Archive for ‘Economics’

Bangladesh and Sweatshop Economics

By , 10 May, 2013, No Comment

Very belatedly, posting the link to my debut piece for the Guardian. I look at the debate about the economics and ethics of sweatshops that has erupted in the wake of the Dhaka factory collapse last month. In particular, I’m intrigued by the logic of sweatshop apologists, who argue that because individual workers chose to work in these sweatshops over available alternatives, sweatshop jobs are the best possible jobs in Bangladesh. This is rational choice theory taken to an absurd Panglossian extreme, where everything that happens in a market economy must be good because if it wasn’t good, it wouldn’t be happening. It’s a way of thinking that strips out A. any normative analysis of what is a good choice B. any real engagement with the context in which choices are made. You can read the piece here.

China’s ‘String of Pearls’ – Real or Fake?

By , 2 February, 2013, No Comment

I’ve got a new post up looking at the Chinese investment strategy in South Asia, and in particular, the theory that China is acquiring a ‘string of pearls,’ a network of strategic assets in Pakistan, Burma, Nepal et al that will encircle and contain India. My post is a response to a post by Dan Drezner at Foreign Policy, in which he contends that the ‘string of pearls’ is something western journalists cooked up in our imaginations because it feeds into fears about Big Scary China. I disagree.

My post argues that the ‘string of pearls’ is a real strategy, an extension of longstanding Cold War alliances China had in the region, and that its primary function is economic, not military. But I concede that the strategy may be failing or weakening, in part because China is growing wary of Pakistan, in part because China is growing less wary of India, and in part because the U.S. presence in Afghanistan has altered regional dynamics.

Read it all here.

Thoughts on the 3rd Presidential Debate: Foreign Policy

By , 23 October, 2012, No Comment

I watched last night’s presidential debate with a group of wonks and journalists at the Council on Foreign Relations. It was interesting to be among people who care deeply about international affairs, given that most voters don’t.

Indeed, knowing that foreign policy won’t win them this election, both candidates took every opportunity to pivot the discussion to the economy. Moreover, the candidates agreed with one another on almost all the issues they touched on. Together, the tactics of agreement and evasion made for an uninformative 90 minutes.

But, a few things that jumped out at me:

1. As expected, the candidates used the question on ‘America’s role in the world’ to spar over the defense budget. Most viewers will remember this segment for President Obama’s quip equating Romney’s push for greater naval spending to a demand for ‘horses and bayonets.’

But what I found notable was the contrast between Romney’s planned cuts to government social spending and his desire to double down on military spending that even the Pentagon doesn’t recommend. The important thing to understand about this debate over defense spending is that it has very little to do with foreign policy and everything to do with economic stimulus. As Daniel Drezner put it in his comments at CFR yesterday, defense expenditures are about the only form of Keynesianism the contemporary GOP supports.

2. I tweeted on Sunday that it would be a big surprise to see either candidate talk seriously about the centrality of women – their empowerment, their role in public life and in civil society – to American foreign policy. Last night, I was pleasantly surprised to see the topic come up, and even more astonished to find that it was brought up by Mitt Romney. Most likely, that’s because Romney has a wide gap to close with women voters, but I welcomed the comments nonetheless.

3. I was pleased that Bob Schieffer raised the topic of drone warfare. At CFR, Rachel Kleinfeld of the Truman Security Project noted that her organization’s polling of its audience indicates that drone warfare is among President Obama’s most unpopular policies, rivaled only by his failure to close Guantanamo Bay. Given that, it’s a shame that Mitt Romney didn’t use the opportunity to push back against the policy: the American public deserves to hear the issue debated in full.

It’s not just a humanitarian issue – though the civilian casualties from drone warfare are an outrage. It’s also a strategic issue, in that the use of a deeply unpopular policy hurts American soft power around the world.

Most concerning to me is the fact that this kind of high-tech war often takes place away from the public eye. We focus heavily on the use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of a broader debate about the ground war there. But how many Americans know that the U.S. is also using drones to intervene in Yemen, or Somalia? Because drone warfare can be pursued without putting any boots on the ground, those interventions have happened with little to no public scrutiny. To my mind, a military technology that can be deployed without public debate is a technology that makes wars more likely, and that’s dangerous.

I talked about this, and the rest of the Afghanistan portion of the debate, on Huffington Post Live this morning. You can watch my segment here.

UN Week Blogging

By , 8 October, 2012, No Comment

Belatedly, taking note of two blog posts I’ve written for Forbes recently based on events I attended during UN Week.

1. The UN hosted an event on energy access and sustainability that was notable because it tried to bridge the gap between environmental activism and anti-poverty work.

Energy access is a critical prerequisite to poverty reduction, necessary for everything from heating homes to delivering public services to powering the businesses that create jobs.

