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:

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Demographic Vulnerability--Looking Forward

Yesterday I looked back at the countries of the Middle East to show that the most rapidly growing countries 25 years ago are, with few exceptions, the ones in which we today see the greatest level of violence and instability. That prompted Steve Kent at the Population Institute in Washington, DC to point me to an excellent report that they have just published on "Demographic Vulnerability: Where Population Growth Poses the Greatest Challenges." You can see the top 20 in the map below and the details for each country are provided in the report, which also has a lot of other good discussion and analysis. Indeed, I will say that I did not see a single thing with which to disagree. As the press release for the report indicates:

Robert Walker, president of the Population Institute and the principal author of the report, noted that, “Some of the countries profiled in this report—such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen—are ‘headline’ countries commonly recognized as ‘fragile’ states, though demographic pressures are seldom acknowledged. Others—such as Niger, Malawi, and Mozambique—don’t get much press coverage, but the challenges they face are no less daunting.”
World population is projected to increase from 7.3 billion today to 9.6 billion or more by 2050. Virtually all that growth will be in the developing world, and much of that increase will occur in countries struggling to alleviate hunger and severe poverty. Many countries with rapidly growing populations are threatened by water scarcity or deforestation; others are struggling with conflict or political instability. While progress is not precluded, population growth in these countries is a challenge multiplier.

I too have tried repeatedly to remind us all that the "population problem" is not "solved" just because rates of population growth are low in the richest countries. Population growth in these other countries is a storm headed our way, and we need to act now to help them and ourselves create a better future, not a worse one.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Population Growth in the Middle East: A Look Back

I just happened quite serendipitously to come across the material from a Senate Breakfast Briefing at the Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, in which I participated in 1991. The topic was "Population Trends and the Middle East: Implications for Long-Term Stability," and the briefing took place shortly after the end of the first Gulf War. The meeting was co-sponsored by Senators Tim Wirth of Colorado and Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas and was organized by Jane DeLung of the Population Resource Center in cooperation with the Population Association of America. Joining me were Nazli Choucry of MIT and John Waterbury of Princeton (who went on to become President of the American University of Beirut). My first slide is shown below. It really tells the story of what has come since in terms of stability--or lack thereof:

If you look down that list of countries by highest rates of population growth, you can see where the biggest problems have emerged--Gaza, Iraq, Syria, Iran. Jordan is the outlier in this list both because it has had a lot of western support and because it has had good governance. Of course, being so close to so much other population growth has not been easy. Yemen is also right up there in terms of population growth and at the time its total fertility rate of 7.5 children per woman was highest in the region and one of the highest in the world. Iraq was a close second at 7.3 children per woman. Dr. Waterbury added the somber warning about the low level of precipitation in the region--more people, but not more water. Indeed, it is good to remember that when Saudi Arabia found oil in the 1930s they had originally been looking for water...

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Patterns of Population Change in Europe

The general view of demographic change in Europe is that populations are either declining or are on the verge of declining. Reality is more complicated--the devil is in the details and a new map out from Germany, and summarized by CityLab, shows those details. The map shows the average annual rate of population growth by subnational district between 2001 and 2011.

The map works as follows. Dark blue patches show an average annual population fall of 2 percent or more, the medium blue patches a fall of between 1 and 2 percent, and the lightest blue patches a fall of up to 1 percent. Areas in beige have experienced no statistically significant change, while the red areas show population growth. Municipalities in deep red have experienced an average annual population rise of 2 percent or more, the medium red of between 1 and 2 percent, and the pale pink areas of up to 1 percent. The different sizes of each colored shape, meanwhile, show the radically different sizes of municipal units across the continent—large in the Baltic States, Turkey, and Northern Scandinavia, but far smaller in Ireland, Greece, and the Czech Republic.
Here you can see clearly that the UK and Ireland, along with much of France have been experiencing population growth, partly as a function of immigration. Eastern Europe and the Baltic states are sending migrants westward, while Poland has been experiencing suburbanization. The Mediterranean areas are generally growing, as is northern Italy--at the expense of southern Italy. Turkey is undergoing all kinds of complex demographic shifts, which is consistent with its current political turmoil.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Obamacare Survives Court Challenge--Will US Life Expectancy Improve?

