Tag Archives: economics

Love, Business, and Valentine’s Day in Pakistan

On Valentine’s day last year, my Facebook feed exploded with Pakistani memes that, on the one hand, used Islamic texts to criticize the day as unIslamic and, on the other, poked fun at the religious opposition to the holiday.
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When I conducted interviews with Pakistani women in Karachi over the summer, I expected Valentine’s day to be a salient event for my participants.  I did find religious resistance to Valentine’s Day.  The more religious-minded participants  were likely to say things like: “St. Valentine is remembered for fathering illegitimate children, so the day is sinful.”

Less religious women, however, seemed surprised that I even asked about it.  “I can’t remember what I did,” they would say, or they would criticize it as “cheesy” or  “too commercial.” A few respondents asked: “Why does there have to be one day for love? Every day should be a celebration of love.”

Based on the media, I was expecting a contest between people who embraced Valentine’s Day and people who rejected it, but I only found one side of the debate: the rejection.  There didn’t seem to be a large group of women who embraced it. Among those who didn’t outright reject it, I discovered only disinterest.

All this suggests that the push to make Valentine’s Day a thing in Pakistan is more about capitalism and the globalization of Western norms and practices, than it is about a grassroots desire for such a celebration.  It is the marketers, mall managers, and restaurant owners that seem most interested in Valentine’s Day.  I originally thought of this as a battle between the religious and secular members of the society, but it seems to be, instead, a resistance by some to efforts of companies to find one more way to make money.

Fauzia Husain is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Virginia.  She is currently studying globalization through an exploration of Pakistani women’s narratives about love.

The Tomato Tariff: The Politics of Fruits and Vegetables

If it were to happen that the decision as to whether the tomato was a fruit or vegetable made it to the highest court of the land — if such a strange thing were to happen — certainly the botanist’s opinion would weigh heaviest. Right?

Nope.

In fact, this decision did make it all the way to the Supreme Court. It happened in 1893. The case was brought by a tomato importing family by the last name of Nix. At the time, the law required that taxes be collected on vegetables that were imported, but not fruit.

The lawyers for the Nix family argued that the tomato is a fruit and, therefore, exempt from taxation. They were, of course, correct. Botanists define fruit according to whether it plays a reproductive role. So, any plant product with one or more seeds is a fruit, whereas vegetables don’t have seeds. Fruits are ovaries, for lack of a better term. All other plant products — stems, roots, leaves, and some seeds — are vegetables.

But the Supreme Court said, essentially, “We don’t care” and gave their gavel a good pound. Here’s some of the text of their unanimous opinion:

Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine… But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are… usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.

The judges were referring to the common understanding, which has more to do with how we use the plant products than how plants use them. Your typical chef roughly divides plant products according to whether they’re sweet or savory. Fruits are sweet. Vegetables are savory and used for main courses and sides. It’s all about whether you eat them for dinner or dessert. And that’s what the Supreme Court upheld.

Culinary vs. botanical categorization (source):

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Since the culinary scheme dominates our colloquial understanding, we mis-classify lots of other things, too. Zucchini, bell peppers, eggplants, string beans, cucumbers, avocado, and okra — all fruit. Rhubarb is a vegetable. No seeds. Pineapples are fruits. “Ah ha!” you say, “I’ve never noticed a pineapple having seeds!” That’s because commercial growers sell us seedless pineapples. Who knew. Berries are fruit, but strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries are not actually berries. Isn’t this fun?

Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, in Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts, wrote:

If reality means anything, it is that which “resists” the pressure of a force. … That which cannot be changed at will is what counts as real.

We often think of cultural facts as somehow less real than biological ones. For the Nix family, though, biology mattered naught. They still had to pay the damn tax on their tomatoes. Culture is real, folks. Social construction is not just something we do to reality; for all intents and purposes, it is reality.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Chart of the Week: Earnings That Put Households in the 1% in Each State

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From Business Insider; h/t Gin and Tacos.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

State and Local Taxes Penalize the Poor and Benefit the Rich

Americans have become increasingly critical of public policy as a means of addressing social problems.  Many believe that these policies don’t work; the reality is that public policies are often subverted in ways that make them ineffective or even counterproductive.

Take taxes and inequality.  As Danny Vinik, writing in the New Republic explains:

The vast majority of Americans—both liberals and conservatives—believe that state and local taxes should also be progressive. That’s the finding of a new report released by WalletHub Monday. The researchers surveyed 1,050 Americans on what they thought the combined rate of state and local taxes should be at various income levels. Not surprisingly, liberals want the rate structure to be a bit more progressive than conservatives do, but their responses [as the following chart shows] were relatively similar:

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However the reality is quite different.  State and local taxes are actually quite regressive.  The Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy studied the “fairness of state and local tax systems by measuring the state and local taxes that will be paid in 2015 by different [non-elderly] income groups as a share of their incomes.”  They did this state by state and, as presented below, on an overall basis.  As we can see, the lower the income, the greater the state and local tax burden.

