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, October 31, 2013

More Sad Tales from Niger

Just when you think it can't be any worse for what is arguably the country with the world's worst demographics--Niger--it seems that is has gotten worse. The New York Times reports that a large group of migrants trying to flee the country to reach Algeria (perhaps to find work there, perhaps to find passage to Europe from there) were abandoned in the desert where they died.
Two trucks carrying the migrants — men, women and children — broke down in the northern desert while trying to reach neighboring Algeria, said Almoustapha Alhacen, speaking by telephone from Arlit, where they started their journey on Sept. 26. Responders, himself included, found groups of corpses — 15 here, 11 there — scattered in a wide radius around a well that the victims had tried to reach. Five other victims were discovered earlier, for a total of 92 dead. 
At least 52 of the victims were children, said Mr. Alhacen, who heads a nongovernmental organization called Aghirin Man in Arlit, 120 miles south of the border. 
Out of 113 who plunged into the desert in late September, bypassing the main road and its checkpoints, 21 survived, Mr. Alhacen said. Two, both smugglers, made it back to Arlit and are in jail, he said; 19 reached the Algerian city of Tamanrasset and were sent back. “They were doing this illegally, so they didn’t take the road,” Mr. Maouli said.
It is hard to comprehend the desperation that people feel to make a journey like this, which is almost the stuff of science fiction based on stories of what happens when population overruns resources and people are forced to seek refuge somewhere else.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Who First Said “Demography is Destiny”?

The term “demography is destiny” is often-repeated by me and many others, especially writers for The Economist, as I have noted before. It has become common-place to ascribe the term to the French sociologist and father of positivism Auguste Comte, who lived from 1798 to 1857. A Google search turned up a lot of people copying each other with the name “Augustus” instead of Auguste, and a few claiming that he was an 18th century Frenchman. Well, OK, he was born in the 18th century, but he was scarcely three as the 19th century rolled around. Another advantage of Google is that they have copied old books and have them online so that you can do word or phrase searches. I went through every Comte volume that exists online and could not find a reference to “demography is destiny.” To be sure, Comte was concerned about destinies, but not about demographic processes. Indeed, if we agree that Achille Guillard invented the term “demographie” in 1855, that was only two years before Comte died, so he is unlikely to have heard the term, much less to have used it. I have a copy of Guillard’s book and I don’t see any reference by him to “demography is destiny.” His grandson Jacques Bertillon would be a likely candidate to have coined the phrase, but I can’t find any reference to it in his writings either.

So, to my mind, the phrase is not properly attributable to Auguste Comte, but I admit that I don’t have a good substitute. The origin seems to be a mystery and, if so, let’s leave it at that and not pretend that it comes from one of the French Enlightenment thinkers. Of course, if someone can prove me wrong on this, I’ll be happy to know the truth.


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Demographic Tales From Korea

China comes to the top of almost anyone's list when thinking about East Asian countries who have benefitted economically by improving life expectancy, rapidly cutting back on childbearing, and educating that smaller generation of children. However, that is also the story of Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. This week's Economist features the latter country in a comparison piece with North Korea. In the pages devoted to demography, the focus is largely on South Korea, with occasional references to North Korea. The story of South Korea has all of the plot lines of a "good" demographic tale: A country with a long history of education as a route to prestigious jobs undergoes a very rapid transition from a predominantly rural country with high mortality and high fertility to a predominantly urban country with low mortality and not just low, but very low (TFR = 1.3) fertility. The older population is increasing as a fraction of the population, and early retirement is creating economic problems in a society without a good safety net for the elderly beyond the (increasingly small) family. In the meantime, the younger generation is focused on getting its few children per family into the very best schools. Indeed, the Economist suggests that the intensity of this competition is one factor explaining the very low fertility. 
This competitive spirit may be the chief reason why fertility is so low. South Koreans feel they have to invest huge amounts of time and money to help their child succeed. The cost of education in particular is forbidding. The fundamental problem of child-rearing in South Korea is too few children, too much rearing.
The other factor is another well-known plot line--women are educated and are in the labor force in high proportions, but huge gaps in gender inequality mean that women are expected to all of the housework and childcare. That is an almost universal recipe for low fertility. If men want to live in a society with more children per woman they are going to have to shake off thousands of years of history and step up and share the housework and childrearing. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Driving and Reproductive Health--Really?