The big news this morning was that the US Supreme Court rejected the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act. This means that people living in states that have not set up a health care exchange, and thus use the US Government exchange, will still have their health care subsidized. Does that mean that we will now have better health care than before? Probably not. This does really change the health care system. Obamacare mainly brings more people into the market where they can buy health insurance, but of course it is not free for them, and it is still too early to tell exactly where the federal money will ultimately come from to pay for the subsidies. There is no free lunch and when it comes to health care Americans have the most expensive lunch on the planet. Yet, we have life expectancy that is lower than any northern or western European country and Canada. Why? There are four reasons: (1) the health insurance industry, which profits as a broker of health care services; (2) physicians who are the highest paid in the world; (3) lawyers who depend upon medical malpractice for their livelihood; and (4) drug companies who charge more in the US than elsewhere in the world.

My main objection to Obamacare when it was first proposed was that it did not go nearly far enough. Although health as a social movement has had a long history in the US, the fact that it spun off into a fee-for-service program instead of a universal health care program is, in my estimation, the sole reason for the country lagging behind others in life expectancy. And, of course, the four reasons I listed above are the reasons why we don't have universal health care. There are too many people making lots of money from healthcare and, quite naturally, they don't want that to change. One of the more positive things coming from the Affordable Care Act, however, is the idea that health providers should be reimbursed on the basis of quality of care, not on quantity. In particular, people in the public health field have known forever that prevention is the best medicine--it just doesn't pay as well...

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Urban "Renewal" in Accra, Ghana

Thanks to Justin Stoler for pointing to a story about the recent demolition of more than 1,000 squatter homes in the Old Fadama neighborhood of Accra, the capital of Ghana, the city where he and I and other of our colleagues have been working for the past decade or more. The neighborhood is also known as Sodom and Gomorrah and has been the gateway for migrants into the city who lack the resources to live elsewhere in the city.
Thousands of the slum dwellers who are mostly migrants from the northern part of the country were consequently rendered homeless, while scrap metals and make shift shops were also destroyed. The residents who are displeased with the demolition hit the streets on Monday to protest against the exercise.
Numo Blafo [the city's public relations officer] further explained that the removal of those structures was aimed at paving way for a major dredging exercise at the Korle Lagoon. According to him, about 100 structures from the Banks of the Lagoon to the Odaw were demolished to that effect, adding that work on the dredging of the river had already taken off.
It may be only coincidental that this action occurred shortly after UN-Habitat announced a new project to build a planned extension of Accra in an area on the exact opposite side of town.
Right now, the Greater Accra Region is experiencing a rapid and unplanned urbanization process due to pressing influx of population and land speculation. Projections show that Accra will rapidly grow from approximately 2.5 million inhabitants to 4.2 million in the next ten years, and a large share of this growth is expected to be accommodated in the Ningo-Prampram District. 
Ningo-Prampram District, located at a short commuting distance east from Accra, represents an unmatched opportunity to respond to unplanned urban sprawl of the capital and the whole region. Availability of land and international connectivity along the trans-national corridor from Abidjan to Yaoundé , the international airport and the access to the coastline make Ningo-Prampram a superb location for a planned city extension to provide adequate access to land, housing, economic activities and services for the growing population.
And it may be only a coincidence that my analysis of census data for 2010 shows that Old Fadama has the highest proportion of Muslims of any neighborhood in Accra (69%) and the worst housing in the city.

Sadly, all of this turmoil comes at the same time that the Economist reported just this week on the growing fragility of the Ghanaian economy, perhaps caused by government overspending in anticipation of future oil revenues. The concern inside and outside of Ghana is that oil could push Ghana in the political direction of Nigeria and away from its long-time status as the model nation in the region.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Is Nigeria's Population Less Than We Think?

The Economist this week has a special report on Nigeria, and one of the components of the report is an assessment of Nigeria's population. Building on data from the 2006 census, the UN estimates the 2015 population of Nigeria to be 183 million and projects it to increase to a whopping 440 million by 2050, at which point it would surpass the US and would be the 3rd most populous country in the world. The Population Reference Bureau has a similar current population estimate, but a lower projection, based on the expectation (or at least the hope!) that the birth rate will fall faster than envisioned by UN demographers. The problem, as the Economist notes, and as I discuss in Chapter 3 of my text, is that census taking in Nigeria has always been tricky business. Indeed, funny business surrounding the 1960 census helped lead to the Biafran War that tore Nigeria apart for several years in the late 1960s. So, was the most recent census in 2006 also suspect?
Even allowing for all these swings and roundabouts, some researchers, using sophisticated satellite imagery and geographical information systems, reckon that the 2006 census considerably overstated Nigeria’s urban population, mainly in the north but also in some southern cities. That means Nigeria’s current population may be closer to 160m than 180m. The forecasts suggesting that Nigeria’s population will overtake America’s within a few decades are probably also wrong because they are based on high fertility rates observed in the past, whereas newer data suggest those rates are falling fast, especially in the south.
The Economist does not cite its sources for "some researchers," but I'm guessing that the information comes from AfricaCheck:
Based on the Africapolis urban study, it appears to be more likely than not that Nigeria’s population today is lower than commonly cited. And the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), for one, has taken this into account in its estimates. “The OECD has adjusted Nigeria’s population figures on the basis of the much reduced urban populations estimated by the Africapolis team,” Dr Potts [Dr Deborah Potts, a reader in human geography at Kings College London] said. “Their calculations put Nigeria’s population at 110.1 million in 2000, compared to a UN estimate for that year of 123.7 million.” In a report, the organisation estimated that Nigeria’s population in 2006 was just over 134 million; below the 140 million reported in the census.
Interestingly enough, the Economist laments this lower number since it suggests a smaller consumer market than people in business might otherwise be counting on. I think, however, that most of us are likely to agree that given the poverty and corruption in Nigeria--despite its vast natural resources--fewer people now and in the future is better than more. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Pope Gets it Right on the Environment, But Wrong on Population

