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:

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Using Nighttime Lights Satellite Imagery to Track the Syrian War

It has been well established that nighttime lights derived from satellite imagery can be used to provide estimates of population settlements and to estimate the socioeconomic status of such places. The data come from NOAA's Defense Meteorological Satellite Program Operational Linescan System and one of the more innovative uses has been to sort out the spatial nature of the conflict in Syria. Two Chinese researchers have just published a paper in the International Journal of Remote Sensing in which they are able to conclude that:
This study provides a primary analysis on the response of night-time light to the Syrian Crisis. For the country and all provinces, the night-time light experienced a sharp decline as the crisis broke out. We found that most of the provinces lost >60% of the night-time lights and the lit areas because of the war, and the amount of the night-time light loss is correlated to the number of IDPs. We also find that the international border of Syria is a boundary to the night-time light variation patterns, reproving that the administrative border has the effect of socioeconomic discontinuity.
As this research only provides a primary evaluation of the night-time light data for the Syrian crisis, more information can be discovered by the use of night-time light images in future studies. For example, night-time light variations in control zones of different groups, including the Assad regime, Free Syrian Army, Kurds, and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Shams, can be investigated to evaluate humanitarian situations in these regions. Additionally, by the use of night-time light images, we can also study how the Syrian Civil War has spread to Iraq, where the Islamic State of Iraq and al Shams is now the global focus.
In Lebanon, we might expect that the lights are a bit brighter now than before, as Syrians cram into refugee camps that previously had been largely occupied by Palestinians. Unfortunately, even assuming some change in lights, it seems that misery is simply being compounded as Syrians flee the fighting--with no obvious end in sight.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Ebola May Be Out of Our Sight, But It's Not Gone

If you read Dr. Pollock's comment on one of my posts last week, you'll already know what I'm talking about here. While we in the US were enjoying our Ebola-free Thanksgiving, West Africa--especially Sierra Leone--was struggling with an increasing number of deaths.
While health officials say they are making headway against the Ebola epidemic in neighboring Liberia, the disease is still raging in Sierra Leone, despite the big international push. In November alone, the World Health Organization has reported more than 1,800 new cases in this country, about three times as many as in Liberia, which until recently had been the center of the outbreak.
More than six weeks ago, international health officials conceded that they were overwhelmed in Sierra Leone and reluctantly announced a Plan B. Until enough hospital beds could be built here, they pledged to at least help families tend to their sick loved ones at home.
As the New York Times reports, however, the problem is not just one of getting enough health resources into the country. Like the problem of domestic violence, it involves deeply held cultural beliefs.
Public health professionals are beginning to look harder at Sierra Leone’s culture, which is dominated by secret men’s and women’s societies that have certain rituals, especially around burials. Many people here — just like in other cultures — believe that the afterlife is more important than this one. A proper burial, in which the body is touched and carefully washed, is the best way to ensure a soul reaches its destination.
It is not pure altruism, either. If burial traditions are not followed, people worry they may be haunted by a restless soul. But in a time of Ebola, handling corpses is extremely risky because they are highly infectious. Seventy percent of new cases here, Western officials said, are directly linked to traditional burials.

Neighboring Liberia has many of the same secret societies, but some anthropologists said that the Liberian government may have done a better job working with the leaders of secret societies to change burial practices, one possible reason Liberia’s Ebola crisis has been stabilizing.
The only long-term solution is the development of a vaccine, and there is at least promising news on that front, as a new trial just completed on humans in the U.S. was successful. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Violence Against Women

Equal status for women in society is, in my view, a key to the successful demographic future of the world. So we need to pay tribute over the next 16 days (really, only 16 days??) to activism against gender violence. Violence obviously represents the extreme example of the subjugation of women by men (not to mention by other women who buy into the idea of male superiority). Female genital mutilaton (FGM) is one of these acts of violence and only a few days ago an Egyptian court rendered a not guilty verdict against a doctor who had performed FGM on a 12-year girl who died as a result of the operation, as reported by the Guardian:
The first doctor to be brought to trial in Egypt on charges of female genital mutilation (FGM) has been acquitted, crushing hopes that the landmark verdict would discourage Egyptian doctors from conducting the endemic practice. 
Raslan Fadl, a doctor and Islamic preacher in the village of Agga, northern Egypt, was acquitted of mutilating Sohair al-Bata’a in June 2013. The 12-year-old died during the alleged procedure, but Fadl was also acquitted of her manslaughter. 
No reason was given by the judge, with the verdict being simply scrawled in a court ledger, rather than being announced in the Agga courtroom. 
Sohair’s father, Mohamed al-Bata’a, was also acquitted of responsibility. Police and health officials testified that the child’s parents had admitted taking their daughter to Fadl’s clinic for the procedure. 
Despite his acquittal, the doctor was ordered to pay 5,001 Egyptian pounds (about £450) to Sohair’s mother for her daughter’s manslaughter, after the pair reached an out-of-court settlement.
The idea behind this is that since it reduces the pleasure from intercourse, it also reduces the risk of adultery. 
According to surveys by Unicef, an estimated 91% of married Egyptian women aged between 15 and 49 have been subjected to FGM, 72% of them by doctors. Unicef’s research suggests support for the practice is gradually falling: 63% of women in the same age bracket supported it in 2008, compared with 82% in 1995.
This practice has nothing to do with Islam, per se. Rather, it is a cultural practice that continues to emphasize the lower status and "fallibility" of women compared to men. There is a world-wide movement against it and we all need to support that however we can. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Harvest of Shame

