A Real-Time Map of Births and Deaths

The Atlantic has highlighted an interesting map that simulates the world’s recorded births and deaths in real time. Developed by Brad Lyon, a mathematician and software developer, and designer Bill Snebold, it uses the same d3 javascript library developed by Michael Bostock, a graphics editors at the New York Times.

The map interface shows where the births and deaths appear around the world, drawing on data from the CIA World Factbook, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and other sources. Here is an example of what it looks like:

You can find a larger version working here, as well as a nifty Chrome extension (which I have downloaded and am currently captivated by). You can learn more about how it was put together at Lyon’s blog post.

It is amazing, not to mention sobering, to see how many human lives come and go so quickly at a any given time. Even within the few minutes that I write this post, several hundred humans all over the planet have expired — who knows how and why? — while hundreds more are entering the world, their future and personal development still uncertain.

To me, these individuals are just cold, hard data; but they were in fact flesh-and-blood beings with names, identities, emotions, fears, aspirations, and every other characteristic I and my personal loved ones displayed. This map really puts into perspective just how big the world is, and how many billions of stories are playing out, ending, or just beginning, simultaneously across the world.

It is also fascinating to consider how far we have come in terms of data collection. It is easy to take for granted that humans have only recently had the means to both gather and display so much detailed information regarding just about quantitative factor.

The Greatest Threat to the World?

There seems to be no shortage of candidates for greatest threat to the world (by which we usually mean humanity specifically) — climate change, world war, nuclear weapons, a pandemic, an asteroid, or maybe even a combination of these factors. As it turns out, however, where you live determines what you consider to be most dangerous to the rest of the world.

That is the conclusion of a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, which asked 48,643 respondents in 44 countries what is the greatest danger to the global community (note, this took place before the breakout of Ebola but after events like the Syrian Civil War and the showdown between the West and Russia over Ukraine).

As Mic.com reports:

In the United States and Europe, income inequality came out on top. In the Middle East, religious and ethnic was considered the biggest threat. While Asia listed pollution and the environment, Latin America cited nuclear weapons, and Africa chose AIDS and other diseases.

Unsurprisingly, the concerns fell largely within geographic and regional boundaries. The United States and Europe are home to some of the largest and most advanced economies in the world, so it’s somewhat expected — if ironic — that they’re worried about income inequality. Asia is home to 17 out of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, and, as of 2012, sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 70% of the world’s AIDS cases.

In other words, all of us appear to have an exceptionally narrow view of the world: We see the biggest threats to our region as the biggest threats to everyone else, too.

Here is a visual representation of that data, also courtesy of Mic.com:

Moreover, the perception that religious and ethnic hatred poses the greatest threat to the world has seen the most growth over the past seven years, no doubt due to numerous high-profile sectarian conflicts across the planet.

Courtesy of The Atlantic is a color-coded map of the world that better shows how these great threats are geographically and culturally spread out:

A few other observations of the data from The Atlantic piece:

  • Other than Japan, the countries that saw nuclear weapons as their biggest danger included Russia (29 percent), Ukraine (36 percent), Brazil (28 percent), and Turkey (34 percent).
  •  The U.K.’s greatest concern was religious and ethnic hatred (39 percent), putting it in the same group as India (25 percent), Israel (30 percent), the Palestinian territories (40 percent), Lebanon (58 percent), and Malaysia (32 percent).
  • People in France were equally divided on what they consider the biggest threat, with 32 percent saying inequality and the same percentage saying religious and ethnic hatred.
  • Likewise in Mexico, nuclear weapons and pollution were tied as most menacing, at 26 percent.

It is also important to point out that in many cases, no single fear was dominant: in the U.S. for example, inequality edged over religious and ethnic hatred and nuclear weapons by only a few points. And in almost every region, anywhere from a fifth to a quarter of respondents expressed fear towards nuclear weapons (which I feel can be taken to mean war among states where the use of nukes is most likely). The survey observed that in many places, “there is no clear consensus” as to what constitutes the greatest danger to humanity, as this graph of all countries shows:

These results are very telling: as the earlier excerpt noted, you can learn a lot about a country’s circumstances based on what its people fear the most. Reading backwards from the results, it makes sense that what nations find the most threatening is what they have been most imperiled by presently or historically.

