Thursday, April 20, 2017

Parsha Shemini: Jews Allowed to Eat Pork? When Pigs Fly!

In this week's Torah portion, G-d provides guidance on Jewish dietary law, or kashrut, in Leviticus 11. The chapter talks about the number of animals, including fish, birds, and yes, pigs:

ואת החזיר כי מפריס פרסה הוא, ושסע שסע פרסה, והוא גרה לא יגר. טמא הוא לכם.
-And the pig, because its has a split hoof and doesn't regurgitate its own cud; it is unclean. -Leviticus 11:7

In an earlier passage, the Torah teaches that a kosher animal is one that has split hooves and chews its own cud (Leviticus 11:3). Since the pig only violates one of two of the criteria, you would think that the pig would not be as bad as the animals that violate both criteria. Yet the pig is so disdained by traditional Jews, and the prohibition of its consumption is well-known by Jew and non-Jew alike. Why is the pig so infamous?


  • One explanation can be was the pig was historically a source of food that was in high supply. Some think that the pig, unlike other non-kosher farm animals, only serves the purpose of being killed and eaten, which is to be considered abhorrent. 
  • Perhaps it was because pigs played a prominent role in idolatrous worship (Rambam). 
  • The pig can represent the conflation between material and spiritual attainment. 
  • The pig is the only animal with split hooves, but does not chew its cud. When the pig stretches out his legs and displays his hooves, it seems to say "Look how kosher I am" while not mentioning that it chews cud. This is the sign of someone who is a hypocrite or acts externally pious while hiding flaws (Leviticus Rabbah 13:5). This interpretation teaches us to avoid deceit and hypocrisy. 
    • R. Meir of Premishlan took the analogy from Leviticus Rabbah the following way. He said that the pig, who acts externally pious but is internally vapid, is one who does not properly fulfill the mitzvah. Sure, it's nice if someone invites you to their home for a meal, but if they leave hungry or they're embarrassed at some point in the evening, then it was not a proper mitzvah. Or to frame this slightly differently, even good intentions don't mean much if the end-result of the mitzvah was not good, which is why we have to be mindful of when helping others out and make sure that is in accordance with their needs and not our perception of their needs. 
  • R. Chayim ibn Abtr (Or HaChayim, Lev. 11:7) was under the impression that during the Messianic era, the pig would evolve and produce the ability to chew its cud, thereby becoming a kosher animal. This ability to change is meant to teach us about how we can return to the inherent good that G-d has bestowed in each of us. 
  • R. Yissocher Frand made an interesting point about word order in the verse. He pointed out that the Torah points out the split hooves (the kosher aspect) before pointing out that it doesn't chew its own cud (the non-kosher aspect). What this is meant to teach is that even if someone is still very flawed, we should not only point out their positive attributes, but emphasize them before getting into flaws.  
We are what we eat, and these insights teach us how ritual reflects great spiritual truths. We are meant to make sure that our behavior is consistent. When dealing with others, we make sure we do our best to treat people like human beings, see the good they have to offer, and realize that even those who are flawed have the potential to change. By not eating pig, the prohibition reminds Jews how to reach our spiritual maximum.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

United Airlines' Fiasco and Why We Need Greater Airline Competition

Saying that United Airlines had a bad week last week is an understatement. Last Sunday, United Flight 3411 was ready for takeoff from Chicago O'Hare International Airport. The passengers boarded, but United attempted to accommodate four United employees that they were looking to board last-minute. With the four employees, the flight had more passengers than seats. United tried asking passengers to voluntarily give up their seats. They then asked Dr. David Dao, a 69-year old doctor who was looking to get back to Kentucky to tend to patients the following morning. Dao, who was a paying customer who had already boarded the plane, was then forcibly dragged off the plane, and suffered a concussion, had a broken nose and sinuses, and lost two teeth. It looks like Dao has a strong enough case to sue. This sort of abuse of passengers leaves us understandably upset, even if United ended up changing its policy on displacing customers. And if that debacle weren't enough, a passenger on a United flight was stung by a scorpion that fell out of an overhead bin.

