Monday, March 31, 2014

Climate Change Putting Populations at Risk

The latest report from the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is out and it isn't pretty. A warming planet is melting polar ice and the subsequent rise in sea level could devastate coastal areas in general and do tremendous damage to a country like Bangladesh, as the NYTimes reported a couple of days ago. 
In an analysis of decades of tidal records published in October, Dr. Pethick [John Pethick of Newcastle University in the UK] found that high tides in Bangladesh were rising 10 times faster than the global average. He predicted that seas in Bangladesh could rise as much as 13 feet by 2100, four times the global average. In an area where land is often a thin brown line between sky and river — nearly a quarter of Bangladesh is less than seven feet above sea level — such an increase would have dire consequences, Dr. Pethick said.
“The reaction among Bangladeshi government officials has been to tell me that I must be wrong,” he said. “That’s completely understandable, but it also means they have no hope of preparing themselves.”
“There is no doubt that preparations within Bangladesh have been utterly inadequate, but any such preparations are bound to fail because the problem is far too big for any single government,” said Tariq A. Karim, Bangladesh’s ambassador to India. “We need a regional and, better yet, a global solution. And if we don’t get one soon, the Bangladeshi people will soon become the world’s problem, because we will not be able to keep them.”
Mr. Karim estimated that as many as 50 million Bangladeshis would flee the country by 2050 if sea levels rose as expected.
This is probably the reason why the latest UN Population Division projections (the 2012 revision) suggest that Bangladesh will lead the world in outmigration between 2015 and 2050. This is not a pleasant prospect for the country and its citizens, nor for the countries that will wind up making room for these folks.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Visualizing Global Migration Flows

Global migration flows are clearly important elements of modern demographic trends. We can probably all "see" the flows in our mind, but those are going to be fuzzy images. Thanks to Justin Stoler for pointing out to me that researchers at the Vienna Demographic Institute have now brought these flows into a quantitative graphic:
As migration flow data are often incomplete and not comparable across nations, we estimate the number of movements by linking changes in migrant stock data over time. Using statistical missing data methods, we estimate the five-year migrant flows that are required to meet differences in migrant stock totals. For example, if the number of foreign-born in the United States increases between two time periods, we estimate the minimum migrant flows between the US and all other countries in the world that are required to meet this increase.
For each country of birth, we estimate the minimum number of migrant flows required to match differences in stocks by assuming that people are more likely to stay than to move. This estimation procedure is replicated simultaneously for all 196 countries to estimate birthplace specific flow tables, resulting in a comparable set of global migration flows. Alterations are made to the migrant stock counts to control for births and deaths during the period. This allows our country-specific net migration flows to closely match the net migration estimates published by the United Nations.

This is obviously complex! and so you need to study their instructions for interpreting the graphic. In addition, they provide the data that they have put together, so you can see the numbers behind the visualization. I appreciate this, in particular, because I am currently trying to do something similar, albeit on a much smaller scale, for a paper that I will be presenting in April at the annual meetings of the Association of American Geographers in Tampa.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Don't Let Congress Cut NSF Funding

Here's an important message I received today that needs to be passed on, before Congress acts on it:

This is a time sensitive request. You are receiving this message because your Representative serves on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

The Committee is expected to mark up the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology Act of 2014 (H.R. 4186), or FIRST Act in the next two weeks. The bill serves as reauthorization legislation for the National Science Foundation (NSF), an important source of federal funding for population scientists. There are a number of problematic provisions within this bill and we ask that you contact your Representative and register your opposition to the bill.

Of greatest concern to PAA members is the proposed cut to NSF’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic (SBE) Sciences. The bill, as introduced, cut the SBE directorate by over 40 percent, from $257 million in fiscal year 2014 to $150 million in FY 2015. An amendment in subcommittee restored $50 million, but still leaves SBE unacceptably underfunded. SBE is one of only two directorates targeted for budget cuts. Geoscience, the other directorate targeted for cuts, funds research on climate change.

PAA and APC join the broader science community in opposition to the bill’s attempts to authorize funding levels by directorate at NSF. Even if funding for SBE is restored, the broader science community is unlikely to support the bill. Therefore, we will focus on the issue of authorizing by directorate in your message to your Representative. Authorizing by directorate reduces the flexibility of the agency and prevents the scientist reviewers for NSF from determining which grants to fund based on what they identify to be the very best science. Furthermore, it has not been the practice for numerous decades.

In addition, while the authors of the bill state that the legislation is not intended to interfere with the NSF merit review process, which they recognize as the internationally recognized gold standard, we believe that it will have an impact. After being selected by the peer review process, each grant will be evaluated on its ability to serve the national interest. While this is an important goal for the NSF, it is difficult to define at the individual grant level as opposed to within the context of the broader NSF portfolio.

The bill could be taken up by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee at any moment. Please write to your Representative today and ask that they oppose the FIRST Act.

