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:

Sunday, February 28, 2016

South Sudan Seems to be Sinking Fast

Back in 2011 I commented on the birth of a new nation--South Sudan--which had essentially "divorced" itself from Sudan. Here's what I said about it at the time:
The population of the new country is estimated to be somewhere between 7.5 and 9.7 million, and it is described by everyone as one of the poorest nation's in the world, although it does have oil reserves, and apparently has been getting some direct foreign investment from China. However, there are still rebel groups working in the new nation, so it will probably have a rocky start to life, hampered by very low levels of literacy, and very high rates of infant and maternal mortality.
Sadly, it seems that things are probably worse now than at the country's "birth," as Nicholas Kristof reports in today's NYTimes
It’s impossible to calculate the death toll, but it seems to me plausible that as many civilians are dying in the war here in South Sudan as in Syria. One reason it’s hard to estimate is that many civilian deaths here come not from bullets or barrel bombs, but from starvation and disease arriving as a direct result of war and ethnic cleansing.
I’ve been traveling through some of the areas most affected by fighting, in both government- and rebel-controlled areas, and they are in ruins that remind me of Darfur. Villages have been burned, hospitals pillaged, schools closed, boys castrated and women kidnapped and raped. It is easier to find women and girls who have been gang-raped than who are literate; in one village, a traditional birth attendant told me that she had recently assisted with 10 pregnancies caused by soldiers.
Roads are dangerous and often impassable, and there are no real government services — except executions.
It is not the kind of place where the Demographic and Health Surveys can go (nor is Sudan--the most recent DHS there was in 1990), so we can't know for sure what is happening demographically. All we can be sure about from Kristof's first-hand report is that it isn't good.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Japan's Population Really Is Declining

We've been expecting this for quite a while now, but the 2015 census results from Japan confirm that the country's population is in decline. BBC reported the news:
New census figures in Japan show the population has shrunk by nearly one million in the past five years, in the first decline registered since 1920. As of October last year the country has 127.1 million people, 0.7% fewer than in the last census.
Demographers have long predicted a drop, citing Japan's falling birth rate and a lack of immigration. The rapidly ageing population has contributed to a stagnating economy and worries of increasing health costs.
Japan now has 947,000 fewer people than when the last census was conducted in 2010, figures released by the internal affairs ministry show.
Only eight prefectures, including the capital Tokyo, saw a population increase, national broadcaster NHK. reported. The remaining 39 all saw declines, including Fukushima which saw the largest drop of 115,000 people. Fukushima, site of the doomed nuclear power station, was hit especially badly by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
You have to hand it to the demographers at the United Nations, who (of course with help from demographers in Japan) came very close to mark on this. Their estimates and projections suggested that Japan's population peaked at 127,341,000 in 2009, dropped slightly to 127,320,000 in 2010, and they projected that by 2015 the population would be down to 126,571,000. Thus, they projected a decline of 749,000 in the intercensal period between 2010 and 2015, whereas the drop was just a hair more than that, according to these reports.

I've mentioned numerous times that the Japanese government would like the birth rate to rise a bit--to get closer to replacement level. In my view the main impediment is the continuing gender inequality in Japan. Lack of equality keeps the birth rate too high in less developed countries--as I discuss in a blog post on Population Matters--while keeping it too low in richer countries such as Japan.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Demography and Oil in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela

Venezuela and Saudi Arabia have, respectively, the two largest proven reserves of oil in the world, according to the CIA World Factbook. In both cases, the governments have used the income from oil to support the population. Thus, in both countries, there is relatively little going on economically beyond oil production. But there are two problems: (1) the price of oil has dropped, while (2) the populations keep growing. At the moment, the two countries have nearly equal population sizes of 31 million, and in each case 37% of the population is under 20. You can imagine that these young people have expectations. Indeed, here's a list of some of the "perks" for Saudis, according to a CNN Money story from last month:
-Heavily subsidized gas (It used to be 16 cents a liter. Now it's gone up to 24 cents.)
-Free health care
-Free schooling
-Subsidized water and electricity
-No income tax
-Public pensions
-Nearly 90% of Saudis are employed by the government -Often higher pay for government jobs than private sector ones
-Unemployment benefits (started in 2011 in reaction to the Arab Spring)
-A "development fund" that provides interest-free loans to help families buy homes and start businesses.
Venezuela is not quite as generous with its citizens, although I suspect the average Venezuelan wishes it were so. In Venezuela, as in Saudi Arabia, the price of gasoline has risen as the government revenues have declined. This contrasts, of course, with most of the rest of the world, where lower oil prices actually translate to lower prices at the gas pump.