United's stock only dropped four percent since the Dao debacle, which looking at its stock history, is not a huge decline. Even so, it has only been a week, it is too soon to tell how the transpired events will effect United's long-term stance. I could say that our media-saturated world will leave us forgetting this incident in a matter of weeks (if not sooner) because of a quick news-cycle, and United will be back to "business as usual." You could think that people will massively boycott United because of its unacceptable treatment of Dao. As I pointed out three years ago, boycotts work best when they are targeted, massive, and last long enough to do damage. A successful boycott of United gets more complicated when considering the consolidated nature of the airline market. Over the past decade, airline companies have merged and acquired to boost its market share. As the Washington Post points out, there are over 10 major airports where United has 10 percent or more of the airport's market share. For Houston and Newark, United accounts for over half of their airports' travel (see Department of Transportation [DoT] statistics here). The airline industry is an oligopoly, which means that the market is dominated by a small number of sellers. 80 percent of flights are carried out by four major carriers: American, Delta, Southwest, and United (see below, as well as DoT stats). Because there are few alternatives for customers, United does not care nearly as much about customer service or satisfaction as a seller would in a different market.



If a boycott is going to do next to nothing to stop the oligopolistic beast, then what would be more effective? We need to make the airline industry more competitive because there are more efficiency gains, prices go down, and quality goes up (Gil and Kim, 2016Snider and Williams, 2011). One solution that tends to be popular on the Left is "break up the monopolies." As the DoT data show, there are not monopolies or near-monopolies. Sure, there are airports that have high enough market concentration at certain airports, but that doesn't constitute as a monopoly. Obama's Department of Justice went through a lengthy investigation, and found that the airlines weren't colluding, which also helps. The airline industry is more competitive than governments are, but less so than most private-sector markets. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the number of competitors really didn't shift all that much from 2007 to 2012, which is significant considering that is when United acquired Continental (see below).



If we want to think of ways to improve competitiveness in the airline market, here is an alternative to breaking up monopolies. Foreign airlines are presently not able to fly domestic routes. Instead of having this insidious law, how about bringing in competition by letting foreign airlines fly our friendly skies? As the Cato Institute illustrates, privatizing airports can be another route. A couple years ago, I brought up the idea of privatizing air traffic control. Here are a couple more examples of the FAA getting in the way of airline innovations.

While I presented some good and bad alternatives, the practical consideration is whether anything will actually be done to improve airline competitiveness. My answer to that question is "no." The oligopolistic nature of the airline makes boycotting all the more challenging. We currently have a protectionist, populist president who is interested in "America First," which means we probably won't see foreign airlines fly domestic routes anytime soon. The Trump administration also has not indicated that it is looking to improve upon competitiveness in the airline industry. Irrespective of the Trump administration's present stance on the issue (or lack thereof), Trump should focus on airline competitiveness and make flying great again.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Trump's Half-Cocked Missile Attack on Syria and Why We Should Worry

During his presidential campaign, President Trump said that we should focused on ISIS instead of Syria. He stated that we should get out of the nation-building business and tore up what institutions existed in Afghanistan and Iraq. He sent the message that a vote for Hillary Clinton would have meant military conflict in Syria, which would have triggered World War III. Not even 100 days into his presidency and Trump has done what he lambasted Clinton for contemplating. Last Thursday, Trump ordered a Tomahawk cruise missile strike on a Syrian airfield that was alleged to have been the base for a chemical weapons attack that the Syrian government perpetrated against Syrian citizens earlier last week. President Bashar al-Assad's attack last week is hardly the first time he has committed heinous crimes against his own people. It is part of an ongoing civil war that has been going on for nearly six years. Essentially, Syria got swept up in the 2011 Arab Spring protests and expressed discontent with the despotic al-Assad regime. Those protests escalated to military action since the protests were attempting to usurp al-Assad. Since then, opposition has arisen in Syria and not only created a divided Syria, but has strengthened the Islamo-fascist group ISIS. The Syrian Civil War has not only had repercussions in Syria, but also in Iraq, other neighboring countries that have had to take in refugees, and even in Europe, where the refugee influx has caused a rise in Far-Right populism and nationalism.

