Lessons On Modern Corporate Malfeasance From The British East India Company

We still talk about the British conquering India, but that phrase disguises a more sinister reality. It was not the British government that seized India at the end of the 18th century, but a dangerously unregulated private company headquartered in one small office, five windows wide, in London, and managed in India by an unstable sociopath – Clive.

In many ways the EIC was a model of corporate efficiency: 100 years into its history, it had only 35 permanent employees in its head office. Nevertheless, that skeleton staff executed a corporate coup unparalleled in history: the military conquest, subjugation and plunder of vast tracts of southern Asia. It almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history. For all the power wielded today by the world’s largest corporations – whether ExxonMobil, Walmart or Google – they are tame beasts compared with the ravaging territorial appetites of the militarised East India Company. Yet if history shows anything, it is that in the intimate dance between the power of the state and that of the corporation, while the latter can be regulated, it will use all the resources in its power to resist.

When it suited, the EIC made much of its legal separation from the government. It argued forcefully, and successfully, that the document signed by Shah Alam – known as the Diwani – was the legal property of the company, not the Crown, even though the government had spent a massive sum on naval and military operations protecting the EIC’s Indian acquisitions. But the MPs who voted to uphold this legal distinction were not exactly neutral: nearly a quarter of them held company stock, which would have plummeted in value had the Crown taken over. For the same reason, the need to protect the company from foreign competition became a major aim of British foreign policy.

– , “The East India Company: The original corporate raiders“, The Guardian

A lot of relevant lessons to this day. While modern big companies are not as brazen or blatant in their exercise of power, they most certainly prey open societies where rule of law is weak or easy to co-opt. Even in the most developed democracies, such private entities hold tremendous sway, with their policies and personnel often interchangeable with those of the public sector.

…The corporation – a revolutionary European invention contemporaneous with the beginnings of European colonialism, and which helped give Europe its competitive edge – has continued to thrive long after the collapse of European imperialism. When historians discuss the legacy of British colonialism in India, they usually mention democracy, the rule of law, railways, tea and cricket. Yet the idea of the joint-stock company is arguably one of Britain’s most important exports to India, and the one that has for better or worse changed South Asia as much any other European idea. Its influence certainly outweighs that of communism and Protestant Christianity, and possibly even that of democracy.

Companies and corporations now occupy the time and energy of more Indians than any institution other than the family. This should come as no surprise: as Ira Jackson, the former director of Harvard’s Centre for Business and Government, recently noted, corporations and their leaders have today “displaced politics and politicians as … the new high priests and oligarchs of our system”. Covertly, companies still govern the lives of a significant proportion of the human race.

The 300-year-old question of how to cope with the power and perils of large multinational corporations remains today without a clear answer: it is not clear how a nation state can adequately protect itself and its citizens from corporate excess. As the international subprime bubble and bank collapses of 2007-2009 have so recently demonstrated, just as corporations can shape the destiny of nations, they can also drag down their economies. In all, US and European banks lost more than $1tn on toxic assets from January 2007 to September 2009. What Burke feared the East India Company would do to England in 1772 actually happened to Iceland in 2008-11, when the systemic collapse of all three of the country’s major privately owned commercial banks brought the country to the brink of complete bankruptcy. A powerful corporation can still overwhelm or subvert a state every bit as effectively as the East India Company did in Bengal in 1765.

Corporate influence, with its fatal mix of power, money and unaccountability, is particularly potent and dangerous in frail states where corporations are insufficiently or ineffectually regulated, and where the purchasing power of a large company can outbid or overwhelm an underfunded government. This would seem to have been the case under the Congress government that ruled India until last year. Yet as we have seen in London, media organisations can still bend under the influence of corporations such as HSBC – while Sir Malcolm Rifkind’s boast about opening British embassies for the benefit of Chinese firms shows that the nexus between business and politics is as tight as it has ever been.

The East India Company no longer exists, and it has, thankfully, no exact modern equivalent. Walmart, which is the world’s largest corporation in revenue terms, does not number among its assets a fleet of nuclear submarines; neither Facebook nor Shell possesses regiments of infantry. Yet the East India Company – the first great multinational corporation, and the first to run amok – was the ultimate model for many of today’s joint-stock corporations. The most powerful among them do not need their own armies: they can rely on governments to protect their interests and bail them out. The East India Company remains history’s most terrifying warning about the potential for the abuse of corporate power – and the insidious means by which the interests of shareholders become those of the state. Three hundred and fifteen years after its founding, its story has never been more current.

