Thursday, January 29, 2015

What Goals Should the World Set for Itself Next?

The Economist has published a useful article on the efforts to set forth new global goals for development for the period following this year.

The United Nations is developing a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs: 17 have been proposed, with 169 associated targets). These replace the Millennium Development Goals, set forth in 2000 with targets for 2015. I personally wonder about the importance of such goals. Did China and India really need the incentive of targets put forth by the United Nations for their great development success over the past 15 years? Why did states fail, and why did some states that did not fail not achieve the stated targets? Still, the agreement about goals, targets and priorities did give many organizations their marching orders -- orders that were taken seriously.

Action/2015 is a coalition of more than 1000 organizations that have agreed to work together to help the world attain the SDGs.

Post-2015 Consensus is a program of economic analysis that has begun to address anew the question of "What are the smartest targets for the post-2015 development agenda?"

The Sustainable Development Solutions Network is still another network, one that worked to help the United Nations Secretariat to develop its Sustainable Development Goals and related indicators and measurements so that goal achievement could be monitored and tested against the defined targets.

More on Comparative Wealth Reports

Source: The Economist
I recently posted on the interpretation of stories on the distribution of global wealth. The Economist magazine has published an article on the same subject, from which I drew the above graphs. Oxfam, a charity, recently published that the world’s wealthiest 1% will soon hold more net wealth than the other 99% put together.
Oxfam’s projection (see left-hand chart) should be treated with caution. The charity uses a straight-line projection of the trend in wealth shares in 2010-14 to forecast that just 50m adults will hold the majority of the world’s household wealth by next year. That is both too simplistic and arbitrary. If Oxfam had based its forecast on the trend in 2000-14, then the crossover point would have been 2035. 
Measuring wealth is in any case problematic. Oxfam’s numbers piggyback on Credit Suisse’s “Global Wealth Report”, published in October, which found that 48% of the world’s $263 trillion in net household wealth (ie, after subtracting debts) is in the hands of the richest 1% of its citizens. The Swiss bank’s report is fairly well-regarded but data on household wealth across the globe are sketchy. And measuring net wealth leads to some very odd outcomes: the owners of the 5.1m underwater homes in America will count among the world’s poorest.
 I have not looked into the Credit Suisse methods, but I would bet that it does not measure human capital -- the investment that has been made in the education, health, and culture of citizens of different nations.

I suspect that it also fails to attribute public capital to households. I live in a home that has concrete sidewalks, a well maintained road in front, good piped potable water, functioning sewerage, electrical power, and fiber optics telecommunications. There is a bus that stops at the corner, and it takes me to a metro with good, fast trains to all parts of the city, which in turn is connected by high speed highways, railroad and airlines to the rest of the country and even the rest of the world.  I live in a community similarly served, and the businesses in which my neighbors work are the beneficiaries of even greater public capital investments allowing those neighbors to earn good incomes.

The Economist correctly points out that other economic indices may be more accurately measured. Of course, one is better informed taking many such indicators into account rather than focusing on a single one.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Public Funding of Education

"Those persons whom nature has endowed with genius and virtue should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens, and … they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth, or other accidental condition or circumstance."
—Thomas Jefferson, A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, 1779
I just read an article about the change in U.S. policy toward the public funding of higher education. The article suggests that a critical date in that change was 1967 when then Governor Ronald Reagan of California assured his constituents he would do nothing to undermine the excellence of the higher education system in California. That promise looks pretty hollow today. I was a beneficiary of the earlier system. I was a full time student in the University of California system from 1955 to 1962 and from 1968 to 1970, and a non-resident student while I worked on thesis and dissertation for several more years; I worked for the system for most of those years as a student; there was no tuition fee when I started, and costs were minimal when I finished. I saved money while a college student!

I do believe that all countries owe their young people a right to education. That right is limited by what a country can afford, in the sense that countries with high per capita GDPs provide more schooling for their people than do countries with low per capita GDPs.

How is the schooling assured? In part they do so by the provision of public schools that provide schooling free or for minimal costs (e.g. supplies). However, countries may allow for private schooling, religiously based schooling, or home schooling, simply imposing the requirements on families that they assure adequate schooling for those that prefer these alternatives to public schools.

Another issue is whether the right to education is a right to attend school for a certain amount of time, a right achieve some level of proficiency, or the right to fully develop some special gift (as the quotation above from Thomas Jefferson would suggest). In the USA we seem to veer among those ideas. We recognize that children develop at different speeds, emphasizing different aspects of development, and make some allowances -- providing specialized schooling to meet some of the special needs of different children. We also provide for a test to allow students to demonstrate proficiency comparable to that of a high school graduate; some secondary school students are allowed (encouraged) to attend university courses.

