Friday, July 31, 2015

Parsha Vaetchanan: The Letter of the Law and Going Beyond It

Ethics can be a tricky area of life to navigate. When discussing ethics, we don't ask ourselves what we can do, but rather what we should do. This week's Torah portion gets at the heart of defining Jewish ethics:

ועשית הישר והטוב בעיני הי.
-You shall do that which is right and good in the sight of G-d. -Deuteronomy 6:18

The verse doesn't provide any additional insight to what that should mean. It's more of an ethical declaration that leaves more to be desired. How do we determine what is right and good? What does this verse even mean?

One can view it as a continuation of Deuteronomy 6:17, which says that one should observe the commandments. With this interpretation, Deuteronomy 6:18 is a theological clarification of the previous.

For Rashi, the verse means that we should go beyond the letter of the law, particularly with compromising with an opponent [in a court of law]. For Rashi, Deuteronomy was not a clarification of the previous verse, but rather a new category of behavior. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 16b) seems to support Rashi's argument in that it says that the word ישר means having the obligation to do something correct, even though not obligatory. 

If they are indeed two different categories of "the letter of the law" and "beyond the letter of the law," G-d should have just told us to go beyond the letter of the law since that is what He ultimately wants from us. However, G-d gives us both. I think G-d did so for two reasons. The first is that without explicit commandments, we would not have a baseline for proper behavior. This would result in moral relativism and decay. Plus, Judaism is very much about the practical, and needs concrete examples to help guide a proper way of life. This leads into my second reason. Legal minima provide us with a clear line, whereas going beyond that puts us on a different playing field. As Ramban says, there are so many examples that the Torah could not list all the examples in our interpersonal lives in which we can implement the concept. It is why "do right and good in the eyes of G-d" is presented in such general terms.

My third reason is that G-d wants us to do better. G-d wants us to be the best people that we can be. In order to improve, we need to accept ourselves as we currently are and go from there. We cannot view ourselves in abstraction or in ideal form. There are going to be certain mitzvahs in which we excel, and certain mitzvahs in which we can improve. While we are supposed to aim high, there are times in which all we can do is the minimum, and even that minimum can be a challenge at times. By creating both categories, G-d provides us with both categories as a more personalized and realistic framework for improving upon ourselves and bringing holiness in every aspect of our lives. In Bava Metzia 30b, the Rabbis said that Jerusalem was destroyed because we only observed the letter of the law. The Rizhiner Rebbe said there was a fifth book of the Shulchan Aruch. While there technically is not such publication, the Rizhiner Rebbe nevertheless said that there is: it's called being a mensch, which is what it means to "do right and good in G-d's eyes." Especially right after Tisha B'Av, let this be an inspiration to not only follow the mitzvahs, but to go beyond the letter of the law and embody the spirit of the law in everything we do.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Americans with Disabilities Act at 25

A couple of days ago was the 25th anniversary of the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA is a wide-ranged law that is hailed as the one of the most comprehensive civil rights bills that "prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunity as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life: to enjoy employment opportunities, to purchase goods and services, and to participate in State and local government programs and services." The good intentions of the law are certainly there. Individuals that are disabled are generally a vulnerable and economically disadvantaged demographic within society. Disabled individuals are people too, and as such, should be afforded a shot at the American dream. Any decent human being would feel sympathy towards these individuals and the obstacles they face. However, if one is going to pontificate about the importance about helping disabled individuals, then we need to get past the argumentum ad misercordiam that is all too commonly used to advocate for the ADA and ask ourselves a brutally honest question: Has the ADA actually helped disabled individuals participate in the mainstream of American life?

83 percent of Americans approve of the ADA, which is something the ADA has going for it. It most probably means that the ADA isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Popularity of a bill is nothing more than using a logical fallacy of argumentum ad populum. What about those who directly benefit from the bill?

For the 20th anniversary of the ADA, the National Organization on Disability conducted a survey of disabled individuals. Amongst the findings was that even though there was improvement on educational attainment and political participation, disabled individuals lagged behind [relative to non-disabled individuals] in employment, household income, access to transportation, health care, going to restaurants, and satisfaction with life.

Employment rates are actually an important metric for measuring the ADA's success since one of its main goals is to enjoy employment opportunities. The current employment-population ratio for disabled individuals is 16.7 percent (Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS]). Compare this to the non-disabled population, whose employment-population ratio is 64.4 percent (BLS). Also, the median annual earnings for a disabled individual is 68 percent of non-disabled individuals. Disabled individuals also have an unemployment rate about twice as high as non-disabled individuals, as well as being twice as likely to work part-time (BLS). If you want a more temporal viewpoint, we can look at Census data for 1990, 2000, and 2010 (as well as BLS data from 2008-2013) to compare disabled individuals to non-disabled individuals.

