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:

Friday, January 31, 2014

Drinking Yourself to Death

Russian men have the lowest life expectancy of any group in the "global north." It has long been assumed that this is the result of excessive use of alcohol, especially vodka, and a study just published in The Lancet and reported on BBC News lends substantial weight to that idea.

The researchers summarize their methods as follows:
In three Russian cities (Barnaul, Byisk, and Tomsk), we interviewed 200 000 adults during 1999—2008 (with 12 000 re-interviewed some years later) and followed them until 2010 for cause-specific mortality. In 151 000 with no previous disease and some follow-up at ages 35—74 years, Poisson regression (adjusted for age at risk, amount smoked, education, and city) was used to calculate the relative risks associating vodka consumption with mortality. We have combined these relative risks with age-specific death rates to get 20-year absolute risks.
And the BBC succinctly summarizes the findings:
The study, in The Lancet, says 25% of Russian men die before they are 55, and most of the deaths are down to alcohol. The comparable UK figure is 7%. Causes of death include liver disease and alcohol poisoning. Many also die in accidents or after getting into fights.
The researchers also drew on previous studies in which families of 49,000 people who had died were asked about their loved ones' drinking habits.

The study also showed that alcohol-related deaths fluctuated in tandem with tighter or looser restrictions on, and higher or lower prices of, vodka in Russia, helping to establish a model of cause and effect. So, just as public policy has led to a decline in smoking in the US and now elsewhere, so it seems that public policy will be required to bring excess vodka drinking under control in Russia. This will probably happen after the Winter Olympics, rather than before.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Pakistan's Birth Rate Not Declining as Quickly as Expected

The 2013 Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) results were released this week, but the report seemed not to attract much attention. This is both strange and unfortunate. Pakistan is the world's 6th most populous nation, and UN Population Division projections suggest that it will still be 6th by mid-century. However, those projections estimate that even now the total fertility rate in Pakistan has declined from 6 children each all the way into the 1990s to 3.2 children each now. The US Census Bureau's projections suggest an even lower birth rate. The problem is this: The 2013 Pakistan DHS revealed that the TFR is 3.8, not 3.2. Yes, it is coming down, but not very fast, especially considering that infant and child mortality rates--while still among the highest in the world--are declining. Women start having children young, and are very unlikely themselves to use contraception until relying on sterilization after reaching (or exceeding) the number of children wanted.
The proportion of currently married women who are currently using any method of contraception rises with age from only 10 percent among women age 15-19 to 48 percent among age 35-39. The use of contraception then declines for women who are 40 years and above. The most popular method among women under 35 years is condoms, followed by the withdrawal method; among women age 35 and above, female sterilization is the most widely practiced method. 
These low levels of contraceptive use among younger women, in particular, are somewhat at odds with the survey finding that men and women alike are interested in at least delaying, if not avoiding, additional births. This suggests that there is a nearly classic case in Pakistan of an unmet need for birth control. This is typically the result of governmental ambivalence, if not antagonism, to the provision of fertility control methods.

The UN medium variant projections suggest that Pakistan will add more than 80 million people between now and 2050, whereas the high fertility projection suggests the addition of 120 million, but even that high variant assumes lower fertility than was found in the latest DHS survey. Back to the drawing board, I think. The future is going to be a bit different than we thought.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Does Your Brain Slow Down as You Age?

One of the big issues of an aging population is the belief that older people are, by nature, less productive than younger people. One of the symptoms often presented to support that idea is that older people tend to be a bit slower in response to some mental activities. But now comes research, reported by the National Geographic, that puts a different spin on this. The story begins with Michael Ramscar, a linguistics researcher at the University of Tübingen in Germany:
His research, published in the January 2014 issue of Topics in Cognitive Science, argues that studies on memory ask the wrong questions. It could be that older, wiser heads are so chock full of knowledge that it simply takes longer to retrieve the right bits. (It's important to note that the research is aimed at healthy, aging brains, not those afflicted with Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia, which rob the brain of memory and other abilities.)
There's no denying that older people have acquired more experience and information than younger people, says Denise Park, co-director of the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas at Dallas, whose research focuses on how the mind changes and adapts as people age. "As we age we accrue knowledge, have a higher vocabulary score, and know more about the world," says Park. "There's a reason we don't have 20-year-olds running the world."
Her conclusion: "I strongly believe that our everyday performance does not decline with age." That's because as the ability to retrieve memories quickly declines, the brain is still building up stores of knowledge from which to draw.
This all makes a lot of sense to me. Now, let's see, what was I saying?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Is There Hope for the Passage of an Immigration Bill in the US?

The New York Times led with a headline today (prior to President Obama's State of the Union Address) that top Republicans in Congress were calling for legal status (albeit not citizenship) for at least some undocumented immigrants. Furthermore, I noticed that during the State of the Union Address this evening there were Republicans, notably Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who were clapping when President Obama talked about getting immigration reform through Congress. However, a more careful reading of the NYTimes article dampens (but does not destroy) one's enthusiasm for the idea that anything will, in fact, get through Congress this year.
With concern already brewing among conservatives who call any form of legal status “amnesty,” the document has the feel more of an attempt to test the waters than a blueprint for action. House Republican leaders will circulate it at a three-day retreat for their members that begins Wednesday on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Several pro-immigration organizations that have been briefed on the guidelines say they are not intended to serve as a conservative starting point for future negotiations, but as a gauge of how far to the left House Republicans are willing to move.
The principles say that Republicans do not support a “special path to citizenship,” but make an exception for the “Dreamers,” the immigrants brought into the country illegally as children, quoting a 2013 speech by Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader. “One of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents,” Mr. Cantor said at the time. “It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home.”
On the Democratic side, a major question is whether those pushing for a broad immigration overhaul would accept any Republican proposal that falls short of full citizenship for immigrants who are now here illegally. President Obama has said he wants any new immigration legislation to include a path to citizenship for both children and adults.
My own view is that governance is about compromise, and if legal status rather than citizenship is the compromise that will get the legislation passed, and will bring people out of the shadows and into a position where they can defend their rights, then I think that's a good start. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

