Letters

Security Studies

The Honduran ambassador to the United States responds to James Verini.

James Verini's article ("Prisoners Rule," November 2012) is an inaccurate portrayal of the security situation in Honduras. He struggles to contextualize facts related to gangs, drug trafficking, and violence in our country and fails to acknowledge the government's efforts to address these issues.

First, the author's characterization of how President Porfirio Lobo Sosa came to power is offensive to the 56.6 percent of Honduran voters who elected him in 2009. More than 4,200 domestic and international observers -- plus the other four contending political parties -- recognized the electoral process as open and fair. Contrary to Verini's unfounded allegations, Lobo and his family were long known for their generosity and goodwill toward campesinos. As president, he has made possible the transfer of some 5,000 hectares of land to the campesinos in the Bajo Aguán region.

Second, though Verini criticizes former President Ricardo Maduro's anti-gang measures as "sweeping" and "indiscriminate," the people of Honduras are grateful to Maduro for handing a safer and economically sound country to former President Manuel Zelaya in January 2006. Between 2005 and 2009, the year Zelaya left office, the murder rate increased significantly, from 35 to 77 homicides per 100,000 people.

Third, Lobo has tackled the issues of gangs and drug trafficking that he inherited from the previous government. The national Observatory of Violence in Honduras has reported that the country's murder rate declined from 86 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011 to 80 in 2012 -- a drop that occurred as a result of Lobo's efforts to strengthen law enforcement institutions, implement prevention programs, and install new leadership for the Honduran national police. Simultaneously, a blue-ribbon Commission for Public Security Reform and community involvement in neighborhoods and municipalities have increased civil society's participation in justice and security reforms.

The Lobo government's accomplishments include increased vetting of police personnel, the training of new police officers, and the reform of current police law. Over the past two years, new or modified laws have been approved against terrorism financing, asset forfeiture, and wiretapping suspected criminals. A constitutional amendment was passed last year to allow for the extradition of Honduran citizens accused of terrorism, drug trafficking, or organized crime. Judges now have national jurisdiction to hear and solve cases involving organized crime, and Congress has approved a new security tax to increase funds for the war against drugs.

What's more, Honduras and the United States recently signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate on criminal investigation and the fight against impunity, corruption, and organized crime. Both countries also instituted a bilateral working group on human rights. But none of the above is even mentioned in Verini's unbalanced article.

JORGE RAMÓN HERNÁNDEZ ALCERRO
Honduran Ambassador to the United States
Washington, D.C.


James Verini replies:

Jorge Ramón Hernández Alcerro's job is to defend his president's administration and present his country favorably in Washington. This does not require him to spend time in the streets and barrios of San Pedro Sula, speaking with the ordinary people behind the frightening news reports coming out of Honduras. If he did, the ambassador might find that my portrayal of the situation there is inaccurate in only this sense: It is far less grim than the reality. If the ambassador spoke with some of the people I have -- the priests, police officers, teachers, judges, parents, lawyers, prison wardens, journalists, children, and gang members -- he would find it's the statistics he offers, not my reporting, that lack context. He would learn not just of endemic crime and lurid mass violence, which he presumably knows about already, but also of pervasive, murderous police corruption and official indifference to these problems.

But even if Hernández Alcerro prefers to confine himself to news reports, the ambassador need hardly rely on mine. Dozens of Latin American and international news organizations and investigative bodies are chronicling Honduras's brutal reality.

Finally, the ambassador is right to point out that President Lobo was elected, but he neglects to mention that it was only after Lobo's candidacy was agreed upon by the people who orchestrated the 2009 coup against his already-elected predecessor. Hondurans (including the ambassador) did not get the chance to vote on that illegal action. Nonetheless, many who neither supported the coup nor trusted its backers voted for the president in the hopes that his connections might help improve public safety and reduce corruption. If the ambassador would care to walk the streets of San Pedro Sula, or any other city in Honduras, and speak with some of those voters, he would learn just how bitter their disappointment is.

Letters

Why Work?

Will working less really make America more productive? 

While I agree with Charles Kenny ("Work More, Make More?" November 2012) that, given their level of prosperity, Americans could afford to take a few more days off every year, it is hard to believe that they could reduce their working hours to the French or German level without significantly impairing their standard of living.

In the early 1970s, output per worker was more than 25 percent lower in Western Europe than in the United States. Although this gap has not shrunk over the years, the underlying situation has evolved tremendously. Back in the 1970s, Europeans were working slightly more hours than Americans, but their hourly productivity was about 30 percent lower. Today, Europeans are nearly as productive as Americans thanks to technological catch-up, but as of 1996 they worked almost 25 percent less -- a gap that subsequent research suggests hasn't changed much. Thus, contrary to what Kenny argues, we can almost entirely attribute the United States' higher GDP per capita relative to France or Germany to a difference in the number of hours worked.

Why do Europeans choose to work so much less than Americans? Research indicates that a big part of the answer, if not the whole answer, is taxes. The unprecedented expansion in the size of the welfare state across European countries over the past 40 years has led to a steady increase in the overall rate of taxation of labor income (which includes payroll, income, and consumption taxes). And high taxes along with generous social transfers reduce incentives to work. Some people respond by cutting their work hours, while others choose to stay at home for a larger fraction of their lives. Recent empirical estimates of the elasticity of labor supply (i.e., the responsiveness of the number of hours worked to changes in the net wage) suggest that the difference in tax rates across the Atlantic could easily account for the difference in the number of hours worked.

If Americans were truly concerned that they're putting in too much time at the office -- that they're caught up in a rat race to consume more than their neighbors -- then they would favor a much higher tax rate on labor income, not for redistribution purposes but rather to discourage people from working. I doubt such a proposal would be very popular.

JEAN-BAPTISTE MICHAU
Assistant Professor of Economics
École Polytechnique
Palaiseau, France


Charles Kenny replies:

Jean-Baptiste Michau notes that GDP per hour worked is similar in Europe and the United States, whereas it used to be considerably lower in Europe. He uses the economist's all-purpose term for "stuff that isn't capital or labor inputs" to explain that: "technological catch-up." But one factor in the rapid relative growth of per-hour labor productivity in Europe may very well be shorter working hours themselves. I note in the article the considerable evidence that if you give people less time to produce something, they produce it faster.

That's not to say there is no tradeoff at all. But because hours worked explains a small proportion of global income differences, Americans could afford to work less and still enjoy a high level of consumption -- alongside a higher quality of life. And I'm not convinced that higher tax rates are the way to achieve that end. U.S. tax rates and working hours have both declined over the past two decades, suggesting the negative relationship between the two is weak at best. If they are negatively related, that only suggests that the best cure for America's fiscal woes is also the cure for its addiction to work.