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 expectancy 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 the coercion of 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 middle 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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Florida in the Election

A French version of this article appears in L’Express.

Former mayor Mike Bloomberg has announced that he would spend as much as $100 million of his own money to help Vice-President Biden prevail in Florida on Election Day. This underscores once again the importance of Florida in this and every presidential contest.

Florida has a good track record of picking the winner in a presidential election. With the messy 2000 contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore, the state gained prominence as the ultimate prize and must-win battleground. To be sure, it is not a perfect track record, given that Florida favored George H. W. Bush in 1992 and Richard Nixon in 1960 over winners Bill Clinton and John Kennedy. If you go to earlier times, you also find that Floridians misfired with John Davis and James Cox in 1924 and 1920, two unknowns today except among aficionados of electoral history. But in sum, four misses out of 25 elections over a century can indeed be called a strong track record.

The stakes are high in 2020 given the state’s 29 Electoral College votes and the tightness of the race according to the polls. Vice President Biden is now nominally ahead by 1 to 3%, an insignificant gap that can easily close or widen in the remaining days of the campaign, depending on a slew of factors, not least the performance of each candidate in the upcoming debates.

Read more

The US Census Digs Deeper

Where were your ancestors from?

Over 45 million Americans identify their dominant ancestry as German and 22,000 identify theirs as Marshallese, from the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. But in the US Census proposed new form for 2020, both of these groups get their own box to check for the first time. In the previous 2010 form (shown below), German-Americans would simply check ‘White’ and Marshallese-Americans would check ‘Other Pacific Islander’.


In the 2020 form therefore, the US Census is seeking more disclosure and more granularity in the population data. This desire for more detail is not evenly spread however. The Marshallese, 0.01% of the US population, get as much real estate on the form as do German-Americans, 14% of the population. Germany being a country of many regions and Bundesländer, there would surely be more fragmentation in that 14% if anyone cared enough to know the percentage who claim for example Bavarian vs. Hessian ancestry. Read more