Renegotiating NAFTA May Harm College-Educated African Americans

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Introduction

A key promise of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign – the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – is well under way, with a fifth round of trilateral talks held last month. It is no secret that President Trump has been highly critical of the trade deal, as he has taken to Twitter to slam Canada and Mexico for being “difficult” during the negotiations and suggested that his administration will “probably end up terminating NAFTA at some point.”

Proponents of free trade assert that it leads to cheaper foreign goods, additional income in the pockets of consumers, and an increase in overall economic well-being. In fact, economists tend to favor the concept of trade liberalization, with a 2007 survey finding that 83 percent of members of the American Economic Association agreed with the notion that the United States should eliminate its remaining trade barriers. Despite such a widespread consensus among economists, the American public remains divided on the virtues of free trade: a recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that 52 percent of Americans believe that free trade agreements are good for the United States, with 40 percent disagreeing.

This article investigates the differential labor-market effects of NAFTA by linking the wages, industries and geographic locations of impacted workers to changes in tariffs induced by trade liberalization. I find that African American workers experience drastic effects due to trade liberalization, while there is little evidence of a differential impact for Native American workers. In my main regression specification, individual characteristics including age, race, marital status, ability to speak English, educational attainment, worker industry tariffs and Mexican comparative advantage account for about a quarter of the variation in wage levels. Furthermore, I find that trade liberalization has stronger negative effects for less-educated workers, who tend to be employed in industries with higher initial, pre-NAFTA tariffs.

Background

As a general matter, there are deep distinctions in economic security among white, Hispanic and African American families: on average, white families have approximately ten times the wealth of Hispanic families and 13 times the wealth of African American families. Additionally, research by Amitabh Chandra finds very slow rates of wage convergence between white and African American male workers from 1950 to 1990, with African American male workers earning approximately 75 percent of what their white counterparts do, when excluding non-workers. Such large racial discrepancies in earnings introduce the possibility of endogeneity when attempting to quantify the labor-market effects of NAFTA; in other words, it is difficult to disentangle the effects of NAFTA attributable to race from the effects of other underlying factors that also influence wages. Therefore, it is important to take any prima facie relationship between race and NAFTA with a grain of salt.

Economists John McLaren and Shushanik Hakobyan have explored the local labor-market effects of NAFTA, finding evidence of substantially lower wage growth among low-education workers in areas most vulnerable to trade liberalization. Moreover, they find evidence of a “multiplier effect,” with liberalization putting significant downward pressure on wages across all industries in NAFTA-vulnerable regions. Finally, in their seminal 2013 paper, David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson find significant evidence of downward pressure on American workers’ wages as the share of Chinese imports increased.

Data and Methodology

The dataset used in my analysis incorporates publicly available U.S. Census information from 1990 and 2000, maintained through the IPUMS project of the Minnesota Population Center. The U.S. Census divides the country into 543 similarly-sized, overlapping regions determined primarily through economic integration called Consistent Public Use Microdata Areas (ConsPUMAs). The U.S. Census also defines 89 traded-goods industries. Table 1 includes summary statistics for the sample workforce for 1990 and 2000.

Table1

While most of the above measurables are fairly stable over time, there are some differences to note. First, the workforce was more diverse in 2000 than it was in 1990, as the proportion of the country identifying as “white” dropped by approximately 5.3 percentage points. Second, there is a perceptible difference in educational attainment levels, with a slightly larger proportion of workers having a college degree in 2000.

For each industry, I designated τ to be the average tariff that the United States levies on Mexican imports in that industry, similar to McLaren and Hakobyan’s convention. However, since vulnerability to NAFTA is only important if Mexico has a comparative advantage in the production of a particular good, I use a weighted-average tariff for each ConsPUMA that incorporates Mexico’s revealed comparative advantage (i.e., the share of Mexico’s world exports of a particular good relative to the share of Mexico’s world exports across all goods). The change in the weighted-average tariff from 1990 to 2000 for each ConsPUMA c is given by locΔτc.

For the purposes of estimation, I use what is known as the LASSO, or least absolute shrinkage and selection operator, to penalize the inclusion of additional, irrelevant variables to my model. The following is the preliminary model specification, prior to LASSO feature selection:

Model

The dependent variable in the model, log(wi), is the natural logarithm of worker i’s wages in 2000. The independent variables include educ, which measures the maximum educational attainment of each worker; border, which applies to those geographical areas along the border between the United States and Mexico; and X, a set of personal characteristics intrinsic to worker i, such as sex, race, age, marital status and ability to speak English. The two other independent variables, minwage and chnm, represent the state-level minimum wage and the employment-adjusted share of Chinese imports in the worker’s industry, respectively. In my analysis, the parameters of interest are β4 and β5, which measure the geographical impact of NAFTA on wages, disaggregated by race.

Results

The results of my analysis are included in Table 2. I find that African American workers with a college education likely benefited from trade liberalization resulting from NAFTA. This may be due to higher-than-average growth in the proportion of African Americans with a college degree relative to the rest of the workforce between 1990 and 2000. Additionally, college-educated African Americans were typically employed in industries that had fewer trade protections, and thus saw tariffs decline by less on average. This is an important point because industries that are less protected are more likely to benefit from economic integration and a higher demand for exports. Hence, in these industries one would expect less outsourcing of labor to low-wage countries, ultimately benefiting the worker.