The Heroic White Helmets of Syria

Amid one of the most brutal conflicts and humanitarian crises of the 21st century, a small but powerful force for good has emerged against all odds to do what it can to help. These are the White Helmets of Syria, a volunteer group that offers well-needed emergency services to the millions across the nation who are continually slaughtered and maimed in the nearly four-year conflict.

More from Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times:

There are more than 2,200 volunteers in the White Helmets, mostly men but a growing number of women as well. The White Helmets are unpaid and unarmed, and they risk their lives to save others. More than 80 have been killed in the line of duty, the group says, largely because Syrian military aircraft often return for a “double-tap” — dropping bombs on the rescuers.

Wearing simple white construction helmets as feeble protection from those “double-tap” bombings, the White Helmets are strictly humanitarian. They even have rescued some of the officers of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad who are bombing them.

Since the White Helmets began in 2013, its members have saved more than 12,500 lives by its count.

A reputation for nonpolitical humanitarianism has allowed the White Helmets to work across lines of rival militias, including the Islamic State. In a land short of heroes and long on violence, many rally round the White Helmets. Syria may be notorious today for cruelty and suffering, but these men and women are a reminder of the human capacity for courage, strength and resilience.

I had the supreme honor of donating to this group last winter, but I wish I could do more. They are always in need of funding, so give what you can or spread the word. Their website is here.

Taipei Sounds Like My Kind of Town

A typical Saturday night in Taiwan’s largest city.

Among the many places on my travel list is Taiwan (officially the Republic of China). As one of the most developed and multicultural countries in the world, it offers a lot to see and do — including one of the world’s most thriving bibliophile communities. As the New York Times highlights, its lively capital, Taipei, leads the world in 24-hour bookstores.

At a time when many bookstores in the United States are struggling in the face of an onslaught from the online retailer Amazon, Eslite is thriving. It has 43 stores in Taiwan and one in Hong Kong. The company has plans to open two branches in mainland China this year, in Shanghai and Suzhou. Sales rose more than 15 percent in 2013 in its listed arm, and profits are rising as well.

One secret to Eslite’s success is that it is far more than a bookstore. While the Borders chain, now defunct, in the United States featured coffee shops, Eslite stores are more like self-contained shopping malls. About 60 percent of sales come from books. The rest comes from items like food, kitchenware, music, wine, jewelry, watches, movies, toys — sold in shops interspersed throughout the bookstores. One branch in Taipei has a movie theater.

Another reason for its success is the character of the city where the company was founded in 1989. As in many Asian cities, people work late into the night, and a company survey in 1999 suggested that many people would frequent a 24-hour bookstore. The busiest time for the bookstore is between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., according to Timothy Wang, a company spokesman.

Indeed, it appears there is something particularly Taiwanese about this business model, which is perhaps why it seems unique only to the country.

“People in Taiwan, particularly in Taipei, are really calm. They really like to read books,” Ms. Yang said. “This is entertainment for us.”

“People really wanted to come read books late at night,” Mr. Wang said in a telephone interview. “Some young travelers who can’t find a hotel bring their baggage and settle down in the bookstore. They feel that the environment at Eslite is really peaceful.”

I cannot wait to experience it for myself someday.

Global Spotlight: Socotra, Yemen

Socotra (also spelled Soqotra) is an archipelago of four islands in the Indian Ocean that is part of Yemen. Evidence of human settlement go back to antiquity, where the island served as a stopover for various trade routes that passed by. However, there are signs of a pre-human presence going back over a million years. Ancient inscriptions have been found written in everything from Aramaic and Greek, to pro-Arabic and ancient Indian scripts.

Today, only around 50,000 people live on Socotra, most of them eking out a living as subsistence farmers and fishers. A product of the area’s isolation, they continue to speak a nearly extinct language alongside their own distinct Arabic dialect.