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Here are some of the report’s key findings:

  • Virtually every state tax system is fundamentally unfair, taking a much greater share of income from low- and middle-income families than from wealthy families. The absence of a graduated personal income tax and overreliance on consumption taxes exacerbate this problem.
  • In the 10 states with the most regressive tax structures (the Terrible 10) the bottom 20 percent pay up to seven times as much of their income in taxes as their wealthy counterparts. Washington State is the most regressive, followed by Florida, Texas, South Dakota, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Arizona, Kansas, and Indiana.
  • Heavy reliance on sales and excise taxes are characteristics of the most regressive state tax systems. Six of the 10 most regressive states derive roughly half to two-thirds of their tax revenue from sales and excise taxes, compared to a national average of roughly one-third . Five of these states do not levy a broad-based personal income tax (four do not have any taxes on personal income and one state only applies its personal income tax to interest and dividends) while four have a personal income tax rate structure that is flat or virtually flat.
  • States commended as “low tax” are often high tax states for low-and middle-income families. The 10 states with the highest taxes on the poor are Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, and Washington. Seven of these are also among the “terrible ten” because they are not only high tax for the poorest, but low tax for the wealthiest.

In short, we know how to construct tax policies that can lessen inequality, but we’re not using state and local taxes to do it.

Cross-posted at Reports from the Economic Front and Pacific Standard.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

A Haunting Illustration of Work Under Capitalism

Karl Marx argued that capitalist modes of production always involve the exploitation of the working class by the owning class. The owning class are the capitalists. They secure the means of production — the factories, tools, and machinery — and employ workers to use those resources to produce goods.

When these goods are sold, capitalists extract the surplus value. This isn’t an magical good that blinks into existence thanks to the Capital Fairy, it’s a concrete good derived directly from the exploitation of the working class. Surplus value only exists when workers are paid less than the value they added with their work. If they were paid as much as their work was worth, capitalists would break even. And that’s not what they have in mind.

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In other words, if capitalists paid workers what their work was actually worth, there wouldn’t be any profit left to skim off the top, leaving the rest of us with a value deficit.

More comics at A Softer World.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Family in Recession: Births & Divorces Down, Violence Up

I wrote this for The Conversation. Read the original here.

Observers may be quick to declare social trends “good” or “bad” for families, but such conclusions are rarely justified. What’s good for one family – or group of families – may be bad for another. And within families, interests do not always align. Divorce is “bad” for a family in the sense of breaking it apart, but it may be beneficial, or even essential, for one or both partners or their children.

This kind of ambiguity makes it difficult to assess what kind of impact the recent recession and its aftermath had on families. But for researchers, at least, it offers a lot of job security – so many questions, so much going on. In any case, here’s where we stand so far.

The effect of the Great Recession on family trends in the United States has been dramatic with regard to birth rates and divorce, and has been strongly suggestive of family violence, but less clear for marriage and cohabitation.

Marriage rates declined, and cohabitation rates increased, but these trends were already underway, and the recession didn’t alter them much. When trends don’t change direction it’s difficult to identify an effect of a shock this broad. However, with both birth rates and divorce, clear patterns emerged.

Birth rates: a sharp drop

The most dramatic impact was on birth rates, which dropped precipitously, especially for young women, as a result of the economic crisis. How do we know? First, the timing of the fertility decline is very suggestive. After increasing steadily from the beginning of 2002 until late 2007, birth rates dropped sharply. (The decline has since slowed for some groups after 2010, but the U.S. still saw record-low birth rates for teenagers and women ages 20-24 as late as 2012.)

Second, the decline in fertility was steeper in states with greater increases in unemployment. Although we don’t have the data to determine which couple did or did not have a child in response to economic changes, this pattern supports the idea that financial concerns convinced some people to not have a child.

That interpretation is supported by the third trend: the fertility drop was more pronounced among younger women – and there was no drop at all among women over 40. That may mean the fertility decline represents births postponed by families that intend to have children later – an option older women may not have – which fits previous research on economic shocks.

It seems likely that people who are on the fence about having a baby can be swayed by perceived financial hardship or uncertainty. From research on 27 European countries, we know that people with troubled family financial situations are more likely to say they are unsure whether they will meet their stated childbearing goals – that is, economic uncertainty doesn’t change their familial aims but may increase uncertainty in whether they will be met.

However, some births delayed inevitably become births foregone. Based on the effect of unemployment on birth rates in earlier periods, it appears a substantial number of young women who postponed births will end up never having children. By one estimate, women who were in their early 20s during the Great Recession are projected to have some 400,000 fewer lifetime births and an additional 1.5% of them will never have a birth.

Divorce rates: a counter-intuitive reaction

In the case of divorce, the pattern is counter-intuitive. Although economic hardship and insecurity adds stress to relationships and increases the risk of divorce, the overall divorce rate usually drops when unemployment rates rise.

