Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

January 18, 2005

Quality — and Quantity — of Life

Filed under: — Different River @ 6:53 pm

It’s been the conventional wisdom for years that in the last half-century, there has been phenomenal economic growth in most countries, but the overall level of “inequality” between countries has not changed much. That is, even though the poor countries are getting richer, the rich countries are also getting richer, so that on average the rich countries are richer than the poor countries by about as much as they’ve been for a while. (The same countries aren’t all in the same “rich” or “poor” categories as before; this is for a comparison of “countries that are rich and poor now” compared to “countries that are rich and poor then” — but that’s another topic.)

Now mostly this sort of thing is measured by gross domestic product (GDP) per capita — that is, the total output of all goods and services per year in each country, divided by the total population of that country. Most people think this is a fairly good measure of the standard of living in any given country, probably because they were told so in their first economics class, or even earlier in life. This is true even though anyopne who was paying attention in economics class knows that there are all sorts of problems with measuring GDP, especially over long time periods and across countries with different types of economies. The main problem, really, is that there isn’t a really good alternative measure.

Unless you are creative. In a recent paper, Gary Becker, Tomas Philipson, and Rodrigo Soares make the obvious (now that they mention it!) point that what matters in determining the total quality of your life is not just how well you live each year of your life, but how many years you get to live. In other words, it’s not just “quality of life” that counts, it’s “quantity of life,” too.
(You know, given how much effort we all put into living longer (as well as better), it’s really surprising nobody seems to have thought of this before — but this is why Gary Becker has a Nobel Prize and most of the rest of us don’t.)

It turns out, when you take into account the increase in longevity, there actually has been a decrease in inequality between rich and poor countries over the last four decades. Much of this is due to the fact that longevity gains have been much larger in poor countries than in rich countries. In short, there has been a huge decrease in longevity inequality, and if this is properly included as part of the measure of economic well-being, there has been a decrease in economic inequality as well.

The paper is here, and the abstract is here:

GDP per capita is usually used to proxy for the quality of life of individuals living in different countries. However, welfare is also affected by quantity of life, as represented by longevity. This paper incorporates longevity into an overall assessment of the evolution of cross-country inequality, and shows that it is quantitatively important. The absence of reduction in cross-country inequality up to 1990’s noticed in previous work is in stark contrast with the reduction in inequality after incorporating gains in longevity. Throughout the post-war period, health contributed to significantly reduce welfare inequality across countries. The paper derives valuation formulas for infra-marginal changes in longevity and computes a “full” growth rate that incorporates the gains in health experienced by 96 countries for the period between 1960 and 2000. Incorporating longevity gains changes traditional results; countries starting with lower income tended to grow faster than countries starting with higher income. We estimate an average yearly growth in “full-income” of 4.1 percent for the poorest 50% countries in 1960, of which 1.7 percentage points are due to health, as opposed to a growth of 2.6 percent for the richest 50% countries, of which only 0.4 percentage points are due to health. Additionally, we decompose changes in life expectancy into changes attributable to thirteen broad groups of causes of death and three age groups. We show that mortality from infectious, respiratory and digestive diseases, congenital, perinatal, and “ill-defined” conditions, mostly concentrated before age 20 and between ages 20 and 50, is responsible for most of the reduction in life expectancy inequality. At the same time, the recent effect of AIDS, together with reductions in mortality after age 50 – due to nervous system, senses organs, heart and circulatory diseases – contributed to increase health inequality across countries.

N.B. Gary Becker writes half of The Becker-Posner Blog.

Hunger in America

Filed under: — Different River @ 2:48 pm

Jane Galt debunks the latest hunger numbers, which, if taken seriously, would imply that there is substantial overlap between the portion of the poor population that’s obese and the portion that of the poor population that can’t afford enough food to survive.

