Probably Likely

Demographic Perspectives on Current Issues

Author: James

Mortality: Terrorism vs. Other Causes

This comes from an old conversation, and was recently recalled when the topic came up again years later, so I thought I’d post about it here. We were talking about terrorism; how terrorism is a rare event, and a person is extremely unlikely to die in a terror attack than from, well, almost any other cause. Despite this, the fear of terrorism seems ever-present in the mind of your average person. This has to do with the salience bias and the availability heuristic: terror attacks are more striking than other events, and information about them is oft-repeated, so we tend to perceive them as a greater threat to ourselves personally than they really are. This way of processing information made sense in the earlier days of humanity and probably aided our survival as a species, but often leads to logical fallacies and judgement errors in the modern, interconnected world.

Back in 2015, I went through cause of death statistics (for Canada). I believe the most recent data available at the time was for 2011, and the most recent comprehensive terrorism information I had was for the period 1970-2007, so this was the data I looked at. The purpose was to make a point in an argument, not to be scientifically rigorous, so there are definitely improvements to be made in the “analysis”. I’d like to approach the topic again sometime in the future, and perhaps compute probabilities for each year. Anyway, let’s dive into it!

Between 1970 and 2007 there were 336 terrorism-related deaths in Canada. This comes out to about 1 death in 3,800,000 or 9 deaths per year on average. Some years had more terrorism deaths, some years had less. Since terrorism is a relatively rare event, the sample size is small and year-to-year fluctuations are expected. If we assume 9 terrorism-related death per year, and assume that 2011 mortality-by-cause statistics are also typical, then the average person is:

  • Two times as likely to die in childbirth than die in a terror attack
  • Two times as likely to die due to “legal intervention” (killed by police) than die in a terror attack
  • Four times as likely to die from a burst appendix
  • Eight times as likely to die from tuberculosis
  • 17 times as likely to die from surgical complications
  • 27 times as likely to die from nutritional deficiencies (i.e. not getting enough food)
  • 34 times as likely to die from HIV
  • 51 times as likely to die from hepatitis
  • 59 times as likely to die from homicide (usually by a person you know)
  • 273 times as likely to die from sepsis, usually caused by an injury
  • 316 times as likely to die from liver disease
  • 366 times as likely to die from kidney disease
  • 414 times as likely to die from suicide
  • 641 times as likely to die from influenza or pneumonia
  • 799 times as likely to die from diabetes
  • 1191 times as likely to die in an accident (e.g. in the workplace or on the road)
  • 1243 times as likely to die from a respiratory disease (not including tuberculosis)
  • 1476 times as likely to die from stroke
  • 5292 times as likely to die from some form of heart disease
  • 8053 times as likely to die from some form of cancer

Of course, this is for a hypothetical “average person”. Personal risk will depend on a great many factors. Obviously men don’t die in childbirth. However, terrorism is such a rare event that risk of terrorism-caused mortality is minuscule regardless (maybe unless you’re in active service in JTF-2).

Some more terrorism trivia. On a global scale, any average person is more likely to die from falling out of bed than in a terror attack. On a low-terrorism year, globally more people are killed by hippos than by terrorists. On a high-terrorism year, about as many people are killed by terrorists as die from random lightning strikes.

I don’t mean to say that we can safely ignore global terrorism. Clearly, terrorism is doing the job it’s meant to do: inspire terror. Terrorism isn’t just about killing people, but about making people afraid that they might be the next victim. If we really want to fight terrorism, we need to acknowledge it but stop being afraid of it.

If we took our emotional response to terrorism and applied it elsewhere, to the real threats to our safety, we might make more progress on these fronts. Perhaps we’d be able to eradicate cancer and heart disease, the greatest threats to our lives. Or do something about the 246 people who died of malnutrition in Canada in 2011. It should be pretty clear, numbering among Canada’s greatest enemies are Coca Cola, Doritos, and the couch, not to mention our more insidious foes, major depressive disorder and the human appendix.

