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:

Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Truly Amazing Dot Density Map of the US Population

My older son alerted me to a blog post by Chris Welch about a recently created dot density map of the US using 2010 census data. Now, to be sure, the Census Bureau has created one of its own, which you can download in PDF format, but this new Census Dotmap is truly amazing. It is online, it allows you to zoom in to micro-level areas, and it has a background map so that you can orient yourself. It was created by Brandon Martin-Anderson, a student in the MIT Media Lab, and the website he created for the map includes details of how he created it. You simply have to see this to believe it.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Fiscal Cliff Connection Between Death and Taxes

The familiar old saying is that the only two things that are certain in life are death and taxes. In many countries, including the US, the two are linked together by the inheritance tax, which is a widely used scheme to redistribute wealth. When you die, the government gets some of your estate and your heirs get the rest. There is typically a minimum amount of wealth, however, below which taxes are not collected. If you aren't very wealthy, the government won't tax your estate. The big question is--what is that minimum? This is one of the issues involved in the so-called "fiscal cliff" that Congress set up for itself to resolve before the end of 2012, but so far has chosen not to resolve. NBC News has figured out the consequence of inaction:
In 2010, after a year in which the estate tax was zeroed out altogether, Congress passed a law that set the estate tax at 35 percent and exempted all estates under $5 million, adjusted for inflation. That law expires in January 2013 when the exemption will fall to $1 million and the tax will rise to 55 percent.
Many families are faced with a stark proposition. If the life of an elderly wealthy family member extends into 2013, the tax bills will be substantially higher. An estate that could bequest $3 million this year will leave just $1.9 million after taxes next year. Shifting a death from January to December could produce $1.1 million in tax savings.
So, we know especially from the work of David Phillips at UCSD that people are capable of delaying their death day, at least a little bit. But can we speed things up without a bit of outside help? Will we have a spate of late night suicides on the 31st? Would we do that for sake of tax savings for our heirs? It will take a few months to know for sure whether there was, in fact, a statistically significant jump in deaths over the last few days of December 2012, so we will have to revisit this question later.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Dissing the Elderly in China

I note in Chapter 8 that filial piety seems to be on the decline in China. This is the Confucian concept of respect that children are expected to have for their elders and it has been interpreted in everyday life to mean that children should be caring for their aging parents. This was, as I have argued, much easier to think about in a world where only a small fraction of parents actually survived to old age and thus needed to be cared for. Modern China, on the other hand, now has a life expectancy of 71 years for females, and we can expect that 77 percent of girl babies born will still be alive at age 65. In modern China these girl babies will likely have had only one child each, so the burden of dealing with an older parent is not only higher than at any time in history, but there are also fewer children per older woman than at any time in history. The net result is that some children have been neglecting their parents, and the government has been forced to step in and force a bit of filial piety on the younger generation. AP News has the story:
Visit your parents. That's an order.
So says China, whose national legislature on Friday amended its law on the elderly to require that adult children visit their aged parents "often" — or risk being sued by them.
The amendment does not specify how frequently such visits should occur.
State media say the new clause will allow elderly parents who feel neglected by their children to take them to court. The move comes as reports abound of elderly parents being abandoned or ignored by their children.
My guess is that this is unlikely to have much impact, especially for those younger people living in cities while their parents are back in the rural areas from which they came. This doesn't mean that they don't respect and love their parents, but everyday life has a tendency to trump those good intentions about getting back "home" to see the old folks.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

We're a Little Less Likely to Take This Job and Shove It

You probably won't be surprised to learn that one effect of the Great Recession is that people are hanging onto their jobs a bit longer than they used to. This information comes from the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), which analyzed data from the January 2012 supplement to the Current Population Survey. NBC News picked up on the story.
It's not that we love our jobs so much, said Craig Copeland, the study's author and senior research associate at EBRI. "It seems like people who have jobs in this economy are holding onto them if they have a choice," he said. When the economy is thriving, people switch jobs more often in search of better pay and benefits or more room for advancement. In this economy, we're happy just to have our jobs.
What did surprise me, actually, was the relatively short period of time that most people hold jobs. 
The median length of time people have been at their jobs is 5.4 years, compared to 5.2 years in 2010 and 5 years nearly three decades ago.
Furthermore, the data over time seem to suggest that careers are built on a succession of jobs, rather than staying at the same job for a long time.
Only around 20 percent of workers aged 60 to 64 have been at their jobs for 25 years, Copeland said. That's not very many, but it's a drop of only around 3 percentage points since 1983. "The majority of people do change their jobs, either by choice or being forced to," he said.
The data also show that there is no longer any difference in workforce behavior between males and females in the US.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Foreign Population on the Rise in Britain

