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.

Why Japanese Kids Go Out in Public Alone

The very thought of allowing one’s children to wander far from home is an anathema to most American parents (at least in urban areas). But the average Japanese doesn’t bat an eyelash at the sight of a child as young as nine riding the train or running errands, even in a sprawling megacity like Tokyo.

As The Atlantic reports, this practice is deeply rooted in Japan’s culture.

What accounts for this unusual degree of independence? Not self-sufficiency, in fact, but “group reliance”, according to Dwayne Dixon, a cultural anthropologist who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Japanese youth. “[Japanese] kids learn early on that, ideally, any member of the community can be called on to serve or help others”, he says.

This assumption is reinforced at school, where children take turns cleaning and serving lunch instead of relying on staff to perform such duties. This “distributes labor across various shoulders and rotates expectations, while also teaching everyone what it takes to clean a toilet, for instance”, Dixon says.

Taking responsibility for shared spaces means that children have pride of ownership and understand in a concrete way the consequences of making a mess, since they’ll have to clean it up themselves. This ethic extends to public space more broadly (one reason Japanese streets are generally so clean). A child out in public knows he can rely on the group to help in an emergency.

It makes sense when you think about it: in a society that values community spirit and teaches everyone to be responsible to each other, one can enjoy considerable safety. Not only is it unlikely that you will be victimized, but you can count on total strangers to look after you if something goes wrong.

Even the country’s infrastructure lends itself well to self-reliance.  Continue reading

Parenting German Style

Well, more specifically, Berlin-style. TIME offers a glimpse at how parents in the cosmopolitan capital of one of the world’s most progressive countries treat their children. I know there is no shortage of pieces exploring the wide variety of parenting styles in the world, but this one seems well worth considering.

Don’t push reading. Berlin’s kindergartens or “kitas” don’t emphasize academics. In fact, teachers and other parents discouraged me from teaching my children to read. I was told it was something special the kids learn together when they start grade school. Kindergarten was a time for play and social learning. But even in first grade, academics aren’t pushed very hard. Our grade school provides a half-day of instruction interrupted by two (two!) outdoor recesses. But don’t think this relaxed approach means a poor education: According to a 2012 assessment by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, German 15-year-olds perform well above the international average when it comes to reading, math and science while their more pressured American counterparts lag behind.

Encourage kids to play with fire. A note came home from school along with my excited second grader. They were doing a project on fire. Would I let her light candles and perform experiments with matches? Together we lit candles and burned things, safely. It was brilliant. Still, she was the only kid whose parent didn’t allow her to shoot off heavy duty fireworks on New Year’s Eve.

Let children go almost everywhere alone. Most grade school kids walk without their parents to school and around their neighborhoods. Some even take the subway alone. German parents are concerned about safety, of course, but they usually focus on traffic, not abductions.

The facts seem to be on the Germans’ side. Stranger abductions are extremely rare; there were only 115 a year in all of America, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Justice study. And walking around without parental supervision, or “independent mobility” as the researchers call it, is good for kids.

Party when school starts. One of my Berlin friends once told me that the three biggest life events are Einschulung (starting first grade), Jugendweihe (becoming a young adult) and getting married.

In Berlin, Einschulung is a huge celebration at the school—on a Saturday!—that includes getting a Zuckertute—a giant child-sized cone filled with everything from pencils to watches to candy. Then there’s another party afterwards with your family and friends. Einschulung is something children look forward to for years. It signals a major life change, and hopefully, an enthusiasm for learning.

Jugendweihe happens when a child turns 14. It involves a similar ceremony, party, and gifts, marking the next stage of growing up. With all the negativity heaped on adolescents, there’s something to be said for this way of celebrating young adulthood.

Take the kids outside everyday. According to a German saying “there is no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing”. The value of outside time is promoted in the schools, hence the “garten” in Kindergarten. It’s also obvious on Berlin’s numerous playgrounds. No matter how cold and grey it gets, and in Berlin it gets pretty cold, parents still bundle their kids up and take them to the park, or send them out on their own.

So basically, Berliners cultivate a lot of freedom and independence in their children, while also allowing them to have a lot more unbridled fun in their youth; even their institutions and infrastructure are geared towards this approach. This seems to be the right way to raise a child, especially as it makes the most out of these relatively easy and innocent — and formative — years.

What are your thoughts?

When An Online Friend Dies

As Cracked writer  observes is his brilliant piece, Five Things You Learn When A Facebook Friend Dies, “We’re the first era of humanity that has had to deal with death and the Internet, and grief for the passing of someone you only knew online.”