There are two main reasons why proponents would be happy with such an attack on the Syrian military: national security and humanitarian reasons. After the attack, Trump stated that "it is in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the use of deadly chemical weapons." Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said that the United States can no longer idly stand by as atrocities are carried out against the Syrian people, and as such, Trump made a justified attack on the Syrian military. Even some Democrats are happy with Trump's attack on Syria. By drawing the red line, Trump made it clear that he supports the international norm against the use of chemical weapons. The act might not only act as a deterrent for Syria, but other major powers (e.g., Russia, China) might think twice before messing with the United States of America. Although Assad is a sadistic tyrant that the world can live without, I wonder if this is justification for Trump's missile attack or even further military intervention in Syria.

First, there is the question of how launching missiles onto a military base can be construed as providing humanitarian relief. Hitting a single military base while having zero effect on regime change or altering Assad policy does not do any favors to mitigate the plight of the Syrian citizenry. It only acts as a hollow, symbolic gesture, especially considering that planes were taking off from the airbase just hours later. And what if Assad uses chemical weapons on his citizens again? Will Trump respond with more military action, or will Assad call Trump's bluff?

Second, if the attack is in response to the chemical attack from Assad, it ignores the number of citizens not killed by chemical warfare. In February 2017 alone, which was Trump's first full month in office, there were 1,298 deaths caused by the Syrian Civil War, the vast majority of which were caused by conventional means. None of this considers the thousands that have died at the hands of the Assad regime through conventional means. Why is it that the thousands of people killed by conventional means does not merit Trump's attention or action, but the use of chemical warfare on less than 100 people does? Is it okay to kill your citizens only if they kill with standard munitions? An even better question: why was Trump against intervening in 2013 when chemical attacks were an issue, but suddenly is for it? For a president who claims "America First," he has yet to show how intervening in Syria is a vital interest or how Syria is an existential threat to the United States' people, freedoms, economic security, or territory, which is something he can't do because Syria does not pose that level of threat. The argument is that "Assad is a bad dictator who does bad things." If that's the logic and basis we're going off of, then the United States would need to intervene in every country that has oppressive regimes, which are the numerous purple countries in the map below.

Source: Freedom House

Third, I have to wonder about timing of the U.S. military to attack. Obama was contemplating attacking Syria four years ago, especially since he made that untenable statement about how he would draw a red line on Syria using chemical weapons. His failure in Libya, as well as the lack of success in Iraq and Afghanistan, shaped his thinking. Instead of further military attacks, he took a more diplomatic and coordinated approach, which at least resulted in Assad not using chemical attacks during the remainder of the Obama administration. Intervention would have been easier four years ago when Obama was contemplating it than it would be now for two main reasons: 1) the Assad regime was not as fortified or powerful as it is now, and 2) Russia has ground and air forces supporting the Assad regime.

Fourth is the lack of a legal basis for the attack, and that's not solely based on whether a president needs congressional authorization prior to making such an attack. Jack Goldsmith, who was legal counsel to former President George W. Bush, already made the argument that while chemical warfare against one's own citizens is a violation of international law, so is bombing a country without the action being in self-defense or "to maintain or restore international peace and security."

Finally, I think we have to be worried about expectations. One is the speed and ease with which Trump capriciously switched positions. The Trump administration announced on March 30 that they have no interest in opposing Assad, and then fired missiles at a Syrian airbase six days later. Even if Trump feels committed to the cause right now, what happens if he gets us militarily involved and decides a few months later that it is not worth it? This leads into another concern, which is a lack of corresponding strategy. Was the Tomahawk attack a one-time punitive action or will this lead to further action? The fact that we cannot answer that question shows a lack of preparedness of the Trump administration, which is ironic considering that he said in April 2016 that he would not deploy military force without a plan. Relatively speaking, the United States had more of a strategy entering Iraq and Afghanistan than Trump has right now. If the United States were to militarily intervene in Syria, it would need to figure out how to coordinate with the international community to rebuild cities, demilitarize Shia operatives and ISIS, and how to end the civil war. The Right-leaning Federalist even published a nice list of 14 questions the Trump administration should be open enough to answer before we should continue discussing or considering military intervention in Syria.