Everyone with whom I have spoken this week seemed very pleased, as was I, that Pope Francis published a new Encyclical calling on the world to do something about global climate change and environmental destruction--to "care about our common home." But, I was also disappointed (albeit not surprised) that he chose to set aside any concerns about population growth. Here is what the Pope writes on pp. 35-36:
Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”. Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development” [with a reference to an internal church document]. To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.
It is genuinely unfortunate that he fails to see that the very same science on which he is relying for his opinions about destroying the environment is the science that gave us the death control technology that has propelled population growth. These are not separate issues--they are two sides of the same coin. Just as we no longer live in a Biblical ecological environment, we no longer have a Biblical need to be fruitful and multiply beyond two children per woman. 

And, of course, as I discuss in Chapter 11 of my text, we can support a larger population if everyone is willing to dramatically lower their level of living. While this is consistent with Christian teaching, and seems essentially to be the Pope's overall message, it is not the path that most humans seem to want to take. Limiting population growth, and limiting the production and consumption of animals would both be much more beneficial paths for the future. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Demographic Collapse in Ukraine and Elsewhere

Thanks to Duane Miller for pointing to a recent article (and a source for that article from Forbes) lamenting the demographic situation in the Ukraine. A Ukrainian government report just came out detailing the demographic situation in that country, and although I have not seen that report, it appears to indicate that the population of Ukraine is continuing its decline, despite net in-mgration. It is this latter point that seems out of whack:
But contrary to what appears to be common sense, this population decline is after taking into account a supposed net inflow of migrants to Ukraine. That is, even accepting the scarcely believable finding that more people have moved to a country that is in the middle of internal conflict than have left it (cue joke here about how the new migrants to Ukraine are all riding on Russian tanks) Ukraine's population still declined by a quarter of a million people.
To be sure, a report dated yesterday from Belarus suggests that there is a continued flow of refugees out of Ukraine. Of course, it is very possible that any net flow of people into Ukraine is comprised of migrant workers returning home from Russia. Remittances back home to Ukraine from Russia represent an important part of the economy of Ukraine. 

Without taking anything away from its current political and economic troubles, the population of Ukraine has been dropping slowly since 1990. UN demographers estimate that it is declining by about 250,000 people per year, consistent with the newly published reports. As I noted last year, the age structure is still concentrated at the working ages--with fewer young people and no huge bulge yet in the older population--but that demographic dividend is transitory and the country would need a quick infusion of cash to take advantage of it.

Global cash to help troubled spots is obviously in short supply, as evidenced starkly by the report just out from the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, and widely reported:
The number of people forced to flee their homes because of conflict and persecution reached a record high last year, the United Nations said in a report released Thursday.
Syria overtook Afghanistan to become the world's biggest source of refugees, the U.N. refugee agency said. A "staggering" 59.5 million people were forcibly displaced by the end of 2014, compared with 51.2 million in 2013 and 37.5 million a decade ago, the United Nations said.
This is the worst situation the world has faced since the end of WWII. Violent conflict is the proximate cause, but as I have noted many times, the underlying pace of population growth in economically weak nations is a key distal cause. Ukraine is obviously a different case because its demographics closely mirror Russia and most of eastern Europe.  

Monday, June 15, 2015

Perceptions and Misconceptions About Race in America

This has been a busy few days in terms of racial self-identification in the U.S. First, Pew Research published a report on multi-racial persons in the America. In the last two censuses (2000 and 2010)  the Census Bureau has given people the option of classifying themselves as having more than one racial origin. Pew used survey data to ask more questions about a person's background, including race of parents and grandparents and came up with a larger estimate of the multiracial population than found when using the census-style questions. These findings are interesting because when asking the same question as the census, the Pew study found that 1.4% of respondents considered themselves to be multiracial--very close to the 2.1% found in the 2013 American Community Survey data and well within the margin of error, suggesting no difference with the census data. However, when they added in the characteristics of parents and grandparents, the figure went up to 6.9% who could be considered multiracial, even if they don't identify themselves that way.