I also find that NAFTA had a roughly uniform effect on Native American workers, as there is no statistically significant evidence of a slope change, which indicates that the effects of NAFTA on Native American workers are independent of other factors like educational attainment or industry-specific tariff reductions. This likely reflects the fact that college-educated Native American workers are more prevalent in higher-protected industries that saw larger declines in tariffs, on average. When coupled with the negative wage shock for Native Americans, the result is likely a mixed, insignificant effect of NAFTA on the wages of Native American workers. Furthermore, I conclude that the change in the share of Chinese imports in a worker’s industry, while indeed placing downward pressure on a worker’s wages, has effects that are separate and distinguishable from those caused by NAFTA’s trade liberalization.

Table2

Conclusion

From my findings, I conclude that while trade liberalization had no significant impact on the wages of Native American workers, college-educated African American workers greatly benefited from trade liberalization policies resulting from NAFTA. This likely results from the fact that college-educated workers are concentrated in industries that are less protected from Mexican competition, giving employers little incentive to outsource their jobs. However, the wage growth seen by African American workers who did benefit from NAFTA was slower than that of their white counterparts – further evidence of the persistent wage gap between white and African American workers in the United States.

Moreover, my findings suggest that President Trump’s desire to renegotiate NAFTA may reverse key gains made among urban, college-educated African Americans while failing to actually bring back blue-collar manufacturing jobs. In addition, while it may be the case that trade liberalization depressed wages for less-educated workers, American workers – including racial minorities – are becoming more educated. Thus, free, unrestricted access to Canadian and Mexican markets for professional services may benefit minorities with higher levels of educational attainment and help narrow the massive income disparity between racial groups in this country.

Much Ado About Rice: Thailand’s Rice Market Exploitation Wildly Backfires

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On August 25, former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was due to appear in court to hear the verdict on her trial over involvement in a rice subsidy scandal. If she is found guilty of negligence, she could face up to ten years in prison. Yet Ms. Shinawatra never showed up in court, and many officials believe she may have fled the country.

The rice subsidy program, which led to Ms. Shinawatra’s impeachment in January of 2015 as well as her subsequent trial, started off as a well-intentioned plan to help Thailand’s agricultural sector. It was one of the main selling points for her populist party, Pheu Thai, during the 2011 campaign cycle, and helped to win the party a landslide victory. Approximately 23 percent of the Thai population are farmers, and the subsidy program was intended to help Thailand’s rice farmers earn more for their crop.

The program worked like this: the government would buy rice from farmers at up to double the market price. Then, the rice would be stockpiled and withheld from the global market in order to drive global rice prices up. Once global rice prices rose, the Thai government would sell the rice and make a profit in the process.

At the time the program was implemented, Thailand was the world’s largest exporter of rice. In addition to having a warm, damp climate, Thailand has an abundance of fresh water sources, making it an ideal location for rice production. Furthermore, the Thai people have plenty of experience producing rice–it has been their staple crop for over 5,000 years. (“In the water there are fish, in the field there is rice” is a proverbial Thai saying). All of these factors combine to give Thailand an overall advantage in rice production vis-a-vis many other countries, which have neither the climate nor the experience in such a line of production.

When a country has this comparative advantage in the production of a good, it means that that country can produce that good more efficiently than other countries can. For example, Thailand can produce rice more efficiently than Norway can because its climate and topography are better suited for rice production. Therefore, Thailand will gain the most economically if it can focus its resources on rice production, thereby producing more rice at a lower cost.  Thailand can then purchase the goods and services it does not produce as efficiently from countries that do have comparative advantages in those lines of production. If we consider the Thailand and Norway example, we notice that Thailand can sell its rice to Norway and in turn buy oil, a good that Norway has a comparative advantage in. If two countries can play to their comparative advantages and focus on what they can produce most efficiently, they can produce more, sell more, and purchase other goods at lower prices. Thus, two trading partners can actually gain from trade.

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Former Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra has come under fire for the rice debacle

It is important to remember, however, that a comparative advantage in a certain line of production does not guarantee that a country will dominate a given market. In designing the rice subsidy program, this was the Thai government’s — and Ms. Shinawatra’s — critical mistake. There is no such thing as a patent on rice production; anyone who lives in an area with ideal conditions for growing rice can do so. Thailand is not the only country with ideal conditions for growing rice. When Thailand withdrew rice from the global market, countries such as India and Vietnam jumped in to fill the gap. The presence of these competitors meant that the global price of rice did not rise as the Thai government had hoped. Instead, rice prices plummeted, going from a peak of $1,000 per ton in 2008 to around $390 per ton in 2014. Thai farmers were edged out of the global rice market, rice exports fell by a third, and the Thai government was forced to stockpile 18 million tons of rice in the first year of the program alone. In the end, the rice subsidy fiasco cost Thailand around $15 billion. Given that GDP per capita in Thailand hovers around $6,000, this is a gargantuan sum.

Despite the heavy losses that the Thai government sustained, then Prime Minister Shinawatra refused to end or reform the program. As the program lost more and more money, government scandals and social unrest ensued. In February of 2014, a group of rice farmers threatened to park 100 tractors at Bangkok’s airport as they had not been paid for their rice. In May of 2014, Ms. Shinawatra was removed from office by the Thai Constitutional Court after six months of anti-government protests, riots, and occupations of government buildings. In July of this year, the military junta now in control in Thailand froze some of Ms. Shinawatra’s bank accounts and ordered her to pay $1 billion in civil damages. And on August 25, the same day Ms. Shinawatra failed to appear in court, her former commerce minister, Boonsong Teriyapirom, was sentenced to 42 years in prison for falsifying government-to-government rice deals with China in an attempt to cover up losses on the rice subsidy scheme.