Given the tone Trump has set about ISIS (e.g., he would "bomb the shit out of them," he would "kill terrorists and their families"), as well as the posture of the war hawks in Congress, there is the issue of mission creep, something that even the Right-leaning Heritage Foundation worries about. And even if neoconservatives got their wish and we were fully involved in the war in Syria, can we realistically expect that we will oust Assad, bring democracy to Syria, keep jihadists at bay, and keep Russia and Iran happy? Our past attempts to "stabilize the Middle East" not only left Iraq and Afghanistan in direr straits, but led to the ascent of ISIS. There's also the Korean War, which ended in a stalemate that the United States pays for to this very day. The United States intervened in the Vietnam War, and all the U.S. got was over 58,000 dead soldiers, over 153,000 wounded soldiers, and a unified Vietnam ruled by Communists. The United States' track record on military interventions since after WWII is not exactly flattering. And if you want more proof to effectiveness on military interventions, read Civil Wars and Foreign Powers: Outside Intervention in Intrastate Conflict by political scientist Patrick Regan. He studies 175 military interventions from 1944 to 1994, and finds that 30 percent of interventions succeed in terms of less violence and loss of life. There is also another study that shows that outside military interventions on behalf of rebel factions actually increase the likelihood of violence (Wood et al., 2012, p. 29). The results of these studies make sense given that military powers often have little information of what is taking place on the ground, especially when it comes to understanding the conflicting goals of the factions involved.

These are the sort of issues that should have us concerned about Trump's attack on the Syrian airbase. Trump's Tomahawk attack by itself is not going to change the political reality on the ground (National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster already admitted as much), and it is not going to make Assad grow a conscience. Having a more lasting effect would need to involve more than Trump's $60 million stunt. This is the first major foreign policy decision Trump made since becoming president. As such, Trump's Tomahawk attack and how he subsequently reacts to the situation in the Middle East is going to dictate U.S. foreign policy for the remainder of his term.

Without an actual plan, I am not confident in the United States' ability to stabilize the region. I am even less confident because Trump wants to boost military spending while cutting the Department of State's budget by nearly a third (120 retired generals thought these cuts were folly). Even if Trump were willing to put in the military resources for a full-scale war, I am not only worried about the fatigue that the United States experiences from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I also worry that it would come at the cost of more soldiers' lives, billions of dollars that the United States does not have, and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Syria. As we learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, we can put money, soldiers, and arms into a full-scale conflict, but even that level of intensity can lead to ultimate failure.

It's not simply an issue of getting involved in another war, but also Trump's sudden, capricious shift in a key foreign policy issue combined with a lack of long-term strategy. While it is possible to have limited and effective strikes (e.g., the Balkans), we have seen that most military interventions fail and increase the likelihood of bloodshed. Time will tell as to whether Trump's attack will be considered a success or failure, but based on the available information, abandoning caution and a pursuit for a long-term strategy while jettisoning diplomacy and other non-military options is unsettling indeed.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Why Drink Four Cups of Wine During Passover?

One of the many facets I find fascinating about Judaism is the stance it takes on alcohol. Views in Christianity vary, but a number of denominations take it to be sinful. In Islam, the Koran (5:90) prohibits the consumption of alcohol. Judaism takes a more positive stance on alcohol. Like with many things in the world, we have the ability to use it in a mundane manner, abuse it, or elevate the mundane into the holy. Judaism takes the third path, and holds the belief that wine can be sanctified in a blessing referred to as Kiddush (קידוש). Kiddush is recited at a number of events: Shabbat, holidays, weddings, brit milah (circumcision ceremony). The Jewish holiday of Passover is different. We don't say the Kiddush over just one cup, but over four cups. You would think that Passover is like other times where one cup is satisfactory. What about Passover is so special that we need to say the Kiddush four times?
  1. Passover is referred to as "the time of our freedom" (זמן חרותנו). Wine is historically considered a royal drink. We drink the wine to celebrate freedom (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Chametz u'Matzah, 7:10), not only that of the ancient Israelites, but of our own freedoms. This could help explain why we drink more wine than on other occasions, but it still doesn't explain why we drink four cups.
  2. The Talmud says that (Pesachim 68b) when G-d promised to deliver the Israelites from slavery (Exodus 6:6-8), He used four different phrases to describe the redemption: A) "I shall take you out", B) "I shall rescue you", C) "I shall redeem you", and D) "I shall bring you." Chabad elucidates upon what each of those four phrases means within the context of the four cups of wine. 
  3. The words "cup of wine" were mentioned in the Pharaoh's butler's dream (Genesis 40:11-13). The Yerushalmi Talmud (Pesachim 10:3) teaches that the cups of wine allude to Israel's redemption.  
  4. The Talmud (Pesachim 117a) states that the four different cups of wine are for four different blessings: one for the wine itself, one for the recitation of the Haggadah, one a blessing over the meal, and one for saying Hallel. 
The two main motifs of the traditional commentary are that of freedom and blessing. Freedom is a blessing. The Israelites were once slaves, but then were freed. As the Passover song Dayenu illustrates, liberation was the beginning of redemption. Redemption came about through free will. We can say "freedom is a blessing," but by reversing that, blessing is a freedom we have. The four cups gives during Passover gives us ample opportunity to appreciate the freedom and redemption that G-d can provide. May this Passover be a time to value our freedoms and count our blessings!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Trump Energy Independence Executive Order: An Assault on the Environment?

