A note on the three Californias and arbitrary borders

As many of you may know, there is a proposal to split up California into three parts: north, south and ‘ye olde’ California. This proposal is idiotic on several fronts. For starters the best university in LA, the University of Southern California, would find itself in ye olde California. Meanwhile my university, UC Riverside, would overnight become USC Riverside. Now, I wouldn’t be against the Trojan football team relocating to Riverside, especially since Riverside doesn’t have a team of it’s own. However the proposed split would cut off the Inland Empire and Orange County from Los Angeles county.

This despite the fact that the greater LA area is composed of LA-Ventura-Riverside-San Bernardino-Orange counties. These counties are deeply interwoven with one another, and dividing them is bizarre. Imagine the poor “Los Angeles Angels at Anaheim”. What horrendous name will they have to take on next? The “San Diego Angeles at Anaheim”?

Beyond it’s idiocy the proposal makes a larger point: government borders are, for the most part, arbitrary and plain stupid. The proposal to split up California ignores the regions socio-cultural ties to one another, but there are countless other examples of senseless borders.

For example, who was the bright guy that decided to split up Kansas City between Missouri and Kansas? And let’s not even get started on the absurd borders of the old world.

Thoughts? Disagreements? Post in the comments.

On Household Size and Economic Convergence

A few days ago, one of my papers was accepted for publication at the Scottish Journal of Political Economy (working paper version here). Co-authored with Vadim Kufenko and Klaus Prettner, this paper makes a simple point which I think should be heeded by economists: household size matter. To be fair, economists are aware of this when they study inequality or poverty. After all, the point is pretty straightforward: larger households command economies of scale so that each dollar goes further than in smaller households. As such, adjustments are necessary to make households comparable.

Yet, economists seem to forget it when times come to consider paths of economic growth and convergence across countries. In the paper, we try to remedy this flaw. We do so because there was a wide heterogeneity of household size throughout history – even within more homogeneous clubs such as the countries composing the OECD.  If we admit, as the economists who study poverty and inequality do, that income per person adjusted for household size is preferable to income per person, then we must recognize that our figures of income per capita will misstate the actual differences between countries. In addition, if households grew homogeneously smaller over a long period of time, figures of income per capita will overstate the actual improvements in living standards. As such, we argue there is value in modifying the figures to reflect changing household sizes.

For OECD countries, we find that the adjusted income figures increased a third less than the unadjusted per capita figures (see table below). This suggests a more modest growth trend. In addition, we also find that up to the structural break in variations between countries (NDLR: divergence between OECD countries increased to around 1950) there was more divergence with the adjusted figures than with the unadjusted figures (see figure below). We also find that since the break point, there has been less convergence than previously estimated.

While the paper is presented as a note, the point is simple and suggests that those who study convergence between regions or countries should consider the role of demography more carefully in their work.



Israelis Kill Unarmed Palestinians in Gaza

The Israeli Defense Force is killing unarmed demonstrators in Gaza. The Defense Force is on one side of the fence, the demonstrators on the other. What happened is that the ruling political party in Gaza, Hamas, sent the demonstrators to try and breach the fence separating Gaza from Israel. The declared purpose was to have Gaza Palestinians exercise their “right of return.” Hamas means the “right” of Palestinians to return where their forebears used to live, or maybe not, or nearby, etc, right inside present-day Israel. Of course, if Israel allowed this, Israelis might just as well start packing. It would be the end of the Jewish state that already has about 1.85 million Muslim and Christian Arab citizens. Both Palestinians and Israeli Arabs reproduce faster than Israeli Jews, by the way. (It’s the Jews’ fault, of course; they should get busy.) Hamas generously would allow Jews of Middle Eastern origin to remain as second-class, tribute-paying dhimmis. All the others, the majority, would have to leave quickly. Ethnic cleansing is the best scenario if Hamas wins, according to Hamas. The worst? Hamas does not say.

The mid-May 2018 demonstration was presented as a way to commemorate what Palestinians call “the disaster “– meaning the creation of Israel and the wholesale defeat the Arabs suffered in the war they had started against the new state. Initially, it had nothing to do with the inauguration of the new American Embassy in Jerusalem. It was mostly the Amerileft media that created a link with such devices as showing the inauguration in Jerusalem on a split screen with the rioting in Gaza. Many Americans, some of whom can’t place the US on a world map, would have believed that Palestinians were dying while the Americans and Israelis were gaily drinking champagne right next door.