The painful fact is that since the enactment of the ADA, the employment rate (as well as the median income household) for disabled individuals has actually decreased (DeLeire, 2000; Acemogulu and Angrist, 1998), even when you account for cyclical events (e.g., recessions). The ADA seems to have negative effects on the retail sector specifically (Prieger, 2004). Even if you want to argue that the ADA did not cause the decrease employment amongst the disabled (e.g., Jolls and Prescott, 2004), although I have already highlighted studies pointing to an underlying causal link, it is certainly true that the ADA did not increase employment amongst the disabled, which was one of the major goals of the ADA.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights points out that it might not even be the ADA but rather the increase of enrollees in Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). I have taken a look at SSDI. While I don't have any doubts that SSDI plays a role in decreasing employment opportunities for disabled individuals, the ADA still played a vital role in this unemployment decrease (Acemogulu and Angrist, ibid.). Whether it results in higher wages for disabled individuals is more ambiguous. Some argue that it improved wages (Thompkins, 2011), whereas others argue that it caused a decrease in wages (Beegle and Stock, 2003). While the Tompkins study points out that the ADA did more for educational attainment for those who had a high school degree or less, it also concludes that the ADA did not improve the wages of disabled individuals relative to non-disabled individuals (Thompkins, p. 28).

There are some factors that go into the inefficacy of the ADA. One is the broad definition of "disabled." Under the ADA [§12102(1)(A)], a disability is defined as a "physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual." Courts have already ruled that back and knee strains, headaches, and erectile dysfunction, along with other minor impairments, are covered under the ADA. By covering minor impairments under the ADA, the ADA insults those who deal with real disabilities, and undermines its prime directive.

While we're on the discussion of vague wording, what about the definition of "reasonable accommodation" [§12111.(9)]? Here is a list of some "reasonable accommodations" under the law: time off, a modified workspace or restroom, a sign language interpreter, materials in Braille, you get the idea. If the accommodation cannot be made and the individual absolutely cannot perform their duties, they have to be reassigned to a more amenable task. Even while some of the accommodations are 100 percent legitimate, can you see how, maybe, just maybe, this can become burdensome for an employer, especially if it is a smaller business? If you don't accommodate, then there is a matter of litigation. Let's take a look at government statistics from the EEOC on ADA litigation. $95.6 million in monetary benefits during 2014, and to think that doesn't even touch upon the legal fees! Over 25 thousand ADA charges in 2014. This is not an issue with just the ADA, but one of the issues I have with anti-discrimination laws in general. Advocates talk about creating a system that helps the individuals, but the mechanisms actually create disincentives to hire those the law was intended to help. The ADA imposes higher accommodation costs than a firm would voluntarily incur. It is simply easier for firms to avoid hiring disabled individuals. Why should we keep a bill that does nothing to employ disabled individuals?

I also have philosophical qualms with the ADA, aside from taking a swing at liberty by using the force and coercion of government to dictate how a employer should control their own workplace. It doesn't exactly cultivate goodwill, but I digress. Do we see ourselves as more incapable of helping ourselves now that the government has provided such a broad definition of who is disabled? The Onion actually did a good parody back in 1998 illustrating this very point. We all have problems, and the vast majority of us are going to deal with an impairment in the workplace at some point. Yes, some impairments are worse than others and should have more due consideration. However, the pendulum has swung the other way.

But let's say that you're completely indifferent to property rights, and that you believe that the ends justify the means. Which ends are we talking about, the fact that wages of disabled individuals have not improved relative to non-disabled individuals or that the employment rate for disabled individuals has not improved since the ADA's enactment? This is not to say that the ADA has not made a positive difference for certain individuals, but the ADA is another example of the law of unintended consequences. Labor laws have this uncanny tendency to disincentivize the opposite of what it was intended to do, which in this case is hire more disabled individuals. Irony of ironies, the ADA actually encourages discrimination!

In spite of what the Center for American Progress might think, more government is not the answer here. More of the same is only going to dig a deeper hole. As this NPR article points out, there are so many more obstacles for disabled individuals to overcome that the ADA has not been able to address. Issues for disabled individuals go beyond the workplace, and include better health care, transit, education for disabled individuals to acquire marketable skills, and educating those in society (especially employers) about disabilities so we can create both a more amicable social climate in which employers feel comfortable hiring disabled individuals instead of worrying about onerous regulations. Creating a more accepting social milieu without the onslaught of government regulations will create a better life not just for disabled individuals, but society as a whole.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Some Tisha B'Av Thoughts on Building a Third Temple

Tisha B'Av is not the most relatable holiday out there for me on the Jewish calendar. We culminate the sadness of the Jewish people, and practically self-induce sadness. We remember a litany of national calamities that befell the Jewish people, most notably the loss of the First and Second temples. There are some who are so devastated by the loss of the Second Temple that they want to take their fervor and build a Third Temple. I don't share that enthusiasm, certainly not enough to hop a plane to Israel and pick up a shovel, hammer, or any other tool.

Part of my lack of enthusiasm is that a Third Temple would mean a return to a sacrificial system as a mode of worship. Sacrifices are a foreign concept of worship to me, as they are for so many modern Jews. The sacrificial system is an outdated, insipid concept. There are enough times in the Hebrew Scriptures where G-d admonishes the Jewish people because they have conflated the means (e.g., sacrifices) with the ends (i.e., becoming closer to G-d). If the sacrificial system were so wonderful, how come it was limited to one place and had other limitations? If sacrificing animals were so essential to Jewish practice, not only would G-d not have placed limits on sacrifices in the first place, but we would still be sacrificing animals. Notice how sacrificing animals is not a form of worship in a synagogue. Plus, Judaism would not have survived if Jews did not learn to adapt to the political reality of losing the land of Israel to foreign powers. 