Of particular interest is the graph showing that people whose multiracial background includes black and something else are more likely than other groups to have experienced discrimination, especially from the police (see graph below). This is exactly in line with a paper published today in the latest issue of Demography by Andrew Penner and Aliya Saperstein. They used data from the U.S. National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) in which respondents were asked about their own racial identity, but in which the interviewer also provided an independent assessment of the person's race, and they didn't always agree. They then compared those differences with self-reports of arrests by the respondents. Although the numbers are small, the results are intriguing and both statistically and substantively significant:
...being seen as black by others is associated with a sizable and statistically significant increase in the odds of experiencing a future arrest (odds ratio = 2.78, p < .01), even among individuals who do not identify themselves black. By contrast, the second bar of Fig. 1 shows that the effect of self-identifying as black is close to null and not significant among respondents who were not classified by the interviewer as black (odds ratio = .97, p = .96).
In other words:
Our findings suggest that racial disparities in arrest rates in the contemporary United States are more closely related to how young adults are perceived racially by others, relative to how they identify their own race.
Finally, there is the rather unusual situation of the President of the NAACP office in Spokane being called out for not being black, even though she claims to be. Her parents say she isn't, so the self-identification as black is obviously fraudulent.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Abortion Rate is Falling in the US--Probably Not Because of New Restrictions

Thanks to Shoshana Grossbard for pointing me to a story at FiveThirtyEightPolitics about the falling abortion rate in the US. Given the number of states that have recently been passing laws that make it harder for a woman in this country to have an abortion, it is interesting to see the analysis suggesting that these restrictions are not the likely reason for the fall in abortions:
Although it’s impossible to attribute the decline to a single factor, the data shows that better contraception — combined with a bad economy and a falling teen pregnancy rate — is largely responsible. Abortion rates did fall in many of the states with new restrictions, but they also dropped in others, such as New York and Connecticut, where access to abortion is relatively unobstructed. In fact, some of the states with the biggest declines — Hawaii, Nevada and New Mexico — have enacted no new abortion laws in recent years, suggesting that something other than reduced access is spurring the trend.
Experts cited in the article suggest that restrictions are unlikely to limit the number of abortions. Rather, they delay the timing of the abortion by making it more difficult for a woman to figure out where she can go for an abortion. 

The reason for the fall in the abortion seems to be what any reasonable person would hope for--a drop in the likelihood of a woman getting pregnant when she didn't want to have a baby. This may reflect a combination of economic uncertainty causing women to be more careful about using effective contraception along with the greater availability of contraception as a result of the Affordable Care Act. I was particularly struck by the theme of ambivalence when it comes to getting pregnant--something I have been talking about for a long time:
Elizabeth Ananat, an associate professor of economics at Duke University who studies the economics of fertility, said the data also contradicts the notion that more women are rejecting abortion and choosing to stay pregnant. “If women’s attitudes were really shifting, we should see the birth rate go up,” she says. “Instead, birth rates are falling, too.” ....“People think of pregnancies as being either planned or unplanned, but there’s sometimes some middle ground there, some ‘let’s see what happens,’” she said. “People’s ambivalence tends to evaporate during a recession, and they’re more careful about birth control use because they’re more certain they don’t want to get pregnant.”
An important lesson here is that policies such as trying to restrict aboriton tend to work best if most people are behind them. I have never talked to anyone who thinks that an abortion is preferable to contraception, but a majority (slim, but still a majority) of Americans believe that it should be a woman's right to make the choice about having an abortion, since contraception does not always work as it should. 

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Commodification of Migrants From Africa to Europe

