Small Spanish Firms Less Likely to Hire with Higher Minimum Wage

(p. B1) MADRID — As Spain grapples with a turbulent political crisis, one of Europe’s last Socialist governments may soon fall amid the rise of a new nationalism in the country. But whatever the outcome, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is leaving behind a signature legacy: a record increase in the minimum wage.
The 22 percent rise that took effect in January, to 1,050 euros (about $1,200) a month, is the largest in Spain in 40 years. Yet the move has ignited a debate over whether requiring employers to pay more of a living wage is a social watershed, or a risky attempt at economic engineering.
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(p. B4) Over 95 percent of businesses in Spain are small and medium-size firms, many of which operate with thin margins, according to Celia Ferrero, the vice president of the National Federation of Self-Employed Workers.
“You won’t find people disputing that higher wages are needed,” said Ms. Ferrero, whose organization represents many smaller businesses. “The question is whether firms can afford it. Higher wages and social security taxes simply make it more expensive for employers to hire or maintain staffers.”
“It’s not that they don’t want to pay; they literally can’t,” she added.
Lucio Montero, the owner of General Events, which makes booths and backdrops for firms displaying wares at big conventions, employs eight workers on the outskirts of Madrid. He pays each €1,400 a month.
The higher minimum wage and increased social security charges will put upward pressure on his labor bill and already thin margins, he said. It is a cost that he can ill afford.
“I would need to think twice about hiring more people,” said Mr. Montero, walking around his tiny, sawdust-covered factory floor.

For the full story, see:
Liz Alderman. “Spain’s Minimum Wage Has Surged. So Has Debate.” The New York Times (Friday, March 8, 2019): B1 & B4.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 7, 2019, and has the title “Spain’s Minimum Wage Just Jumped. The Debate Is Continuing.”)

Distorted Incentives Can Lead to Short-Termism or to Long-Termism

(p. B1) Capitalism is often accused of fostering short-termism, making companies chase quarterly profit numbers to satisfy shareholders.
A better criticism is that the targets corporate executives aim for are grossly simplified, thanks to the twisting line of responsibility from corner office to fund manager to pension fund and ultimately to the savers who own the company.
These distorted incentives sometimes lead to short-termism; at other times, shareholder enthusiasm pushes executives to focus far too much on the long run, as in the wild mining boom that turned to bust in 2011, or the dot-com bubble.

For the full commentary, see:
James Mackintosh. “STREETWISE; Fixing Capitalism, One Disclosure at a Time.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018): B1 & B12.
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Nov. 27, 2018.)

Chinese Communists Subsidize Ghost Town Construction

(p. C3) In China’s Inner Mongolia province, in the middle of the Gobi desert, row upon row of largely vacant apartment towers line the streets of Kangbashi, a new district of the city of Ordos. Earlier this month, Xu Yongfen and his family moved into one 28-story building. In the hallways there are a few signs of life–tricycles, slippers and pink children’s shoes in front of some doors. But most apartments remain unoccupied, their doors still covered in plastic wrap, and at street level, barren storefronts are visible in all directions. “This area is nearly totally empty,” Mr. Xu says, tapping a cigarette into a bowl of ashes at his dining room table.
The city has spent 14 years planning, erecting and maintaining Kangbashi, which has the distinction of being one of China’s best-known “ghost towns”–gleaming but sparsely populated new urban centers adjacent to older metropolises. Built by the dozen across the country, the new areas reflect–and were meant to accelerate–China’s economic boom. As the country’s growth has slowed, many of them have become serious liabilities, deep in debt, with little prospect of full occupancy anytime soon.
. . .
Many of China’s other ghost towns have yet to figure out how to jumpstart their economies without slipping back into the old pattern of borrowing and building. To become economically viable, some may take 20 or 30 years, or “maybe even forever,” said Zhou Jiangping, a professor of urban planning at the University of Hong Kong. In some cases, Mr. Zhou said, local officials encouraged ambitious plans to advance their own careers: “You see all these empty towns, these areas at the edge of cities. They may symbolize the power of some officials.” Because many of them then move on to other jobs, he said, they didn’t think about ensuring long-term growth.
. . .
Ordos City Investment Real Estate Development Co. recently resumed work on two housing projects that it had set aside five years ago, including Mr. Xu’s complex. “Kangbashi’s real-estate sales improved, so our company decided to restart construction,” said Wang Tianyong, a branch manager, noting that the government’s subsidy program favors new projects.

For the full story, see:
Dominique Fong. “China’s Ghost Towns Haunt Its Economy.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, June 16, 2018): C3.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 15, 2018.)