Ms. Shinawatra’s rice subsidy program, which started off as a well-intentioned plan to help Thai farmers, ended in losses and Ms. Shinawatra’s removal from office. Interestingly, much of the instability that stemmed from the program and the government’s response to its failure is rooted in economics, or rather, faulty economic assumptions. It is true that Thailand has a comparative advantage in rice production. Yet the benefits of a comparative advantage can only be reaped if a country sells the goods it produces well and maintains its market share. Pulling out of the market is very dangerous, for a competitor may be ready and willing to take your place.

 

Small change, huge impact: How remittances assist development in impoverished regions of the world

 

remittancesIn 2016, Mexicans living abroad sent home $27 billion in remittances home to Mexico, the largest remittance influx that Mexico has ever received. Remittance inflows now surpass crude oil and tourism as major sources of income for Mexico, and much of these inflows go to Mexico’s most rural, impoverished areas, where they are a lifeline. Most of the remittances sent to Mexico came from the United States due to a strong U.S. labor market, a weakening Mexican peso, and fears that the Trump administration may tax remittances in order to pay for a border wall.

Often, due to poor economic prospects and a lack of opportunity at home, migrants will seek work abroad and send back a portion of their earnings to help friends and family. These funds that are sent back are called remittances. Between 1960 and 2010, the number of migrants increased from 90 million to 215 million worldwide, and migration to western Europe and the United States accounts for around two thirds of this growth. In 2015, more than $431 billion in remittances were sent to developing countries, with each remittance (also referred to as a transaction) averaging around $200. In many developing countries, remittances constitute a huge source of cash inflow; in 2013, remittance inflows globally were three times larger than inflows from official foreign aid, and remittances regularly exceed foreign direct investment in developing countries. When considering a nation’s development, it is common for policymakers and others to only consider foreign aid and largely disregard remittances as a source for development funds. It is important to remember, however, that the remittances that migrants send home have powerful impacts on encouraging development and reducing poverty in the developing world.

In developing regions around the world, remittances are a lifeline, bringing much needed funds to people who are barely scraping by. India was the biggest destination for remittances in 2015, followed by China, the Philippines, and then Mexico. Some countries could not function without substantial funds from abroad–remittances make up 29 percent of Nepal’s GDP, and in Tajikistan, that number is 42 percent. For countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, such as Tajikistan, remittances are especially vital.

In impoverished parts of Mexico, remittances constitute around 19.5 percent of income, which is an even higher percentage than the contributions to income from government welfare programs. The remittances that families receive are put to use covering basic needs first, with the rest going towards investments and paying back debts, allowing those who receive enough in remittances to begin to focus on getting out of poverty. A report published by the Inter-American Development Bank found that in rural Mexico, 74 percent of remittance monies are used to cover basic costs of living, with 16 percent used to pay debts and 5 percent used towards investing in the home. Furthermore, remittances have a tendency to act like insurance for recipients. Remittances tend to be  countercyclical–during an economic downturn or after a natural disaster in migrants’ home countries, remittance flows actually increase, allowing some of the poorest members of the global population to better weather financial crises.

In many cases, recipients of remittances use those funds to enroll their children in school, which allows them to achieve higher levels of education that can lead to higher-paying jobs. Data from the World Bank show that in many countries in Latin America, children in families that receive remittances are more likely to stay in school and have higher educational attainment. Thus, remittances provide a means for families to invest in the skills of their children, giving them tools that can help them break the cycle of poverty in later life.

There is also evidence that increases in remittance flows received by people in Mexico correspond directly to a decrease in crime. A study by the Inter-American Development Bank found that for every percentage point increase in remittances, street robberies in Mexico declined by 0.19 percent and homicides decreased by 0.4 percent. This decline can be attributed to several factors. First, as mentioned above, remittance flows give families the opportunity to send their children to school, reducing the incentive for these children to commit crimes. Not only does being in school prevent children from engaging in criminal activity, but the extra years of education allow students to eventually get higher-paying jobs that allow them to make ends meet without having to resort to crime. Second, remittances increase income and therefore decrease the benefits derived from committing crimes, and studies conducted in Brazil and in Colombia confirm this. Finally, 5 percent of remittance funds in Mexico are used towards home expenses, which stimulates the construction sector leading to the creation of construction jobs. These jobs offer people, particularly those with little education, the chance to earn a living without having to turn to crime.

In January of 2017, Mexican immigrants in the United States sent $2 billion back to Mexico, up 6.3 percent from this time last year. While a weaker peso did play a role in this jump, much of the increase stems from fears about a potential tax on remittances being sent from America. It is true that large sums of money flow from the United States into Mexico each year. However, this money is put to good use in impoverished regions where it is needed most. It allows children to stay in school longer and makes them less likely to commit crimes. It enables families to make ends meet and lays the groundwork for recipients to lift themselves out of poverty. Given the important role that remittances play in assisting in the development of impoverished regions of Mexico, such a tax would significantly hurt the people who rely heavily on those remittances to make ends meet.

Filling the breach: Exploring China’s role in post-TPP Asia

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This month, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with top Chinese officials to pave the way for talks between the two countries’ leaders. Chinese economic policies in the Pacific will surely be discussed, especially as China exploits the demise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to assert itself as a powerful influence on trade policy in Asia. As the talks near, China’s new trade agreements with other Asian countries will offer valuable insight into how China has sought to expand its economic influence and upset Asia’s political landscape in the process. Amid rising tensions in Asia, the leaders of the United States and China must both recognize the futility of their attempts to use trade agreements as tools to dominate political developments in the Pacific region. Furthermore, while these two superpowers compete unsuccessfully for regional power, it will be the economic prosperity of other Pacific nations that suffers.