Mark Easton, the Home Editor of BBC News, has a Boxing Day tradition of posing a bunch of "family puzzlers," the answers to which most people are unlikely to know (he has a link to the answers, so you don't have to remain in ignorance). This year quite a few of those are drawn from the 2011 Census in the UK, and that drew my attention to a recent report of his focusing on rise in the foreign-born population in Britain between the 2001 and 2011. What percent of the population of England and Wales was foreign-born in 2011? The answer: 13 percent--pretty similar to the US. While the foreign-born population from India and Pakistan makes sense, the biggest increase was among people from Poland--with more than a half million arriving during the past decade, pushing Poles to second position among the foreign-born. The census also revealed that the proportion of the population in England and Wales describing themselves as both British and white dropped from 87 percent in 2001 to 80 percent in 2011. Still, they are the majority in every locality except London, where about one in three people is foreign-born and less than half identify as both British and white.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sources of Inequality in the US

Income inequality has been growing over time in the US, as evidenced by data assembled by Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson. They argue that at the time of the US Revolution, America probably had the lowest level of income inequality in the developed world. More than two hundred years later, however, things are not so even. The New York Times has a lengthy story today that follows three girls from a lower income family in Texas as they try to climb the educational ladder. 
“Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer — the place where upward mobility gets started,” said Greg J. Duncan, an economist [and demographer] at the University of California, Irvine. “But on virtually every measure we have, the gaps between high- and low-income kids are widening. It’s very disheartening.”
The growing role of class in academic success has taken experts by surprise since it follows decades of equal opportunity efforts and counters racial trends, where differences have narrowed. It adds to fears over recent evidence suggesting that low-income Americans have lower chances of upward mobility than counterparts in Canada and Western Europe.
Thirty years ago, there was a 31 percentage point difference between the share of prosperous and poor Americans who earned bachelor’s degrees, according to Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski of the University of Michigan. Now the gap is 45 points.
The cost of education is an important part of the story, and it seems clear to me that this is due especially to the drop in public support for education at all levels, but especially in higher education. The TEA party (Taxed Enough Already) movement symbolizes the public's lower level of interest in funding education for the nation's younger people. I teach at a public university, but the latest budget figures suggest that only 17 percent of San Diego State University's total annual operating expenses comes directly from the taxpayers of California. Student tuition and fees have been steadily rising as a percentage of the budget, and this obviously causes more pain for lower income families than for those with higher incomes. Since the days of Thomas Jefferson the idea of public education has been that it helps to level the playing field for families and improves long-term opportunities for everyone. We have lost sight of that perspective.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Polio Eradication Program Faces Fatal Challenge

The senseless killing of children and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut has generated anew a national discussion about violence against innocent victims. A new set of innocent victims has emerged this week in Pakistan, where eight people working on a UN-sponsored polio vaccination program have been killed by the Taliban. Saving the lives of children cost these people their lives. The apparent reason? According to BBC News:
The killing of eight polio workers in Pakistan in two days is a brutal reminder of the hurdles facing health teams trying to eradicate the virus from one of its few remaining strongholds.
Pakistan, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria are the only countries where polio is endemic, which means transmission of the virus has never been halted.Who carried out the killings in Pakistan is unclear but the Taliban have repeatedly denounced the polio vaccination campaign claiming the workers are acting as spies for the US and that the virus causes sterility or HIV/AIDS. [Note that the UN squarely blames the Taliban]
Claims that the vaccine programme is a plot against Muslims have been around for years. They reached their peak in northern Nigeria in 2003 - when the immunisation programme was suspended following claims that the vaccine was contaminated with oestrogen and would cause infertility.
The year-long suspension of polio immunisation led to a major resurgence of the disease in Nigeria with hundreds of children becoming disabled.
This is the same kind of 14th century mentality that leads to the mistreatment of women and children. We can only hope that some form of enlightenment will seep more forcefully into these regions of the world, and soon.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Prosperity and Inequality in China and India