It is also interesting to note how societies, like individuals, view the world through their own experiential prism: because we are obviously most impacted and familiar with what immediately effects us, it makes sense that we would project those experiences beyond our vicinity. Just as our own individual beliefs — be they religious, political, social, etc. — are colored by personal life experiences, so too do entire nations often apply their most familiar concerns and struggles to the world at large.

Of course, this varies by country as well as by the respondents who represent said country; in many cases, participants are more likely come from higher educational and socioeconomic backgrounds, and thus reflect their class views rather than that of their wider society. (Admittedly, I am not sure if that applies to this particular Pew survey, as the respondents were interviewed by phone or face-to-face, with no indication as to their background.)

For my part, I personally put the most weight behind climate change, especially as it can exacerbate a lot of existing issues over the long-term (clashes among ethnic/religious groups over strained resources, refugees fleeing crop failures and placing strain upon host countries, etc.). What are your thoughts and opinions regarding the world’s greatest threat?

Chart: Global Wealth Distribution

Since I have been on a bit of an infographic kick lately, here is yet another interesting chart courtesy of The Economist, which measures an issue dear to my heart: wealth inequality. The contrasts inherent in it are quite sobering:

To recap, there are around 35 million millionaires in the world, constituting just 0.7 percent of the adult population — yet together, they hold 44 percent of the world’s total wealth of $262 trillion (up from $117 trillion in 2000). This is an increasingly common arrangement in most parts of the world, so it is little surprise that the same plays out on the international stage, especially as globalization proliferates the systems and trends that contribute to this top-heavy concentration of wealth.

Here are some additional details from the article:

Today 94.5% of the world’s household wealth is held by 20% of the adult population, according to new data from Credit Suisse. Wealth is so unevenly distributed, that you need just $3,650 (less debts) to count yourself among the richest half of the world’s population. A mere $77,000 brings you among the wealthiest 10%. And just $798,000 puts you into the ranks of the 1%—within the reach of many white-collar urban professionals in the West. Hence, more than 35m people carry such a plump purse. Among the three billion adults at the bottom with less than $10,000 in wealth, 90% reside in developing countries. Yet 15% of millionaires live in developing countries too.

Such a stark contrast in fortunes, especially with so much of the world remaining poor despite all the growth in wealth, does not bode well for the economic and sociopolitical stability of this planet (much less of many individual nations, where circumstances are even more dire). What are your thoughts and reactions?

World’s Biggest Economies — GPD Per Capita

In a previous post, we looked at the world’s largest economies during the past 2,000 years. To recap, China and India both overwhelmingly dominated the global economy for much of this period, being superseded only 100 years ago (only to begin rising once more at the turn of the 21st century).

This time around, we will see the world’s top three richest economies during the same period, but based on GDP per capita (e.g. adjusted by population). As before, The Economist is the source, and the results are pretty interesting.

Since I am busy today, I will not have the time to weigh in on these results as before — I will leave that to you all!

Graph: Most Common Occupation of World Political Leaders

In the United States, law and political administration are deeply intertwined: most politicians, at least at the national level, are lawyers. Many others are career politicians, spending most or all of their professional lives climbing the ranks of civil service; still others are both.

But how does this play out in the global stage? Is the predominance of legal and public service experience among national leaders uniquely American? Does it vary by sociopolitical culture or history? The following daily chart from The Economist sheds some light on this:

Note that this chart only looks at executive positions — presidents and prime ministers. I am curious as to how national legislatures pan out in this regard (I would imagine the picture would be similar, since most political leaders tend to emerge among national representatives). I also wonder how sub-national or local leaders differ from national ones; for example, the U.S. has a lot more ethnic, religious, and occupational diversity among its mayors, state legislatures, and governors when compared to national bodies.

In any case, perhaps it is unsurprising that those with a background in civil service — albeit not exclusively so, since there is often overlap with other careers — make up most national leaders. Some degree of experience in public affairs, whether administrative or legal, is generally expected among those wishing to govern at a higher level. For a similar reason, a knowledge of a nation’s governing laws would be a sensible thing to have as well, whether you are making laws (like legislative members), executing them (executive leaders) or operating in them (everyone, in theory).