The news has been alive (fortunately!) with the story from Saudi Arabia of a well-organized campaign by women there to show themselves driving, in defiance of the government, in order to try to change Saudi policy that effectively prohibits women from driving. Technically, there is no law against women driving, but the government refuses to issue licenses to women. The Washington Post has a list of other countries where the status of women is, believe it or not, even lower than in Saudi Arabia:
The World Economic Forum, which publishes the preeminent ranking on gender gap issues, ranked Saudi Arabia 10th from the bottom in its 2013 report -- ahead of Mali, Morocco, Iran, Cote d’Ivoire, Mauritania, Syria, Chad, Pakistan and Yemen. Women’s rights abuses are by no means limited to North Africa, West Africa or the Middle East, though that’s where we tend to hear such stories most frequently.
Opponents of the right of women to drive would seem largely to be insecure men, but rather than admitting that as the motivation, The Economist has discovered that at least one prominent Saudi has invoked the issue of reproduction into the discussion:
Last month Sheikh Salah al-Luhaydan, a well-known cleric who also practises psychology, claimed on a popular Saudi website that it has been scientifically proved that driving “affects the ovaries” and leads to clinical disorders in the children of women who are foolish enough to drive.
I'm guessing that the Sheikh reads the same science journals as does Michelle Bachman.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

On the Value of Vaccinations

It has become sadly common among some parents in richer countries with very low death rates among children to be worried about vaccination programs, thinking maybe the side effects, if any, will be worse than the disease. This attitude ignores the reality that death rates are low because of the success of vaccination programs against an increasingly wide range of communicable diseases (possibly even HIV/AIDS). The evidence of how important vaccinations are has shown up in Syria, as reported in the New York Times:

The officials said that the discovery a few weeks ago of a cluster of paralyzed young children in Deir al-Zour, a heavily contested city in eastern Syria, had prompted their alarm, and that tests conducted by both the government and rebel sides strongly suggested that the children had been afflicted with polio.

The possibility of a polio epidemic in Syria, where the once-vaunted public health system has collapsed after 31 months of political upheaval and war, came as the United Nations is increasingly struggling with the problem of how to deliver basic emergency aid to millions of deprived civilians there.

The World Health Organization has spent 25 years trying to eradicate polio. In recent years, the disease’s presence had narrowed to just three countries — Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan — from more than 125 when the campaign began in 1988. The virus is highly infectious and mainly affects children younger than 5. Within hours, it can cause irreversible paralysis or even death if breathing muscles are immobilized. The only effective treatment is prevention, the World Health Organization says on its Web site, through multiple doses of a vaccine. 
While the source of the Syrian polio strain remained unclear, public health experts said the jihadists who had entered Syria to fight the government of President Bashar al-Assad may have been carriers. Dr. Aylward said there were some indications that the strain had originated in Pakistan. He cited the recent discovery of the Pakistani strain in sewage in Egypt, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

On a much happier related to vaccinations is the story from Ghana, which has become a role model in terms of immunization programs. Of course, Syria was doing well, too, before it imploded. Fortunately, though, Ghana is a stable democracy and shows no sign of the kinds of political stability that also afflicts some of its neighbors and which drives a stake through the heart of health programs.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Syria Imploding

When Syria's civil war started, the country had 21 million people, and a population growing rapidly because life expectancy in the high 70s was matched with a TFR of 3 children per woman. In addition to the high rate of natural increase, Syria had been a popular place for refugees from the war next door in Iraq. The demographic pressure was bound to bring problems at some time, but as we know that has been overtaken by events. Today's story in the New York Times about internally displaced refugees within Syria--on top of those who have fled the country--is incredibly depressing in terms of future prospects for the country.
Some five million Syrians are now refugees in their own country, many living hand-to-mouth in vacant buildings, schools, mosques, parks and the cramped homes of relatives. Others are trapped in neighborhoods isolated by military blockades, beyond the reach of aid groups. Already desperately short of food and medicine as winter closes in, they could begin to succumb in greater numbers to hunger and exposure, aid workers say.
The long civil war has forced two million Syrians outside the country‘s borders, but more than twice that number face mounting privations at home, and the toll keeps rising. The deepening humanitarian crisis threatens to set the country’s development back decades and dwarfs any aid effort that could conceivably be carried out while the conflict continues, aid workers and analysts say.
It is impossible to contemplate the struggle that is going to be required after conflict ends--whenever that is--to rebuild the country, especially since we can anticipate that one of the first sets of things that will happen be that hospitals will re-open and death rates will mercifully go down, while birth rates may rise, and the return of refugees will build up the demographic pressure, but in a truly beaten-down economy.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Arab Spring Turns to Egyptian Thoughts of Springing

The hopes and high aspirations that most Egyptians had for a new government, a revived economy, and thus a better life have been heavily dampened by the military government's slow return of the government to the people after ousting President Morsi. In a scenario that seems not unlike what we've seen in Greece, the New York Times reports on the sentiment of many Egyptians that it is time to emigrate.
Egypt has surrendered citizens to more prosperous countries for generations, unable to provide much hope or opportunity at home. But like Mr. Hashem, many Egyptians who say they are joining a new exodus had been loath to give up on their country; some had postponed the urge to leave, hoping the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 would pave the way to a better life. 
Their change of heart signals a dark moment. Many people said they saw no end to the conflict between the military and its Islamist opponents, and no place for those who did not profess loyalty to either one.
Now, to be sure, the reports of emigration are premature, but the intention seems clearly to be rising:
There is no statistical evidence that more people are emigrating, and the notion remains far from the reach of most Egyptians, reserved for those with the qualifications or connections to find opportunities abroad. In interviews over several days, though, people said their conversations had turned more frequently, and urgently, to leaving; those who considered travel possible were just deciding when.
And, of course, the point is that precipitating a brain drain of the best and the brightest--often those with the greatest chances of migrating--is no way to run a government. But, that's the whole problem, isn't it?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Refugees on the Receiving End