BC’s Minimum Wage in Perspective

I’ve been asked a few times what I think of British Columbia’s recent minimum wage hike. First, we need some context.

The Fair Wages Commission was established by the BC government in October 2017 in order to make recommendations regarding the minimum wage, and to address discrepancies between the minimum wage and living wage. The BC Ministry of Labour has noted that the majority of people working at or near the minimum wage are adults working full-time for medium- or large-sized companies, and working 40 hours per week at the then-current hourly wage of $11.35 does not meet the cost of living in BC. The following infographic uses average values for BC:

I don’t know where in BC you can rent a place for $1000 these days, unless it’s an absolute dump or you’re just renting a room with roommates. Certainly not in Vancouver or Victoria – not without a very long commute anyway, but that’s a different issue outside the scope of this article.

It’s important that we understand who is on the commission making these recommendations. The (admittedly left-leaning) government didn’t stack the commission with ideologues, even though they could have. All three members are economists. One is an expert in economic policy. One is a union-leader, representing the interests of the labour force. One is vice president of the Business Council of BC, representing the interests of business and industry. These aren’t your relatives having an argument online or at the dinner table; they’re economic experts who understand the impact of wages on the economy and living standards on a deep level. All sides have been considered, and have come to an agreement about the necessary course of action.

The Commission recommended the following roll-out, which is being implemented by the Ministry of Labour:

June 1, 2018: $12.65 ($1.30 increase)
June 1, 2019: $13.85 ($1.20 increase)
June 1, 2020: $14.60 ($0.75 increase)
June 1, 2021: $15.20 ($0.60 increase)

Many have praised the new minimum wage as the highest we’ve ever had. Some have complained that the new minimum wage is too high. Both sides are wrong.

The minimum wage looks nice on paper, but we must consider it in relation to what it can actually buy. Remember those stories your grandparents told you, about how back in their day they could buy a candy bar for a nickel? The cost of housing, transportation, food, telecommunications, education, and so on increases every year irrespective of changes in wages, a phenomenon we call inflation. If you don’t get a raise that is consistent with inflation every year, the money you get can buy you less every year – the equivalent of a pay decrease. The increase in the price of some things (e.g. real estate or education) typically far exceeds the standard rate of inflation. Minimum wage in BC is not usually adjusted every year (the current changes are atypical) – instead, past governments have given the minimum wage a small boost over a year or two, and let the wage fall relative to inflation for some period. From 1980 to 1987, and again from 2001 to 2010, the comparative value of the minimum wage had been allowed to fall freely. These days, some provinces have indexed the minimum wage so that it is adjusted yearly based on a systematic formula (e.g. according to the Consumer Price Index) to depoliticize the process.

I wanted to learn a bit more about the history of the minimum wage in BC, so I went digging through the BC Archives. Minimum wage was originally implemented in 1918 to protect working women and children from predatory employers. Women and children made up a small proportion of the labour force, and men’s wages were typically much higher than the minimum paid to women. This early minimum wage is actually relatively stable in its purchasing power – it was dependent on the industry the woman or child worked in, and the minimum wage for each industry was reconsidered and adjusted every year. These wages and adjustments can be found in the Annual Reports of the Department of Labour for each year. In the 1960s, more and more women were participating in the labour force and the gap in men’s and women’s wages began to shrink considerably. In turn, a higher minimum wage was implemented to protect men’s wages from stagnation. If we take the lowest wage for any year, one of the largest jumps in BC’s minimum wage is from $0.42 in 1964 to $1.00 in 1965, when a $1.00 hourly wage was implemented for all workers.

If we graph the minimum wage from 1918 to 2018 in current dollars (meaning unadjusted dollars for the year the wage is received), we get a constant increase in the minimum wage. If we probe no further, it looks like low-wage workers are getting a fantastic deal. This is, unfortunately, how a lot of people think about money – as an immutable number, rather than in terms of value and exchange. This serves well enough in everyday life, but this view has to be abandoned when we look at the big picture.

