Who spends the most on beer?

And other questions, answered by the US Bureau of Labour Statistics.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics has released March's edition of its Focus on Prices and Spending, which contains a fascinating cross national comparison of spending habits between four countries: the US, UK, Canada and Japan.

Some conclusions are precisely what you would expect. The average American spends 6.9 per cent of their total out-of-pocket expenditure on healthcare, over four times the average Brit, who spends 1.4 per cent. Canada and Japan lie in the middle, with 4.1 and 4.3 per cent respectively.

The Bureau does point out that not all of this discrepancy is down to wonderful NHS versus evil private providers:

The health care share for the United States may be higher because in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Japan medical costs are paid indirectly through nationalized health care options, and medical costs paid indirectly are not included in out-of-pocket health care expenditures.

Although they fail to mention that the US does also have a considerable amount of medical costs paid indirectly, in the form of Medicare, Medicaid, and tax deductions on employer purchased insurance. In fact, the US's public expenditure is almost as high as the UK's.

Another unsurprising finding is amount spent on booze. Guess who is number one? That's right; binge Britain.

Expenditure on alcohol is 4.8 per cent in the UK, compared to 1.8 per cent in the US, 1.6 per cent in Japan, and 3.1 per cent in Canada. Crucially, however, these figures measure expenditure, not consumption. VAT in the UK is higher than any state sales tax, and we also have particularly high alcohol duty on top of that, which may mean that alcohol consumption isn't that much higher here than Canada. It does seem like an inescapable conclusion that we drink more than the US, though.

For other categories, the findings are more counter intuitive. On housing, the Bureau writes:

The United States had the highest housing expenditure share, 29.3 percent of total expenditures in 2009. The United Kingdom and Canada followed, with 24.1 percent and 24.0 percent, respectively. Housing was the largest expenditure component in all three countries. Japan had the lowest housing share, 21.6 percent, of the four countries and was the only country to spend more on food than housing.

Given the USA has vast tracts of land where housing is cheaper than anything comparable in Britain, this seems surprising - except that in many of those places, wages are comparably lower. Additionally, Japan is famous for having some of the most expensive prices per acre in the developed world, with some school playing fields being worth more than the total everything else owned by the school. As ever, there are more questions than answers.

On food:

Japan's consumers spent 21.8 percent of their total expenditures on food in 2009. Of total spending on food in Japan, 21.4 percent was for food outside the home. The United Kingdom had the second-highest share: 19.9 percent of total expenditures on food. Canada, with 14.8 percent, and the United States, with 14.0 percent had the lowest food expenditure shares among the countries studied.

Japan also had the highest ratio of spending on food at home versus away from home, with over 3.5 times as much spending on home cooking as restaurants, cafes and take-aways. The US was the lowest, with a ratio of just 1.4, and the UK lay in the middle of the two, spending just over twice as much on food at home as out.

One final statistic, presented without comment: the average Briton spends 15 per cent of their total expenditure on "culture/entertainment, and recreation", compared to just 6 per cent in America, 8 per cent in Canada, and 11 per cent in Japan.

Hat tip to Brad Plumer of the Washington Post

Rick Santorum drinks a craft beer in Wisconsin. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.