Emerging powers sometimes paint these economic imperatives as incompatible with the fight against climate change. They see emissions caps as an unfair restriction on their economic advancement. But they’re wrong.

The IEA’s most recent World Energy Outlookconcluded (see p. 488) that achieving universal electricity access by 2030 would result in only a 2% increase in global emissions. That’s because the 1.3 billion people living without electricity today live in the world’s poorest countries. And poor countries that do have universal electricity today draw far less power, on a per-capita basis, than rich ones.

Of course, the ultimate aim of expanding energy access is to spur economic growth and allow poor countries to become richer. But even with dramatic economic growth, these countries won’t be approaching the kilowatt-hours consumed in the developed world until long after 2030. And by that time, we could and should have viable, affordable carbon-neutral energy systems in place.

Read the rest here.

2. The Concordia Summit held a panel discussion on women in Afghanistan that was notable because it highlighted the role the U.S. government has played in helping Afghan women achieve economic and political freedom, just days before U.S. government officials began telling the press that the U.S. won’t have much role in the postwar peace.

But the most important, and least frequently discussed danger (it gets no mention in the Timesstory) is the fate of Afghan women. One of the few goods to have come of the ISAF presence in Afghanistan is an Afghan constitution that gives women equal legal status to men (Article 22), the right to go to school (Articles 43 and 44), access jobs (Article 48) and hold political office (Article 84). Not only would a postwar government with Taliban members reverse such gains, but many woman who have made social, political and economic gains in the last decade would be in danger of suffering violent retribution and shaming from the men in their communities.

Read it all here.

I’ll be discussing what NATO withdrawal means for Afghan women on HuffPost Live today at 10:30AM Eastern. You can watch it here.

How to Lie With Statistics, Women and Child Care Edition

By , 3 August, 2012, No Comment

My latest post is up at Forbes, highlighting two research papers that look at the impact women’s earnings and the cost of child care have on women’s decisions on whether to have children and whether (or how much) to work. They are good papers, but they both make a critical error:

Both papers assume that men commit full-time to the labor force, and that the choices families are about the balance of women’s working hours and caring hours. It’s one of the most infuriating aspects of the work-life debates that the choice is so often framed that way. The reality is that in addition to earning potential and cost of child care, the degree to which male partners share in child care duties is a major factor driving women’s career and family choices.

Leaving working fathers out of the choice equation tarnishes the studies’ results, and can have a dangerous effect, if policymakers feel that the solution suggested by papers like these is to expand the choices available to women without expanding choices for men. Framing the work-life conundrum as a women’s issue only makes it more likely that it will remain women’s burden. The research error becomes self-fulfilling.

This case is a perfect example of the problem outlined by Darrell Huff in his classic book, How to Lie With Statistics. I’m a great advocate for inserting more data into debates about work and family, but it’s equally important to be skeptical of the data presented to us. Ask not just, ‘Does this data answer the question we’re asking?’ but also, ‘Are we asking the right questions?’ At the moment, I’m not convinced we are.

Read it all here.

Some Recent Things Wot I Wrote

By , 26 June, 2012, No Comment

I try to keep this blog up to date with what links to things I write elsewhere, but (as those who follow me on Twitter will know), this site’s been experiencing some downtime of late, and for much of the last week, I wasn’t even able to log in to it to post a status update. So, just in case you’ve missed these pieces, here’s what I’ve been up to during the hiatus:

1. Commenting on a slightly paradoxical hunger crisis in India: more agricultural output, but less food in the hands of the poor. Cause: Corrupt and inefficient government food subsidy program.

2. Examining the economic impact of Title IX, which is 40 years old this week. Short version: it made American women richer and more successful and helped narrow the gender achievement gap.

3. Taking the Atlantic to task for a cover story about “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” My take: neither can men (a fact the author overlooks) and who ever said ‘having it all’ was the goal? The piece is touching a nerve with a lot of readers, and I’m getting a lot of fascinating, often critical, feedback which I may revisit in a follow-up post.

I didn’t mention this in my Forbes piece, but the Atlantic does seem to have a penchant for personal essays in which individual writers frame regrets or frustrations about their experiences in critiques of feminism from within feminism. This piece reminded me quite a bit of last year’s ‘All the Single Ladies‘ and the previous year’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” in that respect, even though those pieces were about romantic, rather than professional, struggles. There’s an awful lot that’s wrong with being a woman today, but feminism isn’t the root of it. It’s almost always our best shot at making things better. I’m so very tired of the Atlantic suggesting otherwise.

On Unions and Gender

By , 8 June, 2012, No Comment

I’ve got a post up at Foreign Exchange, my Forbes blog, today about some new research on the British labor movement. The paper takes two trends of the last 30 years – increasing numbers of women in the workforce and declining union participation – and wonders whether they are related. The researcher, Getinet Haile, finds a few ways they are:

1. As more women enter a workplace, union participation falls. Namely, workplaces with more than the median percentage of women see a 12-percentage point decline in union density relative to workplaces where the balance is below the median.