Migration has been a risky business for most of human existence (thoughts of the Donner Party come to mind), but of course life itself was a risky business for most of human existence. Legal migration is pretty straightforward in the modern world, but undocumented migration is increasingly tragic because it has been taken over by human traffickers whose goal is not to get people safely from point A to point B--but rather to make money from the migrants and/or their families and from the governments that are trying to deal with them on the receiving end. A detailed story by Alex Perry and Connie Agius in Newsweek reveals the inner workings of human trafficking from Africa to Europe, and it just hurts to read this stuff. As background they remind us that:
Since the year 2000 around 22,000 Middle Easterners, Asians and Africans have drowned in the Mediterranean. Many perished in the seas between Africa and Lampedusa, the small, southern Sicilian island which, at just 300km from Tripoli, is the closest part of Europe to Libya. In the past 18 months, the numbers of those trying to reach Europe – and dying in the attempt – have accelerated sharply. In 2014, more than 250,000 migrants tried to cross the Mediterranean, of whom 3,702 died. In 2015, the European Union predicts crossings could reach 500,000 or even a million – a spike the International Organisation of Migration predicts could mean around 10,000 deaths.
The migrant traffic is rising for various reasons: the disintegration of Libya and Yemen; repression in Eritrea; civil war in Sudan and South Sudan; and the apparent conclusion reached by millions of Syrians, spending a fourth year in foreign refugee camps, that they are never going home. Europe is not blameless in these disasters. Nato assisted in Libya's collapse in 2011; the EU supported a corrupt and ethnically-divisive government in South Sudan; and both Nato and the EU have done little to arrest Syria's destruction. Further back in history, as Africans arriving in Europe are wont to remind those who object to "economic" migrants, the wealth that now attracts them was built, in large part, by the Europeans who migrated to Africa in pursuit of its riches in the 19th century.
They then dive into the fact that the rising number of deaths of people headed especially from Libya to Italy has caused the Italian anti-mafia team of prosecutors to step in. They asked survivors of these boats to give them cell phone numbers of people with whom they had been in contact, and by tapping phone lines were able to piece together a huge, complicated, and sophisticated web of human trafficking that is making a lot of money for a lot of people. At the center of the one of these operations is a 40-something Ethiopian described as being very "street smart."
To ensure a steady supply of migrants, he works with those in Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria or Eritrea who run trucks across the Sahara. Simultaneously, he continually establishes fresh relationships with people traffickers further down the line: those in Sicily, operating in migrant centres, or in Rome, Milan or even further afield in Berlin, Paris, Stockholm or London.
And the story goes on to detail corruption existing at the migrant camps set up in Italy. Given the political and social disorganization that wracks so much of Africa and the Middle East, it is hard to know how to approach a solution. Cracking down on each corrupt person is like the proverbial whack-a-mole game. You have to do that, but at root the population growth in this region is exacerbating every other problem that exists. Lowering birth rates has to be part of the long-term solution. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Will an Aging Population be the Death of the UK's Economy?

Thanks to Abu Doaud for weighing in on the issue of how terrible an aging population is by linking us to an article with the rather startling headline: "A devastating Credit Suisse note says Britain's economy is screwed." The assessment comes from Amlan Roy, who is Managing Director and Head, Global Demographics and Pensions Research for the Investment Banking Division of Credit Suisse in London. 
He concludes, in part, that the ageing population of the UK is making the economy unsustainable, absent of some major change in demographics. "Health and pension promises towards older people pose a serious future challenge to the UK's financial sustainability," his note to investors says.
The takeaway here is that if your priority is economic growth and low unemployment, then everything UKIP and the Conservatives have been saying about immigration has turned out to be totally wrong.
This is not a new insight from Roy. A quick Google search suggests that he has been talking about this issue for awhile now. If we just look at his economic analysis, he uses the old and tired idea that as people get older, they get tired and are less productive. That may be true in an agricultural society, but not in a technological society, where retirement of people may lead to corporate brain drain, as the AARP has been saying. Indeed, the UK has lifted its mandatory retirement age and recently raised the age at which full pensions are on offer. In particular, they changed the old system by which women (who, of course, outlive men by several years on average) could retire at age 60, while men had to wait until age 65. 

The real message of Roy's report is, as the reporter notes, to keep the UK mindful of the importance of immigrants, given the mounting opposition to the rise in the number of immigrants to the UK. 
The solution to the problem — and we're quoting Roy a little out of context here — is to let more immigrants in: "Immigrants into the UK also tend to be younger. In the UK, 81.2% of migrants are of working age (i.e., 15-64 years old), compared to 65% in the total population. Most of them are also gainfully employed."
Roy is himself the very kind of immigrant of whom he speaks, having migrated to the UK from India by way of a doctorate at the University of Iowa in the US. An interesting demographic aspect to the perception that any country is being taken over by immigrants is, of course, the fact that they tend to have more kids than non-immigrants. This is certainly true in the UK, according to the National Office of Statistics. And, of course, that is the trade-off that any society has to make when it comes to migration policy.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Is the Number of People the Earth Can Support Not Really a Numbers Problem?