Socotra’s long geographic isolation, combined with its unforgiving heat and dryness, have created a distinct and spectacular ecosystem comprised of flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world; nearly 700 species are unique to the area (only Hawaii, New Caledonia, and the Galapagos Islands surpass it in terms of sheer biodiversity). For this it has been recognized as a world heritage site and nicknamed the Jewel of the Arabian Sea. 

Among the most famous occupant is the dragon blood tree, so named for its crimson red sap, which was highly valued for centuries as a dye, medicine, glue, lipstick, and even breath-freshener. Because it was believed to be dragon’s blood — a fact that could not be unverified in ancient times given the island’s seclusion — the sap was also valued in alchemy, and even today many inhabitants of the island and nearby areas allegedly regard it as a miracle cure for all sorts of ailments.

Socotra, Yemen IV

Socotra continues to retain its centuries-long mystique and character, offering an often alien landscape that is found nowhere else in the world.

Red Star Tales: A Century’s Worth of Russian / Soviet Literature

If you appreciate unusual and obscure science fiction (in the West anyway), or just want to explore something different and interesting, consider backing this Kickstarter campaign, which seeks to compile previously untranslated Soviet and Russian works.

This Kickstarter project will sponsor the publication in 2015 of the first comprehensive edition of truly notable Russian and Soviet science fiction – works chosen for their artistic and scientific merit, not because of any political or ideological agenda.

The 400+-page volume will include 18 stories, spanning from path-breaking, pre-revolutionary works of the 1890s, through the difficult Stalinist era, to post-Soviet stories published in the 1980s and 90s.

None of the works in this volume has ever been translated into English before, and we are engaging the services of some of the finest translators available to help us produce the sort of quality publication our 25-year-old company is known for.

You can see the official promotional video below, which offers a glimpse of some of the intriguing themes and plots of some of these works.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/russianlife/red-star-tales/widget/video.html

The creator of the project, Russian Life, is one of the largest publishers of Russian literature in the U.S., and virtually the only English-language periodical on Russian lifestyle, history, and culture. (I am a subscriber and regular visitor.) So I am confident they will deliver on this enticing treat.

$16,000 does not seem like a lot to ask for providing a hefty sampling of one of the world’s most prolific, yet obscure, producers of fiction and thought. You do not have to be a Russophile to appreciate quality science fiction, whatever its source.

The Pearl of the Mediterranean

THOUGH IT WAS NEVER THE MILITARY AND POLITICAL CAPITAL OF THE ANCIENT WORLD, Alexandria was for a time its intellectual and cultural center. The city was founded by Alexander the Great in the aftermath of his conquest of Egypt in 331 B.C., and was developed by Ptolemy I, the general he left behind as the new pharaoh. Flush with the wealth both of Egypt and of the larger world—whose ships thronged the city’s bustling Mediterranean port—Ptolemy built both a great library and a Mouseion, or museum, which functioned as an academy of scholarship. At its height, the Library of Alexandria held around 700,000 scrolls, including the now-vanished complete works of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides.

Many of the greatest scholars of the ancient world lived in Alexandria and frequented the Mouseion. So, too, did Jews, Syrians, and Greeks—for Alexandria was the center of the Hellenistic civilization in which Greek culture mingled with that of North Africa and the East. Ptolemy had conceived the city as a civilizational project: The library, he decreed, would accept volumes from “all nations so far as they were worthy of serious attention.” The library held a collection of Sanskritic texts from India. And it was in Alexandria that Jewish scholars translated the Bible into Greek, the work now known as the Septuagint.

Ancient Alexandria, in short, was the cosmopolis par excellence—but it was not to last. The city was sacked by Romans and then by Christians. The library collapsed, and the scrolls crumbled into dust. The Pharos, the great lighthouse that was counted one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, fell into the sea. By the time of the Arab invasion in 642 A.D., there was little left to plunder.

In the centuries that followed, the city was eclipsed by Cairo, Damascus, and Aleppo. It came back to life only in the middle of the 19th century, when Egypt’s rulers, seeking to modernize the country, turned toward Europe. First Greeks, then French, Italians, English, Armenians, and others began to settle in this city, which looked across the Mediterranean to Europe. The Alexandria synagogue was built in 1836; the Opera House, which unlike the synagogue remains in use, in 1918.