I recently lost a good Facebook some weeks ago, and it was not my first experience. This article is on point, and I highly recommend you read it. As social media and the Internet as a whole become integrated into our everyday and emotional lives, the issues and feelings described in this piece will be increasingly common. It is important to reflect upon the implications of connecting with someone so distant in some respects, yet so close in many others.

As always, feel free to share your own thoughts and reactions to the article or the topic as a whole. I will have to dedicate another post with my own reflections on the subject later.

Why Can’t Men Cry

Like so many men across generations and cultures, I was made to believe, by both culture and social conditioning that crying in all forms was “unmanly” and something only girls and babies do (which also says a lot about our warped views and expectations towards women). Whether it was inconsolable sobbing or merely shedding a tear, any manifestation of weeping was to be discouraged, ridiculed, or even shamed.

But as Sandra Newman of Aeon writes, this largely unquestioned norm is highly anomalous by historical standards. From the accounts of the Ancient Greeks and the Bible, to Medieval European romances and Japanese epics, men cried on every occasion and circumstance.

Historical and literary evidence suggests that, in the past, not only did men cry in public, but no one saw it as feminine or shameful. In fact, male weeping was regarded as normal in almost every part of the world for most of recorded history.

Still more remarkably, there’s no mention of the men in these stories trying to restrain or hide their tears. No one pretends to have something in his eye. No one makes an excuse to leave the room. They cry in a crowded hall with their heads held high. Nor do their companions make fun of this public blubbing; it’s universally regarded as an admirable expression of feeling.

As a love of history, it used to always surprise me how many powerful male figures — generals, kings, and conquerors — were reported to openly weep without shame or criticism. It was pretty much a given that crying was something all people did, period, and none of the manly men of history were an exception.

So when and why did this change? Well, as with so many other dramatic changes in social and psychological norms, it is not entirely clear, but there is one interesting leading theory. Continue reading

Boston Leads the Way in People-Centered Urban Planning

When it comes to making cities more liveable and efficient, many Americans tend to look abroad for examples, namely to places like Germany, the Netherlands, and Singapore. But it is nice to find a model closer to home, especially since it gives lie to the notion that America’s car-culture poses unique challenges that foreign cities do not face.

As PRI reports, Boston is one of the biggest and most prominent participants a new movement that is sweeping communities of all sizes across the United States. Continue reading

What Countries Fear The Most

Depending on where you live in the world, your foreign policy priorities will vary wildly. That is the conclusion of a 40-nation study conducted by the venerable Pew Research Center, which asked respondents to report their levels of concern about the following international threats: global climate change; global economic instability; ISIS; Iran’s nuclear program; cyberattacks (be it on governments or private institutions); tensions between Russia, its neighbors, and the U.S.; and territorial disputes between China and its neighbors.

Here is a map of the top threats perceived in each country, courtesy of The Atlantic:

Note: Malaysia and Venezuela both cited climate change and economic instability as top concerns.

The following chart breaks down the percentage of respondents that marked each a particular threat, with underlined figures reflecting the second-most pressing concerns.

You can see a more colorful and interactive version of the above chart at The Guardian

Needless to say, these results say a lot about a country’s political, social, and geographic circumstances. It is pretty clear why Ukraine and Poland would rank Russia as their top concern, given both current tensions and a long history of conflict with their larger neighbor. For similar reasons, Israel is most concerned about Iran, and Vietnam has many scruples with China (indeed, tensions between those states have been on and off for millennia).

Moreover, there are several clear regional trends: worries over climate change is strongest in Latin America, Africa, and Asia — in other words, the developing world. In contrast, fear of ISIS is most evident in the developed nations of North America, Western Europe, and Australia, as well as countries in the Middle East.

Somewhat surprisingly, economic instability is a secondary concern in many places, which might reflect the relative stabilization of most countries’ economies. A more cynical interpretation is that people are far more wrapped up in the sensationalism and gripping brutality of terror groups like ISIS than of more far-off and difficult to perceive threats like climate change or the economy.

Cyberattacks remain the least worrying for most citizens of the world, at least for now; things might change as technology because ever-more integrated into everyday day, or once a high-profile and calamitous cyberattack rouses greater attention and concerns.

Though Iran’s nuclear program was only a top threat for Israel, in more than half of the countries surveyed, a third or more respondents identified it as a matter of concern. (Note that this poll was conducted prior to the recent nuclear deal, so there is no telling how that has impacted public opinion.)