President Trump continues his barrage of executive orders. Last week, he signed Executive Order 13783. The Executive Order is for "Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth." In short, the Executive Order was created to roll back Obama-era energy regulations with the hopes of stimulating economic growth. Environmental activists essentially think that Trump's actions are going to destroy the environment, whereas proponents think it is going to think it is going to be a huge boom to economic progress while having little to no effect on the environment. Who is right, or at least more right? To answer that, I would like to take a loo at some of the key provisions of the Executive Order (also see here and here for further reading):

Scale back the Clean Power Plan. What I will note before continuing is that the Executive Order does not eliminate the Clean Power Plan, which was Obama's signature climate change policy. The Clean Power Plan is currently on legal stay, but Trump might have the Department of Justice to suspend it since Section 4 the Executive Order includes a provision to review (and possibly suspend or revise) the Clean Power Plan. I took a look at the Clean Power Plan over a year ago. The Plan is expected to cost $1.3 to $2.4 trillion in regulatory costs over the next decade while only lowering the global temperature by 0.02ºC by 2100. That is a whole lot of cost for a very small difference.

Revisit the social cost of carbon estimates. The purpose of creating a social cost of carbon is to put a dollar amount on the damage caused by the damage caused by global warming. In 2015, the Obama administration agreed that the amount would be $35 per ton of carbon emitted. The discussion behind this social cost is important because it is the justification with which the Obama Administration justified its environmental policies. The Obama Administration assumed that the discount rate for the social cost of carbon is 3 percent. A discount rate is used to compute the value of a social project. A lower discount rate would mean paying more cost now, and a higher discount rate would mean pushing off the costs to the future. If you select a higher discount rate (e.g., 7 percent), you're saying that the issue is not as big of a deal. A lower discount rate signals urgency to solve the issue. The discount rate leads to a certain amount of subjectivity because it depends on how urgent you see the issue. The Obama Administration chose a lower discount rate of 3 percent because if views the issue more seriously. I have looked at the issue of social cost of carbon before (see here, here, and here), and what I can tell you is that a higher discount rate could mean that there is a very small, if not non-existent, social cost of carbon. This doesn't address the endangerment finding that keeps the SCC in place. However, if the Trump Administration alters the social cost of carbon, it would be more difficult to justify stringent climate change policy. In a best-case scenario, rolling back onerous energy regulations could propel at least some modest economic growth.

Lifting the coal lease moratorium. The federal government owns 570 million acres of land with coal reserves. In 2016, Obama put a moratorium on leasing the land to mining companies because there were concerns about the mining companies getting too good of deal to where it was tantamount to a subsidy of the fossil fuels industry. Section 6 of the Executive Order gives the EPA the ability to amend the coal lease moratorium. This sounds important because the coal reserves on federal land account for 40 percent of coal production. This might sound like a burdensome regulation, except for the fact that there is a coal supply glut.