Discussions of Asia without the TPP may come as a surprise to some, especially considering the Obama administration’s strong support for the agreement. However, carried into office by the surging tide of populism, President Donald Trump has quickly acted to reverse any pro-globalization policies promoted by the previous administration. Without ratification from the United States, the TPP cannot go into effect, removing any possibility of the trade deal further integrating the economies of Asia and the United States. When President Trump put an end to the agreement, critics speculated that in response to U.S. actions, China would step in as the new economic leader in the Pacific region through trade deals excluding the United States. At the time of Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP, China had not yet enacted any such agreements, leaving its future role in the region unclear.

However, it did not take long for China to adjust to the United States’ withdrawal from the TPP and champion new international trade policy in the Pacific. After the TPP’s demise, many countries in Asia turned to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as the primary trade agreement, intended to promote freer trade between the many Pacific nations involved. Glaring differences between the RCEP and the TPP include the RCEP’s inclusion of China, as well as the absence of the United States despite its position as a major trading partner with many of the nations involved in the RCEP. Although negotiations among the 16 participating countries are ongoing, the RCEP agreement primarily focuses on lower tariffs, without any rules on environmental and labor protections. The trade deal will further integrate the economies of the participating countries, allowing for supply chains unhindered by expensive tariffs.

Cast in the role of outside observer to the RCEP because of its own political motivations, the United States loses out on a powerful tool for exerting its economic power to influence political and social issues in Asia. Under President Obama, the United States offered the economic benefits of lower tariffs to encourage developing nations in Asia to adopt stronger environmental and labor standards. Under the RCEP, it is unlikely that such protections would be enacted on the scale that the TPP proposed. After all, for many manufacturing-based economies in Asia, the lack of these safeguards allows their firms to produce at lower prices than many competitors can. Through the RCEP, China seeks to provide the Pacific region with the benefits of lower tariffs, without taking away the low-cost manufacturing advantage of these nations. In doing so, it hopes to assert itself as a powerful influence in the region and improve ties with other Asian countries, even as it pursues aggressive, expansionist policies in the South China Sea.

If China wishes to continue as the dominant economic force in Asia, however, it must also accept the detrimental economic effects of its politically motivated exclusion of the United States from the RCEP. Exports to the United States make up 18 percent of China’s total exports. As such, China would gain a great deal from free trade with the United States, though China would have to weigh this against regional influence lost to the United States. Furthermore, if China continues to exclude the United States from its trade agreements in the Pacific, increased tensions between the two countries could drive Trump to pursue protectionist policies. This would prove highly detrimental to the Chinese economy, threatening its ability to sell products abroad at lower prices than U.S. competitors can.

Most significantly, though, the politicized absence of the United States from Pacific trade agreements endangers the economic well-being of other Asian countries. Manufacturing-dependent economies like Malaysia and Vietnam looked to the TPP to provide access to U.S. markets like textiles, where these countries could sell their products at low prices. However, Chinese markets already have access to cheap manufactured goods produced domestically. Thus, trade deals with China would be unlikely to benefit other Asian economies to the degree that free access to U.S. markets would. Because of this, China would be less able to exert its economic leverage in pursuit of political influence in Asia, and developing economies in the region would suffer.

As talks between the leaders of the United States and China draw near, both countries must recognize the unintended consequences of trade policy as a tool for political influence. The allure of unfettered access to American markets will continue to divide the loyalties of Asian nations, even as China entices them with promises of freer trade within the region. As issues with the TPP and RCEP demonstrate, neither nation will secure uncontested political influence in the Pacific region through heavily politicized trade agreements. Instead, both the United States and China should focus on creating trade agreements to optimize economic growth in the numerous developing nations of the Pacific region through freer trade. If the United States and China cooperate on trade policy to achieve this goal, both they and many others in the Pacific region will benefit. Neither country should allow political machinations to stand in the way of economic progress.

Solving U.S. health care woes: a nonpartisan approach

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Earlier this month, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz engaged in a televised debate over the state of health care in the United States. While both politicians agreed with the assessment that health care as it stands now requires great reform, their solutions, not unexpectedly, fell along party lines. Americans were offered two, predictably partisan, options: Sanders called for more government involvement, while Cruz suggested cutting regulations as the key to reducing the burden of the costly system now in place. Implementing lasting reform in our broken health care system, however, will require a different approach—one guided by proper incentives and economic evidence rather than restrained by ideology.  

Both sides of the debate took an important first step when Sanders and Cruz rightly noted the shortcomings of the current system. Health care costs make up 17.1% of U.S. GDP, the highest in the world by a significant margin. Health outcomes, unfortunately, do not reflect this reality. Average life expectancy in the U.S. is only 78.7 years, ranking 26th relative to other countries in the world. Effectively, the United States is paying more for health care that does not deliver any significant improvement in health indicators. Americans are rightfully unhappy about this situation, but significant strides can be made to solve this problem in a manner that is largely nonpolitical.

In fact, many of the problems Sanders and Cruz recognized with the current system have solutions that do not fall squarely into any political ideology. Proposals like mandatory health savings accounts (HSAs) provide one instance of such policy fixes.

