Ending Global Hunger

Even while the number of overweight and obese people is continuing to grow worldwide, the age-long scourges of chronic hunger and malnourishment remain pressing humanitarian problems. Close to 800 million people — or one in nine humans on Earth — are undernourished and thus highly susceptible to disease and infirmity. The majority of them live in developing countries, especially in rural areas, which tend lack infrastructure, are neglected by government, and especially vulnerable to natural disasters (including climate change).

Ending Rural Hunger is a project launched this year by the Brookings Institution’s Global Economy and Development division. Combining the expertise of over 120 specialists with the latest technology, it seeks to offer the world’s first comprehensive tool for monitoring the U.N. second Sustainable Development Goal (SDG): “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture”.

To that end, the project website offers a treasure trove of interactive and multifaceted tools that cover everything from the raw numbers of hungry people by country, to which governments are making the most progress (or failing to), and which developed countries are doing more to help. By looking at every side of the equation — the impact of both domestic and international policies, environmental and economic factors, the effectiveness of certain types of aid and policy — ERH is a great resource for those of us looking to see what more can be done to help the world’s most vulnerable people in a time of plenty. I definitely recommend you check it out.  Continue reading

The 25 Most Audacious Megaprojects in the World

Since I find myself (fortunately) busy with some well needed freelance work, I have decided to keep things a bit light today; if you are similarly fascinated by humanity’s boundless capacity for innovation and grandiosity, check out Popular Mechanics’ fascinating list of some of the world’s largest and technically-challenges projects under construction.

From near-stratospheric skyscrapers, to valley-spanning bridges and even whole cities, these infrastructural marvels reflect the latest developments in both technology and human vision — to say nothing of the endless appetite for economic growth and global prestige alike.

It is very telling that most of these projects take place in the developing world, particularly China, though quite a few are being undertaken in the industrialized world, including the United States. A more cynical and cautious observer might worry about the environmental impact of these endeavors, or whether they are a good use of funds in light of the global economic slowdown; such concerns are well founded, though for now I am content to see what technological feats our species is capable of, and how the fruits of such projects — if any — will bear out in the coming years.


100 CEOs Have Retirement Savings Greater Than 41 Percent of American Families

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The World’s Improving Economic Prospects

Positive news about the trajectory of the world is hard to find these days. From climate change to inequality to the rise of political authoritarianism, it seems that humanity is backsliding in just about every area of progress — what a way to kick off the 21st century and all its alleged promises.

Our World In Data is a web-based initiative that provides infographics about changing trends in a wide variety of subjects, from living standards to economics. Operating out of the Institute of New Economic Thinking at Oxford University, it is a reliable source for those wishing to document how humanity has changed over the course of decades, centuries, or millennia.

Fortunately, the data collected by OWID clearly show that for all the grim circumstances our species faces, we have broadly made vast improvements in socioeconomic prosperity, especially by historical standards. Compare GDP per capita — which serves as a rough, if imperfect, approximation of average living standards — in year one C.E. to 2008.

GDP per capita in 1 C.E. (Our World In Data / Institute of New Economic Thinking)

GDP per capita in 2008 (Our World In Data / Institute of New Economic Thinking)

You don’t have to go too far back to see how much progress there has been. Even over the last two centuries, there has been a marked and unprecedented improvement in the economic circumstances of most humans.

Our World In Data / Institute of New Economic Thinking

Moreover, while much of the world remains very poor (albeit far less so than two centuries ago), it is largely these impoverished nations that are leading the way in economic growth and development, thereby progressively lifting more of their people from poverty.

Our World In Data / Institute of New Economic Thinking

To be sure, none of this means that we should be complacent: these advancements are both tenuous and far short of what is needed to ensure a better life for all (indeed, the website concludes with this warning as well). However, it is still important to recognize how much we have achieved: incomes are growing across the world, poverty is rapidly declining, and the world’s poorest nations to continue to chalk up the highest rate of growth.

Granted, much of this progress is being felt unevenly; a lot of fast-growing countries are seeing their newfound wealth concentrated in relatively few hands, or invested inefficiently, if at all. Plenty of developed nations are lagging behind, too, with stagnating incomes and growing inequality. But all these challenges and shortcomings aside, we should be encouraged by how far we have come, and recognize the incredible potential for improvement of the human condition.

