international comparisons

Flashback Friday.

Adam Smith observed in his Lectures on Jurisprudence (1762) — a series of talks that he gave at the University of Glasgow — that national character plays a significant role in economic transactions: the Dutch, he said, are “more faithful to their word” and better at “performing agreements” than the English, and the English more faithful than the Scots.

In the past few months, I’ve observed a similar kind of cultural variation in a much more prosaic setting: the panhandling interaction.

If you’re from North America, as I am, you’ve probably seen people on the street requesting money from strangers using appeals such as “Homeless—Please Help” or “Homeless Veteran.”  There are a number of variations, but homelessness is the common theme in many cases.

Photo by Steve Baker.

Elsewhere in the world, panhandlers use quite different rationales—or what the great mid-century sociologist C. Wright Mills would call “vocabularies of motive.” Mills wasn’t interested in what actually motivated people—such as what psychologists would term “needs” or “drives”—but rather in the ideologically-charged terms they used to justify their actions to themselves and others. As he observed, some motives are more acceptable than others, and we can learn something about local cultures based on what passes for a “good reason.”

So it’s sociologically interesting that within the North American context, the concept of “home” has such resonance that the claim of “homelessness” is considered a compelling and sufficient motive for giving money to strangers. But while the need for shelter would seem universal, it’s rare to see a panhandler outside North America requesting a donation on the basis of homelessness.

In Germany, for example, one often finds people begging for trinkgeld—”drinking money.” And they’re not playing for laughs, as one sometimes finds in the US, when panhandlers give a wink and a nod to the stereotype that money given to beggars is only ever used to buy alcohol (or drugs). When a panhandler asks for “drinking money” in the US, it’s sort of an in-joke, or an attempt to appear disarmingly honest; based on the limited examples I’ve seen, this seems to jolly people up and get good results (i.e., quantities of cash).

But in Germany, drinking money is serious business. In the four years I lived in the Rhine Valley, I saw dozens of men (always men) on public transport and on the street, asking for “trinkgeld, bitte” in monotonous, dirge-like tones that seemed to express just how grim a fate it was to lack beer money. Equally surprising to me was the willingness of Germans to open their purses for this reason, as if it was a truth universally acknowledged that a man with empty pockets must be in want of a beer. In the interactions I witnessed, no one on either end of the transaction ever smiled.

Yet another vocabulary of motive can be found on the streets of Istanbul, where panhandlers often approach passers-by with a request for ekmek parası—Turkish for “bread money.” In perhaps 10 visits to Turkey in the last 3 years, I’ve never seen anyone on the street claiming to be homeless. Nor have I seen a cardboard sign of the kind so common in North America.

In all three settings, the vocabularies of motive among panhandlers have a common theme of need: for shelter, drink or food. What’s interesting is how each cultural setting changes the calculus about what kind of motive is most likely to bring in the cash. Perhaps it comes down to what each society views as among the basic human rights: in the US, shelter has a plausible claim to that status, but beer does not; whereas in Germany, it an appeal for trinkgeld succeeds as an appeal to common humanity and decency; in Turkey, hunger seems to trump all other claims.

Originally posted in 2010.

Brooke Harrington is Associate Professor of Economic Sociology at the Copenhagen Business School. She is the author of two books: Pop Finance: Investment Clubs and the New Investor Populism and Deception: From Ancient Empires to Internet Dating.  She is currently doing research on offshore banking and blogs at our fellow Society Pages blog, Economic Sociology.

Flashback Friday.

In the talk embedded below, psychologist and behavioral economist Dan Ariely asks the question: How many of our decisions are based on our own preferences and how many of them are based on how our options are constructed? His first example regards willingness to donate organs. The figure below shows that some countries in Europe are very generous with their organs and other countries not so much.

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A cultural explanation, Ariely argues, doesn’t make any sense because very similar cultures are on opposite sides: consider Sweden vs. Denmark, Germany vs. Austria, and the Netherlands vs. Belgium.

What makes the difference then? It’s the wording of the question. In the generous countries the question is worded so as to require one to check the box if one does NOT want to donate:

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In the less generous countries, it’s the opposite. The question is worded so as to require one to check the box if one does want to donate:

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Lesson: The way the option is presented to us heavily influences the likelihood that we will or will not do something as important as donating our organs.

For more, and more great examples, watch the whole video:

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

According to Vox, the U.S. has 4.43% of the world’s population and almost 42% of the world’s population of civilian-owned guns.

This is your image of the week:

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It’s hard to say exactly, but there may be as many guns as there are people in the U.S., or even more guns than people. Since not everyone is a gun owner, that means that the typical gun owner owns more than one. In fact, they own, on average, 6.6 guns each. Two-thirds of the guns in the U.S. are in the hands of 20% of the population. Gun manufacturers know this and market accordingly.

Gun ownership is correlated with both gun homicide and suicide. Accordingly, we also have the highest rate of gun violence of any developed country. In 2013, there were 21,175 gun suicides and 11,208 gun homicides.

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This data was collected by the UNODC and compiled by the Guardian.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

This is a map of the countries Europe colonized, controlled, or influenced between 1500 and 1960. The purple is Europe. The orange countries are ones never under European rule. Almost the entire rest of the map — all the green, blue, and yellow — were dominated by Europe to some extent. “Influenced” is pretty much a euphemism and often not all that different than outright domination.