By ensuring citizens save money specifically for health care expenses, HSAs help eliminate financial roadblocks to health care access without limiting the ability of consumers to choose the health care provider and plan that best suits their needs. At the heart of nonpartisan improvements like this is the desired goal of a more effective, less expensive health care system, driven by the establishment of proper incentives guiding both corporations and consumers.

During the debate, for example, both politicians lamented the tragic results of unaffordable deductibles for patients with severe illnesses. However, ideologically polarized health care overhauls are not the only ways to solve this issue. One need only look at the structure of health care in a country like Singapore for a potential solution. On its face, Singapore’s policy to address the problem of unaffordable deductibles appears counterintuitive. Government funding for health care requires that no health service be provided for free.

In practice, this raises the cost of basic, day-to-day treatments like doctor visits for a mild illness, discouraging unnecessary use of medical care. This policy frees up medical resources to treat more life-threatening cases in a time-efficient and affordable manner.

Singapore also requires citizens to put money into tax-exempt health savings accounts in a program called Medisave, which has the result of discouraging spending on unnecessary medical procedures. The proper alignment of incentives for consumers in Singapore ensures that medical resources can be allocated to the most severe cases, rather than wasted on frivolous or overly expensive medical procedures.

The American health care system could also benefit from incentivising companies that provide medical services and insurance to cut unnecessary costs, without the need for heavy-handed government control. Again, the U.S. can look to the transparent system of Singapore, in which private health care providers are required to publish the prices of their policies.

By providing more information to consumers, this policy creates an environment that encourages health care providers to pursue more cost-effective policies without compromising health outcomes. This relatively light regulation of the industry can have outsized benefits, motivating cutbacks on expensive but ineffective medical procedures that contribute to the United States’ excessive spending on health care.

Another point of agreement between Sanders and Cruz was what they deemed to be the excessive costs of pharmaceuticals, a reality that prevents many Americans from receiving life-saving medicines. Sanders prescribed a greater use of the federal government’s market power as a large purchaser of drugs, while Cruz targeted excessive FDA regulation as the culprit behind high drug prices.

Rather than demonizing corporations as greedy evildoers or decrying safety regulations for drug approval as unnecessary, both parties should once again look to the establishment of proper incentives to craft policies that protect consumers without denying them affordable access to important drugs.

The Swiss system of approving pharmaceutical drugs provides one possible method to properly align incentives to benefit consumers, while still allowing companies to operate without excessive government control. In Switzerland, drug approval is contingent not only on meeting safety standards, but also on satisfying an objective calculation of cost-effectiveness for the new drug when eligible for reimbursement under health insurance plans. A system like this would discourage companies from creating overly expensive drugs, without requiring rigid price controls enacted by the government.

Out of current partisan stonewalling emerges a third, pragmatic path for health care reform in the United States: a focus on properly aligned incentives. Policies like the ones proposed here are driven not by ideology, but by economic evidence. Adopting these measures would be the first step toward the pursuit of a health care system that delivers better results at lower costs—an outcome that would be amenable to politicians and constituents across the political spectrum.

Quantitative easing, explained

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“The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Open Market Committee shall maintain long run growth of the monetary and credit aggregates commensurate with the economy’s long run potential to increase production, so as to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.”

-Federal Reserve Act Section 2A

            Maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates are the responsibilities of the Federal Reserve (the Fed) often known as its “dual mandate.” Achieving these goals is no minor feat. The economy is a complex and unpredictable structure, dependent not only on the performance of businesses, but also slave to human behavior. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb famously wrote, “Think of the economy as being more like a cat than a washing machine.”

So how is the Fed expected to tame this dynamic and volatile system? American monetary policy until late 2008 consisted of adjusting the monetary supply through the sale and purchasing of short term treasury bills, affecting interest rates by setting their overnight risk-free rates and attempting to control public expectations and actions through public statements.

The post-great recession global economy, however, has not been as responsive to these conventional forms of monetary policy. The Fed has maintained a historically large monetary supply, and risk free interest rates close to 0% since the great recession, yet the economy is still resisting maximum employment and healthy inflation rates.

To supplement these insufficient strategies, central banks have turned to Quantitative Easing. Quantative Easing (QE) has become somewhat of a buzzword used to describe a range of policies. It is therefore difficult to construct a concrete definition. A good starting place, however, is thinking of it as any non-traditional monetary strategy consisting of purchasing long-term assets, particularly when short-term risk-free interest rates are close to 0%.

QE1, the first round of American quantitative easing, was essentially a bailout where the Fed acquired mortgage-backed securities (MBS) and funded government sponsored enterprises (GSE). By purchasing mortgage backed securities—a risky long term asset held by many banks at the time of the great recession—they provided relief to banks who were in danger of turning illiquid. Housing oriented GSEs were financed in order to create credit for investments in real estate.

Notice that QE1 resembles fiscal policy more than monetary policy. Without passing an official stimulus through congress, the Fed managed to inject money into the economy and provide incentives for investment. Our definition of Quantitative Easing can thus be updated to reflect this function.

The second and third rounds of Quantitative Easing were extensions to QE1 with one addition. The Fed purchased longer-term treasury bills. These auxiliary rounds of QE had the effect of continuing to increase the monetary base and lowering long-term interest rates, thereby incentivizing even further investment.

Quantitative Easing is any non-traditional monetary policy, which stimulates the economy through the purchase of long-term assets, particularly when traditional monetary policy has failed. The purchase of long-term assets stimulates the economy by lowering long-term interest rates and increasing the money supply, which in turn incentivize lending and investing.