China and India are the world's two most populous countries, each with about 1.3 billion people, all of whom are hoping for a better life. In a somewhat encouraging vein, The Economist notes that India's economy has broadened sufficiently so that young women are much likely than in the past to be forced into potentially abusive jobs as live-in servants to wealthy families.
Economic liberalisation in the past two decades has created a wider range of low-skilled urban jobs. Malls need shop assistants. Offices need errand boys. In rural areas a job-creation scheme for poor households is keeping potential migrants at home. Meanwhile, middle-aged servants have invested in their children’s schooling so that their offspring do not follow in their footsteps. Pushpa Khude, a 45-year-old maid and cook in Mumbai, began watering plants at a Bollywood actor’s house at the age of seven. Her son is a bank manager and her daughter is studying commerce.
Servants, in turn, are more able than before to demand decent working conditions. In Chennai, says an employer, staff will refuse to work in a house without a washing machine or a food processor. The going monthly rate for a live-in maid or cook, who often works for more than 12 hours a day, six days a week, is still low: only 4,000-10,000 rupees ($73-184) in the cities. But wages appear to be rising, causing grumbles among employers.
Although not exactly a comparable story, The Economist also notes that in China income inequality is among the worst in the world, according to data from a new household survey.
According to a new survey, the top tenth of Chinese households took home 57% of the income in 2010. The country’s Gini coefficient was 0.61, far higher than previous estimates (which ranged from 0.41 to 0.48).
The survey, known as the China Household Finance Survey (CHFS), was overseen by Gan Li of Texas A&M University and Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. Modelled on the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, which covers almost 6,500 American families every three years, the CHFS covers 8,438 households in China, excluding Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Hong Kong and Macau.
By comparison, the Gini Coefficient for the US is estimated to be .45, with the top 10 percent taking home slightly less than half of the US income in 2010. The World Bank does not have a Gini Index for India, but other sources suggest that it is about .37.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Are We Still Alive?

The latest US population projections assume that the death rate won't suddenly reach 100% today. Even the latest UN probabilistic projections don't offer a chance that this will happen. As NASA has prominently displayed on its website:
Q: Does the Mayan calendar end in December 2012?
A: Just as the calendar you have on your kitchen wall does not cease to exist after December 31, the Mayan calendar does not cease to exist on December 21, 2012. This date is the end of the Mayan long-count period but then -- just as your calendar begins again on January 1 -- another long-count period begins for the Mayan calendar.
And the Economist reminds us that over the centuries there have been plenty of people who have wanted to scare other people to death with predictions of the end of the world. I assume that there is some psychological explanation for that kind of behavior. But what always amazes me is that some people really believe that they can somehow survive the end of the world by burying themselves in caves, or something like that. That just doesn't make sense. If the world is really going to end, I can't see how it would end for most, but not all. What really happens, of course, is that every minute of the day the world as we know it does end for 105 people, although they are more than replaced by the 254 babies born in that same minute, moving the population forward.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Probabilistic Population Projections

Most population projections are deterministic, in that they employ certain assumptions about future demographic trends and show the results of applying those assumptions down the road. If you change the assumptions, then the outcome changes accordingly. Another way of looking at future outcomes is probabilistically, assigning a probability to a particular outcome. This is a somewhat qualitative probability, of course, akin to the odds of a horse winning a race, which is derived from current conditions (in the case of population, this is the current age structure and fertility, mortality, and migration rates), but building in past experiences as a guide to the future (a type of Bayesian perspective). People who know a country well are in a position to offer expert opinions about how likely some outcomes are compared to others. 

Wolfgang Lutz and his colleagues at IIASA and the Vienna Institute for Demography (VID) have been pursuing this idea for several years (click here for a summary of this approach), and it has now been taken up by the demographers at the UN Population Division. They have some of the highlights available online, with the option to purchase a CD-ROM with all of the data for a nominal cost of $US 15. They note, for example, that bigger increases in population in Nigeria are more likely than smaller increases; and that aging in Europe is vastly more likely than a youthening in that region of the world. And they put numbers on those likelihoods. Although the methods of projection are not necessarily different than in a deterministic model, the interpretation of the results is different, in that it is more nuanced, and thus potentially more relevant to policy decisions.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Bigger Isn't Better When it Comes to BMI