In 1960, CBS News broadcast the now iconic program, Harvest of Shame, in which Edward R. Murrow exposed the disgusting way in which migrant farm workers were being treated in this country. They aired the program the day after Thanksgiving. For years, I showed it to my classes right before Thanksgiving, to encourage them to think critically about the meal they were about to enjoy. It is out there on YouTube and I hope that you will repeat my practice, because the situation of farm workers is different, but not really better than it was more than a half century ago. A very large share of the nation's food is dependent upon the work of undocumented immigrants, and their plight is obviously a current political controversy

But the issue of food and politics goes even beyond the situation of people who get our food to us. A blog post today by chef Tom Colicchio reminds us that politicians in the U.S. have been favoring the rich over the poor in terms of taking away food stamps, and have been favoring agribusiness instead of the consumer in terms of what gets produced, and how, and at what price. 
It’s harder to see, maybe, how policy can make us fat or sick, make the price of a head of broccoli more expensive than a hamburger. But the time has come to acknowledge that food policy plays a huge role in our everyday lives — from what’s on the table every day (or what isn’t) to the health of our kids and communities.
So, when we sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, we need to give some thought to why we are eating what we're eating, and about the real situation of those absolutely necessary undocumented immigrants and other exploited workers who make Thanksgiving feasts possible. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Will Obama's Executive Action Make Any Difference in Immigration Reform? Part II

President Obama's executive orders regarding temporary relief for undocumented immigrants has created a great deal of controversy, but I have been trying to figure out what difference it might make demographically, as I noted yesterday. Pew Research Center estimates that we have a large (11.2 million) unauthorized immigrant population, and their research and that of others suggests that there are two main reasons: (1) the economy demands more workers than are being supplied by children currently being born in the US (although that may well change in the future as children of immigrants fill in the gaps); and (2) the tighter border security since 9/11 has essentially trapped unauthorized immigrants here because it is much harder than it used to be for people to cross the border back and forth as the economy and/or their family circumstances change. That may well account for the rise in the number of unaccompanied minor children coming to the US--parents do not have the freedom to go back to Mexico or El Salvador to either be with children who were left behind, nor to run the risk of accompanying them back to the U.S.

But, the point is that we need immigrants who are here to work. Most people who are "in line" to enter the country legally are dependents of current U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents and are unlikely to contribute much to the U.S. economy. Given the current structure of immigration laws in the U.S., there is no way to meet the economic demands of the country--that is one of the many reasons why immigration reform is necessary. Since the legal structure doesn't meet the country's needs, the undocumented immigrants are essentially "invited" to come and fill in the gaps. But the consequence is something very close to slavery, where people have no rights and no recourse to justice when they are exploited. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) anticipated this, in a way, by requiring that employers only hire workers who could prove their legal status. It turned out, however, that employers were not happy with this arrangement and so, outside of government, there is very little scrutiny of a potential worker's legal status--thus continuing the status quo of inviting people in to work--while saying we don't want them, even though we really do--and then continuing to exploit them.

RubĂ©n Rumbaut just sent a link to a great op-ed piece in yesterday's Houston Chronicle by a law professor at the University of Houston that helps to sort out some of the legal issues that have led us to the current situation. 
With his executive action, Obama has finally called the bluff of the critics, who now have the burden of persuasion in undertaking immigration reform. They can start by adopting the terms of the original Dream Act legislation offered by Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch over a decade ago, giving "Dreamers" a pathway to permanent, legal residence.
We have invested in these children due to the requirements of Plyler v. Doe, the 1982 Supreme Court decision that allowed children who are in the U.S. without documents to attend free public schools irrespective of their immigration status. Who seriously wants to remove the students and lose the investment we have made in them?
And we can thoroughly vet the arriving Central American children to see if their claims are credible. At the least, we should provide them with advocates and lawyers. That would be a down payment on immigration reform, perhaps leading to a more comprehensive version.
At the end of the day, executive actions are only temporary and cannot change the legal status of an unauthorized immigrant. That can only be done by Congress, and we all have to push our Members of Congress to push John Boehner to put the Senate-passed immigration reform bill up for a House vote, so we can move past this horrible moment in history. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Will Obama's Executive Action Make Any Difference in Immigration Reform? Part I