Recently, QE has been used by central banks all over the world, most notably, the Bank of England, Bank of Japan, and the Fed. However, this strategy is not without its critics. Detractors argue that QE weakens the effects of traditional monetary policy and puts central banks in danger of run-away inflation. While these dangers do exist, it is clear that traditional monetary policy is no longer sufficient to reach desired interest rates. While QE may not be the final solution, it has so far seemed effective.

Traditional monetary policy has not been enough to lift us from our global recession. It is clear that central banks need an additional tool to stimulate a healthy economy. QE will be around at least until a new alternative is found. Whether it actually stimulates the economy or simply inflates the prices of assets remains to be seen.

Morality aside, refugee acceptance is a matter of economic benefit

refugee photo.jpegBetween Donald Trump Jr. comparing Syrian refugees to poisoned Skittles and a camerawoman kicking and tripping refugees fleeing the Hungary-Serbia border, the resettlement of refugees from Syria to Western countries has faced much derision and scrutiny. Since March 2011, approximately 470,000 Syrians have been killed in their ongoing civil war and more than ten million have been internally displaced or forced to leave the country. This crisis has caused millions of Syrians to seek asylum in other countries, with many of them dying trying to reach refuge. When it comes to the resettlement of refugees into the United States, unwarranted hate, groundless fear and false information have been rampant. More subversively, when it comes to economic research, refugees may actually posit direct, long run economic benefits.

According to the U.S. Department of State, during the 2016 fiscal year, 84,995 refugees from 79 different countries were admitted into the United States. 70 percent of those refugees came from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Burma, Iraq, and Somalia. Over 72 percent of those resettled were women and children. The screening process can take between 12 and 18 months, with those in desperate situations receiving priority. Less than one percent of the global refugee population passes the first application for resettlement in the U.S.

Of those refugees who were granted residency in the U.S. this year, 46 percent were Muslim and 44 percent were Christian. Since September 2001, about 785,000 refugees entered the U.S. and fewer than 20 were arrested or expunged for terrorist related activities. A risk analysis done by the Cato Institute found that between 1975 and 2015 the chance of being killed in a terrorist attack on American soil conducted by a refugee was 1 in 3.64 billion a year.

A study conducted by Kalena E. Cortes, Associate Professor of Public Policy at Texas A&M University, compared the fiscal growth of refugees to that of economic immigrants, those who enter a country to improve their standard of living and job opportunities. The research found, “In 1990, refugees from the 1975-1980 arrival cohort earned 20 percent more, worked 4 percent more hours, and improved their English skills by 11 percent relative to economic immigrants.” While these refugees initially had lower annual earnings, they greatly outpaced the economic immigrants in economic gains.

Since refugees lack the option of returning to their home country, their time horizon in the host country is much longer than that of economic immigrants. A longer time horizon means refugees have a higher likelihood to assimilate to the earnings growth of native-born citizens. They are incentivized to invest in “country-specific” human capital, such as learning the language or enrolling in the country’s education system. Also, they have a longer period of time to recoup their human capital investments. Not only do refugees add to the economy with labor, they also contribute through consumption. At a local level, refugees exercise their purchasing power, increasing the demand for goods and services.

In Cleveland, 598 refugees were resettled in 2012, with approximately 4,000 more resettled in the decade prior. The Refugee Services Collaborative of Cleveland spent approximately $4.8 million on refugee services in 2012 and the economic impact of refugees on the city during that year is estimated to be $48 million and 650 more jobs. A report by Chmura Economics and Analytics observed that, on average, the refugees found employment within five months of their resettlement, despite their lack of proficiency in the English language. As the labor market participation and income of refugees increased, the reliance and need for government assistance decreased substantially.

The resettlement of refugees can be viewed as an tool for economic development and regrowth. Cities and regions that accept refugees see an influx of laborers who are initially willing to work for lower wage rates, giving an area stuck in an economic trough the chance to re-energize. The Rust Belt city of Utica, NY lost about a third of its population in the second half of the 20th century when local factories closed, stunting economic growth. However, in the past four decades the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees resettled about 15,000 refugees from 74 different countries into Utica, completely revitalizing the area. The largest group of refugees, Bosnians who sought asylum during the Balkan conflict, have renovated hundreds of neglected houses and opened their own businesses.

Refugees bring fresh energy, innovation and the desire to rebuild to their new hometowns. A study from 2000 on the fiscal impact of refugees in Utica and Oneida county conducted by Hamilton College found that while resettling the refugees required an upfront cost, it was primarily front-loaded and created a net fiscal benefit for the community in the long run. The study also found little evidence that the resettlement of refugees negatively affected employment of native laborers.

Jeffrey Sachs, a senior UN advisor and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, observed that the refugees entering the United States currently are more educated than a typical person from their country. New refugees are also expected to be younger, giving them a greater chance to “make it” in the American economy. An investment in refugees not only saves people from dangerous and dire situations, but also brings new life and value into the local, regional and national economy.

Ireland’s Brexit Dilemma: How Britain’s Decision to Leave the E.U. Could Impact the Irish Economy

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British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks to Irish Taoiseach (PM) Enda Kenny

In the months leading up to the UK’s Brexit vote, Irish officials advocated for Britain to remain in the EU and stressed the close ties that Britain and Ireland have. However, the Brexit vote did not go as many in the Irish government had hoped. As the UK prepares to trigger Article 50 and formally begin the process of exiting the EU by March of next year, the Irish government is preparing to deal with the effects of one of their closest trade partners and neighbors leaving the largest trade block in the world.