It is worth pointing out that this poll was only carried out in 40 of the world’s nearly 200 countries; thus it is more an approximation of collective global opinion. Much of Africa and Asia is left out, though it is safe to say that climate change would remain a top matter of concern, given the pattern among other developing states. (Central Asia would probably be a mixed bag.)

Given that climate change is a far more existential threat than ISIS (at least for any nation not near or involved with interstate tensions), this poll seem to confirm a longstanding psychological observation: as I noted in my statement about economic instability, it is far easier for people to be worried about something they can clearly identify and label as bad, then something that is harder to pinpoint, visualize, and understand. A brutal terrorist group is simpler and more visual than the complex dynamics — and for that matter solutions — regarding economics and climatology.

What are your thoughts?



In Less Than a Century, Humanity Will Number 11 Billion

It is widely known that the world population is growing at a rapid rate. Following over 200,000 years of existence, modern Homo sapiens reached one billion only in the 1800s. But since then, our numbers have increased with unprecedented rapidity, growing more than seven fold.

Courtesy of Wikimedia.

After passing the 7 billion mark in 2012, the world population is projected to hit 8 billion in just a decade. And according to the latest U.N. report, biggest growth spurt in history is yet to come: by 2100, the population is projected to hit more than 11 billion. That is around 6 percent higher than earlier forecasts. Continue reading

Most Young Homeowners Have Rich Parents

Yet another big indication of America’s declining social mobility is the fact that most young people who are financially well-off are simply those already born into stable and prosperous circumstances. As The Atlantic points out, the majority of Millennials who enjoy the rare benefits of homeownership, higher education without crushing debt, or ample savings owe such prosperous standing to their parents and families.

To start with, most of those who continue their education after high school have families that are able to help financially. A recent report from the real-estate research company Zillow looked at Federal Reserve Board data on young adults aged 23-34 and found that of the 46 percent of Millennials who pursued post-secondary education (that’s everything from associates degrees to doctorates), about 61 percent received some financial help with their educational expenses from their parents.

And yet, even with this help, the average student with loans at a four-year college graduates with about $26,000 in student-loan debt. Millennials who are lucky enough to have some, or all, of a college tuition’s burden reduced by their parents have a leg up on peers who are saddled with student debt, and they’ll be able to more quickly move out on their own, and maybe even buy their own house.

To be sure, there is no shame in getting help from one’s family. But it is important to acknowledge one’s fortuitous circumstances, and the contributions of others — from loved ones to society as a whole — that helped make it happen.  Continue reading

We Need More Philosophy in Public Life

In several posts (most recently here) I have advocated for philosophy to play a bigger role in society, policymaking, and public life. Philosophy should be standard part of primary and secondary school curricula, and professional philosophers should be consulted by both public and private sector institutions. Average people should utilize the tools and principles of philosophy, such as free inquiry and rational argumentation, and apply it to a broad range of matter of human concern, from metaphysics to ethics.

Writing for NPR, psychologist Tania Lombrozo similarly argues that philosophy should be a part of national and social issues, with philosophers themselves needing to play a bigger role in the topics, controversies, and concerns going on in the public sphere.

Many questions fall under the purview of philosophy precisely because they’re entangled in values — they’re not only about the science, the realm of the factual. And in the case of climate change, there’s no less at stake than the fate of our species and our planet.

What responsibility do the rich have to the poor when it comes to mitigating the effects of climate change? What responsibility do developed countries have to poor countries? What obligations do we have to future generations? What obligations do we have to other species? Is there intrinsic value to biodiversity?

Answers to these questions will guide policy and politics. Let’s hope we answer them wisely — with the thoughtfulness, care and rigor that characterize the best philosophy.

Like any academic discipline, philosophy has its specialties and subspecialties, its own jargon and insider disputes. I admit: A lot of philosophy can be obscure, at least to the uninitiated. And a lot of philosophers do spend their time in the field’s inner crannies (just like scientists and any other specialists), shielded from the 24-hour news cycle. (Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa, a philosopher writing a book about knowledge and knowledge ascriptions, joked last week in a tweet: “I keep accidentally thinking about the world instead of focusing like I should on the semantics of knowledge ascriptions.”)

To paraphrase Shannon Rupp, there is no aspect of your life that does not benefit from being able to think with clarity. Whether you are a professional philosopher or an enthusiast like myself, there is a lot to gain from applying a philosophical mindset to the pressing social, political, economic, and moral issues of our time. There will certainly be no shortage of arguments, debates, and discussions to be had — at the very least let us imbue them with proper perspective and intentions.