I cannot imagine that anyone in the world wants to be a refugee--to be displaced against your will, and probably permanently, from your home. The United Nations estimates that there are currently about 15 million refugees in the world, not counting internally displaced persons. The best hope they probably have is to someday make it to one of the richer countries of the world, where life might be better, although probably not easy. KPBS of San Diego aired a story this week about one girl's transition from Africa to San Diego, and how a project to provide second-hand bikes to refugees has been a positive part of that transition.
"I was born in Sudan but I’m from Uganda," Okello [age 15] explained. "I lived at Kakuma camp. I lived there for 10 years."
She lived at the refugee camp in the Horn of Africa alongside 110,000 other refugees who had fled wars in neighboring countries. "Kakuma" is said to mean “nowhere” in Swahili.

Conditions were harsh, Okello recalled.
"We didn’t have enough clean water. We had to walk a really long distance to get clean water, which wouldn’t even last us two days," Okello said.
Having a bicycle to get around wasn’t even a dream for her back then.

Okello’s story isn’t unique. Many of the 3,500 other refugees who relocate to San Diego County every year from around the world share a similar background. Most have suffered greatly before moving here. The average stay in a refugee camp is 17 years.
Okella and her family moved in 2008 from Kakuma Campa to City Heights -- San Diego’s hub for refugee resettlement.
"I’m very grateful," Okello said. "I have a bed, I have enough food to eat and I have a family who has time to spend with me."
In my book, I specifically address the issue of Iraqi refugees to San Diego County, who tend to cluster spatially in a different part of the county. The lives of refugees like Edith Okello from Africa, and the people who help them and work with them, will all be different in the future because of these kinds of adaptations and accommodations to geopolitical events--typically complicated by demographic change--in faraway places.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Japanese Economy Needs its Older Workers

Japan has remained steadfast to the idea that immigration is not a solution to the "problem" of its aging population. So, what to do? An article just published in the open source journal Demographic Research lays out a policy initiative--keep older workers in the labor force while giving them the new skills they need to remain economically productive. The authors, by the way, are long-time experts on the demography and economy of Japan and need to be listened to.
In spite of the aging of the population and increasing life expectancy, many Japanese companies maintain mandatory retirement policies at the relatively young age of 60. The Japanese government is currently attempting to encourage firms to increase the mandatory retirement age to 65. The Law Concerning Stabilization of Employment of Older Persons, passed in 2004, requires firms to increase the age of mandatory retirement to 65; however, no penalties were specified for noncompliance and to date few companies have complied.
Given these long term trends and projections of future demographic change, it is easy to understand the importance of high labor force participation rates among older men and women. It is equally important for older workers to maintain and enhance their human capital if they are going to continue to make substantial contributions to the national output.
Although people are forced to retire at a relatively young age in Japan, the labor force participation rate among males 65 and older in Japan is higher than in Europe, but they tend to go into part-time work that is much less productive economically. The authors suggest that everyone needs to have a higher level of financial literacy in order to understand what the future may hold for them. Indeed, everyone needs some sort of lifelong learning (my term, not theirs, although it seems to be what they are saying) in order to be in a position to contribute to a company's bottom line well into old age. Since there are ever-fewer young Japanese coming along to run the nation's businesses, this is probably the only policy that has any chance of successfully maintaining the nation's standard of living.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Air Pollution in China--Not the Way Forward

China's communist government has organized a capitalist revolution over the past two or three decades, aided by the country's demographic dividend, and by a general neglect of the environmental consequences of industrialization. There was, of course, the widely publicized fact that the US Embassy in Beijing keeps an air pollution monitor on its roof and it periodically goes off the chart with high levels, but everyday life is still bad, even if the pollution level is low enough to be read by the monitor. I thought of that this week when when my older son, John was visiting Beijing and reported that this was the first hotel room he had ever been in (and he travels extensively) that had a gas mask along with the usual hotel room accroutements such as shoe horn, slippers and robe. And, indeed, today we learned that the northern Chinese city of Harbin has incredibly high levels of air pollution. Here's a comment from a reporter for Time magazine:
The intensification of the smog has to do with weather—as temperatures dip in more northern cities like Harbin, the coal plants that provide most of China’s energy and heat kick into overdrive. (It doesn’t help that in 1950, the Chinese government declared that everyone who lived north of China’s Huai River and Qinling Mountains—which includes major cities like Harbin, Shenyang and Beijing—could receive coal-powered heating for free.) The pollution was so bad that the police had to close off highways and the provincial airport because of accidents, while admissions into Harbin’s hospital spiked because of patients with breathing problems.
The New York Times noted that:
The Harbin government reported an air quality index (AQI) score of 500, the highest possible reading, with some neighborhoods posting concentrations of PM2.5 — fine particulate matter that are 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller and especially harmful to health — as high as 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter, according to the China News Service.
(By comparison, the air quality index in New York was 41 on Monday morning.)
Avoiding the cleanup costs of these environmental catastrophes cannot be a long-term policy of the Chinese government. At some point, the economic playing field will have to be leveled with the western nations that are at least a bit more attentive to air pollution than this. It is regularly repeated that China will grow old before it grows rich. It may also grow sick before it grows old.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Teaching Children to Think