A "New" View of What it Takes to Get Ahead

One of the themes of the recent World Economic Forum in Davos was income inequality, and it is anticipated that President Obama's State of the Union Address tomorrow will also have that as a theme. Into this discussion has come a new book titled "Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America." Although the book will not technically be out for a week or so, it is featured in this week's TIME and the authors have an article in yesterday's New York Times Sunday Review. The authors have bona fides as successful people. Amy Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld both graduated from Harvard Law School and both hold named chairs at Yale Law School. First, though, is the critical view from Suketu Mehta in TIME:
Her new book, co-authored with her husband, widens its aim [from her previous book on being a "Tiger Mom"], purporting to explain why not just Asians (like Chua) but also seven other groups--Cubans, Jews (like Rubenfeld), Indians (like me), Nigerians, Mormons, Iranians and Lebanese--are superior when it comes to succeeding in America.
The book claims that these groups thrive because of three traits: a superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control. The ones lacking the "Triple Package" are African Americans, Appalachians, Wasps and pretty much everybody else.
Now, the authors themselves:
MOST fundamentally, groups rise and fall over time. The fortunes of WASP elites have been declining for decades. In 1960, second-generation Greek-Americans reportedly had the second-highest income of any census-tracked group. Group success in America often tends to dissipate after two generations. Thus while Asian-American kids overall had SAT scores 143 points above average in 2012 — including a 63-point edge over whites — a 2005 study of over 20,000 adolescents found that third-generation Asian-American students performed no better academically than white students.
The authors are lawyers, not social scientists, but their scholarship did nonetheless lead them to my good friend, Rubén Rumbaut, at the University of California, Irvine:
A central finding in a study of more than 5,000 immigrants’ children led by the sociologist Rubén G. Rumbaut was how frequently the kids felt “motivated to achieve” because of an acute sense of obligation to redeem their parents’ sacrifices. Numerous studies, including in-depth field work conducted by the Harvard sociologist Vivian S. Louie, reveal Chinese immigrant parents frequently imposing exorbitant academic expectations on their children (“Why only a 99?”), making them feel that “family honor” depends on their success.
My own view--based on a WASP heritage, from both sides, of immigrants from England and Wales in the 19th century--is that there is only one element at work, and that is self-discipline. Children might learn this on their own, but mainly they are going to learn it from their parents. Immigrant parents are self-selected in this regard and so we can expect a higher fraction of them than the general populace to be tuned in to this. But it transcends culture in the abstract, and gets us down to the culture in the home. That's a big for another day.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Populations at Risk in the Central African Republic

A land-locked sub-Saharan Africa country with Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Chad as neighbors is likely to have a hard go of it, and the Central African Republic has been struggling ever since its independence from France in 1960. It is home to an estimated 4.7 million people, a large fraction of whom are displaced by violence, including threats of genocide. There was hope this week, though, that the country's first female President might be a change for the better, as The Atlantic reported (and this report includes a good synopsis of the history of the situation):
On Thursday, the Central African Republic swore its first female president, Catherine Samba-Panza, into office, with the interim leader vowing to “safeguard the peace” and “strengthen national unity” without “any ethnic, regional, or religious considerations.” It’s a selection that, coming on the heels the European Union’s decision to deploy troops to the country, has prompted speculation that the humanitarian disaster that has plagued the heart of Africa in recent months may be drawing to a close.
Sectarian violence of Christians versus Muslims has been especially problematic, as noted by the Guardian:
With thousands dead and atrocities on both sides, UN officials warned that the cycle of reprisals was at high risk of degenerating into a genocide. Overwhelmed, Michel Djotodia, the country's first Muslim president,walked away after nine dismal months. Enter Samba-Panza, 59. Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society in the UK, said: "In a such a time you might expect a macho man to create a dictatorship and take control. Instead they elected a woman and it might be the answer."
It is difficult to imagine the future for a country in which women are having more than six children each (although nearly 2 in 10 children born will die before reaching age 5), and in which life expectancy is in the high 40s--among the very lowest in the world. This is compounded by high HIV infection rates. In general, it is a very young population trying to find work in an economy dominated by subsistence agriculture. President Samba-Panza (a Christian) has her work cut out for her, without question.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Reproductive "Tourism" to Iran

Iran's demographics are becoming increasingly "European"--higher than average life expectancy and below replacement level fertility. The drop in fertility is recent, so there is still a youth bulge, and the older population is still a small fraction of the population, but the trends are moving in the right direction. However, a new twist on reproductive issues in Iran was brought up this week on PRI's The World:
Iran is actually a leader in the field of fertility treatment — attracting couples looking for in vitro fertilization, or IVF, from all over the Middle East. And it's all due to support from the Ayatollahs. 
Demand for IVF is high in Iran, in part because more women are waiting to get married and have families until they're in their 30s and 40s, said Azadeh Moaveni, an Iranian-American who wrote abou this in "The Islamic Republic of Baby-Making" for Foreign Policy magazine.
The story is particularly interesting because Moaveni argues that the government had pushed for a high birth rate during Iran's several year war with Iraq. When that war ended, the Ayatollahs realized that the economy needed to be rebuilt and that large families weren't necessarily the best way to do that. So, the government encouraged a broad approach of encouraging small families while at the same time working to help infertile couples have children. The birth rate in fact dropped rapidly, causing some alarm to Iran's previous President, Ahmadinejad, who in 2010 proposed a set of prontalalist policies. It seems that not many Iranians took him up on those offers, but in vitro fertilization is at least consistent with pronatalism.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Changing Demographics of Education

