This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

You can download an iPhone app for the 13th edition from the App Store (search for Weeks Population).

If you are a user of my textbook and would like to suggest a blog post idea, please email me at:

Thursday, December 30, 2010

United Kingdom Tries to Limit Immigration

The United Kingdom has been moving to limit its "uncontrolled immigration," especially from Eastern Europe. However, a think tank in the UK has concluded that net migration is unlikely to change much this year because very few people are leaving the country, even if the number of immigrants might go down a bit.
The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) says the figure for immigrants to the UK minus the number leaving will be around 200,000.
One reason it points to is that only about 30,000 UK citizens are emigrating - the lowest for almost a decade.
The government said it was committed to reducing net migration from its current 215,000 to less than 100,000 by 2015. 
As well as pointing to the emigration rate, the IPPR report says that the relative strength of the British economy compared with some Eurozone countries is likely to attract migrant workers from Spain, Portugal, Greece and the Irish Republic.
The government has announced a cap on skilled workers from outside the European Economic Area and is planning to curb the number of foreign students. 
These new limits on immigration seem to be motivated more by "social" concerns (the eventual integration--or lack thereof--of foreigners) in the current UK government than anything else, since they fly in the face of explicitly demographic concerns such as who will pay the pensions and health care costs of an aging population.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Empowering Muslim Women

The gender divide is probably the single most important "clash of civilizations" in the modern world, and there is evidence that progress on this front is being made by Muslim women in the United States.
“What we’re seeing now in America is what has been sort of a quiet or informal empowerment of women,” said Shireen Zaman, executive director of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a nonprofit research institute founded after the 2001 attacks to provide research on American Muslims. “In many of our home countries, socially or politically it would’ve been harder for Muslim women to take a leadership role. It’s actually quite empowering to be Muslim in America.”

As Najah Bazzy, a American-born nurse and founder of several charities in Michigan, put it: “Yeah I’m Arab, yeah I’m very American, and yeah I’m very Islamic, but you put those things in the blender and I’m no longer just a thing. I’m a new thing.” 
This story is based on a small and unrepresentative sample, but even the fact that the subject comes up for nationwide reading can only be a good sign.

Monday, December 27, 2010

No Census Reform After All

The Senate earlier this month had unanimously passed a bill that would reform the administrative structure of the Census Bureau in a way that would give it more autonomy and would be less influenced by politics. In an earlier post, I noted that the opposition in the House seemed to come mainly from the Republicans. Unfortunately, it turned out to be President Obama and key Democrats who shot it down in the house.
The administration’s objections had more to do with turf issues than substance. Gary Locke, the commerce secretary whose department houses the census, objected to one provision that called for the director to report directly to the secretary rather than to a midlevel commerce official, saying that it undercuts a secretary’s prerogative to organize the department.
House Republicans — who wanted an independent Census Bureau last year when they feared that Democrats would try to exert undue political control over the agency — happily cited Mr. Locke’s objections to justify their opposition.
So, the answer to the earlier question about whether the census can be saved from politics is clearly NO.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Is Inequality Good for Your Life Chances?

The New York Times today features an excerpt from a new book by one of their writers, Eduardo Porter, called “The Price of Everything: Solving the Mystery of Why We Pay What We Do,” coming out in January 2011 from Portfolio Publishers. Income inequality is the theme and the message is an old and complicated one: As economies grow, inequalities in income tend to increase, but too much inequality then hampers the very social mobility that is required for economies to continue growing. Although Porter does not go into this in the excerpt, we can note that Marxism arose in reaction to the inequalities of capitalism in the 19th century, but then it turned out that the Marxian solution stifled the kind of competition and opportunities for personal economic advancement that provide the incentives for an entire society to be lifted out of poverty. At the same time, too much inequality also stifles those opportunities, so a societal balance with respect to inequality seems necessary for long term economic progress. The importance of inequality is illustrated by Porter with respect to immigration:

Despite the great danger and cost of crossing the border illegally into the United States, hundreds of thousands of the hardest-working Mexicans are drawn by the relative prosperity they can achieve north of the border — where the average income of a Mexican-American household is more than $33,000, almost five times that of a family in Mexico.
In poor economies, fast economic growth increases inequality as some workers profit from new opportunities and others do not. The share of national income accruing to the top 1 percent of the Chinese population more than doubled from 1986 to 2003. Inequality spurs economic growth by providing incentives for people to accumulate human capital and become more productive. It pulls the best and brightest into the most lucrative lines of work, where the most profitable companies hire them.