By the early 20th century, Alexandria had become a home, not for mathematicians and astronomers, but for novelists and poets. E. M. Forster wrote a guide to city in 1922. Constantine Cavafy, the greatest of modern Greek poets, served as a kind of muse and presiding spirit of Belle Époque Alexandria.

Alexandria is still, in its own way, a cosmopolitan city. There’s an underground music scene—though I was told that at one pop-up concert, outraged Salafis destroyed the stage. Amira Hegazy, a language teacher who also works with local researchers, made the peculiar observation that the city has the largest proportion of both gay men and Salafis in Egypt. “That’s Alexandrian cosmopolitanism,” she said. “Everyone can coexist.”

– James Traub, The Lighthouse Dims

Economics and Optimism Around the World

According to research cited by the Wall Street Journal, more than three-quarters of American adults felt their children would be worse off than they are, a sobering testament to the economic malaise and political dysfunction that have been entrenched (if not worsened) these past several years. Who could blame anyone for being so cynical?

But how do other nations compare? Which societies have been brought low by the global recession and the subsequent stagnation, and which ones have managed to remain optimistic? Earlier this month, eminent pollster Pew issued a report that explored these attitudes across dozens of rich and developing countries.

As an article in The Atlantic observed, the findings show a strong connection between economic development, attitudes towards certain economic concepts (like the free market), and thoughts about the future.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Germany, South Korea, and the United States are the advanced countries with the most robust support for the market economy. Among emerging markets, Jordan and Argentina are most opposed to the free market. And among developing economies, which are the poorest in Pew’s sample, the market economy is least popular in Uganda and El Salvador, while Bangladesh, Ghana, and Nicaragua (another country with a socialist government) report the strongest support.In general, the world is inclined to favor the free market (66 percent of all those surveyed by Pew do), but its greatest supporters are in the poorest countries (80 percent in Bangladesh, 75 percent in Ghana, and 74 percent in Kenya). Among emerging economies, 76 percent of Chinese respondents think people do better in a market economy, and that number remains high in India (72 percent), socialist Venezuela (67 percent), and Brazil (60 percent).

Here is a visual representation of the results:

For comparison, here is how respondents from these countries feel about the future of their countries.

Note the strong optimism among developing countries, especially those in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. As The Atlantic notes:

Asia […] is the most optimistic region when it comes to how people view the economic prospects of their children. Europeans and Americans, meanwhile, are quite grim about the future. Pessimism abounds in France, where 86 percent of those surveyed believe that children will be worse off financially than their parents, and the numbers of those who worry about the outlook for younger generations is also high in Japan (79 percent) and Italy (67 percent). In contrast, the expectation that future generations will be better off is widespread in Vietnam (94 percent), China (85 percent), Chile (77 percent), and Bangladesh (71 percent).

Indeed, the following chart shows just much more optimistic Asians are than the rest of the world (although large minorities still remain pessimistic):

So not only does support for the free market correlate with greater optimism, but this pattern applies overwhelmingly to poorer countries. For all their positive views of this economic approach, the average rich-world resident remains skeptical about the future and perhaps doubtful that their vaunted free market is really in place as they would prefer.

I personally suspect that this may have something to do with the rise in inequality, which has been especially well publicized in the rich world, despite being an otherwise global phenomenon. With companies reaping record profits but wages and employment remaining stagnant, even the most enthusiastically pro-business societies like the U.S. cannot help but feel cynical, whatever their support for the principles of the free market.

Indeed, it appears that economic growth was more of a determinant than current economic conditions. Generally, poorer countries are growing faster than richer ones, so even if times are bad now, most residents in the developing world have much to look forward to, especially if they are rising from a much lower base.

So it makes sense why there appears to be a mismatch in optimism between developing and developed countries. Emerging economies probably feel that their support of the free market is being vindicated by growing prosperity, while richer but stagnant states are less optimistic even if they hold true to the ideal of the free market.

Of course, there is the issue of semantics: what exactly is the “free market” in the context of this survey? Like most academic concepts, it is difficult to neatly define, let alone implement in the real world. Moreover, different societies no doubt have different interpretations of it. I imagine Pew accounted for that to some degree, but I am not sure. Just a caveat to keep in mind.