My thanks to Duane Miller for alerting me to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education discussing (perhaps lamenting?) the impact that the changing demographics in the US might have on private liberal arts colleges (and universities more generally).
Demographic projections have inspired doomsayers and daydreamers alike. The sky-is-falling contingent says the declining number of white, affluent high-school graduates will sink many tuition-dependent colleges. Meanwhile, optimistic observers predict that population shifts will compel institutions to transform themselves by embracing underrepresented students like never before.
As any admissions officer could tell you, the number of high-school graduates in several Midwestern and Northeastern states will drop sharply over the next decade, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. Nationally, the number of black and white students will decline, and the number of Hispanic and Asian-American graduates will increase significantly. The nation's already seeing a sharp rise in first-generation and low-income graduates—the very students whom selective four-year institutions have long struggled to serve.
In my view, the situation is far more complex than this article implies. While the number of affluent white students graduating from high school may be on the way down, the number of students is not declining. Furthermore, we have a growing need for better educated young people who can become economically productive, at the same time that the public is shying away from funding public schools to the extent required. This is pushing costs up at public as well as private colleges and universities. In theory, there should be no difference in the cost of educating someone at either a public or a private university--the difference is in the extent to which taxpayers subsidize the public universities. I am at a large state-"assisted" university in which we are able annually to accept fewer than ten percent of the students who apply. 

A bigger issue, in my mind, is teacher preparation for the K-12 years. Almost all education at this level is taxpayer supported and we simply don't reward these teachers sufficiently well to be able to recruit the best and brightest. For decades the local schools were able to attract highly talented women to teach for not very much money because there were not many other options available to them. That is no longer true, yet we pretend that it is. In my view--and in the view of many of the people commenting on this Chronicle article--we need to worry less about college and more about K-12. But to find the money to do this gets us back to our increasing income inequality--who can (or will) pay the bill?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Iraqi Population "Carries On" In the Midst of Continued Violence

Just as the last American troops were leaving Iraq, the civil war in Syria was heating up. Largely for this reason, I think, the continued violence in Iraq has not received a lot of media attention, at least not in the US. Nonetheless, a story in BBC News today reminds us that in 2013 there were nearly 10,000 deaths due to violence in Iraq in a population with roughly the same population size as Canada. So, the BBC asks, why is the population of Iraq continuing to grow rapidly, despite all of these deaths, especially since this is occurring along with a continuing flow of refugees out of the country? Well, this is an easy one, of course, and I hope that you immediately said to yourself--it's the birth rate!
According to Patrick Gerland from the UN's Demographic Estimates and Projections Section, DESA, it's quite simple - there have been many more births than deaths. 
"A lot of families have a relatively large number of children, about four on average, or more." "The end result is that every year you keep adding about 600,000 more people in the country." 
In the past infant mortality was high, but this is no longer the case.
This is, in fact, an almost universal human societal response to disaster--have more kids. It is one of the reasons why fertility is so high throughout sub-Saharan Africa. As life drifts away from modernity and back to the "old days" the motivation to limit fertility seems to subside, in concert of course with the likely disappearance of health programs that provide contraception and other reproductive health services.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Staggering Levels of Income Inequality

The 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos is upon us, and one of the expected themes under discussion is income inequality. In advance of the meeting, Oxfam International has put out a report with their estimates of global income inequality. Their findings, if correct (and I have no reason to believe that they are not) are genuinely staggering: The 85 richest people in the world are as wealthy as the poorest half of the world's 7 billion people. 
Global elites are increasingly becoming richer. Yet the vast majority of people around the world have been excluded from this prosperity. For instance, while stocks and corporate profits soar to new heights, wages as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) have stagnated. To give an indication of the scale of wealth concentration, the combined wealth of Europe’s 10 richest people exceeds the total cost of stimulus measures implemented across the European Union (EU) between 2008 and 2010 (€217bn compared with €200bn).8 Furthermore, post-recovery austerity policies are hitting poor people hard, while making the rich even richer. Austerity is also having an unprecedented impact on the middle classes.
Rich people are pulling further away from everyone else in terms of wealth in many countries. The World Top Incomes Database covers 26 countries, with information on the share of pre-tax income going to the richest one percent since the 1980s (see Figure 1).9 In all but two countries (Colombia and the Netherlands), the share of income of the richest percentile increased – and in Colombia, it stayed at around 20 percent.10 The richest one percent of people in China, Portugal, and the US have more than doubled their share of national income since 1980, and the situation is getting worse.11 Even in more egalitarian countries such as Sweden and Norway, the share of income going to the richest one percent has increased by more than 50 percent. 
It is likely that the full concentration of wealth is in fact even worse, as a significant amount of wealth among those at the top of the scale is hidden away in tax havens. It is estimated that $18.5 trillion is held unrecorded and offshore. 
I admit that I would have loved to see the list of the world's richest people. We know from the Forbes 400 who the richest Americans are--with Bill Gates leading the list, while the Oxfam report mentions only Carlos Slim of Mexico by name. I only say this because it seems as though these richest people should be called out in terms of how they are giving back to their 7 billion neighbors. To his credit, Bill Gates does address the issue in his letter released today.

Monday, January 20, 2014

So Who is a Canadian, eh?