Send an Email

You can read about the bill{%22search%22%3A[%224186%22

Demography Trumps Policy Once Again in China

I discuss in Chapter 6 the fact that fertility was already dropping quickly when China implemented its one-child policy and, given the rapid fertility decline among its East Asian neighbors, there is every reason to think that fertility would be at the same level today in China with or without that policy. Yet, the government has been very slow to scale the program back. This week's Economist provides another example (which I discuss in Chapter 9) of the how demography trumps government policy--this time in terms of urbanization. Everywhere in the world the percentage of the population living in cities is increasing and China is no exception, despite the fact that Mao wanted to keep people down on the farm and out of the potentially westernizing influences of cities. For that reason, back in the 1950s the government instituted the hukou system of household registration designed to keep you and your progeny where you were back then--rural people in the countryside and the then relatively small urban population in the cities. Over time, of course, job opportunities and wages have been higher in the cities than in the countryside, and so there has been a huge wave of "undocumented" migration to the cities.
Even migrants who have lived in cities for many years, or the urban-born children of such migrants, are given far less access to government-funded health care and education than other city dwellers. This is because their rural hukou is often impossible to change.
But last week the government quietly announced a gradual loosening of the rules:
By 2020, according to the plan, 100m migrants are to obtain urban hukou. This is a cautious target. The government admits it would still leave 200m people—by then roughly two-thirds of migrants—without city-resident status. Some state-run newspapers say it would mean, on average, that 17m migrants a year would get urban hukou. That would be a step up, but in recent years the numbers have already been rising fast, albeit from a low base. The government said last year that between 2010 and 2012 an average of 8.4m a year had been granted urban status.
Crucially, the plan does not suggest when the hukou system might be scrapped altogether. And it still allows bigger cities, which migrants prefer, to continue usinghukou barriers as a way of trying to limit population growth. In the 16 cities with more than 5m people, officials will be allowed to give hukou only to migrants who gain a certain number of points (in cities that have experimented with this, points are awarded on the basis of educational qualifications, property ownership and other factors that rule out most migrants). Even in the smallest cities only migrants with “legal and stable” work and accommodation—which many do not have—will be able to get urban hukou.
So, in effect, the policy leaves a lot of rural to urban migrants in the position of second-class citizens. This is similar to what happens to undocumented immigrants to most rich countries but the difference here is that these people are all Chinese citizens. They are in the country legally, but they are not supposed to be in cities. That tide is unlikely to be turned, and the Economist implies that the government really just doesn't want to have to pay for urban amenities for this large and growing population.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Will The US Supreme Court Continue to Defend Women's Reproductive Rights?

It was the US Supreme Court that legalized the use of birth control in the country (in 1965 for married couples and 1972 to everyone else) and abortion in 1973. Now the Supreme Court is hearing a case that challenges the government's right to insist that if a commercial company wants a government subsidy for its employees' health care, that company must allow the health plan to provide contraceptives and other reproductive health care, which could include the costs of an abortion if the contraceptives fail. It was disheartening to me that the Court even took this case on, since it seems patently obvious that a commercial firm cannot claim some religious bias. If you want to claim a religious protection, then declare yourself a religion and follow the tax code rules that allow you bypass many of the legal obligations of a firm, like Hobby Lobby, that is in business to make money, not to convert its customers to a particular religious belief. Furthermore, under the Affordable Care Act companies are not required to provide government-subsidized health care. Rather, if they want their employees to have that benefit of a government-subsidized health care policy, they have to abide by the rules that say that women need to have access to the full range of legal reproductive health rights. They could, alternatively, just pay their workers more and have them get their own private insurance, or pay fully for their employee's health care and not worry about the government subsidy. 

This is not to say that I am a fan of the Affordable Care Act. I am not. My own view is that the US needs to adopt the model of every other rich country (all of which have higher life expectancy than in the US) and implement universal health care that is not employer-based. There are, of course, four entrenched reasons why we do not move in that direction: (1) health insurance companies who make lots of money under the current system (helping to explain why we pay so much more for health care than countries with higher life expectancy); (2) physicians who are the highest paid in the world (also helping to explain why we pay so much more for health care than countries with higher life expectancy); (3) drug companies who believe that they earn more in this kind of a medical market; and (4) malpractice lawyers who also make more money in this kind of a medical market. These are the real reasons why the Supreme Court is even put in it current position of seeming to be on the verge of rolling back women's reproductive rights. Just follow the money.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Nobody Should Die From TB

March 25th is World TB Day. Now, in truth, every day seems devoted to something that is really important in one way or another, but when you know how to control a disease, it seems almost criminal that people keep dying anyway. USAID, which spends money on these issues, offers these general statistics:
Despite being curable, tuberculosis (TB) remains an enormous global public health issue. Of the 9 million people a year who get sick with TB, a third are “missed” by public health systems. The majority of these 3 million are the most poor and vulnerable.
TB is a contagious bacterial airborne disease that claims a life every 18 seconds. TB knows no boundaries or borders, making it a global health emergency that must be addressed with immediate and aggressive action.
Not coincidentally, today's NYTimes has a story, based on an open source article in The Lancet, about China's success in bringing down (albeit nothing close to zero) TB cases in that country.
China has cut its rate of tuberculosis by more than half over the last 20 years, according to health officials there.
Its success shows that the tuberculosis-fighting strategy endorsed by the World Health Organization in 1995 works well if it is rigorously applied.
The strategy — called DOTS, for directly observed therapy, short course — requires that every case be diagnosed by sputum sample, and every patient be given a standard regimen of four antibiotics to take daily for about six months, and be watched taking the pills every day. The observer can be a nurse, a family member, a neighbor or any other trusted person.
Having known a person who returned from Latin America with with TB many years ago, I can attest to the fact that following that medical regime was the big issue that her parents faced every day. Not getting rid of the disease makes you a carrier of the stronger surviving bacteria, and that is dangerous to everyone else.