It seems unlikely that oil prices will remain at this low price into the future, but it may be a long time before they reach the levels of just a couple of years ago. For the moment, Saudi Arabia seems to be trying to drive competitors away, especially as Iran re-enters the world market. But all the while both Saudi Arabia and Venezuela have growing numbers of young people--numbers that will continue to increase into the foreseeable future since the TFR in Saudi Arabia is 2.9 and it's 2.5 in Venezuela. The result of population growth in the face of low oil prices in Venezuela will probably be a change of government. It is hard to see how Maduro can hang on. In Saudi Arabia the result will probably be a disgruntled population that has to swallow the consequences. It is not a country that tolerates dissent. Indeed, in Richard Engel's new book, which I discussed yesterday, he suggests that Saudi Arabia has provided a role model of sorts for ISIS.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

"And Then All Hell Broke Loose": Understanding the Mess in the Middle East

Rapid population growth in the Middle East, generating in particular a large youth population, has been one of the main underlying reasons for the current mess in the Middle East. But demography needs a spark to set it off, and Richard Engel lays that out in his new book "And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East." Over the years, my wife and I have always perked up our ears when Engel has been on TV as the Chief Foreign Correspondent for NBC News. He seemed consistently to be digging into what was really going on, and then telling it like it is. Now, he has laid it out in a book that is a very insightful memoir of his genuinely amazing reporting from the Middle East for the past 20 years, with an academic-style review of the history of the region. There are lots of good quotes in this book, but here is a particularly good one:
The Middle East I knew under the big men [going back to 1996 when he first arrived in Cairo] was angry, oppressed, and rotten to the core. I like to think of the Middle East back then as a row of decaying houses that looked ornate, impressive, and sturdy from the outside but were full of termites and mold. Like hollowed-out trees, the states that looked strong from the outside could be toppled by a slight push. President George W. bush gave them a hard shove. Through six years of direct military action, by invading, occupying, and wildly mismanaging Iraq, the Bush administration broke the status quo that had existed since 1967. He knocked over the first house. In the years that followed, Obama, elected by a public opposed to more adventurism in the Middle East, broke the status quo even further through inconsistent action.
President Obama encouraged uprisings in the name of democracy in Cairo, turned his back on Mubarak, supported rebels with force in Libya, and then wavered on Syria. Red lines were crossed, Promises were broken. Trust was lost. The combined impact of Bush's aggressive interventionism and Obama's timidity and inconsistency completely destroyed the status quo. The United States didn't create the Sunni-Shia conflict: it began over a millennium before the Declaration of Independence. The United States didn't create ISIS; its brand of backward intolerance and violence has been a part of wars in the Islamic world since the earliest days of the faith and helped found modern Saudi Arabia. The United States isn't responsible for giving the Kurdish people a state or denying them one. Although everyone in the Middle East tends to blame Washington for everything from car bombs to the weather, the United States isn't responsible for the woes of the Middle East. but like old houses that were barely standing, Washington's actions and missteps pushed them off their foundations and exposed the rot within, unleashing the madness of the Iraq war, the bloodbath in Syria, Libya's post-Gadhafi anarchy, and ISIS.
Those insights, and many more within the book, help us to understand headlines like those from today's NYTimes: "Migrant Arrivals to Europe This Year Top 110,000, Up Sharply From 2015."

Monday, February 22, 2016

Another Explanation for the Rise in White Death Rates in the US

Princeton economic demographers Anne Case and Angus Deaton opened up a national discussion recently with their findings that death rates have been mysteriously increasing among whites, especially those with less education. One explanation has been a rise in the use of prescription opioids in this population, as I noted last month. Now another possible explanation has arisen from Andrew Cherlin at Johns Hopkins University, a world-renown sociologist and a Past President of the Population Association of America. He put his ideas out there today in a NYTimes op-ed.
Yet I’d like to propose a different answer: what social scientists call reference group theory. The term “reference group” was pioneered by the social psychologist Herbert H. Hyman in 1942, and the theory was developed by the Columbia sociologist Robert K. Merton in the 1950s. It tells us that to comprehend how people think and behave, it’s important to understand the standards to which they compare themselves.
How is your life going? For most of us, the answer to that question means comparing our lives to the lives our parents were able to lead. As children and adolescents, we closely observed our parents. They were our first reference group.
And here is one solution to the death-rate conundrum: It’s likely that many non-college-educated whites are comparing themselves to a generation that had more opportunities than they have, whereas many blacks and Hispanics are comparing themselves to a generation that had fewer opportunities.
Reference group theory explains why people who have more may feel that they have less. What matters is to whom you are comparing yourself. It’s not that white workers are doing worse than African-Americans or Hispanics.
He goes on to discuss his own research that led him to these conclusions. The value of Cherlin's discussion is that it provides a good theoretical perspective for what, at first, seemed like an otherwise hard to understand phenomenon. To be sure, others had notions that were on the same track, as I previously noted. But they were looking at the proximate causes--such as depression and the use of pain medications. Cherlin's explanation is more systematic and thus potentially testable, increasing the chance of figuring out possible interventions.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