Canada is one of the world's foremost acceptors of immigrants, at least on a per person basis. The US accepts more immigrants than any other country, but Canada's population of 35 million is a little less than California's 38 million. The 2011 census in Canada found that 21 percent of all Canadians are foreign-born. Now, to be fair, the 2010 census in the US found that 27 percent of all Californians are foreign-born. Setting that aside, Canadians have been unusually accepting of immigrants over the years, and yet there is controversy in the works, as noted in this week's Economist.
The Quebec government’s proposed ban [on the wearing of religious symbols by government workers] and the Ontario hospital’s welcome illustrate the poles in the Canadian debate on multiculturalism. Public hearings on the law began on January 14th. Supporters say that the ban is needed to enshrine state secularism; opponents that it is a cynical appeal to xenophobia by the minority provincial government of the Parti Québécois (PQ). Either way, the prediction of Jean-François Lisée, a PQ minister, that the Quebec battle could be the last stand in Canada’s multicultural experiment does not stand up to close scrutiny.
Unlike many Europeans, Canadians believe that immigrants create jobs rather than steal them, says Jeffrey Reitz, a sociologist who has surveyed attitudes in Europe and Canada. This view is partly based on history. Modern Canada was built by successive waves of immigrants, first from Europe and more recently from Asia.
The Quebec dispute is not over numbers of immigrants, but how to accommodate them. In the 1970s Canada officially adopted the creed of “multiculturalism”, a murky concept that celebrates cultural differences at the same time as pushing newcomers to integrate. English-speaking Canadians see multiculturalism as central to their national identity, ranking below universal health care and the Canadian flag in a recent survey by Environics, a research firm, but above ice hockey, the Mounties and the Queen.
You may recall that it was immigrants who "saved" Quebec back in the 1990s by voting against a measure aimed at Quebec's secession from Canada. Without immigrants, Quebec might not even be in Canada. There's a lot of irony there...or maybe pent up anger, eh?

Sunday, January 19, 2014

One-Child Policy in China Still Biting People

Although the Chinese government has loosened the noose a little bit on the one-child policy, there are obviously still abuses, as reported by BBC News
Zhang Rundong is a little boy with big eyes and a serious expression, standing on the edge of the noisy group of children. He is the Zhang family's illegal second son, born in violation of the country's one-child policy.

In retaliation for the boy's birth, officials are withholding his identity papers. Without them, he cannot access healthcare or free education, travel within his country or even use a library.
The fines are large relative to a peasant family's income and since penalties are assessed at the local level, there is a variability in the country in terms of how this is administered.
This month, China's one-child policy was relaxed, allowing some couples to have two children. But nothing has changed for an estimated 10-20 million children already born in violation of the original policy. 
In their simple home, the Zhangs detailed their ongoing battle with the local officials, starting with the failure of Mrs Zhang's government-mandated birth control.
"I was scared when I found out I was pregnant again," she said. "Of course, I was a little bit happy too. So I didn't want the other villagers to find out and force me to abort the baby."
Following their son's secret birth, the couple borrowed from friends and relatives to pay a fine totalling almost $10,000 (£6,100). Across China, more than $3.3bn in similar fines were paid by families in the year 2012 alone - though it is unclear where that money ends up. Critics believe the fines are used as extra income for local governments.
These are, of course, the kinds of human rights abuses that have made the one-child policy so notorious on the world stage. The evidence that I have seen suggests that fertility would remain low in China even without the one-child policy, and these kinds of abuses are further evidence that it is well past time to be rid of the policy.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Rethinking Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a Measure of Well-Being

For the past 70 years Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been the benchmark by which countries measure themselves economically--with the idea that more is always better. In Chapter 11, I discuss some of the problems with this measure, especially its inability to take income inequality (surely a measure of a country's well-being) into account. A recent report by Robert Costanza and his colleagues revisits these issues, but with the emphasis on doing something about it by creating new measures of economic activity that more genuinely reflect what is happening in people's lives. They are, in particular, endorsing a measure of sustainable progress instead of raw economic growth.

Here's the problem:
GDP measures mainly market transactions. It ignores social costs, environmental impacts and income inequality. If a business used GDP-style accounting, it would aim to maximize gross revenue — even at the expense of profitability, efficiency, sustainability or flexibility. That is hardly smart or sustainable (think Enron). Yet since the end of the Second World War, promoting GDP growth has remained the primary national policy goal in almost every country.
Here's one alternative that makes sense to a lot of people:
Adjusted economic measures. These are expressed in monetary units, making them more readily comparable to GDP. Such indices consider annual income, net savings and wealth. Environmental costs and benefits (such as destroying wetlands or replenishing water resources) can also be factored in. One example is the genuine progress indicator (GPI). This metric is calculated by starting with personal consumption expenditures, a measure of all spending by individuals and a major component of GDP, and making more than 20 additions and subtractions to account for factors such as the value of volunteer work and the costs of divorce, crime and pollution.
And here's the hope for a widely agreed upon set of measures:
The chance to dethrone GDP is now in sight. By 2015, the UN is scheduled to announce the Sustainable Development Goals, a set of international objectives to improve global well-being. Developing integrated measures of progress attached to these goals offers the global community the opportunity to define what sustainable well-being means, how to measure it and how to achieve it. Missing this opportunity would condone growing inequality and the continued destruction of the natural capital on which all life on the planet depends.
The Sustainable Development Goals will replace the Millennium Development Goals which were targets more than measures, whereas the Sustainable Development Goals will presumably be sufficiently sophisticated to serve as a genuine replacement for the GDP. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

New Stuff from the UN Population Division

The Population Division of the United Nations has just released a new set of publications on fertility and family planning. For the most part, these are analyses based on the 2012 Revision of World Population Prospects that are available online for you to analyze on your own. However, the advantage of these reports is that the people who put those data together are putting together the analyses and this can be extremely useful--not to mention a lot less trouble than doing it yourself.

Some of the highlights include:

* Fertility Levels and Trends as Assessed in the 2012 Revision of World Population Prospects is a concise analysis of fertility levels and trends in World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision, and includes estimates of the contribution of fertility to future population growth.
Please see

* World Fertility Report 2012 describes changes in key indicators of fertility, marriage and union formation, contraceptive use and relevant population policies for 198 countries over the past 40 years, covering a period of extraordinary change. The report, country profiles and relevant data tables are all available at

* Adolescent Fertility since the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo presents new estimates of the levels and trends in adolescent fertility worldwide over the past 20 years and highlights key social and demographic factors underlying adolescent fertility, including early marriage, the timing and context of first sex, contraceptive use and education. Please see

* Expert Group Meeting on "Fertility, changing population trends and development: challenges and opportunities for the future" brought together experts to address key questions about the future pace of fertility change, implications for age structure changes and other population trends and effective policy responses. A report on the meeting and presentations are available here:, and this includes a set of expert reports.