Time after time, the most important predictor of demographic phenomena is education. But this does not mean rote learning. It means learning to think--learning how to learn, to question things, and to put complex ideas together. All of the signs over the past years have suggested that the US and some of the other western nations--some of the leaders of the Enlightenment in earlier periods of time--have fallen behind in this regard. This week's Economist takes on this topic in a couple of different ways, including a review of a new book called "The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way," by Amanda Ripley.
Children succeed in classrooms where they are expected to succeed. Schools work best when they operate with a clarity of mission: as places to help students master complex academic material (not as sites dedicated to excellence in sport, she hastens to add). When teachers demand rigorous work, students often rise to the occasion, whereas tracking students at different cognitive levels tends to “diminish learning and boost inequality”. Low expectations are often duly rewarded.
I grew up in this kind of an era when you were expected to succeed in school, teachers demanded rigorous work, and students were expected to keep up. The country seems to have given up on this idea, for a lot of reasons that I do not claim to fully understand. But one of the real issues is that until quite recently, the country expected that you would get excellent teachers in the classroom without having to pay very much money because it was one of the few good jobs available to women. Now women have many more career opportunities, yet school districts around the country have not really adjusted to that fact. A second issue, of course, is that the rapid rise in immigration since the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act has altered the demographic composition of schools, thus increasing the challenges within schools at the same time that a smaller fraction of the best undergraduates have been choosing teaching as a career.

The answer, in my opinion, is that we have to recognize these key underlying demographic changes in both student and teacher demographics and wake up to the fact that, as a nation, we need to apply significantly greater resources to K-12 education than we are now doing. While it may hurt a bit now economically, it will hurt even more later if we don't make that commitment.

Friday, October 18, 2013


An article published today in the international edition of the New York Times talks about the phenomenon of "rurbanization" in India. I admit that I had never heard the term used, and my computer didn't like it, either, since it immediately corrected the spelling to "urbanization." The situation in India is described as follows:
The 2011 census saw the unprecedented reclassification of 2,774 rural settlements – many, like Agraula, on the cusp of megacities — into “census towns,” for a total of 3,894. These towns are considered urban for census purposes because they meet three criteria: their population exceeds 5,000, population density is above 400 people per square kilometer, and more than 75 percent of the male workforce is employed outside of agriculture. The size of this category grew more in the last decade than it had in the entire 20th century.
Such reclassification alone accounted for almost a third of the increase in India’s officially recognized urban population since 2001. For the first time since independence, India’s urban population grew more in a decade – adding 91 million people since 2001 for a total of 377 million in 2011 — than its rural population, which grew 90.5 million, for a total of 833 million.
A quick Google search showed that the term "rurbanization" has been around a long time, but I don't personally care for it. The process is really part of urbanization because rural places are transitioning to urban characteristics, whereas "rurbanization" implies to me that urban places are taking on rural characteristics, which rarely happens (except perhaps in Detroit, where abandoned urban property has reverted to its natural state). My colleagues and I currently have funding from NASA to use satellite imagery along with census and survey data to better understand the transition of rural places to urban places--part of a gradient or continuum from completely rural to completely urban. I don't think that we are going to relabel our research as focusing on "rurbanization".  On the other hand, the transition from rural to urban uses, created by urban sprawl all over the world, is a huge issue because these are among the places that will absorb a huge fraction of the global increase in population over the next few decades. For this reason alone, we need to improve our knowledge of what's happening there.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Slavery Persists in the 21st Century

The Walk Free Foundation based in Perth, Australia, has just published a report on slavery in the world today. These are not good numbers, as pointed out by the author in an interview on NPR today.
The Walk Free Foundation's ranking incorporates factors that include the traditional definition of slavery — owning another person — as well as things such as child marriage and human trafficking.
Here are the highlights of the report:
— India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Russia, Thailand, Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar and Bangladesh together account for more than three-quarters of the total estimate.
— The West African nation of Mauritania tops the list. It has the highest estimated proportion of enslaved people in the world. The report says there are between 140,000 and 160,000 people enslaved in Mauritania. That's out of a population of just 3.8 million.
— India has the most slaves (between 13.3 million and 14.7 million people), followed by China (2.8 million to 3.1 million) and Pakistan (2 million to 2.2 million).
A particular problem, and one which seems to be growing, is the exploitation of migrants looking for work. It is always amazing to me what some humans are willing to do to other humans.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Where the Hungry Are