India's Family Planning Is About to Get Much Needed Overhaul

There is a very simple reason that India is about to overtake China as the world's most populous nation: Women are having more children in India (2.3 on average) than in China (1.7 on average). That may not sound like a huge difference, but it is when you are building on such a huge population base, and also when the drop down to 2.3 in India has been so recent. The last time China's TFR was that high was in 1980, according to data from the UN Population Division. By contrast, back in 1980 women in India were having more than 4 children each, and that number dropped below 3 scarcely more than 10 years ago. 

One of the big problems with contraception in India is that the government has focused almost all of its attention on female sterilization, as I noted several months ago when a group of women died after receiving botched tubal ligations.

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.
Finally it seems that India's family planning program is going to get that much needed overhaul, as reported today in the NYTimes.
For decades, India has relied on female sterilization as its primary mode of contraception, funding about four million tubal ligations every year, more than any other country. This year, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi will take a major step toward modernizing that system, introducing injectable contraceptives free of charge in government facilities. The World Health Organization recommends their use without restriction for women of childbearing age.
New birth control options have long been advocated by international organizations, among them the United States Agency for International Development and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. They say Indian women — often worn out, anemic and at higher risk of death because they bear children young and often — urgently need methods to delay or space pregnancies.
Amazingly enough, opposition to injectable contraceptives has come especially from "some women’s activist groups that distrust the safety of these methods and believe that profit-hungry Western pharmaceutical companies are pushing them." This is another version of the anti-vaccine mentality, which is so harmful to health in its own sad way. And, perhaps because of this opposition, we shouldn't be expecting changes overnight. The government is moving slowly and cautiously on this new policy.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

It Takes Guts to be a Polio Vaccinator in Pakistan

It has been more than three years since I last wrote about the atrocious attacks on polio vaccination workers in Pakistan, but a quick Google search tells me that there have been lots of attacks between then and this week, when the latest news came across the wire. Reuters reports that a polio worker was shot and wounded in Lahore while working as part of the campaign to finally get rid of polio in the world.
Polio, which can cause lifelong paralysis, is now endemic in only two countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Pakistan's polio cases are declining, with just 54 cases of polio virus reported last year, down more than 80 percent from 2014, when the country suffered a large spike in cases.
The latest immunisation push aims to finish vaccinating every child in the country by the end of May.
Efforts to eliminate polio in Pakistan have been complicated in recent years, as polio workers have faced attacks by militants who say the health teams are Western spies, or that the vaccines they administer are intended to sterilise children.
The report did not lay blame on any specific group for the shooting, but resistance to vaccinations is generally attributed to the Taliban who, of course, work specifically in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  These are the same people who want life to return to what it was like centuries ago--short and brutish and especially bad for women and children.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Pope is OK with Artificial Contraception to Avoid Zika Virus Problems

Talk about breaking news! ABC News and others have reported that Pope Francis has said that it is not evil for women to use birth control if they are worried about getting pregnant in the midst of the Zika virus scare. This is particularly timely since he has been traveling throughout Latin America.
With the mosquito-borne Zika virus continuing to spread through Central and South America, Pope Francis said today that contraception could be seen as "the lesser of two evils" if women are concerned about having children with the birth defect microcephaly.
The Zika virus is usually mild, but has been associated with a rise of the alarming birth defect, characterized by an abnormally small head and brain, often leading to significant developmental delays.
The pope compared the situation to a decree issued by Pope Paul VI, which said nuns in Africa could use contraception due to the threat of rape.
"Avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil," Francis said. "In certain cases, as in this one, such as the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear. I would also ask doctors to do their utmost to find vaccines against these mosquitoes that carry this disease. This needs to be worked on."
This will be very welcome news to women who might have otherwise been on the fence about this. Keep in mind that DHS data show that most of the affected countries already have high percentages of married women using modern contraceptives, but every little bit of encouragement helps. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Can China Feed Itself? Revisited Yet Again