But China is not yet out of the woods: "China still has a huge TB problem, with a million new cases every year, 11 percent of the world’s caseload." We talk about China getting old before it gets rich. We have to hope it gets rid of TB before it gets either old or rich.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Inequalities Among the Baby Boomers

I recently discussed the neighborhoods where the richest Americans live. Justin Stoler pointed out to me that today's NYTimes has an interesting analysis by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz using data from Wikipedia to figure out the geographic origins of "notable" baby boomers. This sort of turns the story around and asks not where you end up, but where did you start? The "who" in the story are people for whom there is an entry in Wikipedia. These are the "notable" people, meaning that they have achieved enough fame for someone to think it worthwhile to include them. Such fame probably also brings its share of fortune, but those data aren't necessarily available. Fame is the only consideration here. He focused on baby boomers since they are old enough to have accomplished something, if they are going to do so (a cohort analysis, in other words), and he focused on where they were born because that information was consistently available.
WHERE do the most successful Americans come from? I was curious. So I downloaded Wikipedia. (You can do that sort of thing nowadays.)
With a little coding, I had a data set of more than 150,000 Americans deemed by Wikipedia’s editors to be notable. The data set included county of birth, date of birth, occupation and gender. I merged it with county-level birth data gathered by the National Center for Health Statistics. For every county in the United States, I calculated the odds of making it to Wikipedia if you were born there.
Roughly one in 2,058 American-born baby boomers were deemed notable enough to warrant a Wikipedia entry. About 30 percent made it through art or entertainment, 29 percent through sports, 9 percent through politics, and 3 percent through academia or science.
The first striking fact in the data was the enormous geographic variation in the likelihood of becoming a big success, at least on Wikipedia’s terms. Your chances of achieving notability were highly dependent on where you were born.
Roughly one in 1,209 baby boomers born in California reached Wikipedia. Only one in 4,496 baby boomers born in West Virginia did. Roughly one in 748 baby boomers born in Suffolk County, Mass., which contains Boston, made it to Wikipedia. In some counties, the success rate was 20 times lower.
Where you were born depends on where your parents lived, of course, and it turns out that living near colleges and places with higher than average numbers of immigrants seem to characterize the top-rated places of origin, as shown in the table below:

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Is Taking a Census in Burma a Bad Idea?

Burma (aka Myanmar) is about to take its first census in 30 years. The UNFPA, which has provided technical assistance, is excited about the project. The Economist, not so much. Why not? Because the Economist is rightly worried about the fact that the census includes questions on ethnicity and religion--hot button issues in a country that excludes some groups from citizenship and has generated a flood of refugees in the process.
Among the 41 questions that the 100,000 or so census-takers, mostly young school-teachers, have to ask every household in Myanmar is one on race. But respondents can only choose from an anachronistic, inaccurate and divisive list of 135 ethnic groups. The list reinforces the impression of a government that represents only the ethnic-Burman majority. Myanmar’s government has been at war for decades with most of the country’s ethnic minorities, which make up about 40% of the country’s population.
Indeed, the census has deepened a sense of suspicion just as the government wants to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement with Myanmar’s armed ethnic groups and their political representatives. The census, and the way it has been conducted, looks like the work of a government that cannot throw off the shackles of its old, authoritarian ways.
In particular, the census has sparked further tension in Rakhine state, in the west, scene of sectarian violence between the Buddhist—ethnic Rakhine—majority and the Muslim Rohingya minority. Hundreds were killed in 2012 as Sittwe and other towns were ethnically cleansed of Rohingyas; about 140,000 of those displaced now live in refugee camps near the coast.
The census will take place during the first two weeks of April and, if the timing is typical of most censuses, it will be at least a year before we will have even the preliminary results. Thus, it is way too early to tell if the census is really a political hot potato, but the experience of Nigeria (which no longer asks about religion on its census) does suggest that sparks will likely fly when (if...) the data are released.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

There is Inequality in Where the Top 1% Live

Stephen Higley, a retired geography professor from the University of Montevallo in Alabama has a website in which he uses census data to figure out where the richest among us in the US live. His latest analysis was picked up by The Atlantic, and the results are very interesting, even if not startling. The richest 1% of American households are clustered together in neighborhoods on the east and west coasts.
Higley compiled his list using data from the 2006-2010 American Community Survey, identifying contiguous block groups (a subdivision of census tracts) with a mean household income of $200,000 or more. (Note that it is possible that these mean household incomes are in fact underestimates, as households can only claim up to about $2 million in income on the American Community Survey.
America’s 1,000 richest neighborhoods are home to two million Americans, a group that makes up just 0.6 percent of the country’s population. The top 63 wealthiest neighborhoods have mean household incomes of $390,000 or above, making their average resident automatically a member of the country’s one percent. At the very top, 18 of these neighborhoods have mean household incomes above $500,000.
Here's the list of the top ten richest neighborhoods in the country.:

You can see that only one (East Lake Shore Drive in Chicago) is not on the east or west coast. You can also see that a disproportionate share of these (4 of 10) are in the general vicinity of Washington, DC. It seems to pay off to hang around the federal government.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Immigration Common Sense in North Carolina

There was a ray of immigration sunshine coming out of North Carolina today, as noted by my son, Greg Weeks, in his blog, which I copy below:

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety issued a lengthy and carefully argued report on the potential effects of anti-immigration laws in the state. That report is now acting as a deterrent to supporters of such laws because it concludes that they will be costly (especially for incarceration and courts) and will not achieve their desired goals.
The 50-page study, released publicly last week, prompted the sponsor of the legislation mandating the study to say some of the proposals might not be essential. Said Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan: “They might be, and I stress might be, something that would be expendable.”
That's an interesting way to put it, but the basic idea is that common sense could possibly prevail.