I listened to President Obama's speech about immigration reform and his intended executive actions while driving home in the car from the vet, after seeing X-rays showing that our 9-year old German Shepherd has cancer that has metastasized and so he isn't expected to live long. I offer that information only to suggest that my cynicism toward the speech may have been driven by my depression. As Reuters reported, the main thrust of this actions are as follows:
With 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, Obama's plan would let some 4.4 million who are parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents remain in the country temporarily, without the threat of deportation. 
Those undocumented residents could apply legally for jobs and join American society, but not vote or qualify for insurance under the president's healthcare law. The measure would apply to those who have been in the United States for at last five years.

An additional 270,000 people would be eligible for relief under the expansion of a 2012 move by Obama to stop deporting people brought illegally to the United States as children by their parents.
Will this really matter? The Economist correctly notes that this won't really change things in any measurable way, because undocumented immigrants already can get jobs and typically have "joined American society" in some way or another because the record-keeping in this country is very loosy-goosy.
As well as its land border with Mexico, one of the reasons that America is so attractive to illegal immigrants in the first place is that it is so easy to build a life here without proper paperwork. The only identification most employers ask for is a social security number, which is easily borrowed. It is perfectly possible to open a bank account—or to survive without one—to rent a home and to pay bills without much identification at all (your correspondent speaks from experience). In many states, it is now even possible to get a temporary driving licence. Large numbers of established migrants mean that there are plenty of people from the same cultural background to help new arrivals find work, housing, wives and husbands...America is arguably uniquely open to people who want to live here. Not just legally, but also culturally and economically. And thank goodness, in your correspondent’s opinion. But Mr Obama’s speech is an inevitable consequence of this. If you make it easy for people who come to America to overstay their visas, find friends and get jobs, then it is inevitable that some will build lives. And then it will be impossible, both practically and morally, to deport them. Thus America will always have illegal immigrants—and nearly every president, eventually, will have to make this sort of speech. All the more reason to make it uplifting then.
Furthermore, as we just saw in the most recent national election, the vast majority of people who could vote, do not, so that's not a big deal, it would seem. And most Americans do not qualify for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, so that may not be such a huge deal, either. In other words, the problem is us, not the migrants. But it is very complicated nonetheless, and I'll continue this thought tomorrow. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Tell the Census Bureau NOT to Drop Marital Status Questions from the ACS

A few days ago, the U.S. Census Bureau surprised the demographic world by announcing that they were thinking of dropping several questions about marital status from the American Community Survey (ACS). Are they nuts? Families and households are key elements of every society, and we need to have these data. It was bad enough that the Centers for Disease Control stopped tabulating data on marriages and divorces years ago. This has left the American Community Survey as the major source of demographic data on the changing patterns of marriage, divorce, and widowhood. They propose to delete the following questions:
Person Question No. 21a—Get Married—In the past 12 months did this person get—Married?
Person Question No. 21b—Get Widowed—In the past 12 months did this person get—Widowed?
Person Question No. 21c—Get Divorced—In the past 12 months did this person get—Divorced?Show citation box
Person Question No. 22—Times Married—How many times has this person been married?
Person Question No. 23—Year Last Married —In what year did this person last get married?
They also want to drop the question about the undergraduate field of study:
Person Question No. 12—Undergraduate Field of Degree—This question focuses on this person's Bachelor's Degree. Please print below the specific major(s) of any Bachelor's Degrees this person has received.
This is ridiculous. Let your voice be heard by sending a note to Jennifer Jessup, Departmental Paperwork Clearance Officer, Department of Commerce:

If you aren't quite sure what to say, Steve Ruggles (incoming President of the Population Association of America) has some talking points on the website of the Minnesota Population Center:

To their list you might add the fact that the purpose of dropping these questions from the ACS is to save paperwork. Yet, the Census Bureau is already advertising on its website the fact that respondents to the ACS can respond online--that should already have taken care of a lot of paperwork issues.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Demography of Inequality in the United States