Joshua Keating has a great post on Slate today highlighting a recent report on world hunger from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington, DC. IFPRI has created a Global Global Hunger Index which measures malnutrition in countries based on three factors: the percentage of people who are undernourished, the proportion of children who are underweight, and the child mortality rate. Their latest index uses data from 2010-2012.
Though there are still roughly 870 million hungry people in the world, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the trends are positive overall, with global hunger falling by one-third since 1990. According to the IFPRI, hunger fell most dramatically between 1990 and 1995, then slowed in the late 1990s, then began to fall again after 1995. South Asia still has the highest Hunger Index score of any region though it has also seen the steepest decline:

The spatial pattern of hunger follows the spatial pattern of high mortality and high fertility, and while that is obviously not surprising (especially given the variables that comprise the IFPRI index), it is a reminder of why it is so important to bring both fertility and mortality under control throughout the world.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Bay of Bengal as a Population Basin

Since water covers the majority of the earth's surface, it plays a big role in the lives of humans, even though we are land-based. Specific bodies of water seem almost to embody a sense of culture, such as the Mediterranean or the Caribbean and...the Bay of Bengal, as discussed in a recent op-ed in the New York Times by Sunil S. Amrith from Birkbeck College of the University of London and the author of “Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants.”
NEARLY one in four people on earth live in the countries that border the Bay of Bengal. The region is strategically vital to Asia’s rising powers. Its low-lying littoral — including coastal regions of eastern India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Sumatra — is home to over half a billion people who are now acutely vulnerable to rising sea levels. Storms are a constant threat; over the weekend, a cyclone, Phailin, swept in from the bay to strike the coastal Indian state of Odisha, leading to the evacuation of some 800,000 people.
The bay was once a maritime highway between India and China, and then was shaped by monsoons and migration as European powers exploited the region for its coffee, tea and rubber. Today the bay is being reshaped again by the forces of population growth and climate change.
But what particularly caught my eye in the article was the reference to Rohingya Muslim migrants from Myanmar (Burma):
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that since 2012, more than 13,000 people have tried to cross the Bay of Bengal in smugglers’ boats destined for Malaysia and Thailand. Hundreds have died in the attempts; those who survive the journey face a harsh reception. Most of the refugees are Rohingya from coastal Myanmar, escaping a toxic mix of communal violence, political disenfranchisement and environmental threats. They are the most recent in a long line of people who have risked their lives to cross the bay.
Just today in class, in the context of a discussion of Courbage and Todd's book on the Convergence of Civilizations, a student pointed me to a recent article about the plight of the Rohingya, whose high fertility has caused the ire of their neighbors in Burma, and they seem not to have generally been well received as refugees in Bangladesh, where the parliament was recently contemplating forcing them to accept birth control in exchange for food.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Great Escape From Early Death

This week's Economist has two book reviews that, while seemingly unrelated, actually help to tell parts of the same story. The first is a book about Bach and his music, written by the great English conductor, John Eliot Gardiner. 
Surprisingly little is known about Bach’s personal life. He was acquainted with grief. Orphaned at the age of nine, he lost his first wife, Maria Barbara, after 13 years of marriage. Of the seven children he had with her, four died before him. His second wife, Anna Magdalena, bore him 13 more children, but only six survived into adulthood.
High fertility and high mortality--that was life in the 18th century, before the Age of Enlightenment had helped to spawn the revolutions in science and technology that propelled the world forward. That propulsion forward is the story by Princeton Economist Angus Deaton (a native of Scotland, so the UK is well represented in these books). His book is "The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality."
IS THE world becoming a fairer as well as a richer place? Few economists are better equipped to answer this question than Angus Deaton of Princeton University, who has thought hard about measuring international well-being and is not afraid to roam through history. Refreshingly, Mr Deaton also reaches beyond a purely economic narrative to encompass often neglected dimensions of progress such as better health. “The Great Escape” he has in mind is the one from early death as well as deprivation that had begun with Britain’s industrial revolution. Mr Deaton’s account is broadly optimistic though he is careful to portray the casualties as well as the victors.
While I make take exception to the idea that progress in health is "often neglected," it is a story that can't be told often enough. And other parts of the story are also familiar, but worth the retelling:
If the overall trend is encouraging, though, the list of countries lagging behind has grown longer. Countries and individuals who get going leave others behind. That inevitable consequence of progress can be beneficial by spurring the laggards to catch up. But Mr Deaton worries about recent trends in America where the rewards from economic growth are increasingly and visibly monopolised by the very well-off, leaving living standards for the majority stagnating. For Mr Deaton, America serves as an example of the economic and political threats to well-being that come from plutocracy.
This is completely consistent with the news from a few weeks ago that almost all of the economic gains in the US over the past few years have been confined to the small percentage at the top of the income ladder.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Plant-Based Diet is Good for You and the Planet

