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 12th (it came out in 2015), 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.

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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.

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