China has been the most populous country in the world for centuries, and for all of that time leaders have been concerned about how to feed the population. Recognition of the limits to food production featured prominently in the decision in the late 1970s to introduce the one-child policy. Yet, even with a slowing population, the demand for food has been growing. As an article in Foreign Policy points out today, this is having a new set of global ramifications.
China’s biggest-ever overseas acquisition, announced this month, isn’t about gobbling up resources to feed its industrial maw, broadening its financial leverage, or enhancing its strategic position. Rather, the $43 billion bid for Swiss agricultural company Syngenta is about something a lot more basic and a lot more important: ensuring that its farms will be able to produce enough food to keep pace with the country’s still-growing population, already the world’s largest.
Beijing today faces a variation of the dilemma that has bedeviled leaders there for thousands of years: how to feed so many people with so little arable land. China today accounts for about 19 percent of the global population, yet has just 8 percent of its arable land. And unlike other countries with growing populations, there’s no land left to till; indeed, given years of chemical abuse in the countryside and industrial pollution that sowed heavy metals through rice paddies, China’s available farmland is actually shrinking.
Lester Brown has been writing about food production in China for a long time, starting with his 1995 book "Who Will Feed China? Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet."  Since then, however, China has been getting richer and the population has increased its demand for meat, especially chicken and pork. These creatures need to be fed before they are "made available" for human use, and that has led to an overseas demand for soy, in particular, that is behind at least some of the deforestation in Africa and Latin America. As the FP article points out, the acquisition of Syngenta may give China the tools to increase its domestic production and thus lessen its dependence on foreign imports, assuming, of course, that there's enough water (and there may not be, as I discussed yesterday).

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Water Situation May Be Even Worse Than We Thought

I have blogged often over the years about water sustainability. We humans need fresh water for survival and there is a lot less of that on the planet than there is salt water (which is what covers more than two-thirds of the earth's surface). In that way, our evolutionary trajectory has not been as helpful as we might have hoped. Unfortunately, a report just out from scientists in the Netherlands (and reported by HuffPost Science) suggest that water availability is even less than we thought.
About 66 percent, which is 4 billion people, of the world's population lives without sufficient access to fresh water for at least one month of the year, according to a new paper published Friday in the journal Science Advances.
Previous studies calculated a lower number, estimating that between 1.7 and 3.1 billion people lived with moderate to severe water scarcity for at least a month out of the year.
Scientists, led by Dr. Arjen Hoekstra of the Netherlands' University of Twente, used a computer model that is both more precise and comprehensive than previous studies have used to analyze how widespread water scarcity is across the globe. Their model considers multiple variables including: climate records, population density, irrigation and industry.
As the map below shows, this is not a spatially random problem. Some parts of the world--mostly very populated areas--are harder hit than others.

The HuffPost Science article mentions the role that drought may have played in setting off the Syrian civil war, and I've discussed that before. Throughout the Middle East, in particular, the combination of rapid population growth and dwindling water supplies is potentially explosive.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Is Monsanto Really Responsible for the Zika Virus Problem?

You have probably seen the same stories I have that point the finger for the birth defects attributed to the Zika virus instead to a larvicide sprayed in parts of Brazil to get rid of mosquitos. The larvicide has been sprayed--about that there is no doubt. And it is produced by Sumitomo, which has a connection to Monsanto, although Monsanto itself says that Sumitomo is just a "business partner" and that Monsanto does not manufacture this larvicide. The still unanswered question, though, is whether or not this larvicide is the problem. The accusation was actually brought to the world's attention by an Argentinian group.
According to the Physicians in Crop-Sprayed Towns (PCST), a chemical larvicide that produces malformations in mosquitoes was injected into Brazil's water supplies in 2014 in order to stop the development of mosquito larvae in drinking water tanks. The chemical, which is known as Pyriproxyfen, was used in a massive government-run program tasked to control the mosquito population in the country.  
"Malformations detected in thousands of children from pregnant women living in areas where the Brazilian state added pyriproxyfen to drinking water is not a coincidence," the PCST wrote [pdf] in the report. For instance, the Brazilian Health Ministry had injected pyriproxyfen to reservoirs in the state of Pernambuco. In the area, the proliferation of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which carries the Zika virus, is very high, the PCST said. Pernambuco is also the first state in Brazil to notice the problem. The state contains 35 percent of the total microcephaly cases in the country. 
The group of Argentine doctors points out that during past Zika epidemics, there have not been any cases of microcephaly linked with the virus. In fact, about 75 percent of the population in countries where Zika broke out had been infected by the mosquito-borne virus. In countries such as Colombia where there are plenty of Zika cases, there are no records of microcephaly linked to Zika, the group said.
The Brazilian government responded today by denying these allegations
“Unlike the relationship between the Zika virus and microcephaly, which has had its confirmation shown in tests that indicated the presence of the virus in samples of blood, tissue and amniotic fluid, the association between the use of pyriproxyfen and microcephaly has no scientific basis,” the statement said.
“It’s important to state that some localities that do not use pyriproxyfen also had reported cases of microcephaly.”
The government said it only used larvicides recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The reality is that at the moment no one really knows for sure what the exact connection is between the zika virus and birth defects. Correlation is not necessarily causation, and thus far it is not clear how strong the alleged correlations are between the zika virus and birth defect and/or between this larvicide and the birth defects. So, using the abundance of caution principle, it still seems reasonable for women in mosquito-prone areas to use extreme caution with respect to getting pregnant, and that spraying to get rid of mosquitos continue unabated--albeit with something other than a larvicide that is suspected of causing problems. 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Valentine's Day Demographics--Matching Up By Occupation (or not)