The Israelis had warned early on that they would shoot demonstrators who tried to breach the fence separating Israel from Gaza. They did, killing about 70 Palestinians. That’s harsh but no one can call it unfair: They said it clearly: If you touch our fence, we will kill you. Don’t touch the fence, I would say. Little detour: the magazine Commentary pointed out that the Gaza authorities claim that 1600 Gazans were wounded by real bullets. What’s wrong here is the ratio of wounded to killed, 1600/70. It should be something like 1600/500 . It does not add up or else, the Israelis snipers are real bad at their job. Go figure!

Hamas thinks it’s winning because of the large number of unarmed demonstrators, its youths, wounded and killed. It’s been acting like this forever. Just a week ago, Gazans (who may have been Hamas agents or not) deliberately destroyed the valve to the main pipeline supplying Gaza with diesel fuel. The more misery ordinary residents of Gaza suffer, the happier the Hamas government is because Israeli atrocities give it standing among the ill-informed and mindless everywhere. I am tempted to feel sorry for Gazans myself because of the terrible government they live under. I can’t quite do this; below is why.

Hamas was elected in proper well observed elections. Although the Hamas government is well overdue for a new election, I would argue that the initial election makes Hamas one of the most legitimate governments in the Middle East. Hamas is explicitly an Islamist party. It does not think well of freedom of religion. It wants to impose sharia but does not feel strong enough yet. Hamas is in favor of polygamy. Young Gaza Palestinians are dying because of actions encouraged by their government, the Hamas government. Their parents properly elected that government. There has been no rebellion against it. The mass of the population seems loyal.

Hamas is insuring an aggravation of a situation in Gaza that is pretty much intolerable already. Israel left Gaza unilaterally 15 years ago but it maintains a partial blockade of the territory. It provides fuel and electricity and most of the water available, on its terms. It allows certain merchandise in but not others. Cement is limited, for example, I read in a source I can’t quote now but that I found credible at the time that Israeli Customs allow in milk and sugar but not instant coffee – which makes life more enjoyable. There is almost no work in Gaza, except working for the Hamas government. Nevertheless, no one there is starving because the territory is largely on welfare. Gaza has one of the highest educational achievement scores in the world although there is malnutrition there.

Gaza is a welfare non-state. It has no industry and very little else by way of earning its living. (That’s in part because of Israeli control over its borders, of course.) It’s an economic ward of the UN and secondarily of the European Union and of the USA. American Jews are thus among those supporting through their taxes riots where the main demand is “Death to the Jews!” The Leftmedia does not seem to be willing to mention, or it actually does not know, that the Israeli blockade of Gaza would be ineffective, almost useless, if Egypt did not join in. Yes, Egypt is also impeding the movement of goods, funds, and especially of people between itself and Gaza. And the PLO, which rules the West Bank, the other part of Palestine, has its own punitive measures against Gaza. Hamas is everyone’s favorite!

If you too feel revolted by the Israeli killings of Gaza demonstrators, and if you don’t think that righteous indignation is its own reward, I invite you to take two minutes to answer the following simple and sensible question:

Suppose you have a chance to advise the Israeli Prime Minister; suppose further that you have reason to believe that he will pay attention to you; what’s your advice to him regarding the present situation in Gaza (mid-May 2018)?

You can be sure that I have answered the question myself.

PS I am not Jewish, never have been, never will be. I am not a fundamentalist Christian either.

Life expectancy at birth is not a predictor of health care efficiency…

This is going to be a short post to argue that pundits (and some economists) need to stop quoting life expectancy figures to argue for/against a particular health care system. This belief is best exemplified in a recent paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association where Papanicolas et al. (2018)  point out that the United States “spent nearly twice as much as 10 high-income countries (…) and performed less well on many population health outcomes”. While the authors make good points about administrative costs, they point out that the US has a low level of life expectancy.

Sure, that is actually true – but Americans tend to die in greater proportions from homicides, drug overdoses and car accidents (Americans drive more than Europeans) than in other rich countries. While these factors of mortality are tragic (except car accidents since Americans seem to prefer the benefits of mobility to the safety of not driving), they are in no way related to the efficiency of health care provision. How much of a deal are these in explaining differences with other industrialized countries? A pretty big deal.  For example, these three factors alone account for 64% of the male life expectancy gap between Austria and the United States (see table reproduced below). For women, 26% of the gap between Austria and the United States is explained by these three factors.

The study I cite here only includes three factors. If you add in other factors like drownings among youths (Americans tend to have more drownings than several industrialized countries) which is a result of the fact that Americans are richer and can afford pools (while Europeans tend not to), then you keep explaining away the difference.  This is not to say that American health care is great. However, this says that American health care is not as bad as life expectancy outcomes suggest.