The report also notes how unemployment in North Carolina has slowly trended downward, which negates the argument that immigrants are taking jobs from natives. In short, punitive laws serve little purpose and don't even achieve what you want.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Labor Force Demography of Income Inequality

I ended yesterday's blog about income inequality with the promise of more demographic complexities. These relate to the issue that I have discussed in the very first chapter of my book for several editions now (and will continue to do so in the forthcoming 12th edition). This has to do with the impact of post-WWII demographic change on globalization, especially globalization of the labor market. After the war, the technology to reduce death rates, particularly infant and child mortality, was spread around the world. Developing countries began to increase in size because the death rate was dropping much more quickly than the birth rate. Here was a burgeoning market for goods of various kinds that were largely being manufactured by firms in the US and Europe. For about three decades after the war this provided the impetus for well-paying manufacturing jobs in the rich countries (the "good old days"). Then those kids in the developing countries grew up and wanted jobs. In countries where governments had wisely invested in the education of their youth (e.g., China, Taiwan, and South Korea), a labor force was coming into existence that was sufficiently well educated to take on increasingly mechanized manufacturing jobs, and at a cost far less than commanded in the rich countries. 

The most talked about consequence of this demographic shift has been the so-called hollowing out of the middle class in the US and Europe, since many of these workers had been able to achieve reasonably high wages. The flip side of those relatively high wages, however, was relatively high prices for goods. These high prices kept the real cost of living higher than might otherwise have been, and, in essence, kept the standard of living lower than it might have been. By moving the manufacturing of many consumer goods to lower wage developing countries, the price of goods is considerably lower than they would be if manufactured in the US or in most European countries and so the real standard of living is actually higher than before. This is, I think, one of the adjustments that one has to make to historical data of the kind that Piketty is analyzing, in order to understand that real incomes (i.e., what you can buy with what you bring in) for most people may not be worse than they used to be, and are probably better than they used to be. If you make $4K per month and the basket of goodies you want to buy costs $3K, you are better off than if you make $5K per month, but those same things cost $4.5K.

These changing demographics of the global labor market are associated, of course, with the globalization of the capital market. These two dynamic shifts in where money is made and who makes it shifts the calculation of income inequality because we are no longer talking about a single economy. We are all wrapped up in the economies of other nations, and that creates "externalities" and "distortions," as economists like to call these real world complications. As a small example, we know that communities in Latin America are having their local economies distorted and turned into something far less equal than before by remittances sent back to the family members by overseas migrants. The person who is cooking your meal at a local restaurant in the US may be a wage earner in the US, but may at the same time be on the way to becoming a capitalist in the home country by using some of that money to buy real estate or a business in the country of origin. That is globalization at work.

Monday, March 17, 2014

More on Income Inequality and Piketty's "Capital"

My copy of Piketty's "Capital" arrived yesterday, as did a "Thoughts From the Frontline" newsletter from Mauldin Economics [the subscription is free]. Mauldin makes a very important demographic point, which I highlight in Chapter 8, namely that wealth tends to be concentrated in the older population. This is discussed in some detail by Piketty in his Chapter 11. As life expectancy increases, wealth turns over less often, and the wealthy have the opportunity to disproportionately increase their wealth because he shows how it really is true that it takes money to make money. Indeed, this is, in Piketty's mind, a "justification for a progressive annual tax on the largest fortunes worldwide. Such a tax is the only way of democratically controlling this potentially explosive process [excessive concentrations of capital] while preserving entrepreneurial dynamism and international economic openness" (p. 444).

At the same time, it is important to be clear about the distinction between wealth and income. The very wealthy earn money from "rents" (the use of their capital), rather than wages. Most people, however, are wage earners and so the question is whether or not they are better or worse off than they used to be, no matter what is happening to the very wealthy. Mauldin offers data from Emmanual Saez at UC Berkeley--a frequent collaborator of Piketty's--showing that the income share of people just below the top 1% has not changed much in the US over the past 100 years. This emphasizes Piketty's point about the explosive concentration just at the top. Mauldin also quotes studies (that I have not checked on myself) suggesting that if you include benefits and account for inflation “Middle-class stagnation and the ‘decoupling’ of pay and productivity are illusions. Yes, the U.S. economy is in the doldrums, thanks to a variety of factors... But by any sensible measure, most Americans are today better paid and more prosperous than in the past.” This sounds like something you would only hear on Fox News, but perhaps the data bear out that conclusion.

