Wednesday Briefs – 4 August 2021

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THIS WEEK: Life Expectancy; What is a Right; Zoning.


According to the World Bank, worldwide life expectancy has grown from 52.6 years in 1960 to 72.7 years in 2019. Nearly all countries showed some progress during this period with the richer countries achieving the highest life spans. San Marino, Hong Kong, Japan and Switzerland rank highest with 84-85 years of life expected at birth. At the other extreme, the Central African Republic, Chad and Nigeria1 have the lowest life expectancy at 53, 54 and 55 years. Generally, the lowest figures are in sub-Saharan Africa. Botswana and Rwanda are highest in this group and appear on the right track at 70 and 69 years.

In the United States, life expectatncy at birth is 79 years, a few years behind European countries. Life expectancy in all countries is higher among women (see chart) because of their biological makeup and because men on average engage in riskier occupations and activities. In the US, it is also higher among American whites (78 years) than among African-Americans (75 years). Hispanic Americans fare relatively well at 81 years. See this 2020 US Census report.

South Korea has expectancy of 83 years vs. North Korea that alleges 72 years. China is at 77 and has nearly closed the gap with the United States. Hong Kong and Macao are at 85 and 84.

Life expectancy is projected to continue rising in future years. During the 20th century, advances in medicine, vaccines and pharmaceuticals (surgery, antibiotics, penicillin etc.) resulted in a near doubling of life spans. In the 21st century, further gains against cardiovascular disease and against cancer would add many more years to the average life.

1. Figures are not uniformly reliable. In countries that suffer from poor data collection, they may be publicized too high as markers for good governance. Or they may be set too low to encourage more outside aid.


There are words with fixed definitions, for example chair, table etc. And there are words with abstract meanings that can be exaggerated or distorted. The latter are the playing field of wordsmiths, philosophers, sorcerers, mystics and of course the combination of all four, politicians. The word “right” as in human right or civil right is one such word. Everyone agrees that a right is a good thing when it is legitimate as for example the rights to life or liberty.

Because rights are universally wanted, the word has become politicized and is ubiquitous in the airing of various grievances or in the promotion of fringe policies. For example, candidate Obama argued during the 2008 campaign that health care is a right. And now, in the midst of debate about eviction moratoria, an argument is being made that housing is a right, or even a human right. There is also, coming from those who advocate cancelling student debt, a notion that free higher education is a right.

Whether these things (health care, housing, higher education) should be paid privately by each household or whether they should be paid collectively through the state is for politicians to sort out with a mindful eye on the impact of each on incentives. What incentives and ramifications, good and bad, are created if health care, low-cost housing and higher education are largely provided by the government through taxes or through more debt?

Outside of politics, abstract words are important and have an impact beyond their immediate every day usage. Changing the meaning of an abstract word, especially one that is politically charged, has consequences that transcend the glib convenience of the moment. Until recently, a right was understood to be something innate and unalienable, as for example in the Declaration of Independence the rights “endowed by [our] creator”. Until recently, a right was not considered as something that a government could endow or confiscate.

Reverting to the original meaning, a right is something that is innate and that cannot be a claim on the work of another. In this meaning, life, liberty, the other rights in the Constitution, civil rights etc. can all be enjoyed without taxing the collective or making a claim on the work of others. A right then is universal and does not require the consent of others. By contrast, a gain in welfare that requires the consent of another or that involves coercion from another is not a right; it is a tax clamoring for respect.


There are zoning rules in most places in America that dictate what you can build and at what location. This is to some extent an infringement on your freedom to use your land in any way you choose. But most communities have determined that zoning is desirable in some form. You would not want a garish neon-clad casino next door to your house in suburbia. Nor would you want a tall glass structure in the midst of a historic old town.

It does not follow however that everything is well with zoning. There is among others the charge that some zoning is exclusionary in the sense that it keeps lower income households out of desirable towns or suburbs. For example, zoning a suburb for a minimum of three acres per lot ensures that only people with a certain income can live in that suburb. The consequences of exclusionary zoning are many, not least that the best schools which are usually in the richest suburbs are off limits to poorer people. Richard V. Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, explains in his book Dream Hoarders that exclusionary zoning helps the top 20% of earners cement their socio-economic advantage not just in the present but over several generations.

Now, the city of Portland Oregon has made an effort to mitigate this type of zoning and has passed new rules that allow for the construction of multi-family housing in nearly all parts of the city. Multi-family housing is seen as more inclusive because it allows poorer people who cannot afford single family homes to live in the same area. This is an experiment that bears watching, even if change is likely to be slow per this study from Sightline Institute.