Now we know how to spend the weekend--enjoy!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Investment Demographics Revisited

My free subscription to John Mauldin's publication "Outside the Box" paid additional dividends today (see here for my earlier post on Mauldin Economics). The topic was "The Demographic Cliff and the Spending Wave" drawing on the latest book by Harry Dent, whose website describes him as follows:
Harry S. Dent, Jr. is the Founder of Dent Research, an economic research firm specializing in demographic trends. His mission is “Helping People Understand Change.”
I am naturally going to be drawn to someone who has dedicated his life to using demographic trends to  help make money--as long as no one gets hurt here! A few years ago, at the suggestion of one of my graduate students, I read an earlier book by Dent--"The Great Depression Ahead: How to Prosper in the Crash Following the Greatest Boom in History." This book was published in 2009 during a time when everyone understood that we were going through the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Setting aside the fact that instead of a Great Depression ahead, the Dow Jones average doubled from 8000 to 16000 in the period after the publication of his book, his book had some unfounded demographic predictors that seem to show up again in his latest book. His basic theory is that you should follow consumer expenditures if you are going to invest in the market, and these expenditures are highly predictable from age to age. What demographer tuned into cohort analysis wouldn't agree with this? My problem with the earlier book (and I have not read this most recent one yet) is that the devil is in the details. This blog is way too short to discuss these issues, but here's a good test. Read the following paragraph excerpted by Dent from his new book:
In the recent immigration surge from the 1970s into the 2000s, which peaked in 1991, the immigrants added more to the Baby Boom generation (born from 1934 to 1961) than to the Echo Boom (born from 1976 to 2007) to follow. The highest numbers of immigrants arrive around age twenty-three (what is called the mode in statistics), with the average age at thirty. The new arrival usually enters the workforce and starts producing and consuming. Hence, immigration has an immediate impact on the economy, unlike new births (the latter arrivals require eighteen to twenty-two years to enter the workforce and become productive).
Find the errors (subtle, but important) just in the above paragraph, and then decide whether or not you  want to keep reading...

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Population and Water in the West

A few days ago the New York Times did a story on the drought in the Colorado basin that has led to the Colorado River being at an historic low level. There are seven states that use water from the Colorado River (five in the the US--Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and New Mexico) and two in Mexico (Sonora and Baja California Norte), so the river is mightily important. As a resident of California, the most populous state in the US, this is obviously important to me personally. Here in San Diego where I live, we have enough water of our own to service only 10 percent of the population, so importing water is obviously a key issue. At the same time, we have to import energy and food, as well, so the region is certainly not self-sustaining. These are not new issues, though, and I wouldn't have given them much thought were it not for a letter to the editor about the article from Stan Becker, a demographer at Johns Hopkins University. He's a good demographer and so I paid attention to the thrust of his argument:
However, as is typical of such news reports, the article does not directly deal with the elephant in the room — rapid population growth in the Southwest — except to take continued growth as given. It merely says “40 million people also depend on the river and its tributaries, and their numbers are rising rapidly.”
Is it not appropriate to openly ask two questions: What is a sustainable population in the Southwest, considering its water resources, and what policies could eventually limit population growth there?
The bottom line is almost certainly the cost of water. It is expensive to dam the river, pump water out of it, and send it off to reservoirs where it will be treated and then consumed. People use water more efficiently as its cost rises, and more conservation is the most reasonable way to spread the same or lower amount of water around a growing--albeit it a slower rate than in the past--population. Professor Becker notes with seeming approval the building of a desalination plant in San Diego, but that is not a real alternative because the cost of energy is so great and there are serious environmental issues near the plant. Indeed, it is reasonable to suggest that the inland areas of the southwest are as dependent upon air conditioning as they are on water, and as the cost of energy rises (even with alternative sources such as solar and wind) that may be as much a retardant to population growth as will be scarcity of water.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Downside of Demographically-Driven Investment Strategies

John Mauldin runs an investment advisory group in Texas, and some of his published advice is available for free (albeit with a "subscription" so that they know who you are). I was alerted to the fact that this week's "Thoughts from the Frontline" from Mauldin has a demographic focus:
We'll continue our three-part 2014 forecast series this week by looking at the significant economic macrotrends that have to be understood, as always, as the context for any short-term forecast. These are the forces that are going to inexorably shift and shape our portfolios and businesses. Each of the nine macrotrends I'll mention deserves its own book (and I've written books about two of them and numerous letters on most of them), but we'll pause to gaze briefly at each as we scan the horizon. 
The first five of our nine macro-forces can be called the Killer D's: Demographics, Deficit, Debt, Deleveraging, and Deflation. And while I will talk about them separately, I am really talking threads that are part of a tapestry. At times it will be difficult to say where one thread ends and the others begin.
The major point of his demographic analysis is that an aging population is not necessarily very good for investment opportunities.
Demographics – An Upside Down World 
One of the most basic human drives is the desire to live longer. And there is a school of economics that points out that increased human lifespans is one of the most basic and positive outcomes of economic growth.
If you have read my book, you know first that human lifespan has not increased, but life expectancy has. That's a minor point. The bigger point is that economic growth per se is not responsible for improving mortality. Initially this was associated with the same scientific advances that brought us the industrial revolution, but that linkage is much weaker now due to the diffusion of public health and medical knowledge. Indeed, my research in Africa is based on turning that equation around--better health leads to higher economic productivity.