Repeal guidance for taking climate change into account for NEPA reviews. The National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) was created in 1970 to require federal agencies to take into account the environmental impact of their policies. Obama issued some guidance for the agencies to take climate change into account, and Trump is now looking to remove that with Section 3(c) of the Executive Order. This might not do much since federal agencies still need to account for the impact of greenhouse gases. This might end up causing confusion and subsequent litigation, but not accounting for all the effects could exacerbate something like national security concerns.

Postscript: I know with all the polarization we see, it's common to either call something a disaster or the greatest thing since sliced bread, but I don't see anything particularly damaging or helpful in this Executive Order. The Clean Power Plan and the endangerment finding are not going anywhere, which means the coup struck to Obama-era environmental regulation is minimal. The supposed victory for the coal industry is not that a big deal because the coal industry's biggest issue is not regulatory, but rather that it will no longer be the leader in the energy sector.

And let's also consider how much the government has done or can do to help. I would like to point out that a) the global temperature has not increased as much as most climate change models have predicted, and b) because it is a global issue, you need to get China on board. Good luck with that last one! U.S. carbon emissions have been at their lowest in twenty years, in no small part due to fracking, the dropping prices of wind and solar, urbanization, and technological development. We should be mindful to take every factor into account when assessing environmental cost and benefit, but let's be honest: this Executive Order isn't going to do much in either direction.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Note to Italy: Paid Menstrual Leave Will Probably Backfire, Period

Aside from March being International Women's Month, we are not all that far from it being Equal Pay Day, a time in which people [on the Left] misleadingly raise awareness for the gender pay gap (the gap, at least in an American context, is much smaller once adjusted). That is why I find it an interesting time of year for Italy to make headlines. The Italian government is looking to pass a bill that would make Italy the first country in the Western world to mandate menstrual leave.

Menstrual leave is a policy in which a woman is allowed to take either paid or unpaid leave from work to deal with menstruation-related pains. Menstrual cramps (dysmenorreah) are throbbing pains in the abdomen or lower back occurring during the menstrual cycle. Although the pain can be mild, Mayo Clinic points out that the pain can be severe enough where women have legitimate difficulty performing everyday activities because of the pain. The American Family Physician says that up to 20 percent of women deal with severe pain, which would mean that if they are right, 80 percent of periods do not result in severe pain. The Italian piece of legislation attempts to remedy this situation by allowing for women to take three days off per month. If this passes, Italy will join Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan in having such a mandate.

Whether or not menstruation causes greater absenteeism is a bit mixed. A 2009 study in the American Economic Journal found that women are more likely to be absent from work because of the menstrual cycle. A 2010 study in the National Bureau of Economic Research actually found that there is no real effect on absenteeism. While there is mixed evidence, I would like to make the assumption that menstrual leave does indeed address absenteeism caused by the menstrual cycle.

Before continuing, I do want to say this: Admittedly, I am male, and do not have to go through the monthly ordeal of the menstrual cycle. I sympathize with those who go through it because it sounds like anything but fun. Even with that sympathy, I have to wonder just how effective it would be for women to take off up to three workdays a month.

Italian feminist writer Miriam Goi thinks that the bill would reinforce stereotypes about women "being more emotional on their periods." Purdue history professor Sharra Vostral points out that the fact women menstruate was used to keep women out of the workplace. There are feminists that worry that such a bill can be used to reinforce the idea that women are not strong enough to work three days out of the month, which is the last thing women need considering the workplace discrimination against women that still exists. Passing this bill after women have dealt with this bloody issue for centuries would regrettably be perceived as a sign of weakness. This quote from the Irish Times sums it up:

"The notion that women are so frail we need a whole new category of sick leave to deal with what is for most of us a routine, if irritating, monthly occurrence isn't emancipating. It's retrograde and a bit creepy. I can't help feeling it's less about liberation than about our deep-seated cultural anxieties about women and their bodily fluids. Menstrual leave isn't a means of making the workplace more accessible to women--it's yet another way of keeping us out." 

If the more normative argument does not convince you, take a look at the argument against paid menstrual leave from an economic standpoint.

While the bill solves one problem, it creates another: firms would think twice before hiring women, and it is not difficult to see why. Based on the most recently available data, all working Italians are guaranteed 20 vacation days off, as well as 11 paid days for holidays. Italy also mandates 22 weeks of paid maternal leave, which is on the higher end in the European Union (paternal leave is only for one day in Italy). There already is some controversy as to whether paid maternal leave causes women to be at a disadvantage in the workplace.