There are even more demographic complications to the income inequality issue, and I'll discuss them in a subsequent blog.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Income Gaps and Longevity Gaps Go Together

As the income inequality topic continues to gain momentum, an article by Annie Lowrey in today's NYTimes reminds us that higher or lower income is associated with higher or lower life expectancy. That relationship is true everywhere in the world, but the story itself builds on a set of county life expectancy data produced by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington. Here is a map of female life expectancy in 2010 by US County from the IHME site:

The darker the red the lower the life expectancy, and the darker the blue the higher it is. In general, counties in Appalachia and along the lower Mississippi River are most disadvantaged with respect to longevity, and they also tend to be the most disadvantaged in terms of average income per household. Indeed the NYTimes has put together a very nice set of scatter plots of life expectancy and median household income, combining IHME data and ACS data. Lowrey then compares two counties that happen to be at the extremes of both measures:
Fairfax County, Va., and McDowell County, W.Va., are separated by 350 miles, about a half-day’s drive. Traveling west from Fairfax County, the gated communities and bland architecture of military contractors give way to exurbs, then to farmland and eventually to McDowell’s coal mines and the forested slopes of the Appalachians. Perhaps the greatest distance between the two counties is this: Fairfax is a place of the haves, and McDowell of the have-nots. Just outside of Washington, fat government contracts and a growing technology sector buoy the median household income in Fairfax County up to $107,000, one of the highest in the nation. McDowell, with the decline of coal, has little in the way of industry. Unemployment is high. Drug abuse is rampant. Median household income is about one-fifth that of Fairfax.
One of the starkest consequences of that divide is seen in the life expectancies of the people there. Residents of Fairfax County are among the longest-lived in the country: Men have an average life expectancy of 82 years and women, 85, about the same as in Sweden. In McDowell, the averages are 64 and 73, about the same as in Iraq.
As always, of course, we need to be careful about imputing personal cause and effect from these aggregated data. Some rich people die young, and some impoverished people live long lives. But overall the set of relationships is powerful. The better off a community is, the longer it residents are likely to live, and that probably feeds back to keep the community well off. Where would you prefer to live if you had the choice?

Friday, March 14, 2014

Deportations by Aren't Good for Much of Anybody

Much has been made of the inhumanity of the vastly increased number of deportations under the Obama administration. But, RubĂ©n Rumbaut just alerted me to a recent study published by researchers working under the auspices of the prestigious National Bureau of Economic Research, which shows that deportation is really not good for much of anybody in real economic terms. The paper is available online and the American Immigration Council summarized the results:
As the authors of the study explain:
“policies increasing deportation rates have the largest negative effect on employment opportunities of natives. Legalization, instead has a positive employment effect for natives. This is because repatriations are disruptive of job matches and they reduce job-creation by US firms. Legalization instead stimulates firms’ job creation by increasing the total number of immigrants and stimulating firms to post more vacancies some of which are filled by natives.”
The “most disruptive policy, for the economy and for the wage and labor market opportunities of natives,” the report concludes, “is an increase in deportation rates.”
So, this study concludes that deportations are bad for the U.S. economy, and a lot of anecdotal evidence suggests that they are also deleterious to the Mexican economy, since a disproportionate share of deportees are from Mexico. They are dumped off at the border, have to find their way home, and have no jobs when they get there. This is an economic lose-lose situation, not to mention being a human rights disaster.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Can We Lower the Percentage of Births to Unmarried Women?

The social science literature is pretty clear that children are more likely to succeed in life if they grow up in a stable two-parent family. Obviously, a child is better off with only one parent if the other is abusive, but in the main having two parents is better for you than having only one. Indeed, it is easy to argue that part of the growing inequality in the U.S. might be due to an increasing fraction of children growing up with diminished family resources--limited human capital. Charles Blow of Columbian University has a very cogent piece in today's NY Times discussing this issue, and his "solution" is remarkably straight-forward.
If there is an issue on which we can mostly agree it is that there are too many children born to single mothers. But there is a smart way to address this problem: increase comprehensive sex education, teach young people to better value their bodies and protect their futures, hold male behavior more fully accountable, make contraception readily available and easily affordable and make sure that all women have a full range of reproduction options, including access to abortion.
But on some of these we are just treading water and on others we’re backpedaling.
Indeed, we seem to very easily blame the victims, rather than looking realistically at what is going on and why. In general terms, that is how inequality increases. Those with more resources exploit those with fewer resources (even if unintentionally), and the entire community needs to step up and say we need to change how things are organized. These are the decisions that lie behind the numbers in Piketty's book, for example.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Lost Generation in Syria

A new UNICEF report on Syria paints an incredibly grim picture of children as the long-term victims in Syria's civil war. ABC News, among many others, covered the story:
Nearly half of Syria's school-age children — 2.8 million and counting — cannot get an education because of the devastation and violence from a civil war now entering its fourth year, the U.N. children's agency said Tuesday.
Agency officials told reporters in Geneva that another 300,000 Syrian children are out of school in Lebanon, along with some 93,000 in Jordan, 78,000 in Turkey, 26,000 in Iraq and 4,000 in Egypt.
UNICEF estimates 2 million children affected by the fighting are in need of psychological support or treatment. Thousands have lost limbs, parents, teachers, schools, homes and virtually every aspect of their childhood, according to agency officials. And those are the ones lucky enough to be alive.
Overall, the number of children suffering from the civil war has more than doubled to 5.5 million in the past 12 months alone, UNICEF said. Many are forced to grow up fast: One in 10 refugee children is now working, the agency estimates, while one in five Syrian girls in Jordan is forced into early marriage.
The UN report explains the push for early marriage:
Studies have shown an increase in the number of Syrian families pressing their daughters into early marriages either in the hope of offering protection or to help the family economically.
The UNICEF report is 19 pages of tortuous reading about the true torture of Syrians. Without question, the report is designed to stimulate the world into some kind of action to resolve the issue. But, as NPR reported several months ago, the government of Bashar al-Assad is supported by the governments of Russia, China, and Iran.  But there is the complication that Assad is a member of the Alawite Shia Muslim sect, whereas the  majority of the Syrian population (or what's left of it) is Sunni Muslim (although there is evidence that many Syrians are also supportive of Assad). It is reasonable to think that Syria serves as a proxy war for Sunni and Shia Muslims in the region, since it appears that a large fraction of the rebels are from outside of Syria (remember that polio seemed to come to Syria from a person entering the country from Pakistan). This is, of course, part of the battle still raging (albeit at a much lower level) in Iraq where Saddam Hussein--a Sunni Muslim--had control of a largely Shia Muslim population. Removing him from power only seemed to change the dynamics of the hostilities. And these are just some of the myriad complications. But the point of the report is that if some solution isn't found soon, a whole generation may be lost, and that will have huge negative repercussions throughout the region.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Can Thomas PIketty Explain the Relationship Between Population Growth and Inequality?