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Wednesday Briefs – 21 April 2021

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THIS WEEK: The Billionaires’ Skyline; Troop Movements in Ukraine and Afghanistan; Immunity and Secrecy.

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Wednesday Briefs – 14 April 2021

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THIS WEEK: Most People are Very Smart; Back to the Border; Podcast: Lebanon in Crisis.

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The Boom in Certainty

Sinclair Lewis called it “the sedate pomposity of the commercialist”. Now it has spread to many parts of society, not always in its sedate form.

Back in our final days as architecture students in Austin, our class had a farewell gathering with a professor who had been a valued mentor to several of us. As was habitual on such occasions, the professor was discussing with us the work of various architects when the subject of a newly-constructed building came up.

“I hate that building”, one classmate said flatly.

After an awkward silence, the professor mocked: “you mean, strongly dislike?” Off guard, the offending party protested that his use of the word was innocuous then and there. The professor conceded as much but explained that it was a visceral word, the kind of word that forestalls further discussion and that hardens the speaker’s and listener’s opinions. It is difficult to walk back or to change your mind from “hate”, and easier to do so from “dislike” or even from “strongly dislike”, he argued. His advice was to leave in one’s words an open path for retreat, in essence to never burn one’s rhetorical bridges.

This led to another discussion about certainty and about people who speak with certainty. The professor said that he had a reflexive dislike for certainty and that he felt a profound distrust towards people who speak with certainty. There is very little that is certain in life, he said, even among things of which we are convinced at a given point in time. Opinions change, science changes, research advances. New discoveries change our beliefs. Knowledge doesn’t just flow or evolve gradually like a river; it shifts laterally and sometimes suddenly like an earthquake.

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De-Politicizing Climate Activism

Or how Greta Thunberg can create more converts.

“Nature is not a temple. It is a workshop, and a human being is the worker in it.”                               _                                                                                                         Ivan Turgenev

Item 1: The outbreak of coronavirus that threatens to create a global pandemic and the tragic sudden death of basketball star Kobe Bryant both remind us that the unexpected can happen quickly and that we humans live in an environment that can at times be ruthlessly hostile.

Nature, fate, providence, or whatever one chooses to call it, works in inscrutable ways. The virus will spread and endanger millions, if humans do not stop it. It has no will or conscience and would inexorably destroy those who are dearest to us, in a matter of days. And, before downing Bryant’s helicopter and killing him, his young daughter and seven others, fate or gravity did not pause for a millisecond to ponder the sadness that it would inflict on hundreds of millions all over the world through such a senseless death.

Modern society is generally free of deadly viruses and helicopters are generally safe to fly. But it took centuries of human progress to get there in both instances. And it will take more human progress and ingenuity to seal the cracks in our vigilance that allowed the coronavirus to emerge and spread, and the helicopter to crash .

Screen Shot 2020-01-27 at 2.29.15 PM
CDC photo by Dr. Fred Murphy.

Item 2: Last week in Davos, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin volunteered that climate activist Greta Thunberg ought to get an economics degree before preaching her message to grown-up policy makers. That is more confidence in university economics departments than most of Miss Thunberg’s critics would be willing to concede. It is true that Miss Thunberg’s message is incomplete, but that is not for lack of economic pedigree. The building blocks that are glaringly missing from her campaign are 1) a better understanding of Turgenev’s aphorism on nature and man, and 2) a trip or two to China, India or other fast developing countries.

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Cronyism and its Scapegoats

Cronyism destroys trust and assigns the blame to scapegoats of its own creation.

Only a fiercely committed left or right-winger would fail to recognize that there is today a social and political divide that does not easily fit within the traditional mold of left vs. right. If, loosely speaking, the left leans socialist and the right leans capitalist, there is a third branch, cronyism, that is characterized by the rising power and wealth of rent-seeking industries and individuals. In the past, this branch was dominant mainly in poorer countries with weaker institutions. But today it has also gained significant strength in a number of developed countries, including the United States.

In fact, if the Republican Party has been hijacked by Trumpism, as some allege, then we could say that capitalism has been similarly hijacked by cronyism. In our view, this parallel is nearly seamless, given that the GOP is traditionally pro-capitalism – in words if not always in deeds – and that the incumbent administration is largely populated with captains of rent-seeking industries. Read more