To see more data about the changes in socioeconomic development, click here. As always, please feel free to share your thoughts.

The Plight of Child Care Workers

One would think that someone who dedicates their life to serving some of the world’s most vulnerable people would be entitled to a living wage and great social respect. But as a recent ThinkProgress article highlights, those that care for the nation’s children are among the most poorly paid and economically unstable workers in the country.

According to a new analysis from the Economic Policy Institute, the median wage for child care workers is $10.31. That’s not just a small figure on its own; it’s also very low compared to what these workers could make elsewhere. Even when compared to other workers with the same gender, race, educational attainment, age, geography, and a number of other factors, EPI found that child care providers make 23 percent less. And even those figures are likely underestimating the problem, given that any provider who is self employed and working out of her own home — providers who are likely to earn even less than those in, say, centers — aren’t counted.

“Despite the crucial nature of their work, child care workers’ job quality does not seem to be valued in today’s economy,” the report notes. “They are among the country’s lowest-paid workers, and seldom receive job-based benefits such as health insurance and pensions.”

Adding insult to injury, these low wages mean that many child care workers — more than 95 percent of whom are women, and many of them parents — struggle to afford care for their own children. Barnette has experienced this conundrum herself. While she was able to get a child care subsidy for her two eldest children, her youngest son, who is now five, was put on a waiting list at three months old and only taken off last February, when he got a slot in a pre-K program. In the intervening time, Barnette had to quit her job. “I couldn’t work because I couldn’t afford the child care”, she said.

It’s a widespread problem among a workforce that cares for others’ children. Preschool teachers have to spend between 17 and 66 percent of their income to get care for their own infants; in 32 states and D.C., it eats up a third or more of their earnings.

This is despite the fact that, aside from the obvious importance of their work, the services of childcare workers are in higher demand than ever, owing to the prevalence of dual-income households where both parents must work full-time to get by (as well as the growth in single-parent households wherein the sole guardian must work a lot, too). Continue reading

The Most Prosperous Countries in the World

Based in London, the Legatum Institute is a global think tank and charity focused on promoting prosperity around the world. Among its signature tools to that end is the Legatum Prosperity Index, an annual publication that ranks 142 countries in terms of both total wealth and overall societal well being. The report determines its findings based on 89 variables spanning eight categories: Economy, Entrepreneurship & Opportunity; Governance; Education; Health; Safety & Security; Personal Freedom; and Social Capital.

The newly published 2015 edition can be read here (PDF), with full rankings and data available at Prosperity.com. Norway topped the list for the seventh year in a row, with its consistently high performance being attributed to the “freedom it offers its citizens, the quality of its healthcare system and social bonds between its people”.

2015 Prosperity Index. Legatum Institute / Prosperity.com.

2015 Prosperity Index. Legatum Institute / Prosperity.com.

Switzerland ranked second place for the third consecutive time, while Denmark came in third, one spot higher than last year. Runners up, in descending order, were New Zealand, Sweden, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Finland, and Ireland — e.g., the usual suspects when it comes to metrics of economic, social, and political well being.

The United States came in at 11th place, having been just barely denied the top spots due to its poor showing in one category: personal safety and security. Most other major developed countries landed within the top thirty, including Germany (14th place), the U.K. (15th), Japan (19th), and France (22nd). Singapore, which is almost always in the top ten in these sorts of list, ranked 17th due its shortcomings in personal freedoms.

The BRICS countries, with the notable exception of India, broadly landed in the middle, reflecting their rapid transition towards greater development: China led the pack at 52nd place, followed by Brazil at 54th, Russia (58th), South Africa (75th), and India (99th). Among the other countries cited as being rising powers were Vietnam (55th), Mexico (67th), Indonesia (69th), Turkey (78th), Iran (106th), Egypt (110th), and Nigeria (125th).

So if the index is to be believed, most of the future major players in the world have a long way to go to bring prosperity to their people. Granted, a country does not need to have a wealthy and flourishing populace to be a political, economic, and military force in the world, but it certainly helps.

With seven years of data to compile and compare, the Prosperity Index has also been able to track national progress.