And the subject of immigration is a reminder that a new US Congress is about to be sworn in, with expectations of a new, harsher policy approach to immigration. Will that be good or bad for inequality and the economy?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Health and Mortality Lessons from Mark Twain

One of the hot-selling items this holiday season is the newly released Autobiography of Mark Twain. He had carefully instructed that it could not be published in its entirety until 100 years after his death (which occurred in 1910). Twain was born as Samuel Clemens in 1835 and grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, and suffered through his father's death from pneumonia when only 11 (although his mother lived into her 90s). This was a time before the confirmation of the germ theory--before modern public health and medical revolutions--and life expectancy in the United States generally was in the 40s, about the same as the poorest countries today in sub-Saharan Africa. Twain recounts the "health care system" that existed in his town:

The doctor worked by the year— $25 for the whole family. I remember two of the  Florida doctors, Chowning and Meredith . They not only tended an entire family for $25  a year, but furnished the medicines themselves. Good measure, too. Only the largest persons could hold a whole dose.  Castor oil  was the principal beverage. The dose was half a  dipperful, with  half a dipperful of New Orleans molasses  added  to help it down and make it taste good, which it never did. The next  stand-by was calomel; the next, rhubarb; and the next,  jalap. Then they bled the patient, and put  mustard plasters  on him. It was a dreadful system, and yet the death-rate was not heavy. The calomel was nearly sure to salivate the patient and cost him some of his teeth. There were no dentists. When teeth became touched with decay or were otherwise ailing, the doctor knew of but one thing to do: he fetched his tongs and dragged them out. If the jaw remained, it was not his fault.
Doctors  were not called in cases of ordinary illness; the  family’s  grandmother attended to those. Every old woman was a doctor, and gathered her own medicines in the woods, and knew how to compound doses that would stir the vitals of a cast-iron dog.

He might be able to say that "the death-rate was not heavy" but that was only because he didn't know what was ahead in the world in terms of keeping death at bay. Still, Mark Twain's writing seems remarkably modern, which reminds us that a low death rate is a gift of the modern world, not the thing that created it.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

More Stories Emerging From the 2010 Census Numbers

There are lots of stories hiding in the 2010 Census numbers, and the New York Times and other news agencies are doing a good job of telling them. One such tale relates to Nevada, which was the fastest growing state (in percentage terms) between 2000 and 2010, even though the state's population grew in absolute terms only from 2 million to 2.7 million. Still, that was enough to allow Nevada to add another seat in Congress (probably at Michigan's expense). The issue is that even as the census was being taken, the state was already losing some of that population! The growth in Nevada had been fueled especially, if not mainly, by the speculative housing market. The bursting of that bubble also blew the lid on population increase.

The state demographer, Jeff Hardcastle, estimated that Nevada had lost more than 90,000 people since July 2008, and expects the decline to continue through next year. He said that before 2007, Nevada had been the top-growing state for most of the past 20 years.
People are leaving in search of more prosperous economic climates. But analysts said the state’s population had been hurt by a declining birthrate, not uncommon during tough economic times, and illegal immigrants leaving, or at least avoiding census takers as public attitudes toward them turned harsh.
Stephen P.A. Brown, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at U.N.L.V., said any future growth in population was directly related to the state’s ability to rebuild its economy — and, of course, an influx of more people who would contribute to the state’s economic growth. “There is no indication that people are moving back into the state at this point,” he said.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