The Economist this week dovetails with the special issue of the Lancet devoted to the new findings from the Global Burden of Disease project. That analysis suggests that we're living longer, but sicker. A key ingredient in the sicker part is obesity and the Economist has a special section devoted to this topic, referencing researchers involved in the Global Burden of Disease project.
Two-thirds of American adults are overweight. This is defined as having a body mass index (BMI, a common measure of obesity) of 25 or more, which for a man standing 175cm (5’9”) tall means a weight of 77kg (170 pounds) or more. Alarmingly, 36% of adults and 17% of children are not just overweight but obese, with a BMI of at least 30, meaning they weigh 92kg or more at the same height. If current trends continue, by 2030 nearly half of American adults could be obese.
The rest of the world should not scoff at Americans, because belts in many other places are stretched too, as shown by new data from Majid Ezzati of Imperial College, London, and Gretchen Stevens of the World Health Organisation (WHO). Some continental Europeans remain relatively slender. Swiss women are the slimmest, and most French women don’t get fat, as they like to brag (though nearly 15% do). But in Britain 25% of all women are obese, with men following close behind at 24%. Czech men take the European biscuit: 30% are obese.
In a few places obesity rates seem to be levelling, but for now waistlines in most countries continue to widen unabated. Jiang He and his colleagues at Tulane University have estimated that by 2030 the global number of overweight and obese people may double to 3.3 billion. That would have huge implications for individuals, governments, employers, food companies and makers of pharmaceuticals.
Barry Popkin of the University of North Carolina has been pointing out for years that the nutrition transition in the world is leading us to increasingly unhealthy diets, as we eat more food, especially processed food, and exercise less. Every time you turn around you hear health practitioners reminding us to eat less and exercise more. Most people hear it, but pay no attention to it, so here we are.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Living Longer But Sicker

This week's entire issue of The Lancet was devoted to a new global analysis of death and disease carried out as part of the Global Burden of Disease project at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, funded by the Gates Foundation. The good news is that life expectancy has continued to increase over the past 20 years (the last global evaluation of this type was done in 1990). But the bad news is the emerging evidence that health levels among adults are generally getting worse, rather than better. BBC News summarizes the results (but keep in mind that this is a huge complex study with many authors in many countries):
The Lancet analysis shows high blood pressure, smoking and drinking alcohol have become the highest risk factors for ill health. They replace child malnourishment, which topped the list in 1990.
Prof Christopher Murray, from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, led the work.
He said: "There's been a progressive shift from early death to chronic disability.
"What ails you isn't necessarily what kills you."
This represents a new and potentially very important twist on the health and mortality transition. Up to this point, we have routinely assumed that health and mortality tracked each other very closely, so that an increase in life expectancy would be automatically associated with improvements in overall health. indeed, the idea was that improved health was an important cause of higher life expectancy. These new findings suggest that the linkage may not be as strong as we thought. Efforts put into improving health among children have been key contributors to higher life expectancy in many developing countries, but adult health levels are actually getting worse, not better. These global patterns reflect what my colleagues and I have been finding in our research in Ghana.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

New Population Projections for the US

This week the US Census Bureau unveiled its population projections based on the 2010 census data. They underscore the point I make in Chapter 12 that the future is a foreign country. The New York Times coverage emphasized that the country will be a "plurality" country (meaning that no single racial/ethnic group will be in the majority) by 2043, whereas as early as 2018 the child population will be "majority minorty," meaning that non-Hispanic whites will no longer be in the majority.
“The next half century marks key points in continuing trends — the U.S. will become a plurality nation, where the non-Hispanic white population remains the largest single group, but no group is in the majority,” the bureau’s acting director, Thomas L. Mesenbourg, said in a statement.
The Economist focused more on the changing age structure and the problems created when the older population grows more quickly than the younger population.
Those 65 and over will grow to 22% of the population by 2060 from 14% now, while the working-age population slips to 57% from 63%.
These are not new stories, of course. The trends have been in place for some time, but they have been altered by the Great recession, with its attendant drop in the birth rate, and drop in immigration. Will these new trends stay in place? Probably not. Assuming that the economy rebounds even a bit, immigration will likely increase (indeed, history suggests that this will be a clue to the rebounding economy--the word gets out on "the street" pretty fast), and the birth rate won't be far behind.

Mentioned, but not highlighted, is the fact that this set of population projections suggests a smaller US population by the middle of this century than the Census Bureau had projected back in 2008. Given the enormously disproportionate impact on the planet of each person living in the US, this should be seen as good news.

Friday, December 14, 2012

A New Republican Take on Birth Control

Lost in the news today because of the tragic senseless killing of elementary school children in Connecticut was the Op-Ed piece by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, in which he supports a move to make oral contraceptives available over-the-counter. HuffingtonPost reported on the story:
If women could buy birth control without a prescription, he argues, employers would not have to pay for it against their moral objections, and Democrats could no longer accuse Republicans of being anti-birth control.
The idea was, in fact, consistent with (and based upon) the view expressed this month by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. They argue that birth control is safe enough that it should not require a prescription from a physician. Indeed, one could readily argue that since the most dangerous thing a women can do in terms of health risks is to become pregnant, anything that can prevent that if a woman so desires ought to be available to her. Jindal pointed out that emergency contraception is already available over-the-counter, so there is a clear precedent.