It No Longer Pays to Recycle

(p. B1) Oregon is serious about recycling. Its residents are accustomed to dutifully separating milk cartons, yogurt containers, cereal boxes and kombucha bottles from their trash to divert them from the landfill. But this year, because of a far-reaching rule change in China, some of the recyclables are ending up in the local dump anyway.
In recent months, in fact, thousands of tons of material left curbside for recycling in dozens of American cities and towns — including several in Oregon — have gone to landfills.
. . .
(p. B5) Recycling companies “used to get paid” by selling off recyclable materials, said Peter Spendelow, a policy analyst for the Department of Environmental Quality in Oregon. “Now they’re paying to have someone take it away.”
In some places, including parts of Idaho, Maine and Pennsylvania, waste managers are continuing to recycle but are passing higher costs on to customers, or are considering doing so.
“There are some states and some markets where mixed paper is at a negative value,” said Brent Bell, vice president of recycling at Waste Management, which handles 10 million tons of recycling per year. “We’ll let our customers make that decision, if they’d like to pay more and continue to recycle or to pay less and have it go to landfill.”
Mr. Spendelow said companies in rural areas, which tend to have higher expenses to get their materials to market, were being hit particularly hard. “They’re literally taking trucks straight to the landfill,” he said.

For the full story, see:
Livia Albeck-Ripka. “Your Recycling Gets Recycled, Right? Maybe, or Maybe Not?” The New York Times (Thursday, May 31, 2018): B1 & B5.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 29, 2018.)

Stornetta and Nakamoto Invented Bitcoin

(p. C18) In 1990, the physicist Scott Stornetta had a eureka moment while getting ice cream with his family at a Friendly’s restaurant in Morristown, N.J. He and his cryptographer colleague, Stuart Haber, had been thinking about the proliferation of digital files that accompanied the rise of personal computing and the ease with which files could be altered. They wondered how we might know for certain what was true about the past. What would prevent tampering with the historical record–and would it be possible to protect such information for future generations?
The sticking point was the need to trust a central authority. But at Friendly’s, an answer came to Dr. Stornetta: He realized that instead of a central record-keeper, the system could have many dispersed but interconnected copies of a shared ledger. The truth could never be typed over if there were too many linked ledgers to alter.
Drs. Haber and Stornetta were working at the time at Bellcore, a research center descended from the legendary Bell Labs. The pair set out to build a cryptographically secure archive–a way to verify records without revealing their contents.
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. . . there is no mistaking their crucial contribution. When the founding document of bitcoin was published in 2008 under the name ” Satoshi Nakamoto “–a pseudonym for one or more scientists–it had just eight citations of previous works. Three of them were papers co-authored by Drs. Haber and Stornetta.
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The Nakamoto paper revolutionized the foundational work of Drs. Stornetta and Haber by adding the concept of “mining” cryptocurrencies. It created financial incentives for participation in retaining and verifying parts of the blockchain ledger.

For the full commentary, see:
Amy Whitaker. “The Eureka Moment That Made Bitcoin Possible; A key insight for the technology came to a physicist almost three decades ago at a Friendly’s restaurant in New Jersey.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, May 26, 2018): C18.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 25, 2018.)

Paying Consumers for Their Data

(p. B4) WASHINGTON–For every link you click, every photo you post, every word you search, somebody markets the data to advertisers seeking to target you. Consumer data is a valuable commodity, and that is one reason Google, Facebook and others let you use their platforms at no cost.
An Australian app maker called Unlockd thinks it has a better idea: The consumer should get a cut of this mobile-data business, in the form of rewards or other incentives. Other newcomers and smaller firms are taking a similar tack. Should this approach take off, some see it becoming a viable alternative to the ad model driving big platforms like Alphabet Inc.’s Google.

For the full story, see:
McKinnon, John D. “Startup Wants to Reward Your Clicking.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, May 10, 2018): B4.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 9, 2018, and has the title “Startup Takes on Google With a New Approach: Rewards for Users.”)

Finnish Public Push to End Universal Basic Income Experiment

(p. B1) LONDON — For more than a year, Finland has been testing the proposition that the best way to lift economic fortunes may be the simplest: Hand out money without rules or restrictions on how people use it.
The experiment with so-called universal basic income has captured global attention as a potentially promising way to restore economic security at a time of worry about inequality and automation.
Now, the experiment is ending. The Finnish government has opted not to continue financing it past this year, a reflection of public discomfort with the idea of dispensing government largess free of requirements that its recipients seek work.

For the full story, see:
Peter S. Goodman. “Finland Will Stop Offering Unconditional Pay for Jobless.” The New York Times (Wednesday, April 25, 2018): B1 & B4.
(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 24, 2018, and has the title “Finland Has Second Thoughts About Giving Free Money to Jobless People.” The print version cited above is the National Edition.)