And what about the issue of inequality that I mentioned before? Surely that has an impact on attitudes towards the both free market and the future? Well it does, albeit in an interesting and nuanced way. Citing Pew:

A global median of 60% say that the gap between rich and poor is a very big problem in their country. Concern is somewhat higher among developing economies and emerging markets (median of 60% in each), but is also shared by people in advanced economies (56%).Nonetheless, despite this high level of worry about inequality, the issue only ties or tops the list of economic problems in four of the 44 countries surveyed. In general, people in advanced economies tend to worry more about public debt and unemployment than inequality, while those in emerging markets and developing economies are more concerned about inflation and jobs.

The top culprit for income inequality cited by publics around the world is their national government’s economic policies. A global median of 29% say their government’s policies are to blame for the gap between the rich and the poor, while the amount workers are paid is a close second at 23%. Globally, people place less blame on the educational system (11%), a lack of individual hard work (10%), trade between countries (8%) and the structure of the tax system (8%).

Advanced economies in particular lean toward the notion that their governments are to blame for inequality (median of 32%). The Greeks (54%), Spanish (52%) and South Koreans (46%) are government’s harshest critics. Significant percentages among advanced economies also fault workers’ wages for the gap between the rich and the poor, including 29% in Japan and 26% each in France and Germany. The Americans and British are two of the few publics to blame individuals’ lack of hard work (24%) about as much as they do their government’s policies (24% in U.S., 23% in UK).

Emerging markets are more divided. Pluralities in nine of the 25 countries surveyed blame their government for inequality in their country, including roughly four-in-ten or more in Ukraine (45%), India (45%), Lebanon (43%), China (43%), Tunisia (43%), Turkey (42%) and Nigeria (39%). Meanwhile, pluralities in another six countries say workers’ wages are the primary scapegoat. Latin American publics – such as Brazilians (44%), Chileans (39%) and Colombians (39%) – are particularly likely to blame inadequate take-home pay for the gap between the rich and poor.

People in developing economies are also split between blaming the government for income inequality in their country and faulting workers’ wages. Pluralities in Kenya (36%), Ghana (29%) and Tanzania (29%) say inequality is their government’s fault, while Salvadorans (32%) tend to blame the amount workers are paid. Nearly equal percentages in the Palestinian territories, Bangladesh, Senegal and Uganda say both the government and wages are the culprits. Nicaragua (31%) is the country with the highest percentage who say a lack of individual hard work is the problem.

And what do most respondents think is the solution? Well, given that government is perceived to be the problem, it stands to reason that the most popular solution would be to weaken the public sector in favor of strengthening the private one, as the results indeed show:

Pluralities or majorities in 22 of the 44 countries surveyed say to reduce inequality it is more effective to have low taxes on the wealthy and corporations to encourage investment and economic growth rather than high taxes on the wealthy and corporations to fund programs that help the poor. Publics in 13 countries prefer the high tax option.

Overall, advanced economies (median of 48%) are somewhat more supportive than either developing (40%) or emerging (31%) countries of using high taxes on the wealthy and corporations to address income inequality. The broadest support comes from Germany, where 61% favor using high taxes to fund poverty programs. Roughly half or more in Spain (54%), South Korea (53%), the UK (50%) and the U.S. (49%) agree. In Italy (68%), France (61%) and Greece (50%), opinion leans toward low taxes to encourage investment.In most advanced economies, people who say they are very concerned about inequality are particularly supportive of income redistribution to reduce the gap between the rich and poor.

There is also a large ideological divide over taxes in Europe and the U.S. In general, individuals on the left are much more likely than those on the right to prefer high taxes on the wealthy and corporations. For example, 71% of those on the left in Spain support redistribution, compared with 45% of people on the right. In the U.S., 70% of liberals say high taxes are more effective to combat inequality while just 33% of conservatives agree.

The prevailing view in most emerging markets surveyed is that low taxes on the rich and businesses to stimulate growth are a better way to address inequality. Roughly six-in-ten or more express this opinion in Brazil (77%), Argentina (60%), Vietnam (60%) and the Philippines (59%). In just five of the 25 emerging countries do pluralities or majorities pick high taxes as the preferred means of reducing the gap between the rich and poor, including 57% in Jordan, 53% each in Egypt and Chile, 48% in Ukraine and 42% in China.