Rabbi Nathan Cardozo summarizes many of my thoughts up quite well in a recent article he wrote:

The Temple service is not the ultimate form of worship that Judaism dreams about; it is only the beginning, a foretaste of what still needs to come. Its purpose is to function, though metaphoric rites, as a medium through which people are stimulated to take their first steps toward an inner transformation....It is not the culmination that needs to be achieved, but its sincere commencement....Whether or not the Temple will be rebuilt is not our concern, nor is it our dream. It is of little importance. What we dream of is the day when we will be able to transform ourselves and reconstruct the Temple's message within our hearts."

The loss of the Temple was so unfortunate not only because the Jewish people lost a sense of spiritual centrality, but also a form of worship that meant something to them. It is about dealing with loss and how to be consoled through the coping of that loss. We have all dealt with loss at some point, which is why the holiday is relatable on some level. It's still hard to relate because we have a Jewish state we can visit Jerusalem (I have!). We have seen that Judaism can be meaningful without a sacrificial system. I take Tisha B'Av as a time to reflect on loss and the effects it can have on us. I take it as a time to look back, not only on my life, but also the life of the Jewish people. Even with the sorrow entailed in the Tisha B'Av services and the rituals, that is not supposed to be the end-result.

Maimonides brings up an interesting point in Mishneh Torah (Ta'aniyot, Ch. 4, Pt. 1) about the purpose of such fasting. It is supposed to arouse us to repent, which is what R. Cardozo is saying. Yes, we take some time to look back, but we also take it as a time to pick ourselves up to move forward. If Jewish tradition teaches that we have not had a Temple for so long because of baseless hatred towards one's fellow [Jew], then I think repenting to inculcate a greater sense of Jewish unity, much like existed during the time of the Temple, is a good place to start. I think it's more mournful to see the inner bickering, the back-biting, and the downright malicious attacks on fellow Jews than I do a building. If the Temple is supposed to be a culmination of the spiritual values and ideals Jews are supposed to hold dear, then let's open ourselves to enough ahavat Yisrael and respect for other Jews, in spite of our differences. Since the Jews have not been able to develop that sort of unity for two millennia, it doesn't surprise me that a Third Temple has not been built. Until Jews can repent to a level of feeling a relatively boundless love, I don't see the point of mourning the loss of a building. Let's talk about treating other Jews with decency first. Then we can talk about a Third Temple.  

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Should We Be Going Nuclear Over the Iran Deal?

About two years in the making and the deal with Iran has finally been struck (see full text here). I have heard opinions varying from "awesome deal" to "it's the end of the world as we know it," and everything in between. Iran has called for Israel's destruction, so I understandably would be worried if the Iran deal actually hastens Iran's nuclear capabilities. Short of developing clairvoyance, how big of a deal should we make out of it? Have we empowered Iran to build a nuclear bomb? Have we prevented any possibility of Iran gaining the ability to create nuclear weapons?

Before answering those questions, let's make one thing clear: deal or no deal, the Iranian government will still hate on the United States, Israel, and its Sunni neighbors. For me, it's annoying enough when there is an individual who intentionally and utterly shows disregards for others. It's even worse when it's a nation-state not only because of the magnitude, but also because of the lack of a decisive arbitrator. Short of a regime change, there is not much one can do to change the fact that Iran is going to continue with its lunacy. Diplomacy was a tool created to deal with these sort of schmucks. Diplomacy wasn't created so everyone loved each other; it exists to avoid military conflict. War is messy and costly, which is why it is preferable to try diplomatic solutions first. There is the question of whether the diplomatic solution in this case was adequate. At the end of the day, this deal could have one of three basic outcomes: hasten Iran's nuclear aspirations, reduce the possibility of Iran acquiring a nuclear bomb, or the deal will do nothing of value. What are the arguments for each?

"This is a good deal." The Iran deal reduces the number of Iranian centrifuges from 20,000 to 6,000. That is nowhere enough centrifuges for Iran to construct its own nuclear bomb. The amount of uranium it can have went from 10,000 kg to 300. Inspectors will be monitoring the only two mines where Iran can acquire uranium and the mills where it is processed. Blocking arms inspectors is a bad  idea. Saddam Hussein tried that in 1998 and was bombed shortly thereafter. Arms control and nuclear proliferation experts seem to find the nonproliferation aspects of the deal to be most redeeming. You also provide humanitarian relief to the citizens of Iran because the economic sanctions are lifted. The CIA predicts that the money that Iran would gain from the removal of sanctions would most probably fund the domestic economy. Given the reality of the Iranian government's policies and its domestic politics, this very well could have been the best deal possible.

"This is a bad deal." We could have gotten so much more out of this deal. The nuclear program was not in any way dismantled. If the IAEA inspectors come along, the Iranian government gets a 24-day notice, which will only encourage bad behavior. "Anytime, anywhere" inspections would have been preferable. Iran's defense minister is saying that Iran's military sites are off limits, which means that Iran could simply hide their nuclear weapons there. The deal also doesn't address Iran's ballistic missiles. Plus, if the West were looking to reinstate the sanctions, there is a lengthy review process. What kind of deal is that? The Western world could have upped sanctions or assisted proxy opponents in a Cold War-like "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" fashion. We just handed Iran economic relief so it can fund its terrorist activities throughout the Middle East, and it didn't have to provide anything tangible. Plus, if Iran's neighbors feel threatened, they might build up their nuclear capabilities or even strike Iran.