The fact that civil service is the overwhelming background of Danish, South Korean, Japanese, and Swiss political leaders is not too surprising either. In all those nations, the state plays a major role in managing public and economic affairs, particularly its bureaucrats (those stereotypically faceless technocrats that execute the day-to-day affairs of various ministries, departments, etc). Indeed, it is no coincidence that these nations tend to have strong values of collectivism and meritocracy, both of which, in theory, underpin good civil service.

Unfortunately, I do not have the time to get into the rest of the results (namely the Netherlands’ uniquely high preponderance of professors, or the prevalence of lawyers among Spain’s national leadership roles). The Economist does provide an interesting tidbit on the matter:

According to a paper by Mark Hallerberg of the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, and Joachim Wehner of the London School of Economics and Political Science, policymakers with “technical competence” are more likely to hold office during a crisis. The authors found that a banking crisis increases the probability of having an economist as prime minister; a professor is more likely to hold the position during stockmarket crashes or inflation crises. Italy’s Mario Monti and Greece’s Lucas Papademos are recent examples. Unfortunately, voters seem inclined to get rid of them at the earliest opportunity.

Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts, observations, and speculations.

Graph: The U.S. Leads the Way in Low-Wage Work and Pay

As has sadly been the case all too often these days, one of the latest reports from the Economic Policy Institute, an American think-tank, is grim: low-wage workers (the 10th percentile of wage earners) have seen their real pay decline by five percent over the 1979-2013 period, despite concurrent productivity gains of 64.9 percent.

Consequently, American low-wage workers fare the worst in the developed world: according to the OECD, as of 2012, they earned just 46.7 percent of what a median worker worker does, far below the OECD average of 59.9 percent; to catch up to that average, U.S. low wage workers would need a 28 percent raise in their wages.

The graph below highlights this issue rather starkly:

Note that over a quarter of America’s labor force — 25.3 percent to be exact — is low wage, which is defined as earning less than two-thirds of the median wage. On this metric, too, the United States ranks the highest among the 26 countries surveyed, and far higher than the OECD average of 16.3 percent.

Thus, the U.S. has the largest number of low-paid workers in the developed world, and they in turn are the lowest paid in the developed world. And while several countries, such as the U.K., Ireland, and Canada, come close, most of them at the very least have more developed social safety nets to offset the shortfall among low-wage workers (universal healthcare alone is a major mitigating factor, given that medical bills account for many cases of bankruptcies among the American poor).

Setting aside the considerable amount of misery that comes with low paying and often menial labor, the broader impact on the long-term prosperity of the nation cannot be understated: with one out of four workers (and their dependents) having so little income, consumer demand — the lifeblood of the economy — stagnates. Fewer people are able to afford an education or vocational training, leading to a lot of untapped and desperately needed potential.

All this despite the nation’s economic elites — its executives, shareholders, and investors — broadly doing better than ever. Is it really so untenable for companies to spare some of their record, post-recession profits to improve the plight of their beleaguered workers — i.e. the consumers and patrons they all so badly need?

 

In any case, this is a point I have made too many times before, so instead of retreading it once more, I will leave you with this illuminating report by  Elise Gould (also from EPI) on Why America’s Workers Need Faster Wage Growth—And What We Can Do About It. As always, feel free to share your thoughts and feedback.

Chart: World’s Biggest Economies, Past and Present

With well over one billion denizens each, China and India make up a huge proportion of the world’s population and, subsequently, its economic potential. But if you think they are large now, consider that for much human history, the area constituting these modern nation states made up an overwhelming percentage of the human race and its economic activity.

Indeed, for many centuries, China alone accounted for one out of every three humans on Earth (with what is now India estimated to have concurrently accounted for another third). Considering that most readers of this blog (as far as I have gleaned) have, like me, been steeped in a Eurocentric telling of world history, it may be strange to imagine that the bulk of human activity and experience was concentrated in these two regions.

A recent chart from The Economist drives this point home by showing the relative sizes of these two behemoths (among other contenders) over the last two thousand years.

Note that Italy and Turkey were, during their peaks, the centers of the Roman and Ottoman empires, respectively. Also, I imagine the U.K.’s proportion would be larger if the colonial empire beyond its modern borders were to be factored in (indeed, all of India and then some would technically be included). Britain’s proportion is pretty impressive given its small geographic and demographic size relative to other rivals — a testament to the speed and intensity of the Industrial Revolution.