I love it when people do innovative things with demographic data and Adam Pearce and Dorothy Gambrell have done that for Bloomberg Business. They pulled together data from the American Community Survey for 2014 that matched up the occupation of spouses living in the same household, to see "who marries whom?"
When it comes to falling in love, it’s not just fate that brings people together—sometimes it’s their jobs. We scanned data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 American Community Survey—which covers 3.5 million households—to find out how people are pairing up. Some of the matches seemed practical (the most common marriage is between grade-school teachers), and others had us questioning Cupid’s aim (why do female dancers have a thing for male welders?). High-earning women (doctors, lawyers) tend to pair up with their economic equals, while middle- and lower-tier women often marry up. In other words, female CEOs tend to marry other CEOs; male CEOs are OK marrying their secretaries.
The graphic is interactive, so you really have to check it out yourself, but here's the graph for physicians and surgeons and who they marry:

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Rich Get Richer and Live Longer Too

There has been an increasing discussion about wealth and income inequality in the United States, and those inequities spill over--not surprisingly--into life expectancy differences. An article in today's NYTimes (and thanks to Professor Rumbaut for pointing this one out to me) discusses the data
Experts have long known that rich people generally live longer than poor people. But a growing body of data shows a more disturbing pattern: Despite big advances in medicine, technology and education, the longevity gap between high-income and low-income Americans has been widening sharply.
The poor are losing ground not only in income, but also in years of life, the most basic measure of well-being. In the early 1970s, a 60-year-old man in the top half of the earnings ladder could expect to live 1.2 years longer than a man of the same age in the bottom half, according to an analysis by the Social Security Administration. Fast-forward to 2001, and he could expect to live 5.8 years longer than his poorer counterpart.
New research released on Friday contains even more jarring numbers. Looking at the extreme ends of the income spectrum, economists at the Brookings Institution found that for men born in 1920, there was a six-year difference in life expectancy between the top 10 percent of earners and the bottom 10 percent. For men born in 1950, that difference had more than doubled, to 14 years.
The article points out that the causes of these disparities are not clear. Smoking certainly plays a role--the higher your income, the less likely you are to smoke. Cancer treatments, which can be very expensive even if you have insurance, are also more accessible to the rich than to the poor. But a range of factors may be at work.
At the heart of the disparity, said Elizabeth H. Bradley, a professor of public health at Yale, are economic and social inequities, “and those are things that high-tech medicine cannot fix.”
There is no doubt that the relatively low life expectancy among the poor in the U.S. is what drags the country down compared to other rich countries. And, of course, the one difference between the U.S. and all other rich countries (such as Canada, where disparities of these kind don't exist, according to the story), is that the U.S. does not have universal health care. We pay more than anyone else, but get less return on our health dollars than anyone else.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Geneva Takes a Stab at Improving Swiss Immigrant Integration

According to the Multicultural Policy Index employed by Adida and her colleagues in the book "Why Muslim Integration Fails in Christian-Heritage Societies," which I discussed a few days ago, Switzerland is closer to being multicultural than assimilationist. At the same time, it is closer to being assimilationalist than several other key European nations. A sign of that came this week in Geneva:
The city of Geneva has decided to provide key administrative documents and public information in English, Portuguese, Spanish, Albanian and Arabic to help new residents integrate. Previously, many of these documents had been available only in French.
The authorities announced the move on Tuesday, explaining that every year Geneva welcomes more than 20,000 new residents, many of whom do not speak French.
“The city of Geneva experiences major migration movements,” Geneva mayor Esther Alder told the Tribune de Genève on Wednesday. “Around 50% of residents are of foreign origin and 10% of the population is renewed every year.”
Now, to be sure, this is only Geneva. Switzerland's 26 cantons have a lot of individual discretion among them. And Geneva is a truly international city, hosting a lot of United Nations offices and other international bodies. By contrast, the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino banned the wearing of full face covers, especially burqas. And a popular referendum started in the canton of Bern led to a nation-wide ban on the building of minarets on mosques. For its part, a small group of Muslims then demanded that the cross be removed from the Swiss flag. On both sides, these are the kinds of actions that lead to a failure of Muslim integration in societies, which is why Geneva's positive move--even if a seemingly small gesture--is so important. This is exactly how California and most other U.S. states have responded to the inflow of immigrants. No matter how important it is for immigrants to learn the host language, the acceptance of their own language as a valid medium of communication is also crucial to the integration process. 