Countries also invest in education, not only in the assurance that the rights to schooling being provided (which of course yields national benefits in productivity, citizenship, and domestic life), but also investing in the education and training of people for specific roles in the society. As I consider the creation of new nations in Africa, clearly their development was limited by lack of professional engineers, public health physicians, skilled and ethical political leaders, business entrepreneurs, etc. These countries had to invest in the development of adequate cadres of such experts, and that required schooling for the few far beyond "the rights to education" of the majority. In part, the justification for public funding for the education of these folk is that they do not (or at least should not) recapture the cost of their education in remuneration during their careers. The benefits that they provide to society are much greater than those that the professionals should appropriate through their remuneration for their services. If the public benefits from the advanced education of certain people, then it seems only right that the public should invest in their education.

Of course, a problem is just which people should receive what education at public expense. It may be that some philosophers are needed in any country, but if so, how many and which people should be granted public support for the study of philosophy? Somehow it seems that the decision should not be left to teen age students, with the government willing funding as much schooling in French romantic poetry, ancient history, electrical engineering, or nursing as the students freely choose to study. (If parents wish to subsidize any kind of education and have the resources to do so, perhaps that is fine. But there is also a point that the rich are successful in assuring the prosperity of their children by providing them with superior education, but diminishing economic mobility for children of the poor and middle class.)

I wish I had answers, but sometimes it is useful to raise the questions.

Added Comment:

I just read an article about Yitang Zhang, a Chinese American mathematician, and was reminded how much new knowledge we probably lose by not educating potential geniuses around the world to fully achieve their potential. Yitang Zhang in 2014 published a paper making a major advance in number theory, an advance that has been honored by several major prizes. He was 49 at the time, and had only published one significant paper previously.

He had been caught as a child in the political upheavals in China; he and his mother were sent to the countryside as farm workers, separated from his father. His efforts to study mathematics on his own were discouraged by ideologues who believed mathematics was unimportant. He was unable to enter the university until the age of 23, and on graduation was made a part of a team working on an area of math that was of more interest to his professor than to himself. Fortuitously he was recruited to enter graduate school at Purdue in 1985 by a professor visiting China, and managed to obtain his PhD in mathematics there at the end of 1991. However, he could not immediately get an academic job and had to take work in a market. It was not until 1999 that he got a non-tenure track position teaching calculus at the University of New Hampshire.

We were fortunate at several points in his life that his persistence was rewarded by an opportunity to advance his career as a mathematician. Had any of them failed to materialize, he would probably not have been able to continue his mathematical career. The study of large prime numbers, once a field of mathematics that was considered to have no applications, has become important with a number of practical applications.

I am reminded of Ramanujan:
an Indian mathematician and autodidact who, with almost no formal training in pure mathematics, (who) made extraordinary contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series, and continued fractions. Ramanujan initially developed his own mathematical research in isolation...........When his skills became apparent to the wider mathematical community, centered in Europe at the time, he began a famous partnership with the English mathematician G. H. Hardy. He rediscovered previously known theorems in addition to producing new work. Ramanujan was said to be a natural genius, in the same league as mathematicians such as Euler and Gauss.
Ramanujan wrote to Hardy from India presenting him with some of the theorems he had proved in isolation in India, and Hardy was interested enough to follow up, and eventually invited Ramanujan to England. But here too was a man who contributed significantly to global knowledge who might have died unknown and unrecognized but for the insight of one man.

How many more potential geniuses are born today who will never achieve their potential due to lack of opportunity? I suspect that there are many!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

About communication of disease -- Measles

I think some mathematical intuition is helpful if you want to understand communicable disease transmission.

The basic thing to think about is how many people each infected person in turn infects.

  • If the number is less than one, as the infected people get better or die, the number of infected goes down;
  • If the number is exactly one, then as each infected person leaves the pool of those communicating the disease, another replaces him/her; the disease becomes endemic;
  • If the number is greater than one, the number of infectious people (those communicating the disease to others) grows; the disease becomes epidemic.
There is another, actually common situation, in which the number of new infections per infectious person varies over time. When it is greater than one, the number of infected grows; when it is less than one, the number of infected decreases.