Similarly, America’s rapid rise between the late 19th century and turn of the 20th century reflects its own mastery of industry (albeit at great human and environmental cost, like much economic growth at that time). The fact that the U.S. and Soviet Union dominated the post-World War II global economic testifies as much to the sheer devastation wrought on the rest of the world (especially the former great powers) as to their rise as superpowers (Russia’s proportion is particularly impressive given the horrific scale of human and material loss).

But now, it appears China and India will once again reclaim the mantle of being the world’s major centers of economic activity — which is to be expected, given their sheer size and, in the latter’s case, continuing fast population growth. By some measures, China has already overtaken the U.S., although this is disputed.

Still, it seems inevitable that these two giants — which together make up almost 40 percent of the world’s population of 7.1 billion — will take center-stage in the global economy, perhaps even following in America’s footsteps as cultural and ideological powers (thus far a position that the U.S. is likely to enjoy continued dominance for years to come, whatever its relative economic status).

Of course, with other sizable countries like Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, Turkey, Mexico, and more also rising to relative prominence, the world may become more multipolar than anything. Interesting times ahead. What do you think?

Big Business is One Thing — Corporate Influence is Quite Another!

That is basically the sum of Americans’ attitudes towards large corporations, according to a survey conducted by CNBC and public relations firm Burson-Marsteller. It gathered the responses of about 25,000 participants from 25 countries, including both rich and developing economies, regarding big business, its relationship with government, and similar issues (note that results for developing countries are skewed towards the wealthier and better educated citizens with computer access, and thus may be less representative — you can find the full report here).

The results, reported by the New York Times, were interesting in their nuance: although famously pro-business, Americans were nonetheless pretty skeptical when it came to the confluence of business and politics. When asked whether corporations have too much, too little, or just the right amount of influence over the country’s economic future, 48 percent of Americans chose “too much” — roughly the median between China, the lowest scorer at 24 percent, and Brazil, the highest at 63 percent.

Countries that are more concerned than America about big business’ role on economic future include the U.K., France, India, Japan, the Netherlands, Singapore, and Russia; among those that express more reservations than the U.S. are Italy, Spain, Australia, Germany, South Korea, Mexico, and Canada.

However, when the question regarding corporate influence was phrased in a different way, the results altered: when ask whether it a good thing or bad thing for corporations to be strong and influential, only 31 percent of Americans answered that it is a good thing, among the lowest of the countries surveyed, and well below the levels of major emerging economies like India, Mexico, Turkey, and China (in which 60 to 70 percent of respondents were favorable to greater business influence).

In fact, only Germany, Poland, the U.K., and Hong Kong were more cynical about companies having greater influence, although Australia, the Netherlands, Japan, and Canada were not far behind the U.S. in their dim view of more powerful businesses. Yet when asked whether corporate lobbyists exercise a high amount of influence over the national government, 59 percent of Americans responded in the affirmative, second only to Italy.

So what gives with this apparent contradiction? Times columnist Niel Irwin offers his assessment of the results:

When it comes to business exerting power over the economy, Americans have mixed views but are generally comfortable. But when it comes to business exerting power over government, they are much more exercised.

Americans aren’t antibusiness, in other words. They’re just against business having what they see as too much power in Washington.

Compare that with China, where citizens seem to view businesses as less powerful in terms of lobbying (only 19 percent seeing a lot of influence by corporate lobbyists, a full 40 percentage points lower than in the United States) but are more likely to believe it is good for companies to be strong and influential. One might imagine that Chinese citizens see less a phenomenon in which business overly influences government and one more in which government overly influences businesses.

Indeed, a remarkable pattern stands out. In some of the places where big business has the least power and capitalist economies are the least developed, optimism and support for the corporate sector is highest.

In Communist Party-led China, 74 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “it is a good thing when corporations are strong and influential, because they are engines of innovation and economic growth.” That is around three times the level of support found in capitalist paradises like Britain, the United States and Australia.