One of the truly amazing facts of everyday life in America today is that we are one of the few societies in the history of the world in which there are poor people who are fat. Typically, “poor” has meant “can’t afford enough to eat.” In Leo Rosten and Leonard Ross’ 1937 novel set in the early 20th-century, The Education of Hyman Kaplan, the title character, a student in an English-for-immigrants class, is asked what word is the opposite of “rich.” He responds, “skinny.” This is meant as an error, but an understandable one — in 1910, or for that matter in 1937, only the rich could afford enough food to become fat.

When I point this out to people, the most common response is, “Well yes, poor people are fat because they eat at McDonald’s, and all that meat is fattening.” Well yes, that’s the point — in times past, and in other countries, the poor can’t afford to eat meat, not in enough quantities to get fat, anyway. When the first McDonalds’ opened in Moscow in 1990, a burger cost the average worker two days’ wages. That’s an “average” worker, not a “poor” worker. In the Soviet Union, even aveage workers couldn’t afford to get fat at McDonald’s.

Dinesh D’Souza links the Soviet perception of America to that of a would-be immigrant from Bombay:

Indeed, newcomers to the United States are struck by the amenities enjoyed by “poor” people. This fact was dramatized in the 1980s when CBS television broadcast a documentary, “People Like Us,” intended to show the miseries of the poor during an ongoing recession. The Soviet Union also broadcast the documentary, with a view to embarrassing the Reagan administration. But by the testimony of former Soviet leaders, it had the opposite effect. Ordinary people across the Soviet Union saw that the poorest Americans have TV sets, microwave ovens and cars. They arrived at the same perception that I witnessed in an acquaintance of mine from Bombay who has been unsuccessfully trying to move to the United States. I asked him, “Why are you so eager to come to America?” He replied, “I really want to live in a country where the poor people are fat.”

(Emphasis added.) (I believe this story is retold in D’Souza’s book, What’s So Great About America?)

The fact is, in America, most people going to bed hungry do so because they are on a diet. Been there, done that.


Sidenote: I experienced a very nice blogger-moment when I realized that I’d been meaning for the last two weeks (that’s an eternity in blog-years!) to link to the above post by Jane Galt, with whom I’ve had no prior contact, when I realized she’d just linked to my Medicare post and sent me a torrent of readers. Thanks, Jane, and welcome to Jane’s readers!

Reality, or The Onion? #3: Requirement for High School Graduates

Filed under: — Different River @ 8:51 am

I’d have thought this was a put-on, or from the The Onion, but it’s from the Mainstream Media, so it must be true, right?

According to this article in the Connecticut Post, the school board in Milford, Connecticut has decided that starting in 2009, high school students will be required to know how to read in order to graduate.

Glad to know they have some standards there…

The article also says that the school board’s decision “allows Associate Supt. of Learning Larry Schaefer to form a task force that will explore how the new standard could be implemented at Jonathan Law and Foran high schools. The group will be comprised of city educators.”

“Associate Supt. of Learning”? What are all the other “Supts.” in charge of? Forgetting?

“[T]o form a task force that will explore how the new standard could be implemented”? I have an idea: teach students to read!

“The group will be comprised of city educators.” Oh — is that the problem?

(Hat tip: James Taranto.)

One Right at a Time

Filed under: — Different River @ 8:51 am

Delegate Mamye E. BaCote (D-95) has introduced a bill (HB1785) in the Virginia House of Delegates that would allow localities to ban possession of firearms in public libraries.

I guess this means she thinks citizens should be able to exercise their First Amendment rights (freedom of the press) or their Second Amendment rights (to keep and bear arms) — just not both at the same time.

UPDATE (1/23/05): This bill has been “passed by indefinitely,” that is, defeated in committee, by a vote of 18-2.

Grand Rounds XVII

Filed under: — Different River @ 12:24 am

Thanks to Waking Up Costs for including my post on Medicare in this week’s Grand Rounds, the weekly roundup of medical blogs coordinated by Blogborygmi.

And, welcome to all of you who got there from here! :-)

Dr. King and the Iranian Refugee

Filed under: — Different River @ 12:07 am

For many reasons, we should stop regarding Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and an exclusively African-American holiday. Here’s another example why.

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