The demographic concern of Mauldin is that longer life leads to aging populations which are, in his view, less economically productive than younger populations. As you know, however, an aging population is created largely by declining fertility, not by higher life expectancy. Furthermore, the notion that older populations are "deflationary" is an hypothesis, not a fact. We haven't had enough such populations yet to really know and a lot of policy work is taking place in Europe to raise retirement ages and to create create flexibility in the workforce at all ages.

Finally, let me note that while the aging of rich nations is a demographic force with which we must reckon, investment decisions made solely on the grounds simply of a growing economy, rather than increasing per person income, may benefit an individual investor in the short term, but that doesn't strike me as a good long-term strategy either for the investor or the earth, more generally.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Is Being Jewish an Ethnic or Religious Demographic Characteristic?

Among social scientists, Judaism is known as an ethnic religion. This means that to be Jewish you have to be born into it or decide on your own that you want to convert to it from some other religion. This is distinct from proselityzing religions, such as Christianity and Islam, that actively recruit new members. Of course, Christianity and Islam both build on Judaism, so some of the basic tenets of the two most populous religions in the world (Christianity and Islam) are derived from Judaism. The other major ethnic religion in the world is Hinduism, from which Buddhism sprang. I mention these things as preface to a story in this week's Economist about "Who is a Jew?"
Who is a Jew? This question is becoming ever more pressing for Jews around the world. It looks like a religious issue, but is bound up with history, Israeli politics and the rhythms of the diaspora. Addressing it means deciding whether assimilation is a mortal threat, as many Jews think, or a phenomenon to be accommodated. The struggle over the answer will shape Israel’s society, its relations with Jews elsewhere, and the size and complexion of the global Jewish community.
The Economist story draws from a recent survey from Pew Research, whose report has the same title of "Who is a Jew."
“Who is a Jew?” This is an ancient question with no single, timeless answer. On the one hand, being Jewish is a matter of religion – the traditional, matrilineal definition of Jewish identity is founded on halakha (Jewish religious law). On the other hand, being Jewish also may be a matter of ancestry, ethnicity and cultural background. Jews (and non-Jews) may disagree on where to draw the line. Is an adult who has Jewish parents but who considers herself an atheist nevertheless Jewish, by virtue of her lineage? What about someone who has Jewish parents and has converted to Christianity? Or someone who has no known Jewish ancestry but is married to a Jew and has come to think of himself as Jewish, though he has not formally converted to Judaism?
Of particular interest in the Pew report is that Orthodox Jews in the US are likely to be politically Republican, while other Jews are predominantly Democrats. I've noted before the demographic differences in New York and Israel, as well, between the Orthodox population and other Jews. 

My favorite "takeaway" from the Economist article, however, is the graph below, prepared by Sergio BellaPergola, who is Israel's premier demographer, showing the distribution of the Jewish population (presumably by self-definition--e.g., "ethnicity") in the world. If you think about the fact that there are more than a billion Christians and more than a billion Muslims, the number of Jews is really quite remarkable.

Friday, January 10, 2014

War on Smoking--50th Anniversary

Fifty years ago was not just a time to wage war on poverty; it was a time to wage war on smoking with an important report from the US Surgeon-General. Poverty and smoking are both bad for your health, of course, and the irony is that the war on smoking was less successful among the poor than among the non-poor. Nonetheless, as the Economist points out, the success is evident.
The report clearly showed how smokers died younger. A year later, Congress required health warnings on every packet. Public understanding of the risks of smoking changed even faster. Ads in the 1950s had claimed that tobacco was good for you; after the report millions of Americans quit puffing. In the past 50 years cigarette consumption per adult has fallen by 72%. The report called smoking a habit, not an addiction. But apart from that, it hit the coffin nail on the head.
Smoking still takes its toll in the US, however. The December 2013 issue of Population and Development Review has a paper by Andrew Fenelon at Brown University on "Geographic Divergence in Mortality in the United States." Drawing upon his doctoral dissertation research, he shows that a very high fraction of the lower life expectancy in southern states than in the rest of the country is due to smoking.
Relatively high smoking-attributable mortality in the South explains 50–100 percent of the divergence for men between 1965 and 1985 and up to 50 percent for women between 1985 and 2004. There is also a geographic correspondence between the contribution of smoking and other factors, suggesting that smoking may be one piece of a more complex health-related puzzle.
The next geographic frontier for anti-smoking campaigns is China. The government is trying to crack down on smoking there, but there's a long way to go. The New York Times recently summarized a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showing that the percentage of Chinese who smoke has leveled off at about 24 percent, but population growth over the past few decades means that there are currently about as many smokers in China as there are people of all ages in the US.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Battling Poverty--Is Poverty Winning?

Each of the world's major religions recognizes the existence of poverty in human society and encourages those with more to share with those who have less. Modern governments have been working on the problem with various degrees of success for two hundred years or more (think about the English Poor Laws that Malthus opposed, even though it turned out later that his objections were misplaced). In the US the first real effort to systematically deal with poverty was the passage of the Social Security Act in the 1930s to relieve the rising poverty among America's elders. Then came the War on Poverty in the 1960s and it was at this time that the Department of Agriculture introduced the official US poverty index, as I discuss in Chapter 10. In the 1980s, though, Ronald Reagan famously said that we had a war on poverty and poverty won. Not so fast! As Nicolas Kristoff very succinctly points out in today's NYTimes, the battle against poverty has actually been pretty successful, and now is no time to give up on it. Rather, we need to rethink and retrench.
The most accurate measures, using Census Bureau figures that take account of benefits, suggest that poverty rates have fallen by more than one-third since 1968. There’s a consensus that without the war on poverty, other forces (such as mass incarceration, a rise in single mothers and the decline in trade unions) would have lifted poverty much higher.
A Columbia University study suggests that without government benefits, the poverty rate would have soared to 31 percent in 2012. Indeed, an average of 27 million people were lifted annually out of poverty by social programs between 1968 and 2012, according to the White House Council of Economic Advisers.
The best example of how government antipoverty programs can succeed involves the elderly. In 1960, about 35 percent of older Americans were poor. In 2012, 9 percent were. That’s because senior citizens vote, so politicians listened to them and buttressed programs like Social Security and Medicare.
The rise in single motherhood is a very important issue, in my mind, and while teenage pregnancy rates have dropped significantly over time, the popularity of a show like "16 and Pregnant" is still a bit scary to me, even though the idea of the show is to demonstrate what a bad idea this is. More importantly, the war on women's reproductive rights generally works to undermine the war on poverty, by making it harder for women to avoid an unwanted pregnancy in an era when men are far too inclined not to acknowledge paternity and thus leave the mother to bear the sole burden of child-rearing. I agree with Kristoff that poverty among children is the key issue, leading us to remember that it really does take a village (defined perhaps more broadly as a societal commitment) to raise a child successfully so that poverty can be left behind. That's not socialism--it's called human society.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Cyberseminar on Family Demography