"Nothing is going to change in the grand scheme." There is a case for "more of the same." As a senior fellow from Brookings Institution pointed out, "Iran's regional troublemaking is likely to worsen, regardless of a deal." It was going to get worse whether we wanted it to or not. What's going on is neorealist balance of power realpolitik: Iran wants to assert regional power and hegemony. To keep balance of power, other nation-states are going to trust Iran about as far as they can throw Iran. People have enough of an incentive to keep Iran in check. Plus, if the Western world is that insulted, the powers that be can always reinstate the sanctions, or even double down. Iran has hidden entire nuclear facilities before, and unless we have a highly thorough inspection regime constantly monitoring Iran, that part isn't going to change. Iran has circumvented IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspectors, and it can do so again. Lifting sanctions and "normalizing" economic commerce with Iran is going to take time, which gives both sides to strategize and reconfigure its next move.

Iran has also developed the indigenous capacity to produce nuclear weapons, and a "tough on Iran" stance short of decimation is not going to alter that reality. Even if Iran does actually test a bomb (good luck hiding that!) and develops a second bomb for use, do you think that breakout capacity is going to matter? Deal or no deal, one would still have to take further measures to destabilize Iranian meddling in the Middle East. People have been clamoring about Iran as an imminent threat since 1979. To quote the Cato Institute's summary of the deal: "It [The real dilemma of "deal or no deal"] was between a nasty but weak regional power with little power-projection capability, closer or further away from a nuclear weapons capability," not between war and peace.

Postscript: At the end of the day, how you feel about the Obama administration, foreign interventionism, the effectiveness about the international inspectors from IAEA, or Iran will most probably shape the version that you are likely to accept. The funny thing is that all of these arguments have kernels of truth, and I'm sure the Iranian government's opaque decision-making process does not make it any easier to discern which version is most correct. Regardless of which version seems most fitting to the reality of the situation, let's not forget that Iran is a corrupt, theocratic, kleptocratic mess (see IMF reportTransparency InternationalEconomic Freedom IndexFreedom House). No deal is going to fix that, and no deal is going to make things in the Middle East all better. I still think trying to make a deal was better than going to war, even if the deal has flaws. Plus, it is still not over: Not only has the Iranian government not formally accepted the deal, but it still needs congressional approval and the IAEA. It will be interesting to see how it plays out, but in the meantime, we sit back and watch people continue to debate the details of the Iran deal.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Is Polygamy the "New Gay Marriage" In the Fight for Marriage Equality?

June 26, 2015 was a major victory for the gay rights movement as same-sex marriage was legalized in all fifty states via Obergefell v. Hodges. While issues of LGBT discrimination and social stigma still need to be addressed in American society, a large step in the right direction was taken. The debate that has been triggered as a result is whether polygamous marriage should also become illegal. On a worldwide level, polygyny (a man being able to marry more than one wife) is legal in the Middle East (except for Israel), most of Africa, and some other countries in Asia. Can an argument of marriage equality make polygamy a legal reality in the United States?

A little bit of legal background first. Polygamy was practiced in the mid-nineteenth century by those of the Mormon faith. In 1879, the Supreme Court delivered the opinion in Reynolds v. United States that polygamy is illegal in the United States. In 1890, the Mormon church removed polygamy from its doctrine, and to this day, The Latter Day Saints' official position is that marriage is between one man and one woman. There are still some fundamentalist Mormons that practice polygamy: anywhere between a few hundred and 10,000 individuals by the state of Utah's estimation. There are even some Muslims in this country who also practice polygyny. The number of those who are presently in polygamous relations is very small relative to the overall population.

There is more than the legal status quo getting in the way. Even with the progress being made on LGBT rights, polygamy is still seen as morally acceptable by only 16 percent of the population. It was in single-digit territory over a decade ago, but still has a long way to go before reaching a level of acceptability in the United States. I would argue that since polygamy has strong ties to religious fundamentalists, there will be many who will attach guilt by association. While there might be a lot of parallels by allowing for consenting adults to enter a polygamous marriage, polygamy is not a sexual orientation.

Another factor that it is not in favor of polygamists is that most people don't know polygamists. With the fight for same-sex marriage (which we can now simply refer to as marriage), it was easier to win the minds and hearts of Americans because you would be hard pressed to not find at least one family member, friend, co-worker, or colleague who is gay. As already mentioned, polygamists tend to be isolated, religious fundamentalists, which makes it harder for individuals to sympathize with polygamists. It is also much easier to sympathize with the idea of "I want to make a full commitment to the person whom I love" than "my needs are not fulfilled with just one person." Without a large-scale social movement, legalizing polygamous becomes nigh impossible.