Indeed, when asked whether the role of corporations in the future is a reason for hope or for fear, the U.S. and most other rich nations expressed the highest level of apprehension; conversely, the greatest amount of hope in the corporate sector were in the emerging economies like Indonesia, China, Malaysia and India.

As Irwin notes, it basically comes down to the fact that the less developed a corporate sector is in a given country, the more hopeful its people are that it will be a force for the better. Perhaps this is because these nations have yet to experience the large scale of business malfeasance than the long-industrialized West; or maybe it reflects greater trust in private institutions as opposed to the public ones — in most of these nations, particularly India and Brazil, governments are far less trusted.

Of course, it bears reminding that respondents from the developing world represent a smaller and more elite proportion of their respective nations — perhaps the average worker in these countries feels far less hopeful and trustworthy towards their corporations? What are your thoughts?

No Representation Without Taxation

Well, that is not quite the argument that Amy B. Dean made in her opinion piece for Al-Jazeera America, titled Not Enough Taxation and Too Much RepresentationBut she does point out the discrepancy between how little modern corporations invest in their community — whether through paying taxes or through offering decent employment — and how much they nonetheless continue to exercise disproportionate political influence.

For decades now, U.S. corporations have been cutting ties with the communities that enabled their success in the first place. The trend began in manufacturing, a sector that has slashed nearly 8 million jobs since 1979. It has since spread as companies have outsourced and offshored an expanding array of jobs. A good example comes from the semiconductor industry. According to the Government Accountability Office, beginning in the 1960s, semiconductor manufacturers began to move assembly plants to Asia. In the 1980s they followed these with wafer foundries and, beginning in the 2000s, design and engineering jobs as well. A survey of over 500 companies by the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton affirms this trend, finding “a salient shift toward locating more sophisticated and mission-critical work in countries such as India, China, Hungary, Brazil and the Philippines.”

From 2010 to 2012, three-quarters of the jobs created by the 35 largest U.S. companies from were outside the country, according to The Wall Street Journal. And for the 2000s, the newspaper reports, “U.S. multinational corporations, the big brand-name companies that employ a fifth of all American workers, have been hiring abroad while cutting back at home” — with domestic payrolls reduced by 2.9 million while 2.4 million jobs were established overseas.

As it is, the complaint about high statutory corporate tax rates is a red herring. As the Economic Policy Institute reports, the effective corporate tax rate has stayed at a relatively low 27.7 percent, on par with those of other economically advanced countries. In fact, the effective rate has remained well below the statutory rate since the early 1980s, making corporations’ complaints about their tax rate here seem hyperbolic. The fact remains that almost all the benefits of higher productivity have gone to corporations, and their profits are at an all-time high.

One could argue that this trend could be tolerated, were it not for companies nevertheless wanting to play an ever bigger role in domestic issues and local governance:

As corporate culture has grown more and more disconnected from American communities, it has demanded a greater and greater say in the country’s elections. Since 2000, independent expenditures in electoral campaigns have increased over 60-fold, from under $3 million to $186 million today. And an increasing amount of this money has come from avenues opened by the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United, in which it upheld the idea that corporate money should be regarded as speech and thus be covered by First Amendment protections.

Given the long-term shift in corporate loyalties away from being invested in American communities, we should be moving in the opposite direction, taking action against corporations that have such a dominant role in our democracy. The ability to participate in democratic deliberations should be predicated on embracing the responsibilities of citizenship and being invested in the well-being of our communities.

Personally, I agree with this sentiment. Although I see myself as a citizen of the world, and think we have an obligation towards bettering the lives of others beyond the borders we happen to be born within, what is going on here is different: companies are decoupling from any sense of social responsibility towards their communities while still feeling entitled to disproportionately influence the policies of the very areas they have essentially abandoned.

Moreover, the fact that record profits have not translated to better pay or treatment for workers — in or out of the country — makes this practice all the more reprehensible. Many of these companies have the resources at their disposal, and can in fact continue making good profits while looking after communities both here and abroad; but alas, the demand for ever-higher payouts to shareholders and executives eats a bigger chunk of the profit that could be reinvested through better pay, benefits, and the like.

In short, what we see is part of a wider trend in which economic elites feel little social obligation towards the rest of society. They have the resources to isolate themselves geographically from the non-wealthy, or indeed to leave their communities altogether (whether local, state, or national). Globalization has only amplified this disconnection, as the wealthiest citizens can simply move themselves and their great resources wherever suits them.