Later this month, the United Nations will be convening a High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on sustainable development.
The High-level Political Forum is a young institution that was created at the Rio+20 Conference on sustainable development in 2012. It provides political leadership, guidance and recommendations. It follows up and reviews the implementation of sustainable development commitments and it addresses new and emerging challenges. It also enhances the integration of economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.
Ahead of this, a number of people (including me, obviously) are weighing in with ideas about the demographic future of our species. My thanks to @PRBdata for pointing me to an OpEd in yesterday's NYTimes by Laurie Mazur, an author of books on population related issues, who seems to be suggesting that numbers are the not the problem
Start with the term "overpopulation." It implies that there are too many people in relation to the planet’s resources, a concept that has fallen out of favor. We now know that resources are distributed so inequitably, and used so wastefully, that it is virtually impossible to determine how many people the planet can sustain.
Well, it turns out that is not a correct assessment of reality, as she herself points out two paragraphs later:
Does that mean that human numbers are irrelevant to environmental sustainability? Not exactly. Current inequities are not — and must not be — set for all time. Yet the planet could not support today’s 7 billion people living as Americans now do, much less a future world population of up to 11 billion.
What she really wants us remember--and on this I think we can all agree--is that we do not want coercive population control measures (whether it be a one-child policy or genocide). Rather, we need softer inducements to slowing down the increase of population and simultenously raising the standard of living in less developed nations. In particular, we need to raise the status of women. However, it is unlikely that this can be done without some "coercion" in the form of legislation that gives women legal rights equivalent to those of men. The resources issue also needs some coercion. Inequality is getting worse, not better. This is not the kind of "sustainability" that most of us are thinking of and changing it will also require some coercion, as a very useful Salon article discussed a few months ago.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Fertility in Egypt is Going the Wrong Way--Up!

Almost exactly two years ago, I commented on a NYTimes article suggesting that the birth rate in Egypt was going up. I could see how that might be happening, but the article gave no source for its information. In particular, there was concern that the Morsi government of the Islamic Brotherhood--still in power at the time--was gutting the country's family planning program. To give credit where it is due, the NYTimes was right and that was just confirmed by the results from the 2014 Egypt Demographic and Health Survey. The Economist reports on the story in an appropriately concerned fashion:
Population growth in the Middle East, though higher than everywhere but sub-Saharan Africa, has been slowing thanks to falling fertility rates, the measure used by demographers for the number of children a woman is likely to have. But after 50 years of decline, the fertility rate in Egypt, the region’s most populous nation, is now back up to 3.5. That is lower than in Iraq and Yemen where it is over four, but above Saudi Arabia and Iran, which with 77m has the second-largest number of people in the region. Since infant mortality is falling and life expectancy increasing, the population will surely start growing faster.
That would be “catastrophic”, says one researcher in Cairo. By 2050 the UN thinks Egypt could be home to up to 140m people; and they live on just over 5% of its land, along the Nile and coast, since the rest is desert. Only with fewer than 55m people would the country escape being classed as “water poor” (with less than 1,000 cubic metres of water per person a year), says Atef al-Shitany, head of family planning at the health ministry. Shabby schools and hospitals are increasingly overburdened.
The increasing number of births will rob Egypt of some of its imminent demographic dividend—the economic advantage of having few old people and children relative to the number of working adults. “Meeting the demands of this population will require strong, sustained economic growth and redistributive policies,” says Jaime Nadal Roig, who heads Egypt’s branch of the UN’s population fund. Sadly for Egypt, making the economic indicators tick up fast enough is as hard as making the fertility rate go back down.
To be sure, the birth rate was not previously dropping fast enough to have produced a true demographic dividend, but these new data certainly do take away any hint of the possibility of anything except future hardship for the average Egyptian unless these trends can be quickly reversed. Birth rates seemed to rise in every segment of Egyptian society, including across all educational groups. Only in urban lower Egypt (i.e., Cairo and Alexandria) did fertility not go up, but it didn't go down in these places either. It will be very important for the current or future governments to reinvigorate family planning programs so that married women have greater access to birth control (historically these programs have been much more available to married than to single women), and to invest again in education for women and create employment opportunities for young women, so that they will be encouraged to delay marriage and thus lower their lifetime number of births.  

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Has Demography Doomed the Euro?