There are also legal complications that do not exist with same-sex, monogamous marriage: the tax code, benefits structure, divorce and child custody. These would be all the more ambiguous and complicated as a result of legalizing polygamy. Granted, it would be less complicated if the government didn't offer such benefits (an argument that doesn't work as well with adjudicating divorce and child custody). However, we live in a world in which the government feels the need to provide benefits, so until the government reverses that trend, polygamy becomes more complicated for tax and regulatory purposes. Another legal snag that polygamy proponents would hit is rational-basis review. The reason why same-sex marriage was able to gain legal traction is because same-sex marriage opponents could not surpass this very low bar and explain why same-sex marriage would harm others. As I will now illustrate, polygamy proponents do not have that luxury.

The problem with polygamy being around for so long is that it has been tried and tested, only to prove that it is statistically more likely to fail than monogamy. Even the Bible illustrates how problematic polygamy can be! Amongst other ill effects, polygamy increases violence and poverty (Henrich, 2012), increases the risk of heart attacks by fourfold, causes overbreeding (Mbirimtengerenji, 2007), stymies academic growth of children (Adenike, 2013), and is more likely to cause mental health issues (Al-Krenawi, 2013).  Opponents also argue that polygamy skews sex ratios. India and China are going to be running into their own sex-ratio issues down the road, so we shouldn't ignore disproportionate sex ratios. However, how concerned should we be about skewed sex ratios in the United States? For one, informal polygamous relations take individuals out of the dating pool, as well. As has been previously mentioned, some will enter polygamous relations regardless of the the de jure ban. What should be of concern is bringing it out of the margins of society so it's easier to determine such abuses as secretive, non-consensual multiple-marriage situations.

Jealousy, which shows up in polygamous relations via intra-sexual competition, plays a major role in why polygamous relations are more likely to turn out poorly than monogamous ones (Jankowiak et al., 2005). To quote a Slate article referring to why polygamy was as normative as it was: "Women shared men because they had to. The alternative was poverty. As women gained power, they began to choose what they really wanted. And what they wanted was the same fidelity that men expected from them." Two is not an optimal number in marriage strictly for abating jealousy. It is also an optimal number since polygamy has this tendency to fracture paternal investment in children.

Conversely, let's consider that marriage itself is on the decline. People have a hard enough time finding one person, so a fortiori, people would have an even harder time finding multiple spouses. To put this idea in more economic terms, the marriage market is like any other market. Legalizing polygamy would shift out the demand curve for spouse (most presumedly wives). An increase of demand without an increase of supply means that it is more expensive to find multiple spouses. Without [a man] offering something of higher value, the odds that a woman would enter a polygamous relationship is low. Another point to consider is that over the past century, marriage has become more about consumption compatibility (i.e., marrying someone because you get along, not because of the outdated notions that the "husband is the breadwinner" or "the wife has to stay at home"). Polygamy is most likely to rise when the supply of women exceeds the demand. Given that marriage has become an institution more based on consumption compatibility, supply will most probably not exceed demand. Between the economics and overall decline of the institution of marriage, I wouldn't worry about polygamy becoming prevalent even if it were legalized.

Postscript: While allowing for consenting adults to enter a voluntary, polygamous transaction has some parallels to the fight for same-sex couples in marriage equality, there are enough dissimilarities where polygamy is not gaining any traction in the foreseeable future. None of the modern, egalitarian societies have a broad social movement legalizing polygamy, which should put opponents' minds at ease. As for whether it should be legalized, polygamy could be banned based on a rational-basis review, which is something that same-sex marriage could not. Polygamy has adverse effects both on those involved in the marriage and society as a whole. On the other hand, we live in a country that was based on the idea of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

For instance, I think that if people are going to have children, they should get married first because statistically speaking, it's more difficult otherwise. Just because I disagree with someone's life choice does not mean I should get in the way of what stupidity consenting adults put each other through. Statistically speaking, having children before being married is a bad idea, and so is polygamy. At the end of the academic debating, I would say that people should be allowed to make whatever misguided decisions they want to make, even if that means entering a polygamous relationship. Even if it were legalized today, I would not be worried because, as already illustrated, I cannot foresee how polygamy would become prevalent.

Whatever the outcome might be, one thing I can assuredly say is that polygamy is not the new fight for marriage equality.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Are Unpaid Internships Really That Problematic?

Summertime is that part of the year where college students try to figure out what to do with that interim period of time. Some work at a menial job unrelated to their field just to scrape enough money to pay off some of their college debt. Others travel abroad or lay about for three months doing nothing. Then there are those who take on an internship to put that experience on their résumé. It's not as receiving on-the-job training in exchange for labor is a new concept. Back then, they were referred to as apprenticeships. Granted, unpaid internships differ in the sense that a) they're more exploratory than apprenticeships, b) they are more for white-collar jobs, and c) they don't guarantee a job like an apprenticeship did, but the general idea is still there: unpaid internships are a way that one can advance their career.

I was reading an article from the centrist Brookings Institution responding to a Second Circuit Court ruling that stated that as long as the intern derived more benefit from the internship than the employer (not sure how you would objectively measure that), unpaid internships are legal. The author from Brookings Institution went as far as calling unpaid internships a form of opportunity hoarding. They are not the only ones who have an issue with unpaid internships. The Center for Economic and Policy Research points out that not only is the internship a costly endeavor, but the vagueness and lax enforcement of the unpaid intern law creates a "race to the bottom" in which businesses can hire entry-level workers for no pay if they are desperate enough for the experience. The Economic Policy Institute thinks that unpaid internships are the "scourge of the labor market." The Roosevelt Institute believes we should create a modern-day jobs corps to deal with the unemployment issue. If unpaid internships are so awful, then why don't we ban them?