The Italian bill would add onto the advantage women would get. If the bill passed, women could have an extra 36 days off a year, which would give women a total of up to 67 days off. And if you don't think such labor regulations don't have an effect on living standards, take a look at this November 2016 study from the European Central Bank. This maternity leave would leave men with less than half of vacation time as women. This would not simply be a matter of breeding resentment (both from those who have to carry the extra workload and the men who do not get the extra time off), but an additional 36 days for each woman each year would come at a considerable cost to businesses.

Even though there are not studies out there showing the effects of menstrual leave specifically, we can still take a look on how labor laws for fringe benefits have an adverse effect. To quote a 2013 study from the Social Security Administration, "most labor economists believe that in the long run, much or all of the burden of labor costs for fringe benefits falls on workers." Italian economist Daniella Piazzalunga is worried that a menstrual law would exacerbate the wage gap in Italy. Forbes made a similar argument back in 2014 about the effects of menstrual leave on women's wages. This does not even get into enforcement issues, such as proving that a woman has not reached menopause, is not using an IUD, or proving that the pain is bad enough where a woman needs to take off.

Women in Italy already have an uphill battle. Although it is illegal, one in four pregnant women in Italy are let go as a result of becoming pregnant. Only 61 percent of Italian women work, which is below the 72 percent average for OECD countries. If you want more women in the Italian workforce, this would not be effective. Italy is dealing with anemic GDP growth and an unemployment rate that is above the European Union average.

This legislation would not just deliver a blow to the Italian economy. It would cramp women's opportunity to advance in their careers. Companies should be able to come up with gender-neutral sick policies without having to pry into a woman's personal affairs. Removing the taboo behind menstruation would also be nice, but menstrual leave is not the way to go.

Monday, March 27, 2017

World Happiness Report: A Dubious, Subjective Attempt to Define Happiness

Last Monday was International Happiness Day. Part of that Day was the release of the 2017 World Happiness Report. The report contains multiple measures of collective and social welfare from 155 countries. The report caught some peoples' eyes for a couple reasons. One is that the top five happiest countries are Norway, Denmark, Finland, Switzerland, and Finland. The other is that when the report started five years ago, the United States was ranked tenth. This year, the United States dropped down to being fourteenth. Some took the findings at face value and thought it was sad that the United States is a less happy nation. Rather than accept the findings unquestionably, I have to ask an even more fundamental question: What is happiness?

The World Happiness Report uses survey work to ask 1,000 individuals from each country how happy they feel on a scale from 1 to 10. The report bases its definition of wellbeing on three main factors (p. 10):



The report uses certain variables to explain the rankings in happiness, including GDP per capita in purchasing power parity (PPP) adjusted dollars, life expectancy, social support, generosity in terms of giving to charity, freedom to make life choices, and confidence that the government is not corrupt (p. 17). In Chapter 7 of the report ("Restoring American Happiness"), Left-leaning economist Jeffrey Sachs writes about how we need to focus less on economic growth, and more on growing income inequality and rising distrust and corruption (p. 179).

While I admire an effort to measure happiness, it is difficult to take such findings seriously or at face value because of the subjective nature of happiness. For one, happiness varies person by person. Happiness can mean a good job, lots of money, a steady family, a strong social network, a religious calling, or many other things. The definition does not vary simply by individual, but also by country. Is happiness having a roof over your head? Living a long time? For those living in an authoritarian regime, it could simply mean surviving or being in a well-off enough of a position where the government really doesn't bother you. In the developed world, it could mean having your needs provided for, but it could also have the added goal of pursuing something greater than oneself.

Happiness economics suffers both from empirically defining happiness and inherent limitations in measuring such happiness. Happiness is a multifaceted, complex issue stemming from biological, cultural, historical and sociological underpinnings, which makes happiness less of an empirical pursuit and more realizing that the definition is a changing, moving target that varies from person-to-person and by country. Given the nature of happiness, it will remain an elusive and speculative affair, which is why all is said and done, I would hardly give the World Happiness Report, especially in terms of dictating public policy implications.