Among the report’s official “headline findings” are the following:

  • Indonesia has performed better than any country in the world over the past seven years, rising 21 places up the rankings to 69th this year. The country’s success is the result of a vibrant economy, rising 23 places in the Economy sub-index and 14 places in the Entrepreneurship & Opportunity sub-index. Start-up costs have fallen from 26% to 21.1% of gross national income per capita, the number of secure internet servers has increased by 5.3 (per 1 million people), and the number of people satisfied with their living standards has increased from 63% to 71%.
  • Another strong performer since 2009 is Rwanda, which has risen 17 places up the Prosperity Index and now ranks 101st.
  • At the other end of the scale the poorest performers have been Syria (down 23 places), Tunisia (down 28 places) and Venezuela (down 16 places).
  • This year Singapore ranks 1st in the Economy sub-index, up from 2nd last year, displacing Switzerland. The country has the second highest capital per worker in the world: $240,750 per worker. 47% of the country’s manufactured exports are classified as ‘high-tech’, the third highest in the world.
  • This year the United States ranks 33rd on the Safety & Security sub-index, down from 31st last year. Safety & Security is the only sub-index in which the US ranks outside the top 30. It is also the only Western country to register high levels of state-sponsored political violence. According to Amnesty International the country has the same level of political violence as Saudi Arabia.
  • This year the UK ranks 6th on the Entrepreneurship & Opportunity sub-index, up from 8th last year. The country now ranks the best in Europe for people starting businesses and 88% of Britons believe that if you work hard you can get ahead in life, up from 84% last year, and 78% in 2010.
  • Canada, Norway, New Zealand, Iceland, and Ireland are the five most tolerant countries towards immigrants. The UK comes in at 17th. 92% of Canadians believe that their country is a good place for immigrants; this figure is 90% for Norway, New Zealand, and Iceland; and 89% for Ireland.
  • Canada is now the freest country in the world, having risen five places to 1st in the Personal Freedom sub-index. The country is the most tolerant of immigrants in the world. 92% of people think the country is a good place for immigrants. It is also the fifth most tolerant of ethnic minorities. 92% of people think that the country is a good place for ethnic minorities. 94% of Canadians believe that they have the freedom to choose the course of their own lives — the fifth highest in the world.
  • Three of the five Nordic countries have slipped down the Economy sub-index rankings since 2009 and the one that has improved, Iceland, remains low at 29th. The countries are failing to address unemployment. Unemployment stands at 7.8% in Sweden, 9.4% in Finland, and 6.3% in Denmark. Across all the Nordic countries employment is only 59.3%.
  • The Prosperity Index shows that the world has become a more dangerous place since 2009. In the last seven years there have been dramatic declines in the Safety & Security sub-index in Africa and the Middle East, and all other regions except Europe have witnessed some decline. This has been driven by increased tension, violence, and displaced people.

What are your thoughts about these results?

The Best Countries To Do Business

The World Bank publishes an annual Doing Business report that looks at which countries offer the most optimal conditions for entrepreneurship. The ranking takes into account eleven indicators, including the ease of starting a business, dealing with construction permits, getting power, and obtaining credit.

According to the most recent report, Singapore claims the top spot for the tenth time in a row. The city-state of 5.5 million is universally recognized as one of the world’s leading economic and financial centers, scoring favorably in everything from competitiveness and fiscal stability, to quality of life and human development. While it is a de facto one-party state with strong, if subtle, authoritarian tendencies, its government manages to be one of the least corrupt and most efficient in the world —  a rarity for most autocracies.

The following is a full list of the top ten:

World Bank. Doing Business 2016: Measuring Regulatory Quality and Efficiency. Via Bloomberg Business.

The worst performing countries were Eritrea, Libya, South Sudan, and Venezuela; unsurprisingly, nations with little or no rule of law, despotic governments, and chronic civil strife tended to do poor. There were a few more takeaways courtesy of Bloomberg Business: Continue reading

What Happens When You Give Employees a $70,000 Minimum Wage

In April 2015, Gravity Payments, a credit card payment processing firm based in Seattle, did something highly unorthodox: it unliterally gave all employees, from lowly clerks to customer services representatives, a minimum annual salary of $70,000 — well above the median rate of the average American worker.