I just received a notice from the IUSSP (International Union for the Scientific Study of Population) about a two-day cyberseminar on Family Demography to be held essentially right now--the 9th and 10th of January 2014. It is hosted by the University of Southampton. Here is the information:

For information about the papers, discussants and organising committee please visit the seminar website

The IUSSP Panel on Family Demography in Developing Countries, in collaboration with the University of Southampton, are organising the first of three cyberseminars funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), UK. The overarching goal of the cyberseminar series is to promote exchange between professionals and students interested in demographic and health issues related to intergenerational relationships and exchanges in low-and middle-income countries.

Seminar format:

In order to facilitate ease of access and participation, the seminar is free and open to IUSSP and non-IUSSP members. The working language of the cyberseminar is English.

Papers can be viewed and comments can be posted at

The seminar website pages will be open from 9am GMT on Thursday 9th January. There are no formal presentation time slots and the seminar site can be accessed at anytime irrespective of timezone. All papers by presenting authors will be available to read. Discussant comments and moderated discussions boards will open for strands 1 and 2 (General papers) from 10am GMT on Thursday 9th January 2014, and open for strands 2 (Special China session) and 3 on Friday 10th January 2014. Some short recorded video presentations by authors, discussants and organizing committee members will be available to view during the seminar.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Does Cold Weather Mean Global Warming is a Hoax?

Global climate change deniers (e.g., FoxNews) have been having a field day with the idea that the very cold weather (a "polar vortex"?) in the US this week means that global warming doesn't exist. But global climate change appears to very real, with one of its side effects being increasing extremes in weather, both hotter and colder at the same time. More importantly, as a report in Nature today points out, it means more problems with water in the future.
To assess what a warmer world might mean for the human race, 30 groups from 12 countries have run thousands of simulations, using a standardized set of scenarios for greenhouse-gas emissions. They made projections of future water availability from a set of global hydrological models in conjunction with five state-of-the-art climate models that combined projections of changes in temperature and precipitation with data on variables such as regional water cycles, river run-off and population.
The multi-model assessment suggests that, in vulnerable regions, climate change will significantly add to the problem of water scarcity that is already arising from population growth. The modellers found that climate-driven changes in evaporation, precipitation and run-off will result in a 40% increase in the number of people worldwide who must make do with less than 500 cubic metres of water per year — a commonly used threshold to signify ‘absolute’ water scarcity.
Regions most at risk from water scarcity include parts of the southern United States, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. By contrast, India, tropical Africa and high latitudes in the Northern Hemi­sphere can expect to receive more water in a warming world.
These are models, of course, because (like population projections) they provide us with the only way of trying to decipher the future. Despite variability in the models, the results consistently point to a future in which weather and water availability will be different. The sooner we own up to that and start planning our responses, the better off we will be. That just seems common-sensical to me.

Monday, January 6, 2014

More Sad Evidence of Afghanistan's Bad Demographics

A few weeks ago, in a blog post about Yemen, I commented that "It is hard to imagine a country in which women are treated worse than in Afghanistan." Yesterday's New York Times has a story reminding us that the side-effect of the poor treatment of women in Afghanistan is poor health among their children. Although the story is about childhood malnutrition, the issues are much deeper than that.
What is clear is that, despite years of Western involvement and billions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, children’s health is not only still a problem, but also worsening, and the doctors bearing the brunt of the crisis are worried.
Nearly every potential lifeline is strained or broken here. Efforts to educate people about nutrition and health care are often stymied by conservative traditions that cloister women away from anyone outside the family. Agriculture and traditional local sources of social support have been disrupted by war and the widespread flight of refugees to the cities. And therapeutic feeding programs, complex operations even in countries with strong health care systems, have been compromised as the flow of aid and transportation have been derailed by political tensions or violence.
A huge problem is that data collection efforts are stymied in a variety of ways, including politically, leaving us unsure about the actual situation, except to be sure that it isn't good.
In January 2012, for instance, Unicef and the Afghan government’s Central Statistics Organization released a survey of more than 13,000 households showing that some provinces had reached or exceeded emergency levels, with more than 10 percent acute severe child malnutrition.
The survey caused an uproar, but Unicef and the Health Ministry repudiated it, saying it was based on faulty research. Unicef then financed a more thorough child nutrition survey, which was completed in November, but the government has yet to release the data, said Dr. Bashir Ahmed Hamid, head of nutrition for the Health Ministry. “Unfortunately, we faced some challenges with data analysis.”
Estimates of infant mortality from the UN Population Division suggest that Afghanistan has a rate nearly twice the world average and the highest level outside of sub-Saharan African.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Confronting Your Mortality--Second by Second