Developing economies also lean more toward low taxes on the wealthy and corporations to encourage investment rather than high taxes for redistribution. At least half prefer low taxes in Uganda (64%), Ghana (57%), Kenya (52%) and Nicaragua (52%). El Salvador is the only developing economy where a majority (58%) chooses high taxes.

Again, this reflects greater faith on private sector forces — businesses, entrepreneurs, and civil society — as avenues of prosperity than public ones, namely the state and its policies. Given that corruption and inefficiency are endemic in most developing world governments, such pessimism towards public officialdom is perhaps expected, especially when those societies are otherwise more optimistic about the future and their own economic potential — and thus more wary of historically inept states getting in the way.

The conflicted solutions offered by respondents in richer countries may reflect the fact that both the public and business sectors have been disappointing, with trust in all institutions at a record low. There is plenty of blame to go around, but where does the answer life if both economic and political elites are culpable? That is a question deserving of its own blog altogether, so I will leave that to you all.

Anyway, Pew looked at attitudes to more than just the free market. There is also the universally important matter of how someone gets ahead in life. Participants were asked to rank the importance of several factors of success from zero (“not important”) to 10 (“very important”). The results were largely in favor of “getting a better education”, which 60 percent of respondents checked as maximally important. Here’s the Pew report again:

Among those surveyed in the most advanced economies, Spaniards place the greatest value on education as a factor of success, with 71 percent saying that it is very important. Not so in France, where the value of education was given its lowest marks among all surveyed countries with only 24 percent characterizing education as a critical factor. Ironically, by international standards the quality of education in France is higher than in countries where a much greater percentage felt a good education was a very important precursor to success (86 percent of Venezuelans, for example).

Half of the survey’s respondents believe that “hard work” is very important for success, while 37 percent say the same about “knowing the right people”, 33 percent about being “lucky”, and 20 percent about belonging “to a wealthy family”. Seventeen percent of those polled view being male as critical to success, and just 5 percent feel the same way about giving bribes. The countries where the greatest percentage of people believe that family money is very important for getting ahead in life are Tunisia (46 percent) and Nigeria (45 percent). These are also two of the countries where respondents ranked bribery among the most important determinants of success.

Here are how the results played out from country to country (again, the question was what is most important for getting ahead in life).

Another interesting result to point out: in 32 of the 44 countries surveyed, more men believed that being male was an advantage to success than women. With more women taking change of their economic and political future (as evidenced by higher rates of female employment and civic participation), they feel more hopeful and emboldened that the system can and does work in their favor. But that is just my own (optimistic) speculation.

Still, there does appear to be a consensus across all these different societies: economic prosperity is dependent largely on factors beyond one’s control, an attitude that even the most optimistic countries shared.

Pretty interesting stuff, and a lot to ruminate on. My time is short and my analysis is spotty, so I encourage you all to check out the report for yourself and draw your own conclusions. As always, I welcome feedback.

The End of the Population Pyramid

The issue of overpopulation has been a bugbear of the popular imagination for decades, and remains so especially into the 21st century, when humanity crossed its seven billion mark — unprecedented in both size and scale of growth (consider that while it took millennia for humanity to finally reach a billion only in 1804, it took just another two centuries to hit seven times that number).

Given all that, it is perfectly understandable why people would be concerned about the impact such rapid growth is having on everything from the environment to global food supplies and energy resources (to say nothing of the subsequent social, political, and economic instability that results from such strains).

But as the following video from The Economist shows clearly, the global population — though set to grow by another two billion by 2042 — has already begun slowing down in its rate of expansion.