Researchers believe that, like births, people postpone divorces during economic crises because of the costs of divorcing – not just legal fees, but also housing transitions (which were especially difficult in the Great Recession) and employment disruptions.

My own research found that there was a sharp drop in the divorce rate in 2009 that can reasonably be attributed to the recession. But, as we suspect will be the case with births, there appears to have been a divorce-rate rebound in the years that followed.

Domestic violence: a spike along with joblessness

Family violence has become much less common since the 1990s. The reasons are not entirely clear, but they certainly include the overall drop in violent crime, improved response from social service and non-governmental organizations, and improvements in women’s relative economic status. However, when the recession hit there was a spike in intimate-partner violence, coinciding with the sharp rise in men’s unemployment rates (I show the trends here).

As with the other trends, it’s hard to make a case based on timing alone, but the evidence is fairly strong that the economic shock increased family stress and violence. For example, one study showed that mothers were more likely to report spanking their children in the months when consumer confidence fell. Another study found a jump in abusive head trauma cases during the recession in several regions. And there have been many anecdotal and journalist accounts of increases in family violence, emerging as early as 2009. Are these direct results of the economic stress or mere correlation? It’s hard to say for sure.

The ultimate impact of these trends on American families will likely take years to emerge. The recession may have affected the pattern of marriage in ways we don’t yet understand – how couples selected each other, who got married and who didn’t – and may create measurable group of marriages that are marked for future effects as yet unforeseen. Like the young adults who entered the labor market during the period of high unemployment and whose career trajectories will be forever altered unfavorably, how these families bear the scars cannot be predicted. Time will tell.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He writes the blog Family Inequality and is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

A Korean Hallyu Threatens American Cultural Dominance

To many Americans, globalization may mean Americanization but, in China, globalization is Koreanization. This is the impact of Hallyu (the Korean word for “Korean wave”), which began in 1997. Hallyu began with Korean television dramas and today extends throughout Chinese life: k-drama, k-pop, movies, fashion, food, and beauty.  It is argued to be the only example of a cultural power “that threatens the dominance of American culture.”

Its influence is impressive. For example, when a star on a Korean soap opera ordered chicken and beer for dinner — Korea’s chi-mek (or chi-meak) – and claimed it as her favorite food, Chinese audiences went crazy for the combination. Korean beer exports rose by over 200%:

Even the standard of beauty in China has been altered due to Hallyu. During this year’s National Day holiday (10/1-10/7), about 166,000 Chinese visited Korea. They flocked to top shopping districts to purchase a wide range of Korean products like cosmetics, each spending an average of $2,500.  Some of these Chinese tourists visited the Gangnam district (Apgujeng-dong), the capital of plastic surgery in Korea. They want to look like k-drama stars. They want to have Korean actresses’ nose or eyes.

The obsession with Korea has caused Chinese leaders a great deal of angst. It was a major issue at the country’s National People’s Congress where, according to the Washington Post, one committee spent a whole morning pondering why China’s soap operas weren’t as good as those made by Korea. “It is more than just a Korean soap opera. It hurts our culture dignity,” one member of the committee said.

Their concern isn’t trivial; it’s about soft power. This is the kind of power states can exert simply by being popular and well-liked. This enables a country to inflluence transnational politics without force or coercion.

Indeed, the Korean government nurtured Hallyu. The President pushed to develop and export films, pop music, and video games. As The Economist reports:

Tax incentives and government funding for start-ups pepped up the video-game industry. It now accounts for 12 times the national revenue of Korean pop (K-pop). But music too has benefited from state help. In 2005 the government launched a $1 billion investment fund to support the pop industry. Record labels recruit teens who undergo years of grueling [sic] training before their public unveiling.

It’s working. According to the Korea Times, China has made a trade agreement with Korea allowing it an unprecedented degree of access to the Chinese people and its companies, an impressive win for soft power.

Sangyoub Park, PhD is a professor of sociology at Washburn University, where he teaches Social Demography, Generations in the U.S. and Sociology of East Asia. His research interests include social capital, demographic trends, and post-Generation Y.  Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Chart of the Week: 1,500 Estimates Suggest a Higher Minimum Wage Will Have No Effect on Jobs

One of the arguments against an increase in the minimum wage is that it will lead to higher unemployment.  One can make theoretical arguments for and against this proposition.  And, of course, the income gains from an increase in the minimum wage are likely to produce overall benefits for both low wage workers and the economy as a whole even if there is a rise in unemployment.

Economists have tried to estimate the employment effects of a rise in the minimum wage.  As a Vox article describes, two of them, Hristos Doucouliagos and T.D Stanley, looked at almost 1,500 estimates of the effects of minimum wage increases on employment and found that the estimates “clustered right around zero effect, but with more of those estimates showing a slight downward pressure on employment.”

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They concluded, “with sixty-four studies containing approximately fifteen hundred estimates, we have reason to believe that if there is some adverse employment effect from minimum wage rises, it must be of a small and policy-irrelevant magnitude.”

Originally posted at Reports from the Economic Front.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.