Ever since John Graunt discovered the patternicity to death in the 17th century, humans have been fascinated by the idea that we might be able to predict how long we could live. There are several websites out there, such as Poodwaddle, that will give you an estimate of your life expectancy, based on actuarial tables. But what if you don't want to have to go online, and what if you want to have that information available at all times? Well, NPR has reported that a new watch is out there just for you--the Tikker.
Luckily for you, there's a new product called Tikker, a wristwatch that counts down your life, so you can watch on a large, dot-matrix display as the seconds you have left on Earth disappear down a black hole.
Your estimated time of death is, of course, just that — an estimate. Tikker uses an algorithm like the one used by the federal government to figure a person's life expectancy. But the effect is chilling, a sort of incessant grim reaper reminding you that time is running out.
Tikker's inventor is a 37-year-old Swede named Fredrik Colting. He says he invented the gadget not as a morbid novelty item, but in an earnest attempt to change his own thinking.
He wanted some sort of reminder to not sweat the small stuff and reach for what matters. Colting, a former gravedigger, figured imminent death was the best motivator there is. That's why he calls Tikker "the happiness watch." It's his belief that watching your life slip away will remind you to savor life while you have it.
The watch will be available in April 2014--for those of us still alive then...

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Demographics of Evolution

The Pew Research Center just released its latest survey results regarding American's views of evolution, and the results have made headlines and have been the subject of cable TV panels. The Pew report puts a positive spin on the results:
According to a new Pew Research Center analysis, six-in-ten Americans (60%) say that “humans and other living things have evolved over time,” while a third (33%) reject the idea of evolution, saying that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” The share of the general public that says that humans have evolved over time is about the same as it was in 2009, when Pew Research last asked the question.
In truth, it is rather startling that only 60 percent believe in evolution, given the impact that the Enlightenment has had on the world over the past 200-300 years, and the more negative spin has been the general media theme. This is aided by the demographics of who is more or less likely to believe in evolution.
These beliefs differ strongly by religious group. White evangelical Protestants are particularly likely to believe that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. Roughly two-thirds (64%) express this view, as do half of black Protestants (50%). By comparison, only 15% of white mainline Protestants share this opinion.
There also are sizable differences by party affiliation in beliefs about evolution, and the gap between Republicans and Democrats has grown. In 2009, 54% of Republicans and 64% of Democrats said humans have evolved over time, a difference of 10 percentage points. Today, 43% of Republicans and 67% of Democrats say humans have evolved, a 24-point gap.
So, your religious and political "demographics," along with your ethnicity, will influence the likelihood of believing in evolution. Charles Darwin, who most famously put forward the theories of evolution, was himself a white mainline Protestant, and his views were influenced by another white mainline Protestant, Thomas Robert Malthus. Indeed, in his Introduction to "The Origin of the Species", Darwin acknowledged that his ideas about the survival of the fittest represented "...the doctrine of Malthus, applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms" (p. xxix). I discuss this in more detail in Chapter 3 of my book...

Thursday, January 2, 2014

PopQuiz: What Does Infant Mortality Have to Do With Elephant Poaching?

The illegal killing of elephants in order to have ivory from their tusks has been on the increase in sub-Saharan Africa, as pointed out in a Reuters story today:
Demand for ivory - used for carvings and valued for millennia for its color and texture - has been rising sharply in newly affluent Asian countries, notably China, fuelling a new wave of elephant slaughter.
Following a decline in the 1990s, poaching of the world's largest land mammal has risen dramatically and in 2012 an estimated 15,000 elephants were illegally killed at 42 sites in Africa monitored by MIKE - the U.N.-backed program for Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants.
Since 2010, elephant poaching levels in Africa have exceeded 5 percent of the total population - a tipping point because killings are now outpacing the animals' birth rate.
The link to infant mortality (among humans, not elephants) comes from the fact that high infant mortality is a proxy for poverty, and it is in those parts of Africa where infant mortality is highest that poaching is also highest...
... but poor villagers typically do not benefit from the illicit ivory trade. In this regard, the ivory trade - with its long and blood-stained history - is similar to other extractive industries in Africa, which have been exploited to meet demand elsewhere with few rewards for local people. 
The story points out that the idea of "Africa Rising" may be a little misleading. Africa being exploited might come closer to the truth. The demographic connection is nonetheless intriguing. China's rapid drop in fertility allowed it to have a demographic dividend that it has used to increase incomes for at least a segment of the population, driving demand for exotic goods. In the meantime, high birth rates in sub-Saharan Africa contribute to high mortality and low levels of living, leaving people politically powerless to protect their resources from outsiders seeking to engage in unlawful activity. 

Note that elephants also have a fairly high level of infant and child mortality, so illegal killing of adults is, as mentioned above, a real threat to survival. A recent study of the demographics of elephants suggests that one-third of deaths among wild elephants in Africa may be due to illegal killing. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Top Ten Posts of 2013

The New Year is always a good time for reflection on the year that just ended, to be followed by plans for the coming year. As I did last year, I have taken the time today to see which of the more than 300 items I posted in 2013 have been viewed most often. Here is the top ten hit list:

1. By a very wide margin, the  most popular story was about the birth rate in Egypt:

2. Mexico's population projections based on a drop in fertility to replacement level along with rising life expectancy received considerable interest:

3. The stop in the drop in the US birth rate also was a popular topic:

4. The whole issue of replacement level fertility got a lot of attention:

5. The PopQuiz on which country might be demographically the "worst" (answer: Niger) caught a lot of people's eyes:

6. A story about the results of the Moroccan Demographic and Health Survey showing a decline in fertility was sixth on the list:

7. Evidence that life expectancy in Russia might be on the way back up was seventh on the list:

8. Are rich countries on the cusp of a baby boom? I think not, but some economists in Canada put that idea out there...

9. The plight of older people in a rapidly changing South Korea was ninth on the list:

10. India's demographics winds up the top ten, with my comments on the incorrect analysis by The Economist on the differences in the Indian and Chinese labor forces:

Enjoy this walk down the demographic memory lane of 2013, and I hope that 2014 treats all of us very well.