First Results from the 2010 US Census

Yesterday morning the US Census Bureau posted its first numbers from the complete count, short-form, 2010 census data. These are the constitutionally required numbers of the population by state, which are used to apportion seats in the US House of Representatives. As the New York Times notes:
According to the new counts, Texas will gain four seats, Florida will gain two, while New York and Ohio each lose two. Fourteen other states gained or lost one seat. The gainers included Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina and Utah; the losers included Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts and New Jersey.
Not yet discussed anywhere, as nearly as I can tell, is that the census count is several million people larger than expected. As of yesterday, the Census Bureau's population clock on still showed slightly more than 305 million people, based on the demographic balancing equation which built on the 2000 census and then added births and immigrants while subtracting deaths and emigrants. However, the 2010 census count as of 1 April 2010 was 308.7 million, and the population clock has now been updated to December 2010 to show 310.5 million. Thus, there are about 5 million more people in the country than expected. This excess of observed over expected was also discovered after the 2000 census and the reason then, as almost certainly now, lies mainly with more undocumented immigrants than anticipated by the Census Bureau's estimating procedures. 

As a consequence of the larger count than expected, the number of seats that have shifted in the House of Representatives is also larger than expected. For example, based on American Community Survey data, Texas was expected to gain 3 seats and Florida 1 seat. In fact, Texas will gain 4 seats and Florida will gain 2. Much has been made in the press about the fact that the demographic gains have come largely in the "red" (Republican-leaning) states and the losses are concentrated in the "blue" (Democrat-leaning) states, with the irony being that the gains are due largely to the increase in the Latino population, which generally leans toward the Democratic party. This will all add more interest to the 2012 election season in the US.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Demographic Fit in Europe

I was recently interviewed on CNN International's Connect the World program to talk about the results of the censuses from the United States and other countries. They had asked me ahead of time if I would talk also about Argentina (which just completed a census) and Turkey (which is just about to start one), but we never got that far, spending time instead talking about China and India. I had, however, reminded myself of Turkey's demographic situation. In particular, I was struck anew by the tight demographic fit between Turkey and western Europe--especially Germany, with which Turkey has had a century of relations, including guest worker programs. To a certain extent, Turkey is to Germany what Mexico is to the United States--a source of young immigrants to fill in the dents in the age structure. In Turkey right now, 44 percent of the population is under age 25 and is in need of a job. Turkey, like Mexico in recent years, has a strong economy, but not necessarily strong enough to create good jobs for the booming young population. At the same time, in Germany only 25 percent of the population is under 25, and there is a diminishing number of young people to fill in the labor force. The principal difference between Turkey and Germany compared to the United States and Mexico is that Turkey has a larger population than Germany's, whereas Mexico's population is only about one-third of that in the US. That sheer size is almost certainly an impediment to the eventual inclusion of Turkey into the European Union.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Don't Worry, Be Happy

The Economist this week leads with a story about the U-shaped pattern of happiness by age (the "U-bend," as they call it). Younger people are more happy than middle aged persons--with a global trough at age 46, according to data used by The Economist--and then older people are the happiest lot of all. So, don't dread old age. Instead, you should look forward to it, with the idea that you don't have to prove anything to anybody anymore. You can just enjoy what you have and who you know. But Richard Easterlin at USC (and a former President of the Population Association of America, and who is mentioned by The Economist, but only in reference to older work) says not quite so fast. In a new book titled "Happiness, Growth, and the Life Cycle" (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), Easterlin notes that the U-bend depends on cross-sectional data, such as that derived from the World Values Survey. The results are not quite the same if you use data for cohorts.
Life Cycle happiness is also clearly different from the U-shaped regression relationship of happiness to age estimated in the economics of happiness literature. This U-shaped pattern is obtained by comparing people at different ages who have identical life circumstances--the same income, marital status, health and the like. But life circumstances change systematically with age and affect the life cycle pattern of happiness. For example, older people, in comparison with those middle-aged are, on average, more likely to have lower income, be in poorer health, and to live alone--circumstance that would affect adversely their happiness compared with those mid-life, and that need to be taken into account in estimating the life cycle pattern of happiness (p. 131).
Easterlin's data show that in the United States there is not only a cohort pattern, but also a gender pattern. In general, men get happier as they grow older, and women get less happy. There is a lot to contemplate in that comparison.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 Minutes

