Thursday, September 30, 2010

Guest Post: America's One-Child Policy?

The following is a guest post by Brian Hollar. He is enrolled in a joint J.D. and Ph.D. in economics program at George Mason University. Check out his blog, Thinking on the Margin, where he writes on a variety of topics, including, economics, photography, travel, and surviving (or not) grad school. 

A very interesting article by Jonathan Last has a fascinating overview of population trends going on in the US and elsewhere around the world. While it gives some rather ridiculous policy prescriptions (more roads = more babies?) and overstates the comparison of changes in American birthrates to China's One-Child Policy, it is still very much worth a read.

Here are a few thoughts in response to the article:

I am highly skeptical of the government being able to incentivize people to have more kids and wary of attempts to do so. (Look to China's ticking demographic time-bomb for an example of government trying to force a population structure to move in a certain direction.)  Many of the trends mentioned in this article are simply the expected result of increased prosperity, reliable birth control, and enhanced economic opportunity for women. I doubt any of these factors will change in the near-future. What this likely means for population, absent other exogenous forces coming into play, is slower growth and probable shrinkage. What this means for society, culture, and the economy is much less clear.

The forces reducing average birthrates affect religious people in the same way it affects the general population. There are still higher birthrates among weekly church attenders than there are in the general population, but that gap is shrinking as time progresses.  According to data from the General Social Survey from 2006, it looks like American women ages 30-44 are now having 1.90 kids on average. The numbers go up to 2.08 for weekly church attenders and down to 1.81 for lower-rate (and non) church attenders. Those numbers shift to 2.24 for weekly church attenders and 2.02 for lower-rate attenders when you control for women who have been married.  This gives an overall birthrate of 2.10 kids per woman age 30-44 who has been married at some point in her life.

Divorce and non-marriage certainly seem to contribute to the birthrate trends, both influencing and being influenced by all of the factors listed above and many others.  If marriage continues to become less common among younger women, birthrates will continue to drop.  What this means for the future of America (and the world) is much less certain.

Related Reading:

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What Courses Should You Take?

In a September 4, 2010 editorial for the New York Times, Harvard economist Greg Mankiw answers this question: what courses should students take to best prepare them for life in today's world? His answer is economics, statistics, finance, and psychology.

I strongly agree with his first two suggestions. In today's world, we receive copious amounts of information in the form of statistics, such as information about the environment, elections, and your health. On the whole, however, we have low levels of understanding of statistics. You would be much better at understanding all the statistical information you get if you took a basic statistics course while in college.

Economics is also a good choice for the analytical tools it provides. Learning to view the world through the lens of economics is good training for your mind. Plus, it will help you better understand economists when you hear them debating important issues of the day, such as debates over economic stimulus and tax cuts.

Psychology was an interesting choice for an economist. But, I like Mankiw's explanation:
For many purposes, [economics] is useful. But it is only one way to view human behavior. A bit of psychology is a useful antidote to an excess of classical economics. It reveals flaws in human rationality, including your own.
You may be wondering why I haven't suggested that you take the class that I have taught the most--US Government & Politics. I do think you should take that course, but not for your personal benefit--for society's benefit. Since we live under a political system that requires the participation of its citizens, everyone benefits when our citizens are well educated and have a firm understanding of our government and politics.

What courses do you think best prepare students for life in today's world?

Read all of Mankiw's editorial here.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Dove World Outreach and the Media, Part 2

In my previous post, I questioned whether the media should be covering the Dove World Outreach Quran burning story. Some other news outlets have picked up on this question as well. Here are two examples.

Melinda Henneberger hosted a video discussion of the question at Politics Daily. In the discussion, Walter Shapiro says,
I really wish there were a gatekeepers. I really wish there were some way to say there are things that aren't news and they should be ignored. I would've gambled on this one. I would not have covered it...   
Watch the whole video here.

Brooke Gladstone, discussing journalist's behavior in this story for NPR, writes,

We love crazies — they pull in audiences like a tractor beam. Even the mildly aberrant — say, a runaway bride — can dominate news cycles for days. But there was much more to the story of Pastor Jones. He is the fun-house mirror reflection of a certain segment of Americans. To politicians accused of racism or intolerance, he provided cover — “we would never do that.” To the world outside, he offered confirmation of what they believed they already knew.
The problem for journalists was that in this political season, the story grew like a snowball rolling down a hill, and we have to take some responsibility for pushing it. The media, awash in controversy over the so-called ground zero mosque, smelled a pungent parable in the pastor’s tale.
Check out more thoughts on the topic at the New York Times' Room for Debate blog.


Also, check out:

Michael Gerson, "The Internet: Enabling Pastor Terry Jones and crazies everywhere." Washington Post, September 14, 2010.
He writes:
Responses to the Jones threat were understandable at every stage -- understandable for a competitive media to cover, for a concerned general to confront, for a president to clarify America's commitment to tolerance. But overall, the reaction was a terrible mistake. The idea that an unbalanced pastor with an Internet connection and a poster can cause our nation's highest military and civilian leaders to respond is an invitation to global crackpotocracy -- rule by the most creative and outrageous lunatics.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Dove World Outreach's Quran Burning: Why is this news?

Dove World Outreach has received much attention around the world for its plans to commemorate the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks by burning a copy of the Quran. One question that should be asked during this controversy is, why is this news? Dove World Outreach has only 50 members and, as far as I can tell from its website, is not part of a larger Christian denomination. There are no other churches in Gainesville supporting the protest, so it does not represent the larger community. Any given week, I'm sure that the media could find some fringe group somewhere doing something out of the ordinary. Why report on this one? Why does the media think this event is significant enough that the public, outside Gainesville, FL, needs to know about it?

This controversy is emblematic of a common characteristic of the news media. The media prefers to report stories as part of a narrative, or story line. Generally, it is not sufficient to simply report on the facts of significant news stories. The media tries to place news in the context of some ongoing story. This is especially true when the media reports on polling data and elections returns. For the media, the Dove World Outreach controversy fits into a narrative of anti-Muslim bigotry, which the media started reporting on with the "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy. In my view, therefore, the Dove World controversy would not have been reported on if it had not been preceded by the "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy.

I understand the need to present news in interesting ways when the media is a for-profit business, but the media also needs to show some responsibility in how it reports this story as well. General David Petraeus has warned that Dove World Outreach's actions could put troops in danger by inciting violence among Muslims. The media could counter the negative image presented by Dove World Outreach by reporting on the events planned by Gainesville residents to protest the Quran burning. According to the Gainesville Sun, there are at least two events planned by Gainesville religious groups and community leaders, including an interfaith "Gathering for Peace, Understanding and Hope" at Trinity United Methodist Church, which will likely have far more participants than Dove World Outreach's protest. Will the media report on these events as well?

Update: The New York Times published a story about the counter-protests