BC Minimum Wage in Current (Unadjusted) Dollars, 1918-2018

If we graph the minimum wage from 1918 to 2018 in constant dollars for 2018 (meaning we adjust the wage for inflation, giving its value in 2018 dollars), we get a very different picture. The value of the minimum wage actually peaked in the mid-1970s, and has never reached a comparable value since. BC’s 2018 minimum wage increase has come closest to the 1974 record of $13.12 (in 2018 dollars). Future increases may surpass the 1974 wage, but this remains to be seen (it will depend on the rate of inflation for this and future years).

BC Minimum Wage in Constant (Adjusted) 2018 Dollars, 1918-2018

All this means is that a Gen-Z born in 2000 entering the workforce at age 18 can expect to receive, at minimum, a similar wage as a Baby Boomer born in 1956 in the same situation. That is to say, this is the first time the minimum wage has been at a similar level to that which people a few generations ago enjoyed. It would be hypocritical for someone who enjoyed high wages to deny them to later generations without a very strong economic impetus for doing so. I should note, concern over the small business impacts of minimum wage are not a strong impetus; these concerns have been expressed since the introduction of minimum wage, but Canada’s economy has continued to grow and wages have not been implicated in any economic disaster scenarios.

A lot of the ‘popular criticism’ of minimum wage stems from the undervaluing of labour and a misunderstanding of economics. Some people don’t think some kinds of work are worth $15 per hour, especially when they think back on their own $3 or $6 wage years ago, perhaps even for the same job. These people are thinking of money as an integer, like a physical thing that can be accumulated, rather than its actual value in exchange. Additionally, if we say someone doesn’t deserve to earn $15 per hour, but $15 per hour full-time is the break-even point for cost of living, what we’re really saying is that people in low-wage jobs deserve to live in poverty – even if they’re honest, hard-working people. Many of these low-wage labour roles are necessary, but are only sustainable so long as they provide a living wage. Canada is one of the world’s top economies, and we should be able to keep wages consistent with the cost of living at the very least.

I’d be interested in reexamining the minimum wage in future as the rate increases and inflation data for future years becomes available.

The History of the Liberal Arts Degree

On numerous occasions I’ve encountered confusion about the meaning of the B.A. degree. This is, of course, an abbreviation of ‘Bachelor of Arts’. Why do students studying psychology or other social sciences earn an art degree? Do universities not recognize them as science? Why not a Bachelor of Science? The confusion is understandable. And no, psychology is not a fine art, like painting or music. Let me explain.

The ‘Arts’ in ‘Bachelor of Arts’ refers to the Liberal Arts, and is tied up in the history of the university. In recent years I’ve heard the term ‘liberal arts’ used in a derogatory sense, particularly on the internet in ‘science fan’ (read: not scientific) communities, like “lol you shouldn’t have got a liberal arts degree if you wanted a job!” In that context, I think ‘liberal arts’ is referring to the humanities, but one can never be too sure with these people.

What does the term ‘liberal arts’ actually mean? To answer this question, I’m going to draw upon my good friend historical context. The term itself comes from Latin and originates in the Roman Empire: as far as we know, the term artes liberalis was coined by Cicero. In essence they were subjects that all free men should learn in order to be well-rounded citizens; liberal as in liberty, art as in a skill obtained through study. Originally, the liberal arts consisted of the subjects of music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. Later, the subjects of grammar, logic, and rhetoric were added. So, historically, the liberal arts referred to one fine art, two math fields, a natural science, and a bit of humanities. As universities developed, more sciences were born, and these too came under the purview of the liberal arts. That is, all of the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences are liberal arts.

This should clear up another misconception about the term: the ‘liberal’ in liberal arts is not meant to associate these fields of study with liberalism (as in, the political philosophy borne out of the Enlightenment). In fact, the term predates liberalism by hundreds (maybe thousands) of years. Rather, the continued use