Income and wealth inequality has become a widely discussed issue over the past few years, due especially to the increasing inequality that has been measured for the U.S. This is a topic that seems naturally to involve economists, since it must have something to do with capital formation and/or accumulation. A new book is out today by Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics that has generated a great deal of pre-publication publicity. I have not read the book, but I have read a couple of blog posts in the Economist and since they too will spread the word, commenting on them seems appropriate until I have a chance to read the book itself, beyond just being able to read selected pages on Amazon. The first article is sort of an Economist "book club" with a series of articles discussing the book, starting with the introduction. The overall thrust of the book seems to be that population growth is good for spreading money around, whereas slow growth leads to a concentration of wealth. 

In his Introduction, Piketty discusses Malthus, but neither he nor the Economist seems to have a good handle on what Malthus actually wrote. Picketty seems to think that Malthus was largely influenced by Arthur Young and was very worried that overpopulation would lead to something like the French Revolution. My reading of Malthus and his biographers suggests a very different view of Malthus' influences and goals. William Godwin was the inspiration for Malthus having gotten into the population issue and his concern about population growth overrunning the food supply was wrong, to be sure, but only because he did not understand that it was possible to increase productivity per acre. His theoretical deficiency on this score actually led to major insights by Darwin, as Darwin later acknowledged. Furthermore, Malthus did not believe that industrialization was anything more than a temporary phenomenon. Piketty's seeming mischaracterization of Malthus is not a good start to his book, in my estimation.

The second Economist blog, from Buttonwood, takes on the population issue more directly. 
But, having written quite a lot on demography in this post, I wanted to explore some of Mr Piketty's ideas and statistics on the topic; in particular the links between demography, growth and inequality. Readers will be familiar with the idea that growth comes from two sources; having more workers and making those workers more efficient (productivity). Roughly speaking, these two forces have been equally important, as this table from his book shows.
What stands out is the way that the last 400 years, and in particular the 20th century, breaks from the rest of history. Both population growth and economic growth have been much faster than before. We escaped from the Malthusian trap.
The results are not very satisfying in terms of explaining how the world works, however, for a number of reasons. First among these is that inequality is partly an economic issue, but is very importantly a social issue. Economists routinely ignore the fact that the economy and markets are comprised of people. Economists have been unable to predict levels of income and wealth inequality precisely because they ignore the deeply social nature of all human societies. Every economic trend can be both accelerated by and taken apart by the socially inspired decisions that people make individually and collectively. For a good popular read that provides insight on this very topic, I recommend a book by Tom Standage (an editor at the Economist, as it turns out) called Writing on the Wall: Social Media--the First 2,000 Years.

This is a complex topic, so like the Economist, I will save more discussion for another day...

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Empower Women--Give Them Contraceptives!

Yesterday was International Women's Day, nestled in the midst of Women's History Month. Melinda Gates had a very nice editorial on CNN (thanks to Debbie Fugate for the link) focusing on women in Africa, where the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has had the greatest impact. Perhaps only by coincidence, this week's Economist has a leader piece on African demography and the message is clear--African women need better access to contraception. There is no better way to empower women than to give them control over their reproductive lives. 

The Economist story seems inspired by a recent paper: "African Demography”, by Jean-Pierre Guengant and John May in the journal Global Journal of Emerging Market Economies. The plot line will be a familiar one to readers of my book: fertility is declining in north and south Africa, but not so much in between, as the map below illustrates.

Most of Africa is catching up too little, too late. The result is that the continent’s overall population will rise sharply, its big cities will grow alarmingly, and though its labour force will also expand (which is potentially good for growth), its coming “youth bulge” will be hard to manage. They conclude that governments must do much more to encourage and improve family planning.
Family planning is not expensive. According to the Guttmacher Institute, an American think-tank, it would cost about $1.5 billion a year to provide modern contraceptives to all African women aged 15-49 who do not get them. The countries where they are used most frequently are also the ones catching up fastest with the rest of the world. Unless the other African countries follow suit, the continent will see its demographic convergence lag behind; it also risks getting stuck, by having too many people with too few chances of escaping poverty.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been stepping up their work in this area, but some quick international help from USAID and other countries could potentially turn the tide.