Back in September, I provided a link to some very nice maps that the Population Reference Bureau posted of poverty in America--ahead of the report on the topic. That report by Mark Mather and Beth Jarosz is now completed and they held a webinar yesterday to discuss the results. Unfortunately, I had meetings all day and missed the webinar, but it is available here along with other materials from this important analysis. To get you going on this, here's part of the setup in their introduction:
High levels of inequality have been linked to a greater likelihood of economic boom and bust cycles, deeper recessions, and a slowdown in overall economic growth. Evidence from the current economic slowdown suggests that the United States is approaching, and may already have reached, a tipping point where inequality is limiting social mobility, consumer spending, educational attainment, and the ability of the United States to compete in the global economy. Unemployment peaked at 10 percent in October 2009 and still exceeds prerecession levels. Many discouraged workers have left the labor force, and young adults—especially those without college degrees—have a hard time finding secure, full-time work. Today, about 45 percent of adults are dissatisfied with "Americans' opportunities to get ahead by working hard," compared with just 22 percent in 2001.
Inequality is not just an abstract concept. It risks undermining what we think of as the core values of America. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

1.8 Billion Young People in the World--Challenge or Opportunity?

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) today released its State of World Population 2014 report. [Note: This is not to be confused with the regular World Population Prospects issued by the UN Population Division when it revises its population projections.] The report highlights the fact that the population aged 10-24 is 1.8 billion people--the largest number the word has ever seen in this age range. Is this a challenge or opportunity? The New York Times covered the story:
The majority is concentrated in the poor countries of the global south, and there are more than 350 million in India alone. India is also among several countries where the shape of the population is changing profoundly: Fertility rates are dropping, which means a growing share of working-age men and women and a diminishing share of children to care for. That shift, the report asserts, is “opening a window for a demographic dividend,” but not without significant investments in preparing its young people to join the work force.
“The emergence of a large youth population of unprecedented size can have a profound effect on any country,” the report concludes. “Whether that effect is positive or negative depends largely on how well governments respond to young people’s needs and enable them to engage fully and meaningfully in civic and economic affairs.”
The emphasis on the demographic dividend possibilities (the "opportunities") is not surprising since the research adviser for the report was David Bloom at Harvard, who helped to popularize the concept. And, of course, the point is well taken that the key to the future is what a society can do with its youth--if it can educate them at the same time that it facilitates a quick drop in the birth rate, you have China (and India has moved in that direction, but not as effectively on either score as China). If you ignore the youth bulge, you have ISIS in the Middle East. It seems like an easy choice, but it turns out that governments tend to lean toward ignoring the problem--challenging the rest of us in the process.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Feeding the World Also Demands Water--Will We Have Enough?

Yesterday, as I was commenting on Mark Bittman's article about feeding the world, I had the nagging feeling that I was forgetting something. It didn't take long for that forgotten factor to wash over me, so to speak, as I sat down to watch "60 Minutes" on CBS. The very first story was on depleting the water supply. The initial focus was on the Central Valley of California which, according to the story, is the source of 25% of the nation's food supply. The drought in California has led farmers to start pumping groundwater to irrigate crops and the groundwater level has been steadily dropping, leading not just to depleted underground aquifers, but also to land subsidence--the surface is dropping.

But California is not the only story. By means of NASA's GRACE satellite, it is actually possible to indirectly measure the loss of groundwater throughout the world. In northern India, for example, the researcher interviewed on 60 Minutes published an article in Nature back in 2009 in which he and his collaborators concluded that:
...the available evidence suggests that unsustainable consumption of groundwater for irrigation and other anthropogenic uses is likely to be the cause. If measures are not taken soon to ensure sustainable groundwater usage, the consequences for the 114,000,000 residents of the region may include a reduction of agricultural output and shortages of potable water, leading to extensive socioeconomic stresses.
Last night's story updated the map, and since 2009 the situation in India has only gotten worse.

Another key region in which this is happening is in the already volatile Middle East--which is already parched enough as it is. 
Jay Famiglietti: Turkey's built a bunch of dams. Stored a bunch of water upstream. That forces the downstream neighbors to use more groundwater and the groundwater's being depleted.
Lesley Stahl: Oh my.
Jay Famiglietti: We're seeing this water loss spread literally right across Iran, Iraq and into Syria and down.
It is not clear at this point whether there is any clear solution to this problem...this is not good. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Can We Feed 9 Billion--or More?

If you don't know who Mark Bittman is, then you should check out his cookbooks and blog. My view is that every home should have a copy of his How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. Earlier this week he posted a piece on the NYTimes titled "Don't Ask How to Feed the 9 Billion" that deserves comment. It is both insightful and naive at the same time, but could help move the world food agenda forward. The first criticism is, of course, that the UN demographers think we are headed closer to 10.5 billion this century, rather than just 9 billion--so the problem we face seems to be getting bigger, not smaller.