I think it would be prudent to delve into what sort of impact unpaid internships have on the labor market. Internships are an investment in one's human capital. Work experience is important. It is how we move up the ladder in our professional development. According to a survey (that consisted of hiring managers and executives), internships are the most important factor that hiring managers consider, followed by employment during college. Interestingly enough, a group of economists sent out 9,400 fake résumés to employers, about half in the business field and about half to nonbusiness employees (Nunley et. al, 2014). The main finding was that the internship experience played a much larger role in career development than the college degree.

Now to introduce some paradoxical data: According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) 2014 student survey, paid interns were more likely to get a job than an unpaid intern (p. 40). That argument would work if all internships were created equal. Alas, they are not. Those who had unpaid internships disproportionately went into the non-profit sector, whereas those with paid internships were primarily in the private sector. According to that same NACE student survey, 63 percent of all unpaid internships are in the non-profit and government sectors (p. 40).

Not all markets are created equal, and some will pay better than others. If making money matters so much, this is why a college student should do research about their field prior to entering it. If the supply of labor exceeds the demand of labor (i.e., there are not enough jobs in the field for everyone who wants one), then it is easier for the industry standard to adopt unpaid internships. However, the fact that more college students are interested in non-profit or government sectors indicates that there might be more important things than money, such as work experience or a more meaningful career path.

Even if we want to assume that the NACE survey concludes that unpaid internships are bad or unnecessary (which it doesn't because it says "that internships are positively correlated with an improved chance of getting a job is virtually indisputable at this point" [p. 39]), let's not forget that it is still a voluntary arrangement. As another point of order, interns are untrained and often times temporary. From the employer's standpoint, interns are a liability. Nevertheless, they are willing to take them on at a low cost because there is [typically] some benefit derived from interns, not to mention that it is an opportunity to identify and hire new talent. The internship experience works for employers only because the cost of labor is so low.

Labor laws should be deregulated, not augmented even further. High levels of regulation are what got us here in the first place, and created that unintended consequence of making it more difficult for young people to advance their careers. We should really try to avoid European levels of youth unemployment. Labor law should stop requiring college credit for internships, for one. Having the Department of Labor require that interns "do not displace regular employees" or the employer "derives no immediate advantage" makes it more difficult for the intern to acquire meaningful experience (which could explain why interns often do menial tasks), so removing some or all of these internship criteria could do some good. Minimum wage laws (see here and here) also create this unintended consequence of reduced employment, so how about creating a minimum wage exemption (possibly with an added tax exemption) for internships so that it is more manageable for lower-income college students to take on an internship? While it might be easy to select certain egregious cases of employer abuse of interns (and while few in number, they do exist), internships are still first and foremost a way to gain work experience and network, as well as testing the waters to help make sure you actually enjoy that field before formally beginning a career in it. We can also create an apprenticeship program that would prepare students for work in all kinds of fields.

Not everyone has the luxury of acquiring a paid internship. After all, an employer only has so many resources before having to cut staff or raising prices. Sometimes, an unpaid internship in which one earns less is the best option one has. By banning or further constricting unpaid internships, it only becomes more difficult for young adults to pursue their ambitions.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

"Buy Local" Is an Idiocy of Global Proportions

People like to feel that they are making a positive difference in the world, even with their wallets. Conscientious consumerism entails buying goods that have positive ethical implications, such as what people mistakingly think of fair trade or organic products. Feelings of conscientious, ethical consumerism also surround the topic of local purchasing, which is more colloquially known as "buying local." For those who argue for buying locally, they'll mention that it's more environmentally sustainable because the products travel less miles. They'll use language like "buy from your neighbor" or "strengthen the community." You're buying from the "little guy" instead of an "evil corporation." It sounds quaint and homey to "buy local," but does it really work that way?

"Buy local" is unrealistic. If you are looking to buy products that are 100 percent local, then you're aiming for a nigh impossible goal. We live in such a global economy that any product or service you buy has benefited from non-local resources at some point during the supply chain. Local economies decidedly rely on non-local flow of money to keep local economies going. If you want to "buy local," be ready to return your computer, phone, clothes, and just about everything else you currently own from where you purchased it because they have been created with resources not in your locale. None of this considers that a franchise store can still be owned by a local entrepreneur. Does that not make the store "local" anymore? More to the point, what does "local" even mean? Does that refer to one's city? County? State? Country? If we want to take "buy local" to its logical conclusion, why don't we just apply it to our own family or household?