The transmission of the disease depends on the contact rate and the portion of the population that is immune to the disease. 
  • The contact rate can change; kids are sometimes in school, with a high contact rate with others with "childhood diseases" and sometimes out of school when that contact rate tends to be less.
  • The immunity in the population can also change; for example, for many communicable diseases, people who have had the disease and recover are then immune.
When an epidemic starts, public health officials seek to stop it by encouraging people to avoid crowds or by immunizing people with vaccines. In a disease like flu, in which the virus is often communicated by contaminating a hand which then carries the virus to the mouth or nose where it can actually infect the person, hand washing can reduce the actual "contact rate".

We know that the current measles epidemic in the USA was started by a foreign visitor to Disneyland. Measles was essentially eliminated from the United States by massive immunization with a long-lasting immunity from a safe vaccine. However, there are parts of the world where it remains a common disease -- either endemic as new generations of vulnerable kids get the disease, or subject to occasional epidemics. Thus, even after the disease has been eradicated once, if the immunity level is allowed to increase, an infected visitor can start a new epidemic.

In the United States some people are now refusing to allow their children to be immunized against measles. Some do so for religious reasons; some for (unjustified) fear of side effects of the vaccine. While the immunity level in the USA as a whole is high enough that we do not need now to fear a measles pandemic, the vulnerable kids tend to live in the same small communities. One measles is introduced into such a community it may experience a local epidemic of the disease. For an infected child, measles can be a very serious disease!

And of course, a family traveling from a measles free country to one where measles is common, exposes itself to the disease. If that family's children are not immunized, the family is asking for heartbreak!

People who have been infected with HIV tend to live a long time with the infection; indeed, life expectancy of an infected person has increased greatly since effective drugs were developed to help fight the disease.

The curve above shows a rapid increase in the number of infected adults (the prevalence of HIV infection in adults) by continent. That number was increasing rapidly in the 1990s; the rate of increase trailed off in the following decade as public health efforts became more effective.

Canada: Number of New Infections Per Year (estimates)
The Canadian data shows how public health measures dramatically reduced the spread of infections in that country among men who had sex with men (MSM) in the 1980s. The rise in infection among intravenous drug users (IDU) was interrupted in the 1980s. The MSM incidence rebounded in the 2000s; the IDU incidence remained more or less constant during that period.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

What do those comparative wealth news reports really mean.

Credit Suisse's Research department regularly publishes a report on world wealth. (Here is the website of the one for 2014.)
Credit Suisse's 2014 Global Wealth Report reveals a rise of 20.1 trillion US dollars in world wealth in the past year, bringing total wealth to 263 trillion. The United States has seen particularly strong wealth creation, where financial crisis losses were trumped in a single year. Watch the video to find out more.
This is the source for news reports, such as:

Of course, the basic point is clear -- lots of people are poor and some people are very poor. However, the specific meaning is often lost for the sake of a headline.

It is often a very good idea to borrow money. It is a good idea if you can invest that borrowed money in a way to earn enough to pay it back, pay the interest, and take a good profit on the transaction. The people who borrow in this way tend to be those whose capital is greater than their debt -- who have a positive net worth.

On the other hand, debt bondage is a huge burden for many of the world's poor; these are the folk who are in debt and spend years or their whole lives scrimping from their tiny earnings to try to avoid falling deeper into debt. The people who borrow this way tend to have more debt than capital -- who have negative net worth.

Think about listing all the people in the world in increasing order of net worth, starting with those with the most negative net worth. If you were to sum down the list accumulating a cumulative value, that cumulative value would become more and more negative until you finally got to those with zero net worth; you would have to go considerably further -- summing as you went -- before the cumulative value would reach zero. Thus a large portion of the people on earth taken together own no more than they owe.  This is the fact behind the headlines.

A relatively few extremely rich people -- Bill Gates, Carlos Slim and their peers in affluence -- have net worth in the tens of billions of dollars. You have to go a long way down the list described in the previous paragraph to get a sum of net worth equal to the net worth of the richest 80.

There are more than 7 billion people on earth. Thus the one percent includes 70 million. If you look at the total net worth of the 70 million people who have the greatest net worth, that is a huge sum. It is sometimes estimated to equal the total net worth of the other 99 percent of the earth's people.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Measles cases needlessly increasing in the USA

Measles is a deadly disease.

A child can be immunized against measles by a vaccine. The vaccine is safe.

People who deny the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, and thus fail to have their children immunized tend to cluster in the same communities.

If one child in such a community comes down with measles, it is much more likely that that child will infect others than if a child in a community with high levels of protection gets the measles.

I think children deserve protection against bad decisions by their parents, but they especially deserve protection against bad decisions by others (such as the parents of other children in their schools or churches).