In a previous posting, I pointed you to a video featuring Professor Hans Rosling of Sweden as he took us visually through population growth from 1960 to the middle of this century. Now he's back with a new video called "200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 Minutes," which in four minutes dramatically visualizes the improvement in life expectancy over the past 200 years, using data from 200 countries (albeit not all countries have data for all years). This video is part of his BBCFour series on the "Joy of Stats" and it is available on the internet from:  Enjoy!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

DREAM dies in the Senate

As predicted, the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (the DREAM Act) did not garner enough votes in the Senate today to be brought to the floor for a vote. It did get 55 votes--a majority of Senator did vote to bring it to vote--but the Senate procedure called "cloture" (or end to debate--a move to avoid a filibuster) requires 60 votes, so the motion failed. This bill has been rattling around Congress for nearly a decade and despite its good intentions to provide a path to citizenship for children brought to the US as undocumented immigrants by their parents, it seems unlikely that it will get majority support in the new Congress coming into office in January, despite a pledge by President Obama to push for it.
President Barack Obama and Democratic supporters vowed to push again for the measure in the new Congress that will be seated in January.
"It is disappointing that common sense did not prevail today," Obama said in a statement. "But my administration will not give up on the DREAM Act, or on the important business of fixing our brokenimmigration system." 
One of the issues raised by the opposition is that the eventual granting of citizenship to these individuals will have the multiplier effect of bringing in their close relatives through the family preference system. The problem with this argument is that you are really opposed to the family preference system, then that system (which certainly can be changed) should be changed, rather than using it as grounds for denying a path to citizenship for genuine victims of circumstances.

Friday, December 17, 2010

How Can You Possibly Oppose a Bill That Aims to Prevent Child Marriage?

The US House of Representatives today voted down a bill (previously passed unanimously by the Senate!) that would require the US government to develop policies to prevent child marriage, with the goal of eliminating this practice anywhere in the world. The bill also seeks to promote the educational, health, economic, social, and legal empowerment of women and girls.
United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 60 million girls in developing countries now ages 20 to 24 were married under the age of 18. The Population Council estimates that the number will increase by 100 million over the next decade if current trends continue.
Child marriage is often carried out through force or coercion. It deprives young girls – and sometimes boys - of their dignity and human rights. In some countries, it is not uncommon for girls as young as seven or eight years old to be married. 
It appears that the bill was torpedoed in the House by an email sent out to members saying that the legislation would be used to promote abortion in developing countries.
Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota said Friday that her bill aimed at preventing child marriage abroad fell victim to abortion politics in the U.S. House. McCollum’s International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act failed to win the two-thirds vote necessary Thursday night after Republican leaders sent out an e-mail alert to m ” embers saying that funding in the bill could be used by groups that promote abortion. The Minnesota Democrat called the claim “completely untrue.” “The International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act failed last night not because of the issue, but because a handful of Republicans chose partisan politics over the basic human rights of young girls,” McCollum said. “I am truly disappointed in this result, but I’m not giving up on these children."