This week's Economist has a "Free Exchange" blog lamenting the potentially disastrous impact of population aging on the eurozone:
The slow growth and strained government finances of recent years will soon be dramatically amplified by demography. And the member facing the most severe onslaught is not a small Mediterranean country but Germany, the euro area’s muscleman.
Germany is on the verge of depopulation, to be sure. That is especially a consequence, however, of reunification. The former East Germany, like virtually all of eastern Europe and Russia, has had very low levels of fertility for a long time. This is almost certainly a residual of the economic stagnation associated with communism. Southern Europe also has very low fertility levels, occasioned in my view by the continued schizophrenic view of women--it's OK for them to be educated and employed, but they really shouldn't try to combine work and family. "Society" prefers them to be home having kids, but the women themselves prefer to work, and the two aren't matching up very well. But look at the UK, France, and the Scandinavian countries. They have fertility levels very close to replacement and are not on the verge of depopulation. Of these, only France is in the eurozone. A paper just out in Demographic Research demonstrates that fertility has been rising in Denmark as both men and women stop postponing children and move closer to replacement level. The countries within the eurozone are demographically quite different from those European countries who are not in the euro.

The article does correctly point out that some of the problems seemingly attributed to an aging population are, as I noted recently, structural, rather than purely demographic:
The most obvious response to an ageing population is for older people to carry on working and for pensions to be paid later in their lives. Changes made in Italy in 2011, for example, yanked up the retirement age. This could potentially raise the labour supply sharply as more 50- and 60-somethings stay in the workforce. Similarly, in or out of the euro zone, Greece needs to tackle early retirement. Even with such reforms, however, the zone will struggle to grow at a reasonable rate in the next 15 years. That will make it tough to tackle the big private- as well as public-debt overhangs that afflict many of its member states, leaving them vulnerable to further setbacks.
The latter point, about public debt, is largely a consequence of governments not paying attention to demographers about the changes that needed to be made many years ago. Demographers at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock have for a long time been calling on the German Parliament to raise the age at retirement and, indeed, to restructure the labor force to increase productivity across the ages. Every delay in doing so has made it seem that a demographic disaster is inevitable when, in fact, it was legislative short-sightedness that has been the problem.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Is An Aging Population Worse Than a Young Population?

Yesterday I commented on a genuinely biased story in the NYTimes about the population explosion, in which the concluding point of the story seemed to be that the world needs more babies to counter the awful prospect of aging. That led Duane Miller to ask about readily available summaries of the global aging situation, especially in terms of its rapidity. If you want a straightforward look at the percentage of the population that is aged 65 and older in each country of the world, then the obvious choice is the Population Reference Bureau. The United Nations Population Division has a few more aging related variables, including projections out to 2050, although their summary of data refers to people ages 60 and older.

Part of the problem when thinking about the older population is that public policy only matters in terms of the costs of older people. If people are still in the labor force and are still healthy, then their age doesn't really matter. They don't cost society any more than younger people. And remember, young people are not free. Children have to be fed and clothed and educated and trained to be productive members of society if they are, in fact, going to contribute more to the economy than the older people. None of that is free. The real problem with "modern" aging is that we have had a half century or so in which people have been led to believe that they deserve to retire at a relatively young age at someone else's expense. This is the essence of the system of intergenerational transfers or PAYGO (pay as you go) systems that comprise social security and health schemes in most of the richer countries of the world. We have, in fact, passed through a brief moment in human history when the age transition allowed that possibility. We cannot rewind the clock and relive the age transition. Society has to change the way it thinks about aging. A recent article in the Journal of the Economics of Ageing lays out some of the issues:
The consequences of the changing age structure for the overall economic development depend on the design of the economic life cycle, i.e. the age pattern of economic activities such as consumption, the generation of labour income and saving. A typical characteristic of the life cycle in modern societies are phases of economic dependency at the beginning and end of life, in which consumption exceeds the income generated through one’s own labour input. In childhood and retirement at least part of consumption has to be covered through the reallocation of resources in form of transfers and asset accumulation. A shift in the age structure of the population - as a consequence of the ageing process - requires an adjustment of the age reallocation system.
Business as usual won't cut it. And, as Paul Ehrlich correctly pointed out in the video that I commented on yesterday, we cannot recklessly go around promoting a higher birth rate to try to counteract population aging. That will lead to disaster of many kinds. As I have said before--in one of the most popular of my blog posts, and a follow-up to that--the key to successful aging both as individuals and societies is to work long and save. This isn't easy, but success of any kind rarely is. Charles Dickens put the right words in the mouth of Mr. Bagnet in Bleak House: "Discipline must be maintained!"

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The New York Times Gets it Wrong in a Story About the Population Explosion

A gang email today from John Seager, President of the Population Connection in Washington, DC, pointed me to a Retro Report that appeared in the New York Times a couple of days ago titled "The Unrealized Horrors of Population Explosion." The report has a video component (almost 15 minutes) and some accompanying text. The main point of the story is to suggest that Paul Ehrlich was wrong about the population explosion. Famine has not hit and England still exists! Now, keep in mind that that Population Connection is the organization that started out--with encouragement from Paul Ehrlich--as Zero Population Growth, so an attack on Ehrlich is easily seen as being very personal. But, in fact, this was a very one-sided and generally wrong-headed story.