Kaiser Permanente is the largest HMO in the country and, as a member, I know that it emphasizes prevention since, unlike fee-for-service plans, it keeps more of its members' monthly contributions for itself if they are healthy, rather than by profiting from their illnesses--which is the model for most other providers. So, it is very interesting and important that Kaiser has recently endorsed a plant-based diet (essentially a vegan diet) as a way to improve your health.
“Research shows that plant-based diets are cost-effective, low-risk interventions that may lower body mass index, blood pressure, HbA1C, and cholesterol levels. They may also reduce the number of medications needed to treat chronic diseases and lower ischemic heart disease mortality rates. Physicians should consider recommending a plant-based diet to all their patients, especially those patients with high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or obesity).
Of all the diets recommended over the last few decades to turn the tide of these chronic illnesses, the best but perhaps least common may be those that are plant based…Despite the strong body of evidence favoring plant-based diets, including studies showing a willingness of the general public to embrace them, many physicians are not stressing the importance of plant-based diets as a first-line treatment for chronic illnesses. This could be because of a lack of awareness of these diets or a lack of patient education resources.
On top of this, we were recently reminded of the progress being made to make leather (and even meat, for that matter) in the laboratory, rather than needing to raise and kill animals. That alone would be an enormous boost for the environment because pasture land could be used for other things, food that now is grown for animals could be grown for humans, and cow manure would no longer contribute methane gas to the environment. 

Yet another reason to avoid meat is that animals are "people" too, meaning that they are sentient creatures with intelligence and emotion. The research-based story that "dogs are people too" has been making the rounds on the news, and here in San Diego we were reminded recently that tigers are people too (get your hankies out for this story). 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Yet More Warnings About the Danger of Overpopulation

When Malthus penned his Essay on Population in 1798 he was concerned only with the possibility that population growth would exceed the food supply, leading to "misery," by which he meant higher death rates and poverty. And, of course, his Natural Law of Population was wrong, because as Darwin realized after reading Malthus, all living things have the power of geometric growth, not just humans. And, indeed, because of human ability to apply science to agriculture, the food supply has more or less kept up with population growth, although it is not clear that we can keep it up much longer. As it turned out, however, Malthus had not reckoned with the ability of humans to damage the environment and make the planet an unlivable place. That possibility seems to be the main thrust of a new book reviewed in today's New York Times--"Countdown" by journalist Alan Weisman. Weisman is also featured in an interview about his book on Huffington Post, and I referred to it a month ago, as well, but it is important enough to bear repeating, in my opinion.

There is nothing new in Weisman's book, as nearly as I can tell (full disclosure--I have not read the book, so I could be wrong about that), but the theme is of obvious importance, and the more people who get that message, by whatever means, the more likely it is that we will finally wake up and do something about this. As I also mentioned before, this is the subtext of Dan Brown's bestseller "Inferno," in which (spoiler alert!) a vector virus is loosed upon the world by a genius lunatic, with the goal of randomly inducing sterility in humans to lower the birth rate, since humans won't act quickly enough on their own.

On the side of trying more sanely to do something about this, there is a cyberseminar going on at Columbia University's Population-Environment Research Network (PERN). You can participate by sending an email to:

Thursday, October 10, 2013

US Government Shutdown Workaround

When the US Government shut down last week, I noted that the first impact I felt was from the shutdown of the US Census Bureau website. Beth Jarosz quickly commented on that with suggestions for where people could go for some of the "missing" data. I didn't reply to that because I was hoping the shutdown would be short-lived and we didn't want to give anyone a reason to think that bringing the government back online wasn't necessary. However, D'Vera Cohn at the Pew Research Center have taken Beth's suggestions and made them very public, so I'm going to point you to those ideas for finding data--which are always good, no matter whether the government is shut down or not. As Beth had noted, the Census website is archived, and since that had been my focus (since other websites discussed are up and running), here is the info about that:
First, an archived version of the Census Bureau’s site (and of other government websites as well) is available through the handy Wayback Machine internet archive. Click on the agency logo to get to the archived site, and (ignoring the message that the site is down) click on the section you are looking for. Not all features will work well, and because it is archived, the site may not have all the content that was available just before shutdown. As of yesterday, the Census Bureau’s archived site seems to have been captured in early August – at least, that’s when the latest news release appears.
Others have stepped up to help out in the emergency:
For users with beginner or intermediate knowledge about statistics and census data, the Social Explorer website (distributed by Oxford University Press) is providing free access (offered for two weeks starting Oct. 4, if you request a username and password) to its current and historical census data and maps, which normally require a paid subscription to get more than basic numbers. The site has decennial census data back to 1790, and American Community Survey data through 2012.
And here is one of my favorites:
For users with beginner or intermediate knowledge about statistics and census data, there is the Minnesota Population Center’s National Historical Geographic Information System, which provides census data back to 1790 (and includes the 2012 American Community Survey), as well as geographic files (called GIS boundary files) that let you map the data. To gain access, you set up a free account and ask for the data you need, which is emailed to you.
As my own students know, this is actually one of my regular go-to resources, although you have to have reasonably sophisticated statistical and GIS software to make the best use of it.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Demographics of the Government Shutdown