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The World According to Facebook

I have already commented on the size of the Facebook "nation." Now it turns out that a Facebook intern has assembled Facebook data to find the linkages between Facebook friends. The result is an amazing map of the world according to Facebook. The linkages clearly define most of the heavily populated areas of the world. China is dark because of its censorship, and sub-Saharan Africa looks sparse because it is not yet well connected to the internet. With the exception of China, this map is amazingly like the NOAA map of nighttime lights--both of them showing where there are people with enough money to have electricity and an internet presence.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

More Results from the Newest ACS Data Release

People are having a lot of fun with the latest release of American Community Survey data, which represent our first look at census tract level data since the release of the 2000 census data. These data are coming to us well ahead of when we would have had such information had the census clung to the old long form instead of pushing ahead with the ACS. The New York Times leads with the story of the suburbanization of minority groups in the US, which factors into the potential for diminished levels of residential segregation. On that score, the NYT notes that William Frey's assessment of residential segregation from these data is not entirely in line with the analysis of John Logan at Brown University, who used data from a slightly different scale to conclude that there has been no real change in patterns of residential segregation. We will hear more about that as time goes on, I'm sure.

Naturally, when asked, I offered my opinions of what the data tell us about demographic changes in San Diego, which include an increasing minority (largely Hispanic) population, as well as confirmation of the very tight spatial concentration of the Iraqi-born Chaldean population in San Diego County.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Census Tract Level Data Now Available from American Community Survey

The US Census Bureau today released the first set of data from the American Community Survey that go down to the census tract level of geography. This was done by combining the respondents from the 2005 through the 2009 surveys. We are now getting very close to the promised equivalent to the long form on previous censuses, which has now been replaced by the ACS. Demographer William Frey at the Brookings Institution jumped quickly on this goldmine to evaluate levels of residential segregation by race in US metro areas.

America's neighborhoods took large strides toward racial integration in the last decade as blacks and whites chose to live near each other at the highest levels in a century.
Still, segregation in many parts of the U.S. persisted, with Hispanics in particular turning away from whites.
But, you don't need to take someone else's word for it. Check out the data yourself at

Monday, December 13, 2010

Geodemographics of Slavery Before the US Civil War

I was just made aware of a very cool map of the pre-Civil War slave population of the southern states in the United States that is posted to the New York Times website. If you haven't seen it already, you must visit it, since it has considerable historical importance:
We don’t know when Lincoln first encountered the Coast Survey’s map of slavery. But he became so taken with it that Francis Bicknell Carpenter included it in the lower right corner of his painting, “President Lincoln Reading the Emancipation Proclamation to His Cabinet.” Carpenter spent the first six months of 1864 in the White House preparing the portrait, and on more than one occasion found Lincoln poring over the map. Though the president had abundant maps at his disposal, only this one allowed him to focus on the Confederacy’s greatest asset: its labor system. After January 1, 1863—when the Emancipation Proclamation became law—the president could use the map to follow Union troops as they liberated slaves and destabilized the rebellion.
We use GIS these days to create maps like this, and can do such maps in a very short amount of time because of the readily availability of data, but that was a very different story a century and a half ago. This map uses data from the 1860 census and was drawn up by the US Coastal Survey.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Revolution of Rising Expectations in China

China is famous for having a large and cheap unskilled labor force, and for exporting a lot of excellent students abroad for graduate education. For the last decade, however, the country has been educating a new generation of college students with the expectation that they would populate a new middle class of white collar workers in China. The results seem to be disappointing, at least so far, according to a story in the New York Times.
The economy, despite its robust growth, does not generate enough good professional jobs to absorb the influx of highly educated young adults. And many of them bear the inflated expectations of their parents, who emptied their bank accounts to buy them the good life that a higher education is presumed to guarantee.