On demography and living standards in the colonial era

This is a topic that has been bugging me. Very often, historians will (accurately) point out mortality statistics in the United States, Canada (Quebec) and the Latin America during the colonial era were better than in the comparable Old World (comparing French with French, British with British, Spanish with Spanish). However, they will argue that this is evidence that living standards were higher. This is where I wish to make an important nuance.

Settlement colonies (so, here there is a bigger focus on North America, but it applies to smaller extent to Latin America which I am more tempt to label as extractive – see here) are generally frontier economies. This means that they are small economies because of small populations.  This means that labor and capital are scarce relative to land. All outputs that come from the relatively abundant factor will thus tend to be cheaper if there is little international trade for the goods that they are best at producing. The colonial period pretty much fits that bill. The American and Canadian colonies were basically agricultural colonies, but very few of those agricultural outputs actually crossed the Atlantic. As such, agricultural produces were cheap. This is akin to saying that nutrition was cheap.

This, by definition, will give settlement colonies an advantage in terms of biological living standards. As they are not international price takers, wheat is cheaper than in the old world. This is why James Lemon spoke of the New World as the “Best poor man’s country” (I love that expression) : it was easy to earn subsistence. However, beyond that it is very hard to go beyond. For example, in my dissertation (articles still in consideration at Cliometrica and Canadian Journal of Economics) I found that when wages were deflated by a subsistence basket containing very few services and manufactured goods and which relied heavily on untransformed foods, Canada was richer than the richest city of France. Once you shifted to a basket that marginally increased transformed goods and manufactured goods, the advantage was wiped away.

Yet, everything indicates that mortality rates were greater in Paris and France and than in Quebec City and Quebec as a whole (but not by a lot) (see images below).  Similar gaps seem to exist for the United States relative to Britain, but the data is not as rich as for Quebec. However, the data that exists for New England suggests that death rates were lower than in England but the “bare bones” real incomes measured by Lindert and Williamson show that New England may have been poorer than Great Britain (not by much though).

Crude Death Rates


I am not saying that demographic and biological data is worthless. Quite the contrary (even I wanted to, I could not since I have a paper on the heights of French-Canadians from 1780 to 1830)! The point is that data matters in context.  The world is full of small non-linearities between variables. While “good” demographic outcomes are generally tracking “good” economic outcomes, there are contexts where this may be a weaker relation (curvilinear relations between variables). I think that this is a good example of that point.

Trump’s Inauguration: Ageing Pains


Vincent has discussed the relative age of US presidents. There is something to be said about the age of electorates.

I was living in the United Kingdom when we voted for Brexit (I was a soft remainer). I was living in the United States when Trump won the election. So I can’t help but feel that Trump’s inauguration is part of a generalised nationalist turn that, ironically, transcends national borders. Why is this nationalist turn happening? And why has it wrong-footed pollsters and political scientists more than once now?

We are repeatedly, and correctly, warned not to over-interpret individual events as somehow determined by given factors. Both the Brexit vote and the presidential election were close, with Trump taking the electoral college without the popular vote. One domino that didn’t fall last year was the Austrian presidency that, after a close call, went to a Green rather than a Nationalist. So whatever explanation we are looking for has to be a tendency that’s slightly shifted the odds in favour of nationalist politicians without the experts being able to anticipate it in advance.

Some suggest that this resurgent economic nationalism is an inevitable outcome of the overreach of trade liberalisation that has undermined national self-determination and humiliated local cultures. Others argue that the real cause is growing income and wealth inequality. I think a potentially more straightforward factor is demography. The electorate is simply older than it used to be.

There are a few reasons why this explanation may work better than the more popular ones. The ageing electorate is almost unprecedented in history. This could make it harder for political scientists to predict its impact on elections. Surveys might be able to tell us how older people vote as individuals without being able to work out how older people surrounded, in addition, by lots of older peers will behave.

Countries like Italy and Japan were somewhat ahead of us on this demographic transition. And perhaps not entirely coincidentally, Italy repeatedly elected a mini-Trump, Silvio Berlusconi as Prime Minister, while continuing to support the elderly at the expense of opportunities for the young. Meanwhile, Japan has always been more ethno-nationalist than other developed economies and in some ways has grown more politically reactionary in recent decades.

This explanation chimes with the fact that Trump voters were not typically economically disadvantaged. They were older and less educated but typically economically secure. Age was also a big factor explaining support for Brexit. At the same time, an ageing population presents real economic challenges that translate into politically salient problems. Demography is probably responsible for a great deal of the sustained drop in real interest rates, precisely the sort of thing that worries ageing savers with slowly growing pension pots.