I've mentioned before that, in my view, much of the angst and extreme behavior among right-wing Republicans in the US is a reaction to the changing demographics of the country. That idea found full expression yesterday in a blog post on Bloomberg View by Francis Wilkinson.
A lot of Americans were not ready for a mixed-race president. They weren't ready for gay marriage. They weren't ready for the wave of legal and illegal immigration that redefined American demographics over the past two or three decades, bringing in lots of nonwhites. They weren't ready -- who was? -- for the brutal effects of globalization on working- and middle-class Americans or the devastating fallout from the financial crisis. 
Their representatives didn't stop Obamacare. And their side didn't "take back America" in 2012 as Fox News and conservative radio personalities led them to believe they would. They feel the culture is running away from them (and they're mostly right). They lack the power to control their own government. But they still have just enough to shut it down.
These comments were based, by the way, on data collected by a group of Democrats, headed by Stan Greenberg, a pollster who, in this case, engaged different groups of Republicans in focus groups. The fact that the data come from Democrats may make them suspicious to some, but they have the ring of truth.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Will the US Government Shutdown Lead to Unintended Births or Deaths?

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) is a major contributor to international efforts to bring down death rates and birth rates throughout the developing world. So, is the US government shutdown harming those efforts? So far, the answer is no. The USAID website is business as usual, and the New York Times indicates that this is because foreign aid is considered to be in the national security, and so is funded even when other parts of the government are not--at least for a while. It is not clear how long the money will last. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

California Makes Some Accommodations for Undocumented Immigrants

It has been a busy few legislative days in California, in stark contrast to the shutdown of the US government. Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill a few days ago that will allow undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers licenses (and thus liability insurance), joining several other states (including Connecticut, Illinois, New Mexico, Utah and Washington) that have passed such legislation. Michael Gardner and Elizabeth Aguilera of the San Diego Union-Tribune remind us that in California this is really a reversion to the way it used to be:
For 65 years, California issued licenses without requiring proof of status. But in 1993, lawmakers reacted to a wave of anti-unauthorized immigrant sentiment and passed a law that required applicants to provide documentation.
The licenses will have a special notation and they will not be valid for other identification purposes. It is expected to take a year for the DMV to get this all organized.

A couple of days later, Gov. Brown signed other legislation that would limit the detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants if they are arrested only for a minor crime. He also signed a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to practice law under certain circumstances (aimed partly at limiting the exploitation of immigrants by unscrupulous immigration lawyers).

However, the Governor vetoed a bill that would have allowed non-citizens to serve on juries in California. “Jury service, like voting, is quintessentially a prerogative and responsibility of citizenship,” Brown said in his veto message. That was basically my thought on the subject.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Is Infant Mortality on the Rise in North Carolina?

My son, Greg Weeks, forwarded to me a news report from North Carolina indicating that the infant mortality rate (IMR) in that state rose in 2012 compared to the previous year:
North Carolina health officials say infant mortality in the state increased for the second year in a row in 2012.
The Department of Health and Human Services released figures this week showing about 7.4 babies out of every 1,000 live births died before their first birthday in the state in 2012.
The state had a record low infant mortality rate of 7 in 2010, and it increased to 7.2 out of every 1,000 births in 2011.
The report finds babies born to African-American mothers are now twice as likely to die than babies born to white mothers.
Naturally, I immediately went to the website of the North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics to look at the numbers for myself. Now, to be sure, the rate did rise, and maybe the rise was a real one, but in fact, the difference between the rate of 7.0 infant deaths per 1,000 live births in 2010 and 7.4 in 2012 is not statistically significant. In other words, just by chance alone in a state with about 120,000 births each year, we could expect the rate to fluctuate that much without there being any real underlying difference. 

More striking to me in the numbers was the evidence that, once again, we find that Hispanics have a lower infant mortality rates than do non-Hispanic whites. The single year rate is not statistically significant, but over the span from 2000 through 2012 the IMR for Hispanics was 5.4 per thousand compared to 6.0 for non-Hispanic whites and that is statistically significant. Put another way, were it not for Latino migration to North Carolina, the infant mortality rate would be higher than it currently is.