“College essentially provided them with nothing,” said Zhang Ming, a political scientist and vocal critic of China’s education system. “For many young graduates, it’s all about survival. If there was ever an economic crisis, they could be a source of instability.”
In a kind of cruel reversal, China’s old migrant class — uneducated villagers who flocked to factory towns to make goods for export — are now in high demand, with spot labor shortages and tighter government oversight driving up blue-collar wages.
But the supply of those trained in accounting, finance and computer programming now seems limitless, and their value has plunged. Between 2003 and 2009, the average starting salary for migrant laborers grew by nearly 80 percent; during the same period, starting pay for college graduates stayed the same, although their wages actually decreased if inflation is taken into account.
Chinese sociologists have come up with a new term for educated young people who move in search of work like Ms. Liu: the ant tribe. It is a reference to their immense numbers — at least 100,000 in Beijing alone — and to the fact that they often settle into crowded neighborhoods, toiling for wages that would give even low-paid factory workers pause. Like ants, they gather in colonies, sometimes underground in basements, and work long and hard,” said Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociology professor at Renmin University in Beijing.
Despite these problems, wages are still higher in the cities in the countryside, and it may just take time for the economy to catch up with, and figure out how to make use of, this newly minted crop of college graduates. In the meantime, the biggest problem young people face seems to be cultural, not economic:
But what many new arrivals find more discomfiting are the obstacles that hard work alone cannot overcome. Their undergraduate degrees, many from the growing crop of third-tier provincial schools, earn them little respect in the big city. And as the children of peasants or factory workers, they lack the essential social lubricant known as guanxi, or personal connections, that greases the way for the offspring of China’s nouveau riche and the politically connected.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Can the Census be Saved From Politics?

The U.S. Senate has just unanimously (meaning, obviously, in a completely bipartisan way) passed legislation that would give the director of the Census Bureau more autonomy within the Department of Commerce and would extend the term of the director to five years. Both of these moves, if approved also by the House of Representatives, would give the Bureau a bit more shelter from the politics that surround each decennial counting of the population. As the New York Times noted in an editorial today, the big question is whether or not the House will pass it. Despite strong support in the Senate, there are opponents in the House, largely among some key Republicans. Thus, it seems that if the bill can be ushered through the current lame duck session controlled by Democrats, it might have a chance for passage--otherwise, it may be in trouble with the new Republican-controlled House in January. Stay tuned.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Bolivia Lowers Retirement Age--What Are They Thinking?

President Evo Morales of Bolivia today signed into a law a bill lowering the retirement age in Bolivia from 65 for men and 60 for women down to 58 for both. This obviously runs counter to the raising of the retirement age being advocated for virtually all of the world's richer, aging nations. 

The law, which takes effect in a year, also extends pensions to the 3 million people — 60 percent of the working population — who labor in the informal economy as everything from street vendors to bus drivers.
"We are fulfilling a promise with the Bolivian people. We are creating a pension system that includes everyone," Morales said at the signing ceremony.
The new law will allow Bolivia's 70,000 miners to retire two years earlier — or as soon as age 51 if they have worked in life-sapping conditions deep underground. Mothers with more than three children will also get special treatment: the right to retire at age 55.
To be sure, the demographics of Bolivia do not match those of the rich countries. Its life expectancy is slightly below the world's average and its fertility rate is above average. Thus, it has a young age structure and a relatively low probability that large proportions of the population will survive to advanced ages--at least at current rates. The benefit is also modest. For example, "Informal sector workers will qualify for pensions if they pay at least $13 a month into pension funds over a decade. They would then qualify for pensions beginning at $68 a month." That is scarcely more than $2 per day--a commonly accepted global definition of the poverty level, although it is about double the current national income per person.
It seems that this was a politically motivated short-term decision that is well-intentioned, but will probably never really come to fruition because it seems unlikely that the country will be able to afford it.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The DREAM is Fading

The DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act has been around for awhile, but supporters were encouraged yesterday by its narrow passage in the House of Representatives. If ultimately enacted into law it would provide a path to citizenship for young people brought to the United States by their parents as minors without documentation. Either military service or enrollment in college could lead to qualification for citizenship under this proposed legislation. However, the Senate brought those hopes crashing down today:
Facing GOP objections, Democrats put aside the so-called Dream Act and said they'd try again to advance it before year's end. They're short of the 60 votes needed to do so, however, and critics in both parties quickly said they won't change their minds in the waning days of the Democratic-controlled Congress.
The Senate had previously refused to act on this bill, and Greg Weeks has noted in his blog that the country seems to be settling into a complicit agreement that the status quo is OK, no matter how much people may talk about immigration reform.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Is China Really the World's Second Largest Economy?