Note that currently about 5% of the Swiss population is Muslim, largely a consequence of immigration from the Baltic states (Kosovo and Serbia) and Turkey. That's about 5 times the percent Muslim in the U.S. but of course Switzerland has a vastly smaller overall population. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A Spatial Demography Perspective on the Mess in the Middle East

George Friedman now writes a weekly blog post for Mauldin Economics, and I highly recommend it. It is available as a free subscription. Today he organized a very useful spatial demographic history of the Middle East, pointing out the diverse ethnic groups that comprise the region and which help to explain current events. Note, btw, that he doesn't call it a spatial demographic history, but in fact that's what it is.
The Middle East is the Arab core of the Muslim world. But thinking about the Middle East as exclusively Arab doesn’t work. Doing so excludes Turkey and Iran, plus a very large Kurdish population spread across Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.
As well, viewing it as exclusively Muslim is deeply flawed. It would mean focusing on just a small part of the Muslim world. It also overlooks the Jews, Christians, Druze, Yazidis, Zoroastrians, Bahai, and other religious groups in the region.
Overall, the population is concentrated in the mountains of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. Secondary concentrations are found on the eastern Mediterranean coast and the southwestern and southeastern Arabian Peninsula.
But here's where it get particularly interesting:
The complexity of ethnic groups is partly due to the nature of mountainous regions, but also to the policy of the Ottomans. The Ottomans dominated this region for centuries. But unlike Muslim and Christian conquerors, they didn't pursue religious uniformity through forced conversion as long as the populace pledged their allegiance to the Ottomans.
Thus, when the Ottomans retreated after World War I, they left behind a chaotic jumble of ethnic groups tied to various religions. Each group had the strength to survive but lacked enough strength to conquer the others. The consequence is inherent instability.
We have, of course, witnessed this instability for a long time, held in check only by tyrannical rulers.
The lowlands are mainly desert and relatively underpopulated, which means that aggression was limited to low-level conflicts. On the lowlands, it is relatively easy for conquerors to come and go, and transform the population to reflect their values along the way.
The mountainous northern region has highly diversified cultures and religions, and the terrain renders it difficult to conquer completely. Aggressors may control the main roads and mountain passes, but going into every valley is impossible. Mountains give the advantage to the defender, and unless a region is strategically critical, the conquerors will opt to leave them alone.
The outcome is that mountain regions around the world—like the Caucasus, Balkans, or Appalachians—tend to protect unique cultures from annihilation. And proximity to people who differ from you results in conflict. These conflicts are ancient and repeat themselves.
In diving into the geographic and ethnic diversity, Friedman comes to a conclusion, of sorts, that is at the same time encouraging and discouraging. His assessment is that ISIS is unlikely to make a lot of headway because of the geographic and ethnic diversity of the region, but at the same time a lasting piece amongst all of these groups seems highly unlikely. I encourage you to read this analysis and see if you agree.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Where Are the Syrians?

Given the photos and stories that appear in the media, it is hard to imagine that life functions well anywhere in what used to be Syria. What we know with some certainty is that the population has been hugely displaced. The U.S. State Department's Humanitarian Information Unit has put up a very nice infographic summarizing what's going on in this regard. I have copied some of it below, but you need to see it all online to get the details.

The numbers are truly staggering: 15 million people displaced due to conflict in Syria and Iraq, on top of the more than a quarter of a million killed in the conflict since 2011. Despite the headlines and angst in Europe about the flow of refugees into Europe, the HIU estimates that 89% of Syrian and Iraqi refugees remain in the area. They are internally displaced or living in camps in neighboring Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. It is so much easier to destroy than to build, and it is very hard to imagine the scope of rebuilding of lives that will be required when, at some point in the future, the conflict ends. In the meantime, death rates remain high, and life is complicated by high birth rates, migration, and the degradation of education for the younger generation. 

Monday, February 8, 2016

Do Super Bowl Victories Really Cause Baby Booms?