Friday, October 4, 2013

How to Feed the World in 2050

Given the current population projections out to 2050 (9.6 billion--2.5 billion more than we currently have) and given the fact that we already have nearly a billion billion who are underfed, it is easy to see that agricultural production has to increase dramatically over the next few decades--perhaps double what it is now.  Or does it? A new report out this week by Timothy Wise of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University along with Kristin Sundell and Marie Brill of ActionAidUSA, reminds us that there are other viable policy alternatives. The authors published a summary of their findings on Huffington Post:
Recent research at Tufts University's Global Development and Environment Institute, makes it clear that reliable estimates of current supply, productivity, and demand trends -- assuming business-as-usual policies -- instead suggest the need and the capacity to increase agricultural production by just 60 percent over 2005-7 levels by 2050.
The distinction between food and agricultural production in the statistics cited above is both essential and frequently overlooked. In fact, the failure to distinguish food production from agricultural production obscures the largest single contributor to recent food price spikes: the massive expansion of agricultural biofuel production. This dramatic increase in food, feed, land, and water use for non-food products is a relatively recent phenomenon that has been poorly captured by most economic modeling to date. Few models adequately account for current trends. Even fewer offer policy-makers the information they need to understand the food-security impacts of policies such as the US Renewable Fuel Standard, which contains national mandates that drive biofuels expansion.
As our report makes clear: hunger, now and in the future, is less a matter of inadequate production than inequitable access to food and food-producing resources. The developed world's myopic focus on increasing production is obviously misguided as we simultaneously waste one-third of the food that is produced and pursue a course to devote another 13 percent of cereals to feeding our cars instead of our people.
I agree completely that we need to back away from biofuel production and that we need to invest in distribution systems as well as in agricultural productivity. The fact that we may have to increase production by "only" 60 percent rather than doubling it between now the middle of the century is still a BIG job.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Lived Poverty High in Sub-Saharan Africa

Africa remains the economically least developed region in the world, characterized as well by the world's highest levels of mortality and fertility. But development has been occurring over the past decade and so maybe life was getting better? It seems not, according to a new report from (and thanks to Justin Stoler for pointing me to this). Afrobarometer is a non-profit organization in sub-Saharan Africa (currently headquartered in Ghana), which is an "African-led series of national public attitude surveys on democracy and governance in Africa." Here is the lead-in to the report:
New data from Round 5 of the Afrobarometer, collected across an unprecedented 34 African countries between October 2011 and June 2013, demonstrates that “lived poverty” remains pervasive across the continent. This data, based on the views and experiences of ordinary citizens, counters projections of declining poverty rates that have been derived from official GDP growth rates. For the 16 countries where these questions have been asked over the past decade, we find little evidence for systematic reduction of lived poverty despite average GDP growth rates of 4.8% per year over the same period. 
By way of definition:
As a contribution to the debate about poverty in Africa, the Afrobarometer offers the Lived Poverty Index (LPI), an experiential measure that consists of a series of survey questions that measure how frequently people actually go without basic necessities during the course of a year. It measures a portion of the central core of the concept of poverty that is not well captured by existing measures, and thus offers an important complement to official statistics on poverty and development.
These data are consistent with results that our research team has produced, based on our Women's Health Study of Accra and a subset of respondents in the Time Use and Health Survey. Accra is one of the more prosperous capital cities in West Africa, yet we found that half of the respondents in a stratified random sample of households were living on less than $2 per day (Fink, G., J. R. Weeks, and A. G. Hill. 2012. Income and Health in Accra, Ghana: Results from the Time Use and Health Study. American Journal of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene 87 (4):608-615).

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Winning the War Against HIV/AIDS--Slowly

HIV/AIDS got its start in sub-Saharan Africa and Africa still is the global hotspot with 70 percent of the cases. That's the bad news. The good news is that, as this week's Economist put it: "in the battle between virus and people, people are winning." That assessment was drawn from the recently released "UNAIDS report on the global AIDS epidemic 2013."
Though AIDS is not beaten (it still kills 1.6m people a year), this number is down from a peak of 2.3m in 2005. And the number of new infections per year has fallen by a third, to 2.3m, since 2001. Paradoxically, the number of those infected is rising. But this is because they are living longer. These trends are mostly the result of the spread of antiretroviral drugs, which are now taken by almost 10m people.
Africa’s men have also responded enthusiastically to the discovery that circumcision vastly reduces the risk of infection. Some 1.7m a year of them are now having their foreskins snipped off in 14 countries looked at by UNAIDS.
The Economist does not mention condoms (the widespread use of which would, of course, dramatically cut down on transmission), but the UNAIDS report does spend time on the efforts to promote condom use, noting that:
Recent trends (since 2000) in sexual behaviour, demonstrated in most countries, continue to indicate that more people are adopting safer sexual behaviours. Knowledge regarding the prevention of HIV transmission has increased amongst young people; the proportion of 15–24 year olds who have had sex before 15 years is decreasing; condom use has risen amongst people with multiple sexual partners; and the proportion of young people who have received an HIV test and learned their results has also increased.
However, the trend is not universal across countries, so there is a lot of work still to do.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Government Shutdown = Census Website Shutdown

I have no patience for members of Congress who want to shut down most government functions rather than accept the fact that the Affordable Care Act was legally passed by Congress and already upheld by the Supreme Court. Like most people, I'm not really sure how this legislation is going to work in  practice, but I was stunned by members of Congress commenting on camera over the past few days that "Obamacare isn't working." Well, no, it hadn't yet gone into effect.

In all events, the government is currently shut down and many people are not yet sure how this is going to impact them. We demographers know immediately what the damage is--the Census Bureau shut down its website!! One of the world's most important sources of information is unavailable and it hurts...and I was just about to figure out how to use the "new" American Factfinder...

If you didn't already have a good reason to hammer your member of Congress to get their collective act together, this is it. The government really does work for us, as long as the funding is there.