Free trade is better. How is a good intrinsically and objectively superior simply because it was 100 percent produced in your city?  What does geographic proximity have to do with the quality of a good?  Plus, could you imagine confining economic commerce to your city? I couldn't. There is no one city that can produce all goods. That is the beauty of free trade. Much like I brought up when I wrote about outsourcing, using comparative advantage, economies of scale, and specialization of labor provides us with a wider variety of goods and services while making sure we can get the best quality possible because we are using every resource possible. For much of human history, we "bought local." Because of channeling comparative advantage and specialization of labor, nothing has historically spurred economic growth or reduced global poverty more than free trade has. Think of the flow of goods, services, and ideas that we have access to as a result of free trade: coffee, spices, automobiles, phones, the list goes on. By allowing for freedom of trade, we have expanded our knowledge, tastes, product selection, and consumer preferences. We have improved upon the consumer experience as a result. Free trade is truly a mechanism for progress. It's no surprise that economists generally agree that free trade is good for the economy.

"Buy local" is inefficient. If free trade is the most efficient allocation of resources, then confining trade to one's locale is inefficient. It cannot be considered better for the environment since production accounts for the vast majority of the energy spent on food, not transportation. If we're talking about buying our food locally, specialization and trade matter even more because of endowment factors in certain regions. This is important because certain regions are more prime for agricultural production, which means more efficient usage of energy and resources. Additionally, if we don't allocate resources efficiently, food scarcities would cause food prices to rise, which would cause nutrition problems. If you want more examples of how people typically buy goods or services because they are of good value, not because they're "local," I can provide those. Try "buying locally" if you're trying to fight off a rare disease. Odds are you would want to find the most trained specialist you can afford so you can find a cure. How about college? Unless you happen to live in a city that has a low-cost, high-quality college in your field, you are most probably going to look at colleges in other parts of the country.

Postscript: Local markets play a role in the greater economy. After all, any corporation, enterprise, or business is going to be local for somebody. While it's possible that you can find good quality in your proximity, you shouldn't be cajoled or swayed by guilt or some false sense of community if you look for something better. "Buy local" is just a scaled-down version of protectionism, and we can't let our sentiments allow us to play favorites simply because of geographical proximity. "Buying local" is a facile way of thinking of the macroeconomic environment in which markets exist. If you want to "buy local" because you want to support your local business or you think their product is the best in the business, that's fine. Whether you ultimately decide to buy locally or globally, far be it from me to interfere in your voluntary economic transaction. However, if you think that your dollars are making a real difference in helping the economy or the environment, you might want to reconsider your consumption patterns to something more impactful.

For a good synopsis on the issue, please watch the video below. 

Monday, July 6, 2015

Obama's Overtime Pay Edict Is Over the Top

The Obama administration is patting itself on the back once again, this time for extending overtime pay. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) guarantees, amongst other things, that most employees are paid time-and-a-half for overtime if they work an excess of 40 hours a week. Anyone who makes above the threshold is not guaranteed overtime under the FLSA. Under current law, there is a salary threshold of $23,660, which means that anyone who makes more than that is not guaranteed overtime. Raising the threshold to $50,400 would provide more workers with overtime protections, which is why the Department of Labor (DoL) is calling the new proposed law a "fair day's pay for fair day's work." The DoL claims the bill can affect up to five million workers and increase the take-home pay for the middle class, which is good for middle class workers because of what the Left-leaning Economic Policy Institute (EPI) calls stagnant wages. The EPI would also point out that increasing overtime pay would mitigate "wage theft." Passing legislation with the intent to help workers earn more sounds great, but much like with minimum wage and other labor laws, I have to ask myself whether such intervention is as simply, clear-cut, or pristine as proponents make it out to be.

The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) came out with a press release in response, in which it called this proposal a 1930s-era regulation that has caused the "demolition of five million Americans." For the NAM, this proposal is a "another [regulation] in a long list of regulatory roadblocks to healthy and robust economic growth and job creation." The National Retail Federation  (NRF) also does not like the proposal, saying that this proposal will "add to employers' costs, undermine customer service, hinder productivity, generate more litigation opportunities for trial lawyers and ultimately harm job creation." These blunt, damning statements seem to cover the issues of expanded overtime well enough, but I still feel like elucidating a bit more.

Let's start with some research on the topic. The NRF study, based off of findings from economic forecasting firm Oxford Economics, found that it could cost employers up to $874 million in additional costs, not to mention additional compliance burdens. The American Action Forum found that it would only impact 3 million workers, 69 percent of whom are making household income three times above the federal poverty line. Another unintended consequence I didn't initially think of is how it would make flexible scheduling more difficult because flex time involve monitoring worked hours. The Heritage Foundation also provides a good list of empirical research that shows the adverse effects of mandate overtime pay.

While it might seem noble to want to help the working middle class, proponents might not want to celebrate quite yet. Why? They will have to run into the reality that if you make hiring a class of workers more expensive, the employer will try to do something to adjust for that loss in profits. How can the employer possibly respond to this overtime mandate?

One way is to cut base wages of current employees [or reduce the base wage when hiring someone] in order to offset the higher costs of overtime. One study shows that many employers opted for that change when the 2004 overtime regulation changes took place (Barkume, 2010). Another option is to cut work hours while hiring new workers who will work less hours (thereby creating more part-time workers), which is what happened when the FLSA was initially implemented (Costa, 1998). Even the EPI conceded this point back in 2014. For those who make a salary at the upper end of the threshold, boosting the wage just above the threshold is another way of avoiding overtime. Depending on the level of automation of the job, the employer might find a way to find a robot or automated machine to do the work. Passing on the cost to the customer is a possibility. Simply bearing the brunt of the cost of overtime pay is also a possibility, but given how profit plays as an important incentive in business decisions, we should not be at all surprised if or when businesses find ways to circumvent the overtime pay, much like they have in the past.

