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March 31, 2004

More Stuff

Fans of NEW's 1997 book Stuff (NEW's all-time bestseller) may enjoy Worldwatch's knock-off: Good Stuff.

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The China Syndrome

I often hear northwesterners say things like, "Well, unless China gets onboard [about climate change, endangered species, or whatever global environmental issue is in discussion], what we do here won't really matter." It's becoming conventional wisdom that China is now the biggest factor in the global equation. Like most myths, this one has a truth at its center. But it's also, well, a convenient rationalization for inaction--a point that came to mind when reading State of the World 2004 recently. I noticed that, sometime in the last five years, China appears to have overtaken Cascadia in the number of private cars. That’s impressive until you realize that the Chinese outnumber us northwesterners 84 times over.

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March 30, 2004

Withering Heights

More evidence that health in the United States is lagging behind other industrial nations.

Burkhard Bilger in the New Yorker looks at the growing height disparities between the U.S. and Europe. Even after controlling for immigration and race, increases in height in America have flattened out: American children today can expect to grow to be about as tall as their parents. But elsewhere in the industrialized world, heights are still on the rise.

If height were the only issue here, this wouldn't be particularly interesting. But as it turns out, average height is a great indicator of the overall health of a population. Like life expectancy, it's an objective measure of health outcomes, not a measure of inputs (such as total spending on health care--in which the U.S. is by far the world leader). Height is a particularly sensitive indicator for children's health, since disease and poor nutrition early in life can permanently stunt growth.

And contrary to intuition, most of the height difference among different nations or populations is due to health and nutrition, not genetics. Yes, tall parents do tend to have tall kids, but different populations don't differ that much in height; as Bilger puts it, "If Joe is taller than Jack, it’s probably because his parents are taller. But if the average Norwegian is taller than the average Nigerian it’s because Norwegians live healthier lives."

So what to make of the poor performance of the U.S. in comparison with other countries? It's actually consistent with other health data. A century ago, U.S. residents were probably the healthiest in the world. Today, the U.S. ranks about 26th in life expectancy, behind all industrial democracies but the Danes, behind Costa Rica and Cyprus, and just a bit ahead of Cuba. (One local example: British Columbians live two years longer than US northwesterners, and the gap is growing.) Deciphering the causes of the relative decline is no easy task. But the data certainly suggests that high GDP, or massive spending on health care, are no guarantees of a healthy society.

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Birth of a Notion

Dalton Conley, a sociologist at NYU, argues against child-tax credits for large families in his book The Pecking Order and a column on Slate. His reasoning is interesting -- beyond two kids, the middle children start to suffer from the shortage of parents' time and money--though his chances of political success are scant, as he notes. I've yet to read his book, but I have seen plenty of evidence over the years that large broods are at least mildly disadvantageous for kids, all else being equal, despite the mythology of "big, happy families."

Still, large broods are already quite rare nowadays. Since the peak of the baby boom average family size has fallen by half. Typical women have 1.8 children apiece over their lifetimes in the Northwest. In BC, the figure is currently under 1.4. Three-child families are still relatively commonplace, but four- and more-child families are rare.

And tax policy makes surprisingly little difference to how many children women choose to have. I have a justifiable reputation for wanting to change the tax system to help solve all manner of problems, but I'm skeptical about this idea. Poorer, less-educated women tend to have more children than richer, better-educated women. So per-child tax breaks are a progressive tax policy. Furthermore, poorer, less-educated women plan far fewer of their pregnancies than do richer, better-educated women. The point: accidents, not tax planning, boost family size.

The better leverage point on family size is not tax policy but reproductive health services and education: More than one third of births in the Northwest still result from unintended pregnancies, and the figure is above 80 percent for teen births.

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The Wedding Planner

President Bush’s plans to promote marriage, especially among poor young Americans, is likely doomed to failure, according to this article in the sociology journal Social Problems. (Thanks to PRB for the link.) Helping unmarried women to avoid unplanned pregnancies turns out to be a better way to promote marriage. Once they become mothers, unwed women have a dramatically lower chance of getting married, according to Isabell Sawhill of the Brookings Institution. Promoting marriage is a good idea, because declining marriage rates are a major cause of worsening child poverty rates in the United States, according to Sawhill.

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