Trump wants to boost infrastructure, construction and manufacturing. But these sectors do best with young and growing populations, where families want new and bigger houses and offices, roads to connect them and cars to drive to and from them. What happens when everyone already has a great deal of material goods and a country hasn’t got as many young adults to demand new stuff? Inevitably, an economy’s trend growth declines and may even contract, leaving investors with fewer places to get a good return.

What could this mean about the future? On the one hand, this could be quite a pessimistic explanation. There is very little that can be done in the short or medium term about the demographics of an electorate. So we might just be in for a more reactionary period. The vote is not about strength of belief, just the sheer numbers nudged in that direction, and that is what age can do.

On the other, this could be an optimistic hypothesis. The situation we find ourselves in is a side-effect of two generally attractive outcomes: people living much longer, and lower fertility thanks to women becoming more educated. The balance between the young and the elderly might eventually improve once the demographic bulge of the baby boomers has passed into history (this depends critically on whether institutions permit new family formation). In addition, tomorrow’s elderly are not the same as today’s elderly. They will probably be more educated, less nationalist and possibly less subject to cognitive decline than the current generation. They are less likely to be impressed by a bad sales pitch.

How Well Has Cuba Managed To Improve Health Outcomes? (part 3)

As part of my series of blog post reconsidering health outcomes in Cuba, I argued that other countries were able to generate substantial improvements in life expectancy even if Cuba is at the top. Then I pointed out that non-health related measures made Cubans so poor as to create a paradoxical outcome of depressing mortality (Cubans don’t have cars, they don’t get in car accidents, life expectancy is higher which is not an indicator of health care performance). Today, I move to the hardest topic to obtain information on: refugees.

I have spent the last few weeks trying to understand how the Cuban refugees are counted in the life tables. After scouring the website of the World Health Organization and the archives of Statistics Canada during my winter break, I could not find the answer.  And it matters. A lot.

To be clear, a life table shows the probability that an individual of age will die by age X+1 (known as Qx). With a life table, you will obtain age-specific death rates(known as Mx), life expectancy at different points and life expectancy at birth (Lx)(Where x is age). Basically, this is the most important tool a demographer can possess. Without something like that, its hard to say anything meaningful in terms of demographic comparison (although not impossible).The most common method of building such a table is known as a “static” method where we either compare the population structure by age at a single point in time or where we evaluate the age of deaths (which we can compare with the number of persons of each group alive – Ax). The problem with such methods is that static life tables need to be frequently updated because we are assuming stable age structure.

When there is important migration, Qx becomes is not “mortality” but merely the chance of exiting the population either by death of migration. When there are important waves of migration (in or out), one must account for age of the entering/departing population to arrive at a proper estimates of “exits” from the population at each age point that separate exits by deaths or exits (entries) by migration.

As a result, migration – especially if large – creates two problems in life tables. It changes the age structure of the population and so, the table must be frequently updated in order to get Ax right. It also changes the structure of mortality (exits). (However, this is only a problem if the age structure of migrants is different from the age structure of the overall population).

Since 2005, the annual number of migrants from Cuba to the United States has fluctuated between 10,000 and 60,000. This means that, on an annual basis, 0.1% to 0.5% of Cuba’s population is leaving the country. This is not a negligible flow (in the past, the flow was much larger – sometimes reaching north of 1% of the population). Thus, the issue would matter to the estimation of life tables. The problem is we do not know how Cuba has accounted for migration on both mortality and the reference populations! More importantly, we do not know how those who die during migration are measured.

Eventually, Ax will be adjusted through census-based updates (so there will only be a drift between censuses). However, if the Cuban government counts all the migrants as alive as they arrive in a foreign country as if none died along the way, it is underestimating the number of deaths. Basically, when the deaths of refugees and emigrants are not adequately factored into survival schedules, mortality schedules are be biased downward (especially between censuses as a result of poor denominator) and life expectancy would be accordingly biased upward.

Now, I am willing to reconsider my opinion on this particular point if someone indicates some study that has escaped my gaze (my Spanish is very, to put it euphemistically, poor). However, when I am able to find such information for other Latin American countries like Chile or Costa Rica and not for Cuba, I am skeptical of the value of the health statistics that people cite.

The other parts of How Well Has Cuba Managed To Improve Health Outcomes?

  1. Life Expectancy Changes, 1960 to 2014
  2. Car ownership trends playing in favor of Cuba, but not a praiseworthy outcome