If you watched yesterday's Super Bowl 50 between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers, you probably saw, as I did, a rather peculiar homage to the Super Bowl--a singalong of children who had reportedly been born nine months after a given city's Super Bowl victory. The video is titled "Data suggests 9 months after a Super Bowl victory, winning cities see a rise in births." Now, even if we quarrel with the fact that data is plural (datum is the singular--come on, you knew that), are there any data that actually support this claim? A lot of people asked this question online, as it turns out, and I think that one of the better responses was by Seth Millstein on, who couldn't find any actual evidence to support the specific claim about Super Bowl babies:
However, there is some limited evidence that sports victories can cause spikes in birth rates in the city or region whose team won the game. Multiple surveys conducted in Spain have suggested that birth rates in Catalonia shoot up nine months after local teams win big games, and there were anecdotal reports that Boston experienced a baby boom nine months after the Red Sox finally won the World Series in 2004. After New Zealand defeated France in the World Cup, multiple hospitals reported an increase in their birth rates nine months after the fact.
These reports are difficult to corroborate, though, simply because there are so many other confounding factors that could also cause an increase in births in a particular region. But it's still a cute commercial, and who knows? Maybe this will compel some researchers to finally roll up their sleeves and get to the bottom of whether Super Bowl babies are indeed a phenomenon.
Among the confounding factors is the fact that there has been an historical tendency for a rise in births in early autumn, following what appears to be a national pattern of baby-making in the winter months. You can look at the data at the CDC website. So, we would have to see if, in fact, Super Bowl winning cities had a statistically significantly higher number of births than other cities during that time of year. A complication, of course, is that most city or county level data are not collected nationally, so you would have to go state-by-state to work this out. Did anyone really do this prior to the Super Bowl? I doubt it. What I don't doubt, however, is the ability of the NFL to insert itself into the national consciousness in ways that divert our attention from the long-term injuries occurring to those players on the field...(full disclosure--the only injury I have ever experienced occurred playing high school football).

Sunday, February 7, 2016

New PRB Report on Aging in America

Yesterday's mail brought the latest Population Reference Bureau's Population Bulletin on "Aging in the United States," by Mark Mather, Linda Jacobsen, and Kelvin Pollard. This is a very nice overview of the socioeconomic characteristics of the older population in the population, with an emphasis on what it means for the country that an increasing fraction of the population is growing older. Keep in mind, of course, that the U.S. faces less of a problem than most European and East Asian countries, because immigration has kept the number of births higher than it would otherwise be.

The increase in the older population is especially related to the large size of the baby boom cohort now moving into the older ages. Baby boomers are generally recognized as those born between 1946 and 1964. Their parents had more children in the post-WWII era than their grandparents had during the Depression. However, the boomers turned around and restricted their own level of fertility, and this produced a very nice demographic dividend for the U.S. that "made it great" (to borrow a phrase from the current political stump speeches). During this period of greatness, as the baby boomers came of age, several policy choices were made that we are now having to cope with: (1) Social Security benefits were increased--it was fairly easy to do because there were a lot of baby boomers earning money and not too many older people (yet); (2) federal income taxes were dropped just as the first of the boomers were coming of age (1965), and they have continued to drop, thus producing less money that can be set aside for the future on a per person basis; (3) at the very same time that federal tax rates were trimmed, Medicare was signed into law (1965), providing universal health coverage for Americans aged 65 and older; and (4) later on, money that had been set aside in the Social Security Trust Fund, for which there was a surplus at the end of the Bill Clinton administration, was used by the Bush administration to help pay for the ill-fated war in Iraq, and that has not been replenished. 

So, policy choices in the past come back to bite us in the future. What to do? The PRB report reminds us of the basic things that are going to have to happen. The younger boomers are going to have work to an older age than did their parents, and they're going to have to save more than they're doing now. The report doesn't come right out and say it, but another obvious thing to happen is for taxes to go back up on the working population. This clashes, though, with some worrying trends among younger people, as noted in the report:
The baby-boom generation may be the last made up of a non-Hispanic white majority population. The younger generation is much more diverse, with higher shares of Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans in each successive cohort. But blacks and Latinos, in particular, have lagged behind whites and Asians on most measures of economic well- being, including the amount of money saved for retirement. Improving economic conditions for younger workers and their families will yield better health outcomes and quality of life for future generations of older Americans.
Up to this point, these kinds of issues have been discussed only in vague terms by the candidates for President. No matter who is elected, though, they will have to be dealt with.  

Friday, February 5, 2016

Why Muslim Integration Fails in Christian-Heritage Societies

A couple of weeks ago I received an invitation to attend an event that will be held today at the University of California, San Diego, hosted by the UCSD Center for Comparative Immigration Studies. The discussion will feature two of the three authors of a book just published by Harvard University Press, titled "Why Muslim Integration Fails in Christian-Heritage Societies."  Since I couldn't go, I bought the book instead and just finished reading it. I encourage you to do the same. This is not a polemic--it is a research-based book, building largely on findings already published in peer-reviewed journals. The research focuses on France because the authors (one of whom is at UCSD, another at Stanford, and the third at the Sorbonne) were able to conduct a natural field experiment of sorts there. Work was completed prior to the recent spate of terrorist attacks in France, so it was not inspired by them.
This book addresses two questions. The first is whether Muslim immigrants from Muslim-majority countries are indeed discriminated against because of their religion. And if there is religious discrimination, the second asks why the host population in Christian-heritage countries discriminates. (p. 15)
In France, they were able to identify Christian and Muslim immigrants from the same areas of the West African nation of Senegal. This provided the opportunity to "hold constant" the place of origin and socioeconomic characteristics and test the impact of the difference in religious background among this group of immigrants. I won't leave you in suspense. Similarly situated Senegalese who were Muslim were discriminated against more than their Christian counterparts. This suggests something beyond "simple" xenophobia and, as the authors suggest, something closer to Islamophobia--xenophobia with a specific religious content. 