But his point is straightforward and would seemingly apply to 10.5 billion, just as it would to 9 billion. The problem, he argues, is not food production, per se, but poverty. If we reduce poverty, then we can reduce hunger--not just in developing countries, but also here in the U.S. You will recognize this as a classic neo-Marxian perspective, although I don't know anything about Bittman's politics (being a good cook doesn't necessarily put you in one political camp or another). The idea that we actually already grow enough food globally is one that Vaclav Smil has made repeatedly. Bittman, however, rejects Smil's view that maldistribution of food is a major issue--although Bittman does not really justify that position. There are, however, several other points that Bittman makes with which I am wholly in agreement:
There’s plenty of food. Too much of it is going to feed animals, too much of it is being converted to fuel and too much of it is being wasted.
 We don’t have to increase yield to address any of those issues; we just have to grow food more smartly than with the brute force of industrial methods, and we need to address the circumstances of the poor.
And, although Bittman does not mention it, we need to be dealing immediately with the long-term effects of climate change, because that promises to change a lot in terms of what kinds of  food can be grown and where.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Pretty Cool App from the Census Bureau

Today I wound up spending a half hour at my cable company store in order to replace my old worn out cable box/DVR. I used the time messing around with a new phone app that I recently downloaded from the U.S. Census Bureau call "dweller." It turns out to be the kind of thing you might expect from a geodemographics company like Nielsen Claritas. You enter your geographic and demographic preferences for a place and the app returns the top 25 communities in the U.S. that fill the bill. It also knows where you are (if you allow your phone to reveal that information) and so you can compare the top 25 with where you are at the moment. Ostensibly, the idea is that can help you find where you want to live. At the same time, you actually could use it for targeting your product, in the same way that geodemographics firms do. The latter have more sophisticated statistical routines, but you can't argue with dwellr's cost--free!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

India's Family Planning Program Needs an Overhaul

You may already have heard the news that 13 women died in India a few days ago after attending a government organized sterilization camp. A BBC News team went to the area and found a health clinic "full of cobwebs and dust."
Laparoscopic tubectomy, the operation the women had, takes only about five minutes, but preparing the patient before the surgery and administering anaesthesia means that it should take at least 25 minutes per person, says Dr Ramneesh Murthy, the medical superintendent at the Chhattisgarh hospital." According to government rules, a surgeon should perform at the most 35 surgeries in a day and most doctors do follow this," he adds. In Pendari though, 83 operations were conducted by a single doctor and his assistant, and villagers allege it was all done in just six hours. The place where the operations were done is a big white building in an empty patch of land. It looks desolate, with overgrown grass and bushes all around it.
The problem is that tubal ligation is the dominant theme of India's official family planning program, as the graph below shows.
Mass sterilisation camps are held frequently in India to try to control the burgeoning population of the country. While they are voluntary, campaign groups like Human Rights Watch point out that since health workers are given incentives by the government to bring in more women for surgery, they are often indirectly pressurised into doing so.
Besides these health risks--which shouldn't exist because tubal ligation is not complex--the focus on female sterilization in India means that Indian women still marry young, have children, and only after having children undergo sterilization. This bunches up the generations and actually causes the Indian population to grow more quickly than would otherwise be the case and, of course, this pattern also holds back the emancipation of women from early marriage, early motherhood, and domination by her husband and mother-in-law. 

India needs to be part of a new program announced just today in which Pfizer Inc., the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF) will expand access to Pfizer’s injectable contraceptive, Sayana® Press (medroxyprogesterone acetate), for women most in need in 69 of the world’s poorest countries. India's young women will hopefully be part of this effort.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Can Venezuelan Teens be Shamed Out of Getting Pregnant?

"Return to class" reads the sign behind visibly pregnant-looking teenage mannequins in a shopping mall in Caracas, Venezuela. The story made the NBC news site and is one of the more encouraging things to come from Venezuela recently. The country's total fertility rate of 2.4 children per woman is just below the world average, and is sufficiently above replacement level that the country is projected to add another 10 million people to its current 30 million by mid-century. However, as the mall display tries to convey, the timing of babies is no less important than the number being born. Teenage births are associated especially with girls who are in poverty and who are neither educated about contraceptives nor empowered to use them. The pregnancy and subsequent birth (abortions are not legal in Venezuela) then will likely condemn the mother and her child to continued poverty. These were the conclusions of a World Bank report issued a few months ago, and it was this report that seemed to spur the "Showcase of Shame" campaign organized by Friends of Children Who Deserve Protection (known as Fundana). 