In assessing the effects of Brexit, many analysts focus primarily on how the British economy would be impacted. Yet the effects of Brexit extend far beyond Britain itself. Ireland and Britain have close ties due to shared history and geographic proximity. Furthermore, when Britain and Ireland joined the European Economic Community in 1973, the Irish economy was still heavily reliant on Britain for many products that it was unable to produce itself. While Ireland has become much less dependent on the British economy over the last few decades, the two countries still have close economic relationships, and for Ireland, it looks like Britain’s departure from the EU is going to hurt. A recent study by the Irish Department of Finance estimates that Britain’s departure would cause Ireland’s GDP to drop by as much as four percent, with negative effects on wages and employment in Ireland lasting for the next 10 years.

Britain and Ireland trade heavily with one another, and a Brexit will likely damage the Irish export market and lead to higher import prices. Every week, Ireland and Britain trade approximately €1 billion worth of goods and services. Ireland sends 16 percent of its exports to the UK, the most it sends to any one country, and Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Institute estimates that bilateral trade between the two countries could decrease by as much as 20 percent after Britain leaves the EU. Overall, Ireland has a trade deficit in merchandise with the United Kingdom, and its agricultural and metals sectors heavily depend on exporting to the UK.

For instance, 50 percent of Irish beef exports go to Britain, as do 55 percent of construction and timber exports. The UK is also Ireland’s greatest source for merchandise imports, and as Ireland’s economy is small, it has fewer opportunities to substitute imports with locally produced goods. Once the UK leaves the EU, it will likely be subject to the EU’s import tariffs for imports coming from “third countries.” The institution of tariffs for imports into the UK from Ireland and vice versa, therefore, will likely lead to higher prices for goods sold in Ireland.

Both Ireland and the UK have expressed interest in keeping the Common Travel Area (CTA) that has existed along the border of Ireland and Northern Ireland since 1923. Over the past 90 years, this invisible border has facilitated trade between the two nations, allowed citizens to work in each others’ countries, and has contributed to political stability in Northern Ireland. However, once Britain leaves the EU, the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will become the western border of the EU, which may require passport controls that would greatly restrict movement between the two countries. Currently, the British and Irish governments are exploring ways to keep the CTA after the Brexit occurs.

No one has a greater potential to gain from Brexit, however, than Ireland’s financial sector. The UK has the largest inward FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) stock of any nation in Europe and has a powerful financial services sector. Leaving the EU’s single market will likely damage that financial vitality and could spur many firms to relocate all or part of their operations to cities in other countries. As an educated, English speaking city that already has a sizeable financial sector, Dublin is definitely a strong candidate. Currently, Ireland is home to €3 trillion of investment and money market funds. With some additional investments in housing, communications and infrastructure, Ireland and Dublin especially would likely benefit from firms in Britain relocating abroad.

In her speech at the Conservative Party Conference in October, Theresa May declared that “Brexit means Brexit — and we’re going to make a success of it.” Both the Irish and the British certainly hope so. The less dramatic Britain’s departure from the EU is, the better off Ireland will be. As Irish political commentator Johnny Fallon notes, “Some in Europe would be very happy to see post-Brexit Britain collapse. Not Ireland. We’re very eager to see Britain hold up.”

The economic case against slavery

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In 1981, Mauritania became the last country in the world to abolish slavery, putting a supposed end to the archaic institution, yet there are an estimated 30 million people illegally enslaved across the globe today. The abhorrent ethics of the practice have not stopped many governments from letting modern slavery slip through the cracks. In order to convince governments to take real action, we must prove that slavery is an economic burden, and an investment in eradicating it will produce returns.

Slaves were once an expensive capital purchase, but rapid population growth in the mid-twentieth century has led to a sharp decrease in the cost of slave labor. Furthermore, unregulated migration systems in many countries have left a lot migrants with minimal information about legal migration and their rights. This has made it easier for criminals to exploit and traffic migrant labor. The International Labour Organization researched the flow of migrant workers into forced labor and found that migrant workers encompass a large percentage of trafficking victims. Business owners who wish to utilize this cheap, disposable labor can achieve higher profits compared to those that pay their laborers a wage, preventing money from flowing naturally from employers to employees and back into the economy by consumption. However, while slavery is profitable for criminal business, it is a drag on the economy as a whole.

Many impoverished, uneducated civilians who are desperate for money are tricked into taking out a loan where labor is demanded as repayment. According to Anti-Slavery International, bonded labor has become the most widespread form of modern slavery in the world. Bonded slaves become illegally trapped in servitude as that loan is extremely difficult to repay and the debt passes down each generation. Slavery flourishes in places with extreme poverty. In fact, it perpetuates poverty as slave labor decreases the wages for unskilled, free laborers, reducing the disposable income of free families. The research of Kevin Bales, co-founder of the human rights organization Free the Slaves, has shown that the first investment former slaves want to make is putting their children in schools. Education is crucial in combating poverty. First, education helps prevent the spread of poverty between generations. Second, learning to read, write, and think critically greatly increases one’s economic rate of return. As long as governments will not do anything to stop the illegal use of slavery, freedman labor remains an untapped resource in an economy.

The article “Slavery is Bad for Business” by Monti Narayan Datta and Kevin Bales states that the production output of slave labor is remarkably low due to a lack of incentives, lack of human development and lower life expectancy. They are not working to their full capacity and, consequently, have low economic value. When slaves are freed, the local economy booms as these people now act as economic agents. There is a greater incentive to increase productivity and their human capital since they are now supporting their families and exercising labor autonomy. Not only do they contribute to the economy through work, but also through consumption as active members of society with purchasing power.