Their conclusions about why this exist are very interesting. They offer evidence that the blame falls on both the Muslim immigrants and the host societies. For their part, Muslim immigrants are more likely than non-Muslim immigrants to identify themselves as different, and to showcase those differences. This increases the level of rejection from the host society, and contributes to further separation between immigrants and the host society. For its part, French society (and other western countries) spend too little time and effort trying to assimilate Muslim (and other) immigrants into the mainstream, including language instruction, lessons in civics and history, and basic job skills that fit the local economy. The authors argue persuasively, in my view, that the assimilation model is much more likely to work than the multicultural model. The idea that "diversity makes us stronger" only works if the diversity is blended in, not if it is set apart. The immigrants and the host societies need to understand that and work together on this.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Urban Sprawl Limits Intergenerational Mobility

Thanks go today to my son, Professor John Weeks, for linking me to a story summarizing research on the way in which urban sprawl can limit the upward mobility of children. Over the past two hundred years, as the world has moved from being almost entirely rural to being majority urban, cities have provided upward mobility on an unprecedented scale. But urban sprawl puts a spatial cramp in that process. 
Upward mobility is on the decline in the US. Once billed as a land of opportunity for the poor and hardworking, the country now offers little hope to people born in poverty. Writing in the latest issue of Landscape and Urban Planning, the researchers note that the "chance of upward mobility for Americans is just half that of the citizens of Denmark and many other European countries." A study from the Brookings Institution found that "39 percent of children born to parents in the top fifth of the income distribution will remain in the top fifth for life, while 42 percent of children born to parents in the bottom fifth income distribution will stay in that bottom fifth."
What researchers found, after intensive analysis, was that high-density urban areas were correlated with dramatically higher levels of upward mobility. As the compactness of a region doubles, they write, "the likelihood that a child born into the bottom fifth of the national income distribution will reach the top fifth by age 30 increases by about 41 percent." Spread-out urban sprawl, however, tends to maintain class distinctions from one generation to the next.
Urban sprawl is often criticized because as people spread out they use a lot more fuel driving around, and in the process they are probably building their homes on valuable agricultural land. But now we have another type of criticism--the social criticism layered onto the ecological one.

Keep in mind, though, that the research I discuss in my book emphasizes that we humans like to have it both ways--living near enough to the high density city to take advantage of it, but living far enough away so that we don't have to be annoyed by that high density. As with most things in life, there are no easy answers.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Great Interactive Map of Immigration to Places in the U.S.

Many thanks to Professor Rubén Rumbaut for the link to a really cool interactive map (an infographic) of the country of origin of the foreign-born population over time and place in the U.S., drawing upon data from decennial censuses of population. Here's a brief description of the project:
The visualization is part of a larger project called American Panorama at University of Richmond's Digital Scholarship Lab. It takes its cues from Charles Paullin’s 1932 tome Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, a sweeping collection of over 700 maps that charted everything from European settlement to the spread of railroads. Richmond's researchers are adding an interactive layer to their own digital atlas, allowing users to take a closer look at moments in this ongoing historical panorama. So far, the project includes maps like The Forced Immigration of Enslaved People, The Overland Trails, and Canals.
You will almost certainly learn stuff you didn't know. How about this one? For most of San Diego's history, the largest single foreign-born group has been from Mexico. But, as the map below shows, that wasn't true in 1900:

More Germans than Mexicans? I didn't see that coming.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Demographics of "Feeling the Bern" in Iowa

In yesterday's Iowa caucus for U.S. presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton finished in what amounts to a dead heat. When he entered the presidential campaign, few people would have bet on such a result for Sanders. But the entrance polls conducted last night as people were entering the caucuses showed that age was the single biggest difference between Sanders and Clinton supporters. The Washington Post has the results, and I have grabbed some numbers from their compilation.

Younger people were rather dramatically more likely to be in favor of Sanders compared to Clinton. And you might say that this is because Sanders wants to give them a free college education, but the education demographic doesn't show such a clear difference between support for Sanders and Clinton. There has to be more to it than that. The promise to transfer funds from the wealthy to the less wealthy is bound to grab the attention of young people.

The results represent good news for anyone worried about ageism in America. Bernie Sanders is the oldest candidate at 74 (Clinton is 68), yet he has strong appeal to the youngest voters. It will be very interesting to see if this pattern continues outside of Iowa.