Phased in over a period of three years, the plan will effectively double the salaries of 30 workers and give raises to 40 more making less than $70,000. All minimum salaries jumped to $50,000 right away, with $10,000 for each of the next two years. Anyone already earning $50,000 to $70,000 would still enjoy a nice raise of $5,000.

Moreover, CEO and founder Dan Price would accomplish this not by laying off staff, raising prices, or cutting the pay of certain highly paid workers; rather, he would make up the difference by slashing his own $1 million salary to $70,000 and investing 75 to 80 percent of the company’s anticipated $2.2 million for the year.

While plenty of companies could well afford to pay their workers well by going this route — allocating less profit and payroll to executives and shareholders — few would ever entertain the idea, let alone go through with it. Hence all the media attention that this exceptional pay raise warranted.

Unsurprisingly, this shockingly generous move was met with a lot of skepticism, both towards the motive (was it a publicity stunt?) and the practicality (could a company survive with so much profit going to workers)? Doubters and critics seemed quickly validated once the the firm became inundated by a series of misfortunes that related to the decision.  Continue reading

The Deteriorating American Middle Class

Citing a recent report from the U.S. Social Security Administration, Michael Snyder at Washington’s Blog finds a host of grim statistics that confirm what most Americans already know: that the financial stability and comfort of middle class life is increasingly elusive.

-38 percent of all American workers made less than $20,000 last year.

-51 percent of all American workers made less than $30,000 last year.

-62 percent of all American workers made less than $40,000 last year.

-71 percent of all American workers made less than $50,000 last year.

That first number is truly staggering.  The federal poverty level for a family of five is $28,410, and yet almost 40 percent of all American workers do not even bring in $20,000 a year.

If you worked a full-time job at $10 an hour all year long with two weeks off, you would make approximately $20,000. This should tell you something about the quality of the jobs that our economy is producing at this point.

Granted, given how much cost of living varies by city or state, a seemingly low salary might afford a middle class existence depending on where one lives (e.g., $50,000 is a lot more money in a place like Little Rock, Arkansas than New York City, New York). Even so, there is no justification for so many workers, across a variety of industries, professions, and areas, making so little — especially with productivity and profits alike continuing to rise. When will the average American get their fair share?

Consumers Push Back Against Exorbitant CEO Pay

As inequality becomes one of the prevailing concerns of the 21st century, an increasing number of Americans are pushing back, both through civic engagement and conscientious consumption.

In a series of experiments, Bhavya Mohan, Michael Norton, and Rohit Deshpandé showed that Americans are deeply concerned about CEO compensation — enough that they will pay up to 50 percent more on average to avoid businesses with egregious CEO pay gaps.

“We do really see that people have a stronger preference for products from companies that pay fair wages”, says Norton, a professor at Harvard Business School. As the researchers dug deeper, they found that this holds particularly true for Democrats and independents — while Republicans didn’t seem to care at all.

In one set of surveys, the researchers showed people pictures of towels from a national retailer where the median worker earned $22,400 a year. They told half the people that the CEO made $24 million. They told the other half that the CEO made $112,000.

These were carefully chosen ratios, Norton says. Wal-Mart’s CEO pay ratio is believed to be about 1000-to-1, while most Americans believe the ideal CEO pay ratio is around 7:1.

The subjects were asked to what they would be willing to pay for the towels. People who thought the CEO was making $112,000 quoted a price that was 15 percent higher on average than people who thought the CEO was making $24 million.

In another, starker experiment, the researchers asked only if subjects would be willing to buy the towels given a certain price. People were split up into five groups, each shown different combinations of prices and pay ratios. They responded on a 7-point scale (1: Not at all likely, 7: Very likely).

Those who thought they were buying from a company with a high pay ratio were particularly unwilling to buy the towels, even at a discount. The researchers found that a company with a 1000-to-1 CEO pay ratio would have to slash its prices in half to keep up with a company that had a 5-to-1 CEO pay ratio.

These efforts will be all the easier following recent regulatory changes that will force public companies, by 2017, to report the ratio of CEO pay to that of the average employee. This is an important development given that most Americans still think CEOs at large corporations are paid 30 times as much as their average worker — when it is actually almost 300 times more.  Continue reading