An excerpt from the original article nicely sums up the visual data:

 The pyramid was characteristic of human populations since the day organised societies emerged. With lifespans short and mortality rates high, children were always the most numerous group, and old people the least. Now the shape of the global population is changing. Between 1970 and 2015 the dominating influence on the global population was the fertility rate, the number of children a woman would typically bear during her lifetime. It fell dramatically over the period, meaning that the world shifted from having larger to smaller families. The age groups start to become markedly smaller only about the age of 40, so the incline starts much further up the chart than with the pyramid. The shape looks more like the dome of the Capitol building in Washington, DC. Between 2015 and 2060 the biggest influence upon the population will be ageing. Small families are already becoming the norm, the fall in fertility is slowing down and now almost everyone is living longer than their parents—dramatically so in developing countries. So, by 2060, the dome will have come and gone and the shape of the population will look more like a column (or perhaps an old-fashioned beehive).

In other words, barring any sort of unlikely massive uptick in the global birthrate, humanity is currently entering its peak of population: shortly after hitting nine billion, growth will begin to stagnate as the number of people of childbearing age declines.

Indeed, a map of fertility rates by nation shows that most of the world’s countries (many of them developing) are already experiencing slowing, stagnating, or even shrinking populations.

Total fertility rates as of 2013. Courtesy of Wikipedia / CIA World Factbook.

Keep in mind that a fertility rate between 2-3 (green) is considered the sweet spot for stable growth: any lower and you face rapid population aging followed by, and concurrent with,population shrinking (unless immigration is high enough to offset the difference); any higher, and populations grow too quickly for resources and institutions to accommodate. Both circumstances bring their own challenges and issues, which in turn vary from country to country.

But note how the majority of the world’s population growth is taking place in the developing world, especially in Africa (where not a single country has a total fertility rate of less than 2. Indeed, as The Economist video showed, 90 percent of the world’s youth will be living in emerging economies, with Africa having more young people than any other continent.

Conversely, it is mostly mid- to high-income countries whose fertility and birth rates are low, and whose populations have already begun stagnating, if not shrinking. The few exceptions — namely the U.S., Canada, the U.K, Ireland, and France — are growing mostly due to immigration and the subsequent increase it brings to the birthrate (since immigrants tend to have more children than native-born individuals).

The following map shows the population growth of the world’s countries by percentage between 2000 and 2010.

Courtesy of Wikipedia / United Nations. Note: data vary by source.

Notice again a similar pattern: broken down by country, most of the world is seeing low to negative population growth, even if the world as a whole is growing. Basically, the global population is growing highly unevenly, with a relatively small number of countries making up the lion’s share of total growth.

Moreover, as the video showed, much of this population “growth” is really a reflection of more people living longer: previously, population stabilized or shrank because enough people would die by the time the next generation came of age to have children. But as more people stick around longer, even the effects of a low birthrate will not be felt since so many people remain.

Hence why countries like Germany and Japan — which have long had some of the lowest fertility rates, and thus fastest-aging populations, in the world — did not begin to experience stagnation or decline until decades later. Their peoples are also among the longest-lived (note that higher immigration as of late has lead to modest but noticeable growth in Germany).

So what is the significance of all this? Well, there are many issues and challenges facing the world now and in the future as population dynamics rapidly change. Frankly, I do not have time to get into the larger social and economic ramifications of having whole societies without enough working-age adults; too many older people strains social security systems

But with regards to the most commonly cited concern — that of overpopulation straining resources — the solution is simple to recognize but difficult to implement: more efficient allocation of resources on a global level.

There is plenty of capital, food, and energy in the world to go around, but most of it is concentrated in and consumed by a wealthy few nations (and within those nations in turn, by a wealthy few people). Finding a way to allocate such resources to where it is needed most would lift hundreds of millions from poverty.

Consider that food output is well above what is needed, but that chronic malnourishment afflicts hundreds of millions of people — especially in fast-growing populations — because much of that food does not go to the poorer parts of the world, and 40 percent is wasted altogether. (To further underline this misallocation, in recent years the number of overweight and obese people in the world has outnumbered the malnourished.)

Moreover, shrinking wealthy countries could benefit from taking in the younger workers overflowing fast-growing poorer nations — as several immigration-friendly nations are experiencing — but there is (and would be) much resistance.

Perhaps as the world continues to develop its global consciousness — and with it the necessary global institutions to implement such policies — we will find a mutually beneficial way address the mismatch in demographic changes. There is a lot more to this topic that I have not touched on given my time constraints, but as always I welcome your thoughts and feedback.

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?