Despite slavery’s persistence, education and legislation designed to hold businesses accountable for their use of servitude in the lower end of their supply chains have proven effective. For example, the California Transparency in Supply Chain Act mandates that any company with worldwide annual revenue above $100 million publicly discloses what they are doing to eradicate human trafficking and forced labor from their supply chain. If companies consciously work to stop purchasing intermediate goods produced by slaves, the demand for slave labor will decrease.

The second, critical step is to invest in freeing slaves and giving them a real chance at living a productive, healthy life. This step is crucial in ensuring the long-term success of those freed from slavery. Bales describes the freeing of slaves in the United States as the “botched emancipation of 1865” where millions of former slaves were left without access to education or political autonomy. Instead they were faced with discrimination and violence, which continues to resonate through society today. Without giving people some sort of chance, they are more likely to fall victim to other types of exploitation.

Ethics aside, slavery is not being addressed aggressively enough by governments around the world. If they looked honestly at the economic ramifications of a monstrous system that refuses to die, only then may governments be coerced to act.

A Time for Peace, A Time for Debt: The Cost of Colombian Reconstruction

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After 54 months of peace talks in Havana between the FARC (Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia) and the Colombian government, a tentative deal was signed with the intention of ending the longest civil war in modern history. The conflict began in the mid-1960s as a byproduct of the Cold War and served as a proxy battleground for Soviet and U.S. forces. After their ties to the Soviet Union were severed, however, the FARC turned to drug-running, kidnapping, extortion, and even all-out territorial war to fund their campaign. This delegitimized their political claims and turned them into what many agreed was just another violent, rent-seeking group in Colombia, masked under the guise of political ideology.

As of 2012 (the year peace talks began and a ceasefire was agreed upon), over 220,000 people had been killed in the conflict, and around 6 million more had been displaced from their homes. The deal was therefore of critical importance to the future of the nation, and it was the first of its kind to have any real chance of success. Nevertheless, the treaty was, at that stage, merely symbolic, and Colombians would have to ratify it in a plebiscite set for Oct. 2, 2016. The results were unexpected, as the “No” vote won by less than half a percentage point. The president and 2016 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Juan Manuel Santos, urged his citizens not to lose faith in the process; his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, basked in the failure of what he had called “a fraudulent peace.”

One of the most controversial and distorted aspects of the agreement was its possible impact on the Colombian economy. While it is difficult to ascertain the potential economic consequences of the deal, there are some figures that can be analyzed and truths which can be pieced together to forecast what could happen if peace were to be signed under similar circumstances.

First, we must acknowledge that reconstruction is a costly affair. The Colombian minister of finance, Mauricio Cardenas, pegged the amount at around $30 billion USD; Capital Economics, an economic research firm, said it would be around $60 billion; and Global Risk Insights, a political risk analysis group, put the price tag at $90 billion. A study conducted by BBC Mundo found that costs would come from three major sources over a 10-year period. The authors estimate that the per-year cost would be at least $3.5 billion in subsidies and programs for victims, $1.8 billion for agricultural reform and investment, and $2 billion for the integration of rebel combatants into society. Their estimate, therefore, came to around $73 billion over the next decade.

Despite this massive price tag, the “Sí” campaign believed other factors would counterbalance the new debt issued as a result of the deal. They touted the possible upsurge in foreign and domestic investment, arguing that a more stable business environment would foster improved consumer confidence, leading to more jobs for incoming ex-fighters and other Colombians. The reality, however, is not so straightforward.

Counterinsurgency experts David Kilcullen and Greg Mills explain in their feature for the Center for Complex Operations that “most campaigns struggle with connecting improvements in security with sustainable employment creation, especially in rural areas” and that “job creation is key, because it will help dissipate much of the sense of grievance that has historically fueled conflict.” Most rebel combatants are from rural areas of the country, and the $18 billion or so dedicated to this routinely overlooked sector might be in vain if the funds are not strategically invested. Past public investments in agriculture have been plagued by unmet deadlines, corruption, and the misuse of funds. There was little evidence public agents could be trusted again with such a complicated and expensive task, and many saw the probable failure of this endeavor as an opportunity for ex-rebels to join gangs and other guerilla groups when the legal route failed.

The $20 billion allocated for “integration” was a very vague and controversial point in the deal as well. Identity changes, safety nets, and police protection for common rebel soldiers were included in the agreement, but the extent to which these safeguards would be implemented was dubious at best. Would a company know whether a potential employee was a member of a Marxist guerilla movement? Why were taxpayer dollars being put in the pockets of individuals who were killing Colombian soldiers not a month ago? These were all bitter pills to swallow for the average hard-working Colombian, especially given the country’s already exorbitant tax rates (Colombia has the fifth highest tax-to-GDP ratio in the world). There was also uncertainty about the skills these ex-rebel fighters had (or lack thereof), and how they would translate into a formal economy where gunfighting and survival skills aren’t in much demand.

This may seem like a bleak prognosis, but it is important to consider the alternative. Since its independence in 1810, Colombia has rarely experienced a moment of peace. It is a historically violent country with an inherited propensity for war, and only extreme measures can break the cycle. The U.S. government invested in and made concessions to the Confederate states after the Civil War, as did the U.K. after its deal with the IRA – peace is as difficult as it is necessary. Though Colombians weren’t convinced by this particular agreement, they must not lose hope for a peaceful future. War is an unsustainable and expensive activity, which hinders more lives than any price tag, tax increase, or awkward labor environment ever will.