WikiLeaks has not, in truth, provided very many secret cables relating to population or environmental issues. But, one very interesting tidbit has emerged, namely that the Chinese themselves are not very confident in the gross domestic product (GDP) figures that they put out for the consumption of the rest of the world:

China's GDP figures are "man-made" and therefore unreliable, the man who is expected to be the country's next head of government said in 2007, according to U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.
Li Keqiang, head of the Communist Party in northeastern Liaoning province at the time, was unusually candid in his assessment of local economic data at a dinner with then-U.S. Ambassador to China Clark Randt, according to a confidential memo sent after the meeting and published on the WikiLeaks website.
Chinese economic numbers, especially at the provincial level and lower, have long been viewed with suspicion by analysts.
"That China's GDP is not reliable, especially for local GDP, that is nothing new," said an economist with a foreign bank who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of discussing top national leaders.
This does not mean, of course, that the Chinese economy is not large. Indeed, even if we knew the correct numbers, it might well be that China is clearly the world's second largest economy. But, we also don't know for sure what the birth rate is in China, either. There is universal agreement that fertility in China is well below replacement level, but there is not agreement on precisely what the level is, because of concerns over data quality as well as the belief that some children may be hidden from official counts. Thus, key aspects of the world's largest population continue to remain hidden from view.

Monday, December 6, 2010

What If We Were Able to Increase Human Lifespan?

Models of the health and mortality transition typically assume that human lifespan is fixed at approximately 120 years, but scientists keep teasing us with the possibility that some discovery or another might push that to higher ages and that, at the same time, more and more of us might survive to those very old ages. New research on mice at the Harvard Medical School, in which the aging process was "reversed" has been the latest tease:
"What we saw in these animals was not a slowing down or stabilisation of the ageing process. We saw a dramatic reversal – and that was unexpected," said Ronald DePinho, who led the study, which was published in the journal Nature.
"This could lead to strategies that enhance the regenerative potential of organs as individuals age and so increase their quality of life. Whether it serves to increase longevity is a question we are not yet in a position to answer."
This led to the following commentary by Joan Bakewell of BBC News as she contemplated the possibility of living forever:
There are people frantic for eternal life. A few years ago I met people who were vesting their savings in the cryogenic movement - a movement that undertook to freeze your body after you were dead and keep it until such time as science came up with the solution to whatever had killed you, at which moment you could be defrosted, cured, and resume your life.
Little attention was being paid to two serious disadvantages: what might the world be like when you emerged from the deep freeze, would they still have iPods and aeroplanes, supermarkets and killer heels. And secondly, why would anyone bother to defrost you when you had already paid up and had no possible means of redress. Who would want to resurrect a cluster of damp and out of date individuals, who would merely hang around adding to the world's population problem?
While most of us don't want to live forever, many of us would enjoy living longer. At the same time we would like the planet to survive as we know it. There is a contradiction in contemplating a world where everyone lives much longer and where the planet's resources are finite.
Wise thoughts, indeed. Individual aging (or lack thereof) has clear consequences for population and the environment, not just for human health.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Hard Reminder of the Hard Past

On a day when 12,000 Albanians have been evacuated because of flooding, and rain-fed landslides in Colombia killed dozens of people, the BBC News also offers a hard reminder of what happens when disaster strikes outside the scope of modern day rescue efforts. One of their reporters and a crew went deep into a remote part of southern Pakistan that was affected by flooding several months ago. What they found was a small village that is still in shock, and which offers a glimpse of what probably happened to countless human settlements over the course of hundreds of thousands of years of human society:

Pirral Faqir, one of the elders, speaks for them all.
For the last few months, he told me, they were marooned, sleeping in the open air without bedding or blankets.
The village tube wells, their source of clean water, were out of action.
All they had to drink was contaminated floodwater. They were constantly hungry. All the livestock gradually died.
As the months passed, many of the villagers became ill with vomiting and fever which they suspect was malaria.
One man had a stroke. Another man, pulled from the floodwater, suffered brain damage.
Three children became so ill that they eventually died. Pirral Faqir solemnly indicated his two younger brothers who each lost a son.
Welcome to a past that we thought, in truth, was long behind us.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Populations at Risk in Ecuador and Alabama

This week brought news of two different kinds of populations at risk, although in both cases they share the theme that it is socially vulnerable populations who are in the path of environmental danger. In Ecuador, the Tungurahua volcano, 85 miles southeast of the capital of Quito, appears to be on the verge of erupting, forcing the evacuation of nearby villagers, most of whom are indigenous Quechua speakers.

People living on the slopes reported the ground and buildings shaking, and a rumbling sound coming from the volcano.
Hot gases and rocks started flowing down the western side of the mountain at mid-morning and ash has been raining down on the villages of Pondoa and Patate.
Meanwhile, back in Alabama, a mound of coal ash sludge shipped in from Roane County, Tennessee is piled up in the Arrowhead landfill in Perry County, Alabama. According to The Economist:
Coal ash has a number of industrial uses—cement, concrete and highways among them. Businesses fear that regulation would hamper such use; environmental groups say coal ash is full of toxic metals and tends to leach into groundwater.A thornier problem than what Arrowhead contains, however, is where it is. Perry County, where it is located, is 67.5% black; nearly a third of its residents live below the poverty line. Roane County, where the accident happened, is richer and whiter.
Despite numerous federal government efforts to avoid these instances of environmental injustice, they continue for the obvious reason that the poor are relatively powerless to protect themselves.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Preferences for Male Children Are Easing Around the World

A recently published study by sociologist Kana Fuse shows that in developing countries there is now a widespread preference for a sex balance among children, based on responses to Demographic and Health Surveys. In fact, in virtually every one of the 50 countries for which data were available, a majority of women indicated that they wanted either the same number of boys and girls, or they had no preference. The countries with the strongest preference for males over females (even though sex preference was a minority of all responses) were in southern Asia (Pakistan, Nepal, and India) and in west Africa (especially Senegal, Mali, and Burkina Faso). There are also regions in which female children are favored over males (although again a specific sex preference was the minority of all responses).

When we compare the percentage of women who have son and daughter preferences, we find that, in all of the Latin American/Caribbean countries except for Bolivia, more women report having a daughter preference. The percentage of women exhibiting a daughter preference is especially high in the Dominican Republic (33.2%) and in Haiti (23.2). This is consistent with prior anthropological research in the Caribbean, which found that matrifocal kinship patterns are prevalent, and that daughters are thus highly valued.
Thus, this cross-national comparison has demonstrated that son preference is not always the dominant type of gender preference, and that daughter preference is common in many societies. This is an intriguing finding, given that most previous studies of gender preference in developing countries have focused heavily on son preference. The discovery that different societies have different attitudes about gender preference suggests that more research is needed to help us better understand the context of each specific situation.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Being Empowered is Good for Your Health

A new study from the UK shows that doctors are less likely to refer older people, women, and the poor to specialists in cases where those patients could, in fact, likely benefit from treatment by a specialist. Although the study did not delve into the reasons for these inequalities in referrals, the authors speculated that older people in general, women, and the less well-off were less likely to ask for a referral, and so the general practitioner did not offer one. Why are they less likely to ask for a referral? Malcolm Gladwell, in his book "Outliers" reviews research showing that children who grow up being empowered by their parents to interact with and question adults are more apt to succeed in life. "Success" (i.e., getting that needed referral) in talking with your physician may well improve your health, and this type of empowering behavior is more characteristic of younger people, and the middle or higher classes. This does not excuse the potentially discriminatory behavior of these physicians, but it is a reminder that being being a little pushy may be good for you.