Not getting pregnant will free lots of young women in Venezuela to pursue a better life. It will also have the demographic side-effect of slowing down the rate of population growth by lengthening the time between generations, and it will reduce the percentage of the population under the age of 15. That figure is currently a whopping 29 percent, which is higher than the world age, and is a huge drain on the nation's resources.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veteran Demographics

In time for this year's Veteran's Day, the Veteran's Administration is undergoing a long-needed overhaul to provide help to the nation's veteran population (defined as anyone who was in the military and is now separated from the military). The greatest need is for health care because, according to VA data, 45 percent of the nation's 22 million veterans are aged 65 or older. This aging aspect of the veteran population also helps to explain a Census Bureau Infographic about the veteran population derived from responses to the American Community Survey. Those data show that veterans are overwhelmingly non-Hispanic white and have average incomes significantly higher than for non-veterans. Since veterans are also overwhelmingly males (93%!), you might come away from this thinking that the demographics of veterans in this country are very similar to members of Congress--older, higher income white guys! On the street, at least, veterans are much more popular than members of Congress (although there are many veterans in Congress, including my own member of the House)--which is why it is so amazing that Congress had let the VA fall into such disrepair, requiring an emergency cleanup by the Obama Administration.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Will Rich Countries Take in More Immigrants?

If you've read my Population text, you know that immigration is one way by which any nation (or community, for that matter) can avoid eventual depopulation in the face of a low birth rate. However, Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University and one of Upshot's bloggers on the NYTimes, seems only to have recently come across this idea. This weekend he wrote a piece on "A strategy of rich countries to absorb more immigrants." The inspiration for this, as he notes, was the most recent revision by the United Nations Population Division of their population projections, in which they note that fertility is not declining as quickly as earlier anticipated in parts of Africa and Asia and therefore the population of the world is likely to continue growing for longer, and thus likely to reach a higher number. I commented on this when the numbers came out in September. Cowen goes on to note that:
Unfortunately, regions with rapidly growing populations, like Africa and South Asia, often have lower living standards. In our likely global future, these regions will have more people than they can comfortably support, while many countries in the West and in East Asia will have too few young people for prosperous economies.
As an economist, I see an obvious solution: Relatively underpopulated and highly developed countries could profitably take in young Africans and South Asians — and both sides would gain. Yet it’s far from clear that all nations that could benefit from this policy would entertain it, partly because of persistent racial and cultural bias. There is also the legitimate question of how quickly immigrants can adjust to new environments, especially if they are arriving with weak educational backgrounds as the job market demands ever-stronger skills.
Again, if you've read my Population text, or the book that I and my son Greg wrote on Irresistible Forces--which focuses on this exact topic in terms of the age structures of the US and Latin America, and if you've followed my blog, you know these things and understand that Europeans and the Japanese, for example, don't necessarily want to to have a lot of immigrants to solve their low-birth problem. Pretty much they want to ignore the problem.

Cowen finishes his article with the comment that "Many economists are uncomfortable with population issues, perhaps because they aren’t covered in depth in the standard graduate curriculum, or because they touch on topics that may be culturally controversial or even politically incorrect. That’s unfortunate. In the future, population economics — and associated social issues — are likely to be at front and center of our most important policy concerns." Now, I suppose it may be that "many" economists are uncomfortable with the topic, but I should point out that the current President of the Population Association of America is Robert Moffitt, Professor of Economics at The Johns Hopkins University.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Spatial Demography of Happiness

The Washington Post generated a very interesting article yesterday on the happiness indices of cities in the United States. Recognizing that bad news sells better than good news, they emphasized unhappiness, but that's not important right now. 
The below interactive map uses data from a recent working paper on happy (and unhappy) cities by economists Edward Glaeser and Oren Ziv at Harvard and Joshua Gottlieb at the University of British Columbia. Their research mines responses from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a national survey run by the CDC that has fueled most of what we know about the economics of happiness.
That last comment is not quite true. Richard Easterlin at USC, and a Past President of the Population Association of America, was one of the pioneers in these analyses, drawing especially on questions in the General Social Survey administered by the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago. Indeed, these kinds of questions are at the heart of the behavioral economic approach of people like David Kahneman, a Nobel prize winner in Economics.

Particularly striking in the map is that people living in cities in the southern states report higher levels of happiness than people in the northern states or along the Pacific Coast, for that matter. It is not easy to explain this, as the authors point out, but Easterlin's work suggests that we first need to control responses for the age and income of respondents. His research shows that perceived happiness varies over the life cycle, so we need to know where a person is in terms of life cycle, not just geographic location, if we are to understand the data. Also, keep in mind that one of the key reasons to know more about happiness or unhappiness is to know if people act on the basis of their perceived happiness. The jury seems still to be out on that issue as well. In other words, there's lots of work to do--and that will make someone happy, I'm sure.