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Max Fisher, writing at Vox, summarizes:

There are only four countries that escaped European colonialism completely. Japan and Korea successfully staved off European domination, in part due to their strength and diplomacy, their isolationist policies, and perhaps their distance. Thailand was spared when the British and French Empires decided to let it remained independent as a buffer between British-controlled Burma and French Indochina…

Then there is Liberia, which European powers spared because the United States backed the Liberian state, which was established in the early 1800s by freed American slaves who had decided to move to Africa.

More details and discussion at here.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The U.S. once led the world in middle class affluence, but thanks to a recovery from the Great Recession that involves giving all the money to the already-rich, we’re losing that distinction.

“In 1960,” said Harvard economist Lawrence Katz, “we were massively richer than anyone else. In 1980, we were richer. In the 1990s, we were still richer.”

Not so much anymore. This chart shows that many countries have been closing the gap.

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Good for them, of course, but the American middle class is struggling, too. Pew Research Center demographer Conrad Hackett summed it up:

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Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

“We need to get rid of Obamacare,” says Ed Gillispie in a NYT op-ed. The reason: Obamacare’s “gravitational pull toward a single-payer system that would essentially supplant private insurance with a government program.”

Gillespie, who lays out his credentials at the start of the article – he ran for Senate in Virginia and lost – notes that Obamacare is unpopular. But he omits all mention of a government-run single-payer system that happens to be very popular – Medicare. No Republican dare run on a platform of doing away with it. Gillespie himself accused Obamacare of cutting Medicare, a statement that Politifact found “Mostly False.”

So how are seniors doing? Compared to their pre-Medicare counterparts, they are  probably healthier, and they’re probably shelling out less for health care. But compared to seniors in other countries, not so well. A Commonwealth Fund survey of eleven countries finds that seniors (age 65 and older) in the U.S. are the least healthy – the most likely to suffer from chronic illnesses.* 

Over half the U.S. seniors say that they are taking four or more prescription drugs; all the other countries were below 50%:

And despite Medicare, money was a problem. Nearly one in five said that in the past year they “did not visit a doctor, skipped a medical test or treatment that a doctor recommended, or did not fill a prescription or skipped doses because of cost.” A slightly higher percent had been hit with $2,000 or more in out-of-pocket expenses. 

In those other countries, with their more socialistic health care systems, seniors seem to be doing better, physically and financially.  One reason that American seniors are less healthy is that our universal, socialized medical care doesn’t kick in until age 65. People in those other countries have affordable health care starting in the womb. 

Critics of more socialized systems claim that patients must wait longer to see a doctor. The survey found some support for that. Does it take more than four weeks to get to see a specialist? U.S. seniors had the highest percentage of those who waited less than that. But when it came to getting an ordinary doctor’s appointment, the U.S. lagged behind seven of the other ten countries.

There was one bright spot for U.S. seniors. They were the most likely to have developed a treatment plan that they could carry out in daily life. And their doctors  “discussed their main goals and gave instructions on symptoms to watch for” and talked with them about diet and exercise.

Gillespie and many other Republicans want to scrap Obamacare and substitute something else. That’s progress I suppose. Not too long ago, they were quite happy with the pre-Obamacare status quo. Throughout his years in the White House, George Bush insisted that “America has the best health care system in the world.” Their Republican ideology precludes them from learning from other countries. As Marco Rubio put it, we must avoid “ideas that threaten to make America more like the rest of the world, instead of helping the world become more like America.”

But you’d think that they might take a second look at Medicare, a program many of them publicly support.

* Includes hypertension or high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, lung problems, mental health problems, cancer, and joint pain/arthritis.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog and Pacific Standard.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Below are two figures. The first ranks the U.S. and other countries by income inequality before taxes and government interventions to reduce it. The second ranks the same countries after taxes and intervention.

What we see is that, whatever we’re doing to reduce inequality, it’s not working nearly as well as what other countries with high levels of income inequality are doing, with the sole exception of Chile.

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Thanks to Christian Science Monitor for the images and Martin Hart-Landsberg for the tip.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Iceland continues to experiment with new ways to promote majority living standards. According to the Icelandic Grapevine, a bill has been submitted to the Icelandic parliament that would shorten the workweek.  More specifically, it would change the definition of a full time workweek to 35 hours instead of the current 40 and the full workday to 7 hours rather than the current 8.

As the Grapevine reports:

The bill points out that other countries which have shorter full time work weeks, such as Denmark, Spain, Belgium, Holland and Norway, actually experience higher levels of productivity. At the same time, Iceland ranked poorly in a recent OECD report on the balance between work and rest, with Iceland coming out in 27th place out of 36 countries.

The bill also points out that a recent Swedish initiative to shorten the full time work day to six hours has been going well, with some Icelanders calling for the idea to be taken up here. In addition, the bill also cites gender studies expert Thomas Brorsen Smidt’s proposal to shorten it even further, to four hours.

There is certainly significant variation among countries in the length of the workweek, as the following information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows:

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In 2011 the average annual hours worked per employed person in the U.S. was 1758.  The number for French workers was 1476.  It was 1411 for German workers.  Assuming a 40 hour workweek, the average U.S. worker had a work year more than two months longer than the average German worker.  It is also worth noting that while all the countries that reported data for the entire period 1979 to 2011 showed reductions in work time, the reduction was the smallest in the U.S.

Although it is not easy to establish a clear relationship between work hours and productivity, there is reason to believe that the relationship may be inverse.  In other words, the shorter the workweek the more productive we are. It would certainly be nice, for many reasons, if someone in the U.S. Congress followed the lead of Iceland and introduced  a bill to reduce work time in the U.S.

Cross-posted at 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.