Friday, March 7, 2014

A Small Victory for Women's Reproductive Rights

Women's reproductive rights have been routinely under attack in the US over the past few years, but there was a small victory this week, as reported by HuffingtonPost:
For too long, the Food and Drug Administration under President Obama was a pretty big disappointment to women. But this week's decision to make generic emergency contraception (sometimes known as the morning after pill or Plan B) available to women without a prescription, marks the latest move in an improved path toward policy backed by science instead of politics.
The key here is that the age restrictions have been lifted, so that emergency contraception is available over the counter without any age restrictions. Although sexual activity among American teenagers has recently shown a slight downward trend, the latest data still show that more than one-in-four never-married girls aged 15-17 has been sexually active. They needed this added protection from unintended pregnancy.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Crazy Talk About America's Birth Rate

My thanks to Zia Salim for pointing me to an article yesterday in the Atlantic that I would otherwise have missed. Derek Thompson, who "oversees the Business Channel" at the Atlantic has a new complaint about the relatively low birth rate in the US--it is bad for the economy because people spend money on kids, so with a low birth rate the economy is going to go in the tank. The inspiration for Thompson's story is the release of data by the Gallup poll day before yesterday on the amount of money families spend according to the number of children people have. Let me start with the Gallup Poll:
These results are based on 2013 Gallup Daily tracking, which asks Americans about the amount of money they spent on purchases "yesterday," excluding normal household bills and major purchases. Americans without children under 18 reported average daily spending of $79, while Americans with children reported a $108 daily average.
What's the problem here? Well, the data as reported do not reflect per person spending. If an American family of two adults spends $79 per day, then the average is $39.50 per person per day. If they have one child and the three of them spend $108 per day, the average is $36 per person per day. I'm sorry, but less is not more!

Now, let's go to the Atlantic story:
The drop in U.S. fertility rates in recent years has almost certainly had a negative effect on consumer spending (and, in turn, lower birthrates are probably an outcome of the recession). In particular, childless couples don't need space for more kids so they're less likely to buy homes in the suburbs, depressing demand for housing in an economy that badly needs to sell more homes.
First, as I pointed out last September when these birth data came out, the total fertility rate in the US in 2012 was exactly the same as it was in 1987, even though there had been some ups and down in between. The Centers for Disease Control use the General Fertility Rate instead of the TFR and they thus do not take account of changing age structures. Secondly, the low birth rate in the US does not mean that there is some huge number of childless couples. As I pointed out some time back, the percent of women who end their reproductive years without children has risen from 17.4 in 1994 compared to 18.8 percent now. I'm sorry, but this does not sound an alarm in my firehouse.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Don't Be a Middle-Aged Meat Eater

Everybody now knows that smoking is bad for you. Even if you smoke, you know that you shouldn't. But eating meat, as well as dairy products, is a different story. Humans tend to think that meat, in particular, is good for you and that more meat is better than less meat. Diet books preach that in various combinations. But, not so fast, say the authors of a new study just published the journal Cell Metabolism. They combined data from the NHANES III (the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey--conducted by the US Centers for Disease Control), with mice and cellular studies to figure out what the impact of eating meat and dairy is on our health. The Guardian has a headline that expresses the alarm bells in the study:
Diets high in meat, eggs and dairy could be as harmful to health as smoking: People under 65 who eat a lot of meat, eggs and dairy are four times as likely to die from cancer or diabetes, study suggests.
The important caveat there has to do with the age at which meat and dairy products really have a harmful effect on you--under age 65. This is not unlike the smoking effect. Most smokers start young and the ill-effects accumulate. That seems to be the story with meat and dairy, as well, at least until past middle-age.
The overall harmful effects seen in the study were almost completely wiped out when the protein came from plant sources, such as beans and legumes, though cancer risk was still three times as high in middle-aged people who ate a protein-rich diet, compared with those on a low-protein diet.
But whereas middle-aged people who consumed a lot of animal protein tended to die younger from cancer, diabetes and other diseases, the same diet seemed to protect people's health in old age.
My take-away from this is that a vegan diet is really the most healthy for you--and there are a lot of good vegan role models (Carrie Underwood doesn't seem to suffer from following a vegan diet--just saying...). It is also the healthiest diet for the planet, as I've mentioned before. 

BTW--if you want to be blown away by a fabulous vegan meal, book a reservation at Candle 79 (79th and Lexington) next time you're in NYC.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

How Many Muslims Are in India?

I have to compliment Abu Daoud once again for linking me to a demographic story that would otherwise never have popped up on my radar screen. In this case, it is a story/blog that appeared today on the website and it has the alarming title "Demographic danger! Why Muslim population growth is alarming."  The danger referred to is that the author, who appears to be Hindu, is alarmed at the rapid growth of the Muslim population in India, but is concerned that the data on religion from the 2011 census have not yet been made public. He implies that this might signal that the government is trying to hide some terrible news.
It’s been three years since 2011 census data is available with the Government. Is three years’ time not long enough for any Government to make public; one of the most crucial part of the census? The religious demographics data shows religious populations by proportion. There are lots of theories around as to why this key data is not made public.
I don't have any insights into this, except that in looking at the 2011 Census questionnaire it appears to me that there are several items of information that have not yet been made public on the Census India website. It doesn't seem unusual that the second most populous country in the world would require a fair amount of time to process census data.

Until the census data are released, the best estimate of the Muslim population of India comes from Pew Research, which suggests that in 2010 Muslims accounted for 14.4 percent of India's population, an increase from 13.4 percent in 2001. Since these projections are based on demographics trends since 2001, it is very unlikely that the 2011 Census will be very different. 