You want to confront corporations whose profits have increased while wages have reportedly stayed stagnant, this is not the way to go about it. We don't need a policy that increases the cost of hiring labor while creating little to no benefit. What America needs is a broader jobs agenda in which we encourage more job growth and economic growth, but making labor more expensive is not one of those ways.

November 14, 2016 Addendum: On December 1, the overtime laws are supposed to take effect. The Congressional Budget Office recently released a paper on what economic effects would take place if the overtime laws were cancelled prior to. The CBO found a decrease in payroll and compliance costs, as well as an increase in profit. While the salaries would somewhat decrease, real family income would increase because an increase in profit and decrease in prices would offset the salary decrease.

Friday, July 3, 2015

A Fourth of July Reflection on Libertarianism and American Patriotism

Patriotism is one of those sentiments that makes libertarians such as myself weary. Patriotism has been abused and misused for ultra-nationalistic ends, whether we look back at World War Two or see the bigotry and xenophobia ultra-Right political parties espouse. In the vast majority of cases, you won't see American patriotism go to those extremes, but at the same time, it makes me shudder how patriotism can be and is used to exploit the public into unquestionably pledging allegiance to a nation, regardless of how much it screws up. Is unwavering loyalty to a nation-state true patriotism? Can one question their nation's course of action while still maintaining a sense of patriotism? These are questions I hope to answer today.

Patriotism is one of those difficult things to define because its meaning can change from culture to culture, not to mention that those of different political ideologies view the idea of patriotism differently. Etymologically speaking, the word "patriot" comes from the Latin word patriota (fellow countryman) and the Greek word πατρίς (country). Even with the origin of the word established, the philosophical debates behind what patriotism emerge. The Cato Institute actually provides a lively debate on the topic here.

"Love for one's country" is too simple of a meaning. What exactly are we loving in the first place? The physical land? The people? The politicians? And how do we define love? People can do silly things in the name of love, much like countries can do silly things in the name of national interest. How do we show love for our country? Does flying a flag outside of your house or posting some seemingly wholehearted Facebook status count as patriotism? Does one have to go as far as serving in the military or actively participating in civic duty in order to be considered a true patriot?

I feel like I need to go back to what one is loving. I don't think it's a piece of land that one is supposed to love. At least in an American context, true patriotism is about loving the ideas upon which this country was founded. One of the things that makes the United States so atypical in terms of how nations were formed is that this country was built on an idea of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. There is a sense of rugged individualism and freedom to determine one's own destiny that was decidedly not in the framework of the European aristocracy that controlled 99.9999% of the wealth up until pre-modern times. America is about the idea of becoming your own person and pursuing your own dreams. That is why the definition of American is minimalist in comparison to other nationalities. All you have to do is either be born in the United States or go through the naturalization process. Beyond that, it is primarily your destiny to become the person you want to be. With this liberty, there are many Americas: Jewish America, black America, Hispanic America, gay America, Catholic America, hippy America, atheistic America, the America for white, heterosexual, Christian Republican males.....I can go on, but the point is that these sub-cultures exist because multiple groups can exist in tolerance and plurality. Think of America more as a tossed salad than a melting pot.

Is America perfect? Much like any other nation-state, the answer is "no" because humans are definitionally fallible. However, the fact that we strive closer and closer to an ideal, even if we never fully achieve it, is what I think makes for truer patriotism than mindlessly waving a flag, barbecuing, and wearing red, white, and blue on the Fourth of July. Samuel Johnson famously called patriotism "the last refuge of a scoundrel," but when read in context, Johnson was making a distinction between vicious and virtuous forms of patriotism.

For those who have read my blog, although it covers many topics, it serves as an ode to criticizing American public policy. Does this mean that I hate America? Absolutely not! As I already pointed out, it is still flawed because fallible human beings are in charge of governance. If you love something, you want it to grow and be the best it can be. That is at least part of the reason why my blogging criticizes America. It's because I love a country that, in spite of its flaws, offers freedom of religion unparalleled to any other country. It has a relatively free economy and provides opportunities to grow that did not exist for much history, and do not exist for most of the world. Although I might complain about American public policy, I also try to at least offer solutions to make it better. One can criticize out of love. As the American Enterprise Institute points out, 65 percent of Americans think this country is seriously on the wrong track, yet 83 percent of Americans still think this is the best country in which to live.

There's no contradiction between patriotism and criticism.  As a libertarian, I criticize both the encroachments and imperfections of the American government while simultaneously celebrating the freedoms this country has to offer. As my former professor put it, "the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution in the hopes that America would be a libertarian playground." My patriotism is not a sentiment that shuts my brain off when someone lobs the smallest of criticisms of America. I don't suffer from disillusionments simply because America needs to work on certain areas of improvement. I want to live in a land of the free. I want to see America live up to that classically liberal idea. If wanting to see my country truly become the land of free makes me a patriot, then I guess I'm a patriot.

Happy Fourth of July!