of loads of talented people who might otherwise be making real contributions to society — if not by tending to human needs or enriching our culture then by curing diseases or devising new technological breakthroughs, or helping solve some of our most intractable social problems.

Graduates of Ivy League universities are more likely to enter finance and consulting than any other career.

For example, in 2010 (the most recent date for which we have data) close to 36 percent of Princeton graduates went into finance (down from the pre-financial crisis high of 46 percent in 2006). Add in management consulting, and it was close to 60 percent.

The hefty endowments of such elite institutions are swollen with tax-subsidized donations from wealthy alumni, many of whom are seeking to guarantee their own kids’ admissions so they too can become enormously rich financiers and management consultants.

But I can think of a better way for taxpayers to subsidize occupations with more social merit: Forgive the student debts of graduates who choose social work, child care, elder care, nursing, and teaching.

Robert Reich

A Quick Guide to the Guaranteed Basic Income

Although not a new idea, the concept of a guaranteed basic income — also known as a guaranteed minimum income or universal basic income — seems to be gaining a lot more traction lately. Amid concerns about rising poverty and inequality, as well as greater scrutiny on the failings and inefficiencies of current welfare programs, the allure of a more streamlined and equitable income for all seems obvious; hence why thinkers and activists across the political spectrum — from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Milton Friedman — have advocated one form of it or another.

If you would like a great breakdown on what this idea entails and how it would be implemented, check out this article on Vox.com. It does a pretty good job of introducing the subject in a balanced and holistic way, including analyzing the various arguments for and against a basic income by conservatives, liberals, and libertarians. What do you think?

 

 

The Plight of Restaurants Workers

Throughout the recession and subsequent recovery, one of the few job opportunities that have remained largely unaffected, if not growing, has been food service. From eateries to fast-food chains, this broad industry has gained an impressive 30 percent in employment since 1990, accounting for nearly one out of ten private-sector jobs in the U.S.

Unfortunately, a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute exposes some very disquieting things about one of America’s fastest-growing employers. Here are some of the highlights courtesy of Mother Jones:

The industry’s wages have stagnated at an extremely low level. Restaurant workers’ median wage stands at $10 per hour, tips included—and hasn’t budged, in inflation-adjusted terms, since 2000. For nonrestaurant US workers, the median hourly wage is $18. That means the median restaurant worker makes 44 percent less than other workers. Benefits are also rare—just 14.4 percent of restaurant workers have employer-sponsored health insurance and 8.4 percent have pensions, vs. 48.7 percent and 41.8 percent, respectively, for other workers.

 

Unionization rates are minuscule. Presumably, it would be more difficult to keep wages throttled at such a low level if restaurant workers could bargain collectively. But just 1.8 percent of restaurant workers belong to unions, about one-seventh of the rate for nonrestaurant workers. Restaurant workers who do belong to unions are much more likely to have benefits than their nonunion peers.

 

As a result, the people who prepare and serve you food are pretty likely to live in poverty. The overall poverty rate stands at 6.3 percent. For restaurant workers, the rate is 16.7 percent. For families, researchers often look at twice the poverty threshold as proxy for what it takes to make ends meet, EPI reports. More than 40 percent of restaurant workers live below twice the poverty line—that’s double the rate of non-restaurant workers.

 

Opportunity for advancement is pretty limited. I was surprised to learn that for every single occupation with restaurants—from dishwashers to chefs to managers—the median hourly wage is much less than the national average of $18. The highest paid occupation is manager, with a median hourly wage of $15.42. The lowest is “cashiers and counter attendants” (median wage: $8.23), while the most prevalent of restaurant workers, waiters and waitresses, who make up nearly a quarter of the industry’s workforce, make a median wage of just $10.15. The one that has gained the most glory in recent years, “chefs and head cooks,” offers a median wage of just $12.34.

 

Industry occupations are highly skewed along gender and race lines. Higher-paid occupations are more likely to be held by men—chefs, cooks, and managers, for example, are 86 percent, 73 percent, and 53 percent male, respectively. Lower-paid positions tend to be dominated by women: for example, host and hostess (84.9 percent female), cashiers and counter attendants (75.1 percent), and waiters and waitresses (70.8 percent). I took up this topic in a piece on the vexed gender politics of culinary prestige last year. Meanwhile, “blacks are disproportionately likely to be cashiers/counter attendants, the lowest-paid occupation in the industry,” while “Hispanics are disproportionately likely to be dishwashers, dining room attendants, or cooks, also relatively low-paid occupations,” the report found.

 

Restaurants lean heavily on the most disempowered workers of all—undocumented immigrants. Overall, 15.7 percent of US restaurant workers are undocumented, nearly twice the rate for non-restaurant sectors. Fully a third of dishwashers, nearly 30 percent of non-chef cooks, and more than a quarter of bussers are undocumented, the report found. So a huge swath of the people who feed you pay payroll taxes and sales taxes yet don’t receive the rights of citizenship.

All of this reflects a rather disturbing overall trend in the U.S. economy: the loss of stable, well-paying jobs to less secure, low-wage ones. Not only has job growth not kept pace with the needs of the labor force, but the relatively few options that remain share largely the same characteristics: meager pay, little to no benefits, no paid sick leave, poor upward mobility, and so on. And since this has become standard across the industry — baring only a few examples — most companies have little incentive to offer anything better to their workers — in essence, it is a race to the bottom, one that desperate workers of all ages have no choice but to take up.

Needless to say, this is not a sustainable model for prosperity. Not only do individual employees suffer, but so do their families and communities (the poorest of which often have few options beyond food service and equally low-paying retail). The national economy as a whole cannot thrive when such a large chunk of its consumer base is too poor to afford goods and services, or too unhealthy and demoralized to work at optimal productivity. These highly profitable employers have as much an interest in investing more in their labor force as the workers themselves.

For its part, the EPI report suggests legislative solutions, including a  higher minimum wage, mandated paid sick leave, and a path to legal status for undocumented workers. I would add unionization or some sort of labor collective as a big step, too. For its part, MoJo recommends that those wishing to learn more about the working conditions in America’s food industry read the 2013 book Behind the Kitchen Door by Saru Jayaraman.

As fast-food, retail, and other service work continues to take the place of increasingly obsolete but better-paying positions, we need to start adjusting the way we value such labor; otherwise, unpleasant, beggaring jobs will be the new normal, and that cannot last.