What is important to take away from the Pew report, however, is to remember that while the Middle East has the highest concentration of Muslims in terms of the percent of the population in a given region of the world, and while Indonesia is the most populous predominantly Muslim country in the world, India actually has the second highest number of Muslims of any country in the world--close behind Indonesia. When the Indian subcontinent was partitioned into India and Pakistan (which subsequently was divided into Pakistan and Bangladesh), many Muslims stayed behind. As a result, there are more Muslims in India than in either Pakistan or Bangladesh and the Indian subcontinent is the most populous region of the world in terms of Muslims. I don't personally see that as dangerous or alarming, but it is a demographic reality that is rarely discussed in the western world.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Smoking in China--Will They Die Before Getting Old?

China is famously known as the likely first country in world history to grow old before it grows rich. A lot of people are getting rich in China, to be sure, but not the average person. World Bank data, for example, show the average income in China to be only one-tenth that in the U.S. Because of low fertility, China's population is aging, but it is also smoking, as this week's Economist reminds us. I noted a couple of months ago that there are now estimated to be as many smokers in China as there are people in the U.S. This will have long-term consequences on the health (and longevity) of the Chinese unless something is done soon to change the course of smoking habits. This is especially because those 300 million smokers also put at risk another 700 million people--practically the entire population of China is at risk of first- or second-hand smoke. Although the government of China talks about limiting smoking, the Economist is skeptical that much will happen. Why? Follow the money:
China’s government is hooked on cigarette revenues. In 2012 the tobacco industry turned over 717 billion yuan in profits and taxes to government coffers, which made up 6% of official revenue. Not surprisingly, tobacco is as big in Beijing politics as petroleum and property. And in provinces, like Yunnan, where they grow tobacco, that influence is even greater.
In theory, the central government could drive up the cost of smoking without losing income. Since it controls the monopoly, any lost profits can be made up as tax revenues. But costlier cigarettes would not be popular on the street and leaders may not want to risk it. And since the industry regulates itself, it is unlikely to suppress the source of such handsome profits.
So, while outsiders have wondered how China will support its aging population with an ever smaller base of workers, problems may strike sooner than that, as the deleterious effects of smoking take their toll on health costs. People may actually die sooner because of the smoking, but they will have a cost a lot in health care in the process. Maybe the Chinese government can pay for that from its cigarette tax revenues :)

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Mess in Myanmar

Here on Oscar night it seems fitting to think about which country in the world might win the Oscar for being most messed up in a drama that includes demography. A story about Myanmar (Burma) in today's New York Times provides the inspiration for nominating Burma for this honor. A new round of killings aimed at the Muslim minority in that predominantly Buddhist country has added to the refugee and internally displaced person crisis faced by the country and, as it turns out, by the international community.
The killings are a test for Myanmar’s government, which has done little to rein in radical Buddhists, even as it pursues broad economic and political reforms of policies created by its former military leaders. The government has backed severe restrictions imposed by local authorities on Muslims’ freedom of movement and deprivation of basic services in Rakhine State, where most Rohingya live. 
On Friday, the crackdown on the ethnic minority continued, when the government ordered Doctors Without Borders, the Rohingya’s main health care provider, to stop providing its services to them. One of the group’s offenses, according to a government official, was the hiring of too many Rohingya.
Really?? You are giving the boot to Doctors Without Borders? This is bad enough on its own, but the Muslims in the southwest near the border of Bangladesh do not represent the only group of people discriminated against in Burma--including denial of citizenship to these people. Over the past three years, one of the largest groups of refugees entering the U.S. has been from Burma (the U.S. government does not use Myanmar). But they are refugees largely from the southeastern part of Burma, next to Thailand. These are especially members of the Karen ethnic group, many of whose ancestors converted to Christianity during British rule (when Burma was part of the British Indian Empire). They have been dispossessed because of their antagonism to the previous military regime in Burma, and probably because of their religion, as well.

This country of 53 million people receives my vote for having one of the most egregiously intolerant governments in the world, seeking to rid itself of undesirable minorities by putting them in the position of flee or die.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Why Have Attacks on Reproductive Rights Been So Successful?

Gail Collins raises a very interesting point in her column in today's New York Times. The gay rights movement has been very successful in the U.S., but women's reproductive rights have been going in the opposite direction. 
Last year, 22 states adopted new abortion restrictions, some of which come close to completely eliminating women’s right of choice. There was a dramatic standoff in the Texas State Legislature when Senator Wendy Davis staved off a draconian anti-abortion bill with a one-woman filibuster. People watched enthralled around the country. Davis catapulted onto the national political stage. But the Legislature came right back and passed the bill a few weeks later.
Obviously, abortion is an issue that only relates to one gender, at one particular stage in their lives. And it’s never a feel-good option. “I don’t expect the National Football League to be defending abortion rights anytime soon,” said Susan Cohen of the Guttmacher Institute.
Collins concludes that the answer gets down to money. Arizona governor Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that would have allowed businesses to refuse service to gays not on the grounds that this was morally outrageous, but on the grounds that it did not make good economic sense for Arizona. Not only do gay couples spend money, but enough people were outraged at the impending legislation (even if the governor was not), that they might boycott the state and harm its economy. But when we follow the money with respect to accessibility of abortion services, it turns out largely to be poor women who are affected.
Low-income women are five times as likely to have an unintended pregnancy as their most affluent sisters. And the lawmakers who busy themselves throwing up barriers to abortion in their own states realize, deep in their hearts, that if their middle-class constituents want to end a pregnancy, they can get on a plane and go where it’s easy to take care of the problem.
We keep looking for new angles on the song, but the tune stays the same. Follow the lack of money.
This strikes as very sad and very true.