It is true, as the story notes, that Ehrlich came at the population issue as a biologist, not as a social scientist. Indeed, I was in graduate school in the Department of Demography at Berkeley when the Population Bomb came out and Ehrlich was invited over from Stanford to meet with us and give us his perspective. He was then, and still is, a bit more of a sensationalist than the rest of us, but there can be no doubt that he helped to build popular support for many of the efforts already underway at the time to lower fertility, lower mortality, and increase food production. Furthermore, Ehrlich was not in favor of a disastrous future. He was then, and still is, trying to avoid that scenario. To deride a person for calling out a problem that then is attenuated after he called it out is simply not right.

Anyone who reads this blog and/or reads my book knows that in my view we have a whole range of serious demographically related issues that confront the world. The relationship between food and numbers of people that Ehrlich emphasizes (taking a page or two from Malthus) is the most dire concern in the long term, but not necessarily the most important on a day-to-day basis. And I was very pleased to see that the vast majority of comments that I read about this article expressed that same view. Readers seemed to be dismayed that the NYTimes would publish such a decidedly shallow and biased piece of work on such an important issue. It actually seemed to be less a piece of journalism than an opinion article prompted by a disaffected former student of Ehrlich's--Stewart Brand (of Whole Earth Catalog fame)--who no longer seems to share Ehrlich's view of the world. The story is also contaminated by an intimation that Fred Pearce, a British science writer, is suggesting that the world needs a higher birth rate. This latter message seems to be the note on which the video ends, but I don't think that Pearce would necessarily agree, as I commented about him a few years ago.

In all events, we expect more of the New York Times and I was glad at least that most people commenting on the story called them out on that score.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Is There a Genetic Component to Migration?

Over the past hundreds of thousands of years, humans have migrated out of Africa to literally every part of the planet that is habitable. And the impact of migrants on places to which they go is often wrought with pain and controversy, at least in the short term, as I have often and recently noted. The newsletter of the American Sociological Association's Section on International Migration is called "World on the Move," and while that describes important global dynamics, it is also true that according to UN data the 214 million people who are currently living in a country other than where they were born represent only 3 percent of the world's population. Even in the world's most famous nation of immigrants, only 4 percent of Americans were living in a different county in 2014 than they had lived in the year before (and remember that crossing a county line makes you a migrant according to U.S. Census definitions. Indeed, this is why we study migration rather than staying in place--we assume that most humans are inherently sedentary, and so it is only migration that requires explanation.

I mention in the book that while migration is not necessarily a biological characteristic in the same way that fertility and mortality are, it nonetheless seems as though some people have a greater propensity to move than do others. Only this week did I discover a potential biological explanation for at least some of this, thanks to my  older son, John. He was in Denmark recently when a dinner discussion turned to migration and one of his dinner companions put him onto a recent story about "The Genetic Reason Why Some People Are Born To Travel All Over The World." The answer: dopamine. Yes, it's brain chemistry. 
In 1999, four scientists from UC Irvine published a paper titled “Population Migration and the Variation of Dopamine D4 Receptor (DRD4) Allele Frequencies Around the Globe” that explored the migration patterns and gene pool distribution of pre-historic human beings. They were originally researching for links between dopamine receptor D4 (DRD4) and Attention Deficit Disorder. While conducting the study, they discovered another weird correlation: people with the DRD4 genes tend to be thrill-seeking and migratory. And almost all study participants with this gene had a long history of traveling. From the study’s conclusion:
“As previous research has shown, long alleles of the DRD4 gene have been linked to novelty-seeking personality, hyperactivity, and risk-taking behaviors … It can be argued reasonably that exploratory behaviors are adaptive in migratory societies…usually harsh, frequently changing, and always providing a multitude of novel stimuli and ongoing challenges to survival” 
“The findings revealed a very strong association between the proportion of long alleles of the DRD4 gene in a population and its prehistorical macro-migration histories.”
With a bit of Googling I found that two Harvard researchers have more recently (2011) confirmed most of this analysis. Now, to be sure, the studies only find that higher levels of a particular type of dopamine are associated with moving farther than those with lower levels, and of course correlation is not necessarily causation. Furthermore, it is unlikely that brain chemistry explains more than a fraction of migration, but it does at least move us in the direction of a biological possibility. Dopamine is known to be a powerful neurotransmitter involved in many aspects of human behavior, so we cannot easily dismiss its potential importance.