But in a world where overall wealth is higher than ever — yet concentrated so that 85 individuals have more than 3.5 billion people — is this sort of decoupling morally justifiable? Cannot these prosperous companies and their investors spare even a fraction of what they have towards bettering the lives of the workers worldwide who contributed to that prosperity, rather than try to dominate them further by supporting even more onerous policies? It would appear that our business culture and economic system do not allow it.

What do you think? Do companies have an obligation to their communities? Should they refrain from exercising influence if they are going to be leaving their localities or even countries behind?

Work and Worth

What someone is paid has little or no relationship to what their work is worth to society.

Does anyone seriously believe hedge-fund mogul Steven A. Cohen is worth the $2.3 billion he raked in last year, despite being slapped with a $1.8 billion fine after his firm pleaded guilty to insider trading?

On the other hand, what’s the worth to society of social workers who put in long and difficult hours dealing with patients suffering from mental illness or substance abuse? Probably higher than their average pay of $18.14 an hour, which translates into less than $38,000 a year.

How much does society gain from personal-care aides who assist the elderly, convalescents, and persons with disabilities? Likely more than their average pay of $9.67 an hour, or just over $20,000 a year.

What’s the social worth of hospital orderlies who feed, bathe, dress, and move patients, and empty their ben pans? Surely higher than their median wage of$11.63 an hour, or $24,190 a year.

Or of child care workers, who get $10.33 an hour, $21.490 a year? And preschool teachers, who earn $13.26 an hour, $27,570 a year?

Yet what would the rest of us do without these dedicated people?

Or consider kindergarten teachers, who make an average of $53,590 a year.

Before you conclude that’s generous, consider that a good kindergarten teacher is worth his or her weight in gold, almost.

One study found that children with outstanding kindergarten teachers are more likely to go to college and less likely to become single parents than a random set of children similar to them in every way other than being assigned a superb teacher.

And what of writers, actors, painters, and poets? Only a tiny fraction ever become rich and famous. Most barely make enough to live on (many don’t, and are forced to take paying jobs to pursue their art). But society is surely all the richer for their efforts.

At the other extreme are hedge-fund and private-equity managers, investment bankers, corporate lawyers, management consultants, high-frequency traders, and top Washington lobbyists.

They’re getting paid vast sums for their labors. Yet it seems doubtful that society is really that much better off because of what they do.

I don’t mean to sound unduly harsh, but I’ve never heard of a hedge-fund manager whose jobs entails attending to basic human needs (unless you consider having more money as basic human need) or enriching our culture (except through the myriad novels, exposes, and movies made about greedy hedge-fund managers and investment bankers).

They don’t even build the economy.

Most financiers, corporate lawyers, lobbyists, and management consultants are competing with other financiers, lawyers, lobbyists, and management consultants in zero-sum games that take money out of one set of pockets and put it into another.

They’re paid gigantic amounts because winning these games can generate far bigger sums, while losing them can be extremely costly.

It’s said that by moving money to where it can make more money, these games make the economy more efficient.

In fact, the games amount to a mammoth waste of societal resources.

They demand ever more cunning innovations but they create no social value. High-frequency traders who win by a thousandth of a second can reap a fortune, but society as a whole is no better off.

Meanwhile, the games consume the energies of loads of talented people who might otherwise be making real contributions to society — if not by tending to human needs or enriching our culture then by curing diseases or devising new technological breakthroughs, or helping solve some of our most intractable social problems.

Graduates of Ivy League universities are more likely to enter finance and consulting than any other career.

For example, in 2010 (the most recent date for which we have data) close to 36 percent of Princeton graduates went into finance (down from the pre-financial crisis high of 46 percent in 2006). Add in management consulting, and it was close to 60 percent.

The hefty endowments of such elite institutions are swollen with tax-subsidized donations from wealthy alumni, many of whom are seeking to guarantee their own kids’ admissions so they too can become enormously rich financiers and management consultants.

But I can think of a better way for taxpayers to subsidize occupations with more social merit: Forgive the student debts of graduates who choose social work, child care, elder care, nursing, and teaching.

Robert Reich