Finer Pearly Whites!

Yes, even dental health has improved markedly in recent decades. Check out this chart from WHO:

Cavity Data

 

Note that none of the developed countries on the chart averaged fewer than two “Decayed, Missing or Filled Teeth” (DMFT) for twelve year olds in 1980. It’s amazing that kids in Japan, New Zealand, Italy and Iceland averaged five or more DMFTs 30 years ago! Also note the amazing convergence of all these countries between one and two DMFTs in the 2000s.

What’s true for teeth is true for most other things: bad stuff is in major decline!

2014: Bad Headlines, Good News

Ebola, ISIS, school shootings. Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Ukraine and Russia, Israel and Hamas. It’s been a bad year for many.

Nonetheless, life slowly gets better for most of us.

I’ll just make a passing remark about the US economy. Even in times of recession Americans have a quality of life that is better than that of kings 100 years ago, so the improving US economy and record highs for the Dow are just blips in the big picture.

The Ebola outbreak was tragic. Nonetheless, there were positive glimmers, especially Nigeria’s coordinated response. And overblown fears of a pandemic proved ludicrous.

People bemoan the state of Palestine-Israel relations, but few see recent times in the larger historical context. Before Camp David there were major wars in ’48, ’56, ’67 and ’73. Since then there have been missiles and terrorists, incursions and intifadas, but no all-out wars. The conflict seems intractable, but its scope continues to shrink.

Russia, such a nuisance through much of 2014, now seems a paper bear with gas prices and the Rouble tumbling.

The opening of Cuba bodes well. Communism, like mold, thrives in closed spaces. The feeble Castros can only hold on for so long.

ISIS’s luck is running out, especial as air strikes continue to weaken its infrastructure and the Iraq government shows some modicum of competence post-Maliki.

Tragedy will continue in Syria, and Venezuela looks ripe for some kind of change.

Alas, I’m starting to predict. “Mortals predict and the gods laugh.”

Obama has been criticized (often rightly) for his leadership, but his assessment of 2014 is spot on (if a bit awkwardly phrased): “We solved problems. Ebola is a real crisis. You get a mistake in the first case because it’s not something that’s been seen before. We fix it. You have some unaccompanied children who spike at a border. And it may not get fixed in the time frame of the news cycle, but it gets fixed. And…as we reflect on the new year — this should generate . . . some confidence. America knows how to solve problems.” (quoted from The Washington Post)

Despite cops and black men being unjustly shot, America and the world are actually getting safer. And richer, freer, more equal, more democratic, more literate, longer lived, better educated and healthier.

Here’s to an even better 2015.

Fear Mongers in High Places

In February 2012 Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared, “I can’t impress upon you [enough] that in my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now.”

One year later, he upped the ante: “I will personally attest to the fact that [the world is] more dangerous than it has ever been.” But General Dempsey is hardly alone. Dire warnings about our uniquely dangerous world are ubiquitous. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified in early 2014 that he had “not experienced a time when we’ve been beset by more crises and threats around the globe.”

Members of Congress agree. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), born before World War II, explained in July 2014 that the world is “in greater turmoil than at any time in my lifetime.”

This lead to a Cato Institute article by Christopher A. Preble points out how leaders at the highest levels of American government are making statements about international security that directly contradict what data set after data set make clear: We live in the safest times in history.

Despite what the incessant barrage of bad news may portray, war, civil wars, armed conflicts, murder and violent crime are down nearly everywhere. Terrorism is less deadly today than it was before 9/11. There has been a recent uptick in war-related violence, because of Syria and ISIS, but these numbers don’t come close to negating the gains since WWII and, especially, the 90s and aughties.

I can only hope that Dempsey, Clapper and McCain were exaggerating for political effect. My deeper fear is that these men really do think we live in more dangerous times. If they don’t understand the forces that have caused this historically unprecedented peace–Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature gives an excellent explanation of the causes–then will they not build on this success?

Our leaders must understand reality–and our reality looks very good in many ways–but statements from Dempsey, Clapper and McCain make me fear for our gains and progress.

Millions of Children’s Lives, Simple Solutions

“In the category of stunning, heartening, woefully underreported good news: In 2000, an estimated 9.9 million children around the world died before age 5. In 2013, the figure was 6.3 million. That is 3.6 million fewer deaths, even as the world’s population increased by about 1 billion.”

This stat, from Michael Gerson’s article in the Washington Post, reflects the continuing avalanche of positive health trends of the last few decades. Gerson gives a shout out to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, an organization that supports vaccinations for some 60% of the world’s children. Gavi does what government programs try but usually fail to deliver–a successful program with low overhead that shuts down when the job is done. Gavi tapers off its subsidization of vaccines over time as local vaccination infrastructure scales up.

We all know how deep and detailed the reporting of the Ebola crisis was. (Now that it’s getting under control we hear much less.) But this much more important story–think of the thousands of children saved from death for every Ebola death–yet stories about vaccinations saving millions never make it to the front page.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/michael-gerson-a-global-conspiracy-of-health/2014/12/18/dc79da7c-86f9-11e4-9534-f79a23c40e6c_story.html#b12g22t20w14

Inequality: What’s Goin’ On?