[This is a very nice map--go to the article link to view it interactively to see where your city fits in. Responses from San Diego put it right in the middle ground between happy and unhappy. Would we call that laid back?]

Friday, November 7, 2014

Midterm Election Demographics Redux

Pretty much as predicted, the people who voted in the U.S. midterm elections were disproportionately older whites, according to exit polls, although the tilt toward the Republicans clearly took most people by surprise. Now the talk has turned to the demographics of those elected, and there are some surprises here, too, as Matthew Daly of Associated Press has chronicled:
The next Senate will be slightly younger than the current one. With several races still to be called, the 11 newly-minted senators set to take office in January are, on average, 16 years younger than the lawmakers they are replacing. Each incoming senator is younger than the departing senator — some by decades.
Elise Stefanik, a 30-year-old New York Republican, is the youngest woman ever elected to the House. Also making history is Mia Love, 38, whose election to a suburban Salt Lake City district made her the first black female Republican to win a seat in Congress.
Twenty-nine Latinos will serve in the House, the largest number ever, while the number of African-Americans in Congress will increase from 43 to at least 46, including three Republicans.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who won a two-year term in a special election, is the first African-American senator from the South since just after the Civil War.
Despite these historic changes, Daly notes that the U.S. Congress is still predominantly a bunch of older white guys.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

ISIS Confronts the Demographics of Syria and Iraq

So, meanwhile in the Middle turns out that the advance of ISIS has apparently been slowed by a combination of bombing that has forced it to change its conquest strategies, and--wait for it--demographics. According to the New York Times:
One main factor in the shift has been demographics. ISIS thrives in poor, Sunni Arab areas that have lost their connection to the central state. The Sunni-led uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria opened up such areas there. And the neglect of such areas in Iraq during the tenure of former Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki made them an opportunity for the jihadists. 
But after months of steady expansion, the Islamic State has taken most of these areas in Iraq while failing to seize areas with non-Sunni populations. And although it could still expand in Syria, the group also faces resistance from rival rebel groups there.
“ISIS can only expand in areas where it can enter into partnerships with the local population, and that largely limits the scope of the expansion of ISIS to Sunni, disenfranchised areas,” said Lina Khatib, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
There is still a long way to go in fighting ISIS, but let's hear it for the positive influence of demographics! 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Is Ebola Over?

According to the New Yorker, Fox News has officially ended its coverage of Ebola as of today. Does this mean that Ebola is over? Well, obviously not, but Nature News also raised the question of whether early models of the disease's spread were accurate, since so far the number of cases and deaths in Liberia, for example, have been below the model estimates.
Epidemiologists normally use mathematical models to estimate the trajectory of an outbreak, and to estimate where and how to direct scarce medical resources. But for the current crisis, on-the-ground data contradict the projections of published models, says Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, and a member of the WHO’s multidisciplinary Ebola Response Team.
The very first thought I had when reading this was the tremendous flack that Paul Ehrlich has taken over the decades for "incorrectly" predicting that continued population growth would lead to famine and death. As he said in the Population Bomb and has repeated often since then, the "penalty" for being wrong is that fewer people die--but would that have happened if he had not helped to raise the alarm? This strikes me as a similar situation. Models that showed what could happen if the disease went uncontrolled may well have contributed to the global response, which seems to be picking up. On that score, I thanks Professor Rumbaut for linking me to a New Yorker story about Cuba's response team that has been sent to Sierra Leone to head off the spread of Ebola there. He also provided a link to a great map of Africa--the "true size" of Africa--reminding us how far any disease has to travel in order to spread throughout that incredibly vast continent. Take a good look at this to get the perspective.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Political Geography on Election Night in America

It is not only those of us in the U.S. who are anxiously awaiting today's election results. The French paper, La Croix, for example, interviewed my son, Greg Weeks, who is Chair of the Political Science Department at UNC, Charlotte, and whose thought it is (in concert with many others) that Republican control of both the House and Senate will lead to two years of paralysis between now and the next Presidential election. That is unlikely to be good for anyone in the world, except perhaps for people bent on undermining modern nation-states. On that score, I was very interested to see that La Croix has a set of interactive maps on its website showing, among other things, the major Islamist armies currently active in the world (see below).