2. That decline has more to do with men than women. Men in the workforce are 15 percent less likely to be union members if their workplace – and therefore their union – has an above-the-median level of female participation. Women in the workforce are just 7 percent less likely to be union members in a diverse workplace.

3. In female-dominated workplaces, common in fields like education or social care, union membership is still strong, and indeed, actually increases with overall diversity – i.e. the entrance of men into these fields.

4. All of the above trends are stronger in the private sector than in the public sector.

Haile goes on to explain how cultural tensions inside unions may explain some of these trends. It’s a powerful reminder that while we talk about unions as built on an assumption of class solidarity, the union movement has historically relied on the common demographic makeup of the workforce (mostly white, mostly male) to act as a kind of social glue between workers. As the workforce grows more diverse – something we should celebrate – unions may have to find new ways of binding workers together. Or they may simply fade from relevance.

Grexit: It’s a question of how, not if, Greece will leave the euro

By , 26 May, 2012, No Comment

Over at Foreign Exchange, I’ve got a post up on the euro. Short version: all signs now point to a Greek exit, and Christine Lagarde has given a statement indicated there is no turning back.

It sounds as if she’s essentially saying to the Greeks and others in Europe, you’ve had a nice time and now it’s payback time.

“That’s right.” She nods calmly. “Yeah.”

And what about their children, who can’t conceivably be held responsible? “Well, hey, parents are responsible, right? So parents have to pay their tax.”

That fits entirely with the strict language she used when I interviewed her in August:

She knows this is a tough sell. “You first have a period [after making cuts] where growth takes a hit and goes negative”—and with that come unavoidable human costs in lost jobs and social services. Political feuding over controversial cuts will only make the pain worse. How should ordinary people cope? She pauses. “It takes courage.”

What are the implications of this tough stance:

Hypothetically, should Germany refuse to loosen the terms of its loans to Greece, the IMF could offer a bit of rope on its loans to Greece that would allow a left-wing Greek government to save face without upsetting the eurocart. But. as those of us who have followed her closely expected, Lagarde has unequivocally squashed that possibility in her remarks tonight.

Read the whole post here.

Are Men Threatened By Women At Work?

By , 23 May, 2012, No Comment

Some of them are, according to a new study I’ve written up at Forbes.

Researchers at Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill surveyed men in three kinds of marriages: traditional (wives who don’t work), neo-traditional (wives working part-time) or modern (wives working full-time). And they found that the more traditional a man’s marriage, the harder he was likely to be on the women he works with.

There is an obvious reason for this: that men who live in traditional marriages are more likely to have more traditional worldviews overall and less likely to have been exposed to feminist or gender-egalitarian ideas.

The more interesting suggestion is that these men are acting out of self-interest. We know that the earnings premium for married men is highest for those whose wives don’t work outside the home, and instead provide supportive labor in the home that enables their husbands to be better employees.

And so the authors of this paper suggest that men with stay-at-home wives are enforcing in the workplace an order that they know benefits them personally, seeing the women who work for them as proxies for what their wives could become. The values these men express – that women aren’t competent at their jobs, that marriages work better when women stay home– are actually rationalizations for a self-interested reaction to a perceived threat.

Read the whole post here.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala for the World Bank

By , 8 April, 2012, No Comment

A post up at Foreign Exchange about the World Bank leadership competition, and why the Bank ought to select Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala over the U.S. nominee, Jim Kim. Short version: she’s a heavy-hitter with the right experience who, critically, solves the Bank’s legitimacy crisis.

By far the most important reason to appoint Okonjo-Iweala is that she has experience on both sides of the table in the international lending negotiations that are the bread and butter of the Bank’s work. As an economist who rose to be the Bank’s Managing Director, she oversaw its lending from 2007 to 2011, helping shepherd it through the global financial crisis. As Nigeria’s finance minister between 2003 and 2006, she represented her government in debt relief negotiations with Paris Club donors, succeeding in reducing the country’s debt burden from $30 billion t0 $12 billion. That remains the only time the Paris Club has allowed a debtor nation to buy back its debt below par.

What’s critical about the experience is that Okonjo-Iweala understood what it meant to face a debt burden that was so beyond repayment as to be punitive, and she worked to have it reduced. But she also understood that the single case of Nigeria didn’t negate the merits of international development lending and she went back to the Bank to provide critical funding to other nations.

She therefore embodies the argument that the Bank desperately needs to make if it is to regain its legitimacy in the developing world: that aid and development lending are powerful forces for good, so long as they are delivered justly. Appointing her turns control of the Bank over to those it serves while re-affiriming the Bank’s underlying mission.

Read it here.