Income inequality, especially in the United States, has been a hot topic. It seemed to peak with the publication this year of Thomas Pinkatty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The upshot? Income inequality has gotten worse.

But it’s not that simple. If you look at the big picture, inequality has decreased.

Hans Rosling, a prominent Swedish statistician and TED Talk regular, paints a different picture in this Tweet*:

Hans Rosling Inequality

In the past 4o years world income distribution has transitioned from a bimodal distribution (two humps) to a normal distribution (a “bell curve”). In the 1973 histogram the high peak to the left represents the disproportionately high rates of world poverty.  The peak to the right means that a disproportionately large amount of wealth was held by the wealthiest. Note the gap–the trough–between rich and poor. That’s a statistical representation of inequality.

In the past 40 years the distribution has migrated toward the center, which represents the meteoric “rise of the rest,” especially China and India, and the unprecedented expansion of the world middle class.

Income inequality in the United States is a problem. I’m for unpopular measures, like taxing inheritance much more because, with some exceptions such as family businesses, inheritance is a massive transition of unearned wealth from the privileged to the privileged. Let’s spend that money on education. Our government’s priorities are dominated by untouchables like Medicare and Social Security–investment in those who no longer earn money–instead of education and poverty reduction, which are real investments that pay off in years to come. I’m an optimist about most things, but I’m not optimistic that there will be a “future focus” shift where we choose invest in tomorrow’s workers and the poor instead of the retired.

*This link takes you to the study from which Rosling bases his ideas: https://ideas.repec.org/p/ucg/wpaper/0001.html

Of Peshawar and Picture Shows

Two stories have dominated the news in the last 48 hours, one tragic, the other pathetic.

The tragedy is of course the massacre of more than a hundred children in a Pakistan school. This, though a new low for the Pakistani Taliban, is not novel. Only the scale shocks anew.

The pathetic one centers on The Interview, Sony’s action comedy movie that just got scrapped because of threats from North Korea’s crypto-anachro Communist state.

What can anyone say to fully describe the deep misanthropy of the Taliban? Kill hundreds of children as a matter of policy?

And how insecure can Kim Jong-un be if he’s worried about a Seth Rogan adventure comedy?

The slimmest of silver linings in all of this Tarantino-meets-Kubrick surrealism is that “this is the enemy.”  It is utterly awful that the Pakistani Taliban murder hundreds of children every year. And North Korean hacking and terrorism threats are small potatoes compared with what Kim Jong-un and his minions do to North Koreans.

It is nonetheless clear that “this is not a winning policy.” There will be no groundswell of support in the wake of these actions. Communism and fascism had more appeal; one promised equity and the other unity. The Taliban and the North Korean government offer nothing. We know that they are doomed. The scary question is “How many innocents will die before they’re done?”

More and More Little Wins

Since I read Nudge by Richard Thaler a few years back, I’ve been happily surprised how quickly the idea of “nudges” is spreading around the world. In a recent New York Times piece, David Brooks catalogues many successful nudges, notably in places like Kenya and Zambia. David Cameron is a noted supporter of using the gleanings of behavior economics to get citizens in the UK to “do good by default.”

The way nudges work is that governments and organizations set up “decision architecture” such that the default option–or an easy option–has a socially beneficial outcome. A well known nudge is making the default option in organ donation “yes.” (In the past the default option was nearly always “no organ donation.”) A more whimsical one is to put some kind of target–say a picture of a fly or seashell–inside men’s urinals to induce them to aim better.

The most important findings of behavioral economics are that humans often do not make rational decisions…but they’re predictably irrational (in the words of scholar Daniel Ariely).  Scientists like Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnemann pioneered studies that showed subtle biases and decision-making “errors” that humans make in some situations. That said, just as we are sometimes led astray, we can use behavioral economics to unconsciously guide people to make prosocial decisions while allowing individuals freedom and control to make decisions.

Brooks’ examples from Africa were most intriguing to me:

“Too many people die in auto accidents. When governments try to reduce highway deaths, they generally increase safety regulations. But, also in Kenya, stickers were placed inside buses and vans urging passengers to scream at automobile drivers they saw driving dangerously.”

“In Zambia, hairdressers were asked to sell female condoms to their clients. Some were offered financial incentives to do so, but these produced no results. In other salons, top condom sellers had a gold star placed next to their names on a poster that all could see. More than twice as many condoms were sold. This simple change was based on an understanding of the human desire for status and admiration.”

Now these behavioral economics inspired nudges are not going to end malaria or cure cancer, but this kind of clever policy making can have an impact. Nudges like these can get well-meaning programs–like the female condom scheme in Zambia–to perform better. And while I don’t think that a sticker encouraging Americans to yell at drivers would work in our culture, I do like how the Kenya government encouraged its citizens not to stand for dangerous behavior. At their best, nudges get people to make small, prosocial decisions at the grassroots level. Like the improvements in life that this blog chronicles, nudges bubble up from the bottom and make the world a better place.