And it is certainly no coincidence that these are among the areas projected by the UN Population Division to be growing the most quickly between now and the middle of this century:

Monday, November 3, 2014

Demographics of the Midterm Elections

With the Congressional "midterm" (meaning, halfway through the President's time in office) elections coming up tomorrow, there has been a lot of talk about the way in which demographic diversity affects politics in the U.S., and the way in which demographic differences in voting patterns will influence the election results. On this point, there is little controversy. The Census Bureau's Current Population Survey asks questions in the March survey after each election about respondent's voting behavior. For decades the pattern has been for the percent registered and among them the percent voting to increase with age, and for white non-Hispanics to have higher percentages of registration and voting than other ethnic groups. Thus, older whites are typically over-represented in the election booth (metaphorically speaking--many people like me are permanent mail ballot voters). More disturbing from a societal perspective is the long-term decline in the interest surrounding the midterm elections, as the graph below from the Census Bureau shows:

Among Asian and Hispanic citizens, the percent voting has dropped to less than one-third of people, and even among non-Hispanic whites, it has dropped below half. This lack of interest led to a widely-commented upon Op-Ed piece in today's NYTimes suggesting that maybe the Constitution needs to be changed to get rid the midterm elections and only have elections in years that include the Presidential election. I guess my own view would be that if more people actually participated in the process of voting--no matter when it occurs--the special interest groups would lessen their sway and democracy would be something closer to what we envision it to be. This would certainly be facilitated by an increase in mail-in ballots and online voting. At the same time, it is not clear that even if every group increased its participation in voting there would be a change in the decades-old demographic differences in voting patterns. The older population, in particular, is likely to continue to have a greater than proportional representation at the ballot box.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Blunt Talk From IPCC on Carbon and Climate Change

The UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just come out with its most blunt report to date about what the world needs to do to avoid climate disaster. BBC News has a summary:
...most of the world's electricity can - and must - be produced from low-carbon sources by 2050. If not, the world faces "severe, pervasive and irreversible" damage. The UN said inaction would cost "much more" than taking the necessary action.
The IPCC's Synthesis Report was published on Sunday in Copenhagen, after a week of intense debate between scientists and government officials. It is intended to inform politicians engaged in attempts to deliver a new global treaty on climate by the end of 2015.
The Synthesis Report summarises three previous reports from the IPCC, which outlined the causes, the impacts and the potential solutions to climate change. It re-states many familiar positions:
  • Warming is "unequivocal" and the human influence on climate is clear
  • The period from 1983 to 2012, it says, was likely the warmest 30 year period of the last 1,400 years
  • Warming impacts are already being seen around the globe, in the acidification of the oceans, the melting of arctic ice and poorer crop yields in many parts
  • Without concerted action on carbon, temperatures will increase over the coming decades and could be almost 5C above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century
We seem to be in a classic "pay me now, or pay me a lot more later" situation. As a species, we tend to prefer to put things off until the disaster strikes. Will we continue down that path? The IPCC is clearly worried that we will.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Can We Keep Feeding a Growing Population? Problems Abound

The bottom line for life of humans on earth is whether or not we can continue to feed ourselves in the face of population growth that is almost certain to continue for several more decades. Most of us just take for granted that food will always be there, but this does not happen magically. A story yesterday on reminded me of this issue. As part of a panel discussion last week at the 2014 Corn and Soybean Future Forum in Frankfurt, Germany, hosted by Bayer CropScience, three countries were highlighted with respect to problems they face in growing corn and soybeans--two of the most important crops in the world.
In Argentina, Federico Bert, says the top obstacles are political and infrastructure issues. roads and highways are biggest infrastructural hindrance inhibiting expansion and profitability for Argentina farmers. Political unrest, theft and extortion are also hurting farmers’ potential in Argentina, which is the world’s third-largest exporter of corn and soybeans.
Belgian farmers, as well as their European Union counterparts, are constantly trying to show agriculture in the country is sustainable, says Alexander Doring, secretary general at European Feed Manufacturer’s Federation in Belgium. He says the market demands “responsible production,” and if farmers could document and prove sustainable agriculture, they could gain market opportunities.
With corn and soybean prices lower, Danny Murphy, Canton, Miss., farmer and American Soybean Association chairman, says the high cost of producing grain is the biggest challenge for American farmers. Murphy says regulations, especially about the waters of the United States, consumer acceptance of modern farming practices and transportation hang-ups with grain movement via railroads also challenge U.S. farmers.
The jarring thing about these three examples is that they are only marginally related to what we usually think of as the problems with feeding enough people--having enough water (is regulation good or bad?), good soil, proper use of fertilizers and pesticides, mechanization, distribution, etc. The "real world" tends to get in the way of the big issues when it comes to food, just as it does in everything else.