It is not yet clear whether other Republicans will jump on this, but the very fact that it was floated by someone who has been thought of as a serious future candidate for President has to be a good sign.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Time to Contact Your Member of Congress

"Fiscal Cliff" negotiations (or lack thereof) in the US are not just theoretical. An email circulated today from the Population Association of America reminds us that if there is no budget deal by the end of the year, federal funding for research, including population research, will be seriously impacted because of the enforced across-the-board cuts (so-called sequestration--something more akin to castration).

The PAA urges us all to do the following:
Please take a moment to contact President Obama and Speaker Boehner to communicate this simple message:
"I am a population scientist at (enter name of institution) and an educator who relies on direct and indirect funding from the federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation, to conduct research on (enter description of research interests if applicable) and train the next generation of behavioral and social scientists (if applicable). I am deeply concerned about the state of the ongoing deficit reduction negotiations.
As you continue your negotiations, I ask you to recognize two important facts:
1) Funding for non-defense discretionary programs (NDD), which includes funding for all scientific and statistical research agencies, has already been cut by $1.5 billion as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011.
2) This funding should NOT be cut further as part of any new deficit reduction plan to avoid going over the "fiscal cliff."
I urge you to negotiate a balanced approach to deficit reduction that does not include further cuts to NDD programs and that reflects a commitment to investing in the nation's scientific and statistical research agencies."
And here's the contact information you'll need
To write or call President Obama, go to:
To write or call Speaker Boehner, go to:

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Mysterious Case of the Missing Older Brits

When older people go missing, the usual assumption is that they suffer from some form of dementia and are out wandering around, lost and at risk of harm to themselves. However, a blog post in the Economist alerts us to an article recently published in the journal TheActuary, pointing out that there were about 30,000 fewer people aged 90 and older counted in the 2011 UK census than would have been expected.
Forecasting the number of 90-year-olds sounds easy; take the number of 80-year-olds from the last census, apply the mortality tables and bob's your great-uncle. But the 2011 census is 30,000 nonagenarians short, a 15% decline relative to expectations. The biggest shortfall is in the male cohort but female centenarians are more than 10% down on forecasts.
In broad terms, the likely explanation is that mortality was higher over the past decade for people aged 80 and older in 2001 than was expected, but it isn't clear yet why that might be. The investigation into this is going to involve analyses of vital statistics for the elderly, as well as a reexamination of the census data themselves. This will take a while, so don't expect film at 11, but the results will be important. especially since you might recall that in 2010, a comparison of the census data on centenarians in Japan with those listed on government records found that only about a tenth of those on the rolls were actually alive--they had been fraudulently left on the records by relatives collecting their pensions long after their death.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Rethinking African Cities

I had to fly to Las Vegas and back today to be deposed as an expert witness on statistical issues in a court case there (yes, that's the truth--I didn't touch a slot machine). Time on the plane gave me a chance to catch up on this week's Economist which has excerpts from their new companion publication, Intelligent Life. One of the stories was about British architect Norman Foster, who has created some of the more innovative buildings in the world and whose firm is now designing a new "sustainable city" (really, a suburb) in Abu Dhabi. The writer, J.M. Ledgard, is Scottish, but is the Economist's correspondent in Nairobi. He probed Foster about what can be done about cities in Africa, since they tend not to be places where a lot of rich people want to show off what can be done with a city.
In particular, the challenge for Foster is Africa. Can he be the Bazalgette of an African future city? Africa's population will double to 2 billion before 2050. Its urban population will more than quadruple. There are unlikely to be enough jobs for young people to stave off populist unrest. Climate change is likely to jack up food prices and exacerbate water shortages. Africa has already lost much of its forest cover. It has the most degraded soils in the world.
I pressed him on the question of a new model of city for Africa, necessarily poor, without an industrial base, but youthful, vital, playful and verdant.
The answer that Foster gave was inspirational, in my view:
What is needed in African slums", Foster ventures, "is the industrialisation of units that provide the sanitation, kitchens, energy-harvesting, run-off of rainwater, and a proper infrastructure of drains and sewers. That would be transformational, but that's a very different approach to the design-profession response to wipe it clean and superimpose another order, which completely disregards the fact that, notwithstanding the horrific deprivation, there is an underlying social order and an organic response to needs."
Who would pay for this in cities whose governments don't really have the funds to get things going?
There is plenty of money to be made from squatters. Most of the economic growth in the world in the coming years will be from the poorest bits of cities in the poorest countries. Companies such as Coca-Cola and Unilever expect their profits from these communities to swell. Nokia will rise or fall according to whether slum-dwellers continue to buy its low-end phones. There is money in Foster's idea of laying down grids, especially for cities yet to be built. And there is reason to be optimistic about new technologies, such as solar-panel roof sheeting, affordable windows, LED lighting, gargantuan rainwater tanks, and high-tech latrines that pay for themselves by filtering urine into water and microwaving excrement into fuel. Africa's dense gatherings of young people present a high degree of political risk, but they also create economic value.
This is the most positive set of ideas that I think I have ever seen about African cities, and makes me hope that there is hope.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Maintaining Our Vigilance Against Disease

It is easy to assume that our control over death is a permanent feature of human existence and that life expectancy will continue to move closer to the known human lifespan of about 120 years. But that assumes that we don't lose control of our control. As it turns out, bacteria are constantly struggling for survival against our attempts to kill them. BBC News today reports on research findings published recently in the journal Nature Genetics.
Two closely-related strains of Clostridium difficile became antibiotic resistant and were able to rapidly spread to hospitals around the world, a study says.
Researchers were able to show how the bacterium travelled by forensically analysing its genetic code.
The strains of the hospital infection seemed to become more severe after they became resistant.
The US Centers for Disease Control say C. difficile is linked to 14,000 deaths in the US each year.
The same topic was the theme of an Op-Ed piece in today's New York Times by Carl F. Nathan, chairman of the department of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College. He points out that antibiotics are not as profitable for pharmaceutical companies as are drugs that treat degenerative diseases because people need them for only a short period of time, rather than for the rest of their lives. Thus, less research is devoted to them and that research which is undertaken is often done in secret because companies want the work patented so that they can have a monopoly on the product, at least for awhile. The combination of scientific and economic roadblocks has slowed down the race to stay ahead of bacterial adaptation to and thus resistance to our drugs.
But what if we take a page out of the pathogen playbook? Many pathogens exchange DNA, sharing what they learn. Drug makers can operate in the same way: they can do science “open lab”-style, working in teams with academic and government scientists and other drug companies to share what they learn and to bring fresh scientific ideas and technological tools to bear. Relaxing the traditional insistence on secrecy allows collaboration, and with it, innovation.
He highlights several experiments along this line, and suggests a possible way to combine openness, innovation, and profit for the drug industry. The stakes are chillingly high:
If we don’t make new antibiotics, we will lose the ability to practice modern medicine. A new collaborative model for drug discovery can help make sure this doesn’t happen.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

US Undocumented Immigrant Population Estimated to be 11 Million

The Pew Research Center has released its estimates of the undocumented immigrant population in the population and their analysis suggests that it has leveled off at about 11 million, down from its peak of 12 million just prior to the Great Recession.
The falloff in the stock of unauthorized immigrants has been driven mainly by a decrease in the number of new immigrants from Mexico, the single largest source of U.S. migrants. As the Pew Hispanic Center reported earlier this year, net immigration from Mexico to the United States has stopped and possibly reversed through 2010. At its peak in 2000, about 770,000 immigrants arrived annually from Mexico; the majority arrived illegally. By 2010, the inflow had dropped to about 140,000—a majority of whom arrived as legal immigrants, according to Pew Hispanic Center estimates.
These Pew Hispanic Center estimates use data mainly from the Current Population Survey (CPS), a monthly survey of about 55,000 households conducted jointly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau. It is best known as a source for monthly employment statistics.
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates the unauthorized immigrant population using the “residual method,” a well-developed and widely accepted technique that is based on official government data. Under this methodology, a demographic estimate of the legal foreign-born population—naturalized citizens, legal permanent residents, temporary legal residents and refugees—is subtracted from the total foreign-born population. The remainder, or residual, is the source of population estimates and characteristics of unauthorized immigrants.
These data are very important from a policy perspective, as Congress prepares anew to consider immigration reform, and the main author of the report, Dr. Jeffrey Passel, discussed the results recently on NPR.

Friday, December 7, 2012

How Dangerous is the Baby Boom Bump?

A widely circulated Op-Ed piece in today's New York Times--"The Baby Boom Bump"--suggests that policy-makers are not paying sufficient attention to the fact that the baby boomers are moving into retirement ages. The authors, Kenneth Baer and Jeffrey Liebman, were both part of the Office of Management and Budget in President Obama's first term in office, so they presumably have insight into policy issues.
For decades we have known that the retirement of the baby boomers would be a monumental event for the economy. But now that it’s happening, many fiscal policy makers are acting as if the boomers are eternal teenagers and are turning a blind eye to how the boomers’ aging changes how we should approach economic policy. And this affects two of the central issues of the negotiations: how much the government should spend and how we can cut unemployment.
The main reason expenditures are rising this decade is that spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is increasing by a whopping 3.7 percent of G.D.P. as the baby boomers age and retire. This demographic fact also has been driving increases in disability insurance payments as more knees give way and backs give out.
In the end, the authors offer no plan of their own for how policy-makers should handle the aging of America, except to suggest that any plan--such as proposed especially by Republicans--that arbitrarily cuts government spending without consideration of demographic reality is likely to be bad policy. I couldn't agree more. 

It is not clear whether they are supportive of the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles Commission with respect to Social Security, and which Alan Simpson has recently been touting on public tour. The Deficit Commission's report has a variety of suggestions, which seem to me to make sense:
To save Social Security for the long haul, all of us must do our part. The most fortunate will have to contribute the most, by taking lower benefits than scheduled and paying more in payroll taxes. Middle-income earners who are able to work will need to do so a little longer. At the same time, Social Security must do more to reduce poverty among the very poor and very old who need help the most.
Over the long haul, the health care costs associated with Medicare and Medicaid will be vastly more costly than Social Security, but fixing this will require a whole new way of looking at health care that few in the country seem to want to consider--an emphasis on health maintenance, rather than simply paying for treatment on a per incident basis. Since we've already been through "health reform," this debate is unfortunately not likely to occur again any time soon.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

How Many of These Cities Can You Name?

Demographers at the UN Population Division project that between now and the middle of this century, almost all of the population growth in the world (more than two billion additional people) will show up in cities of developing countries. But not so much in the mega-cities; rather in the mid-sized cities, where opportunities may be less grand, but more accessible. Derek Thompson of Atlantic Cities has mined data put together by the Brookings Institution that makes this point. The analysis looked at per person growth in GDP in the 300 largest metropolitan areas of the world, so this was not simple population increase, but rather a combination of demographic and economic change.
The top 50 fastest-growing cities, by GDP per capita, are practically all in the developing Asian world. The top 18 are in China. The rest are in China, Indonesia (Jakarta), India (Chennai), and Australia (Perth).
Take a look at the interactive map and ask yourself if you've heard of Kunming, Tangshan, and Shenyang. These are among the cities growing the fastest in terms of population and economic opportunity.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Should the US be Worried About Its Birth Rate?

In 1936, in the midst of the Depression, the birth rate dropped to replacement level in the United States (even in the era before modern contraception), and Enid Charles published a book on "The Twilight of Parenthood." Of course, the birth rate did bounce back--well above what she might expected--and parenthood survived. However, as the baby boom gave way to the baby bust, people started getting worried again and in 1989 Ben Wattenberg published a widely read book on "The Birth Dearth." Since that time the total fertility in this country has hovered right around replacement level, sometimes a bit above and sometimes a bit below. But that hasn't kept people from worrying about it. In 2004 Phillip Longman published "The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to do About it." This theme was converted into a highly-publicized video called "The Demographic Winter" where it became obvious that the threat was that fertility rates were declining in richer countries, but not so much in the developed countries. 

I mention this bit of history because the birthrate worry surfaced yet again yesterday in an Op-Ed by Ross Douthat in the New York Times, which he titled "More babies, please." He was responding to a report put out by Pew Research Center, which digested birth data recently published by the Centers for Disease Control. The headline of the Pew report was "U.S. Birth Rate Falls to a Record Low; Decline Is Greatest Among Immigrants." Part of the problem, though, is how the birth rate is defined. Both CDC and Pew calculated the birth rate as births per 1,000 women aged 15-44. This obviously does not control for differences in the age distribution within these ages. If, on the other hand, we look at the total fertility rate, which does control for the age structure, we find that the TFR actually bottomed out in 1976 and has been, if anything, generally on an upward curve since then, as these data from the Population Reference Bureau illustrate. Even the CDC's report was much more cautious than the Pew report, noting that "the rate of decline has slowed from 2010 through June 2012." Furthermore, the more detailed birth data from 2011 show that the only age group for whom the birth rate dropped was ages 20-24. At all older ages the birth rate either increased or stayed the same. This sounds to me like a pattern of postponement, but not necessarily a reason to believe that the sky is falling in.

It is interesting to me that Enid Charles appears to have been the last woman (76 years ago) to have worried in the popular press about a low birth rate. Since then it seems that the only people who write scary stuff about the low birth rate are white men. Why is that? 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Immigration Reform Revs up in US

With President Obama's re-election, the issue of information reform is back on the table--even in the midst of bickering over the "Fiscal Cliff." The Obama Administration had pushed the DREAM Act, aimed at providing college opportunities for children who had been brought to the US by their parents as undocumented immigrants. That failed in the Senate in 2010, as I noted at the time, whereas a temporary administrative order was issued earlier this year. Governor Brown signed California's version of the DREAM Act into law in October of 2011, so even before the most recent election there was some momentum for change. That was given a boost this week by a three-day meeting in Kansas City of a group calling itself the United We Dream network. Today's New York Times reports on the story:
The leaders of the United We Dream network, the largest organization of youths here illegally, decided to push President Obama and Congress next year for legislation to open a path to citizenship for them and their families. The move will increase pressure on Mr. Obama and lawmakers to pass a comprehensive overhaul, rather than taking on the debate over immigration in smaller pieces to try to gain more support among Republicans.
They take their name from the Dream Act, a bill that would create a pathway to citizenship for young people, which lawmakers on both sides of the aisle view as having a better chance than broader legalization measures. This year several Republicans, including Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, worked on alternative proposals that could attract support from their party. An estimated 1.7 million young immigrants would be eligible for legal status under the Dream Act.
Republicans have thus far countered with a proposal that would provide legal status for minor children of undocumented immigrants, but would not provide a path to citizenship. This is called the Achieve Act. Is there any room for compromise between the Achievers and the Dreamers? It seems too early yet to tell.

Monday, December 3, 2012

A Piece in the Low Birthweight Puzzle

Low birthweight (LBW) is an important cause of early infant mortality (neonatality). One underlying contributor to LBW is prematurity, as I have noted before, but researchers looking at data for sub-Saharan Africa have found that a mother being infected with malaria during pregnancy is also an important cause of LBW. Thomas P. Eisele and his colleagues at Tulane University used Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) data from 32 sub-Saharan African countries to show that women who are treated for malaria during pregnancy (with ITPp), and who use insecticide-treated mosquito nets (ITNs) are less likely to have a low birthweight baby and are thus less likely to experience the early death of the child. Here's the bottom from their analysis, just published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases:
We analysed 32 national cross-sectional datasets. Exposure of women in their first or second pregnancy to full malaria prevention with IPTp or ITNs was significantly associated with decreased risk of neonatal mortality (protective efficacy [PE] 18%, 95% CI 4–30; incidence rate ratio [IRR] 0•820, 95% CI 0•698–0•962), compared with newborn babies of mothers with no protection, after exact matching and controlling for potential confounding factors. Compared with women with no protection, exposure of pregnant women during their first two pregnancies to full malaria prevention in pregnancy through IPTp or ITNs was significantly associated with reduced odds of low birthweight (PE 21%, 14–27; IRR 0•792, 0•732–0•857), as measured by a combination of weight and birth size perceived by the mother, after exact matching and controlling for potential confounding factors.
The sad part of the story is that, as the authors note in their conclusion, "ITN use in pregnant women and coverage of IPTp of at least two doses of sulfadoxine–pyrimethamine are lagging in Africa, especially in countries with the highest malaria transmission." So, the women who need the treatment the most are among the least likely to be getting it.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Continued Religious Violence in Northern Nigeria

Religion has always been one of the most contentious of the sociodemographic variables in human society. In Nigeria, of course, religion has been such an issue that the question about it was dropped from census long ago, as I note in Chapter 4. It was Christmas time last year that the militant group Boka Haram, which aims to overthrow the government the government and impose Sharia law in Nigeria, launched a series of bombings against Christians and just yesterday they killed 10 Christians in an overnight machete and gun attack in Borno state in north-east Nigeria. BBC News has the story:
Late on Saturday night, residents say a group of men went from house to house in a largely Christian area of the remote village of Chibok, before slitting the throats of 10 people.
"Suspected Boko Haram came at night and set people's houses on fire before killing their victims," Nuhu Clark, a former councillor of the village who escaped the attack, told Reuters news agency. He said he counted 10 bodies.Human rights groups say that more than 3,000 people have been killed by Boko Haram since 2010.
Everyone should be troubled by these events no matter where they occur, but what happens in Nigeria is especially important to the rest of us because it is already the eighth most populous country in the world, and by 2050 the UN Population Division projects that it will be the fifth most populous. Such a geographically large, demographically complex, resource rich, corruption ridden country will affect the rest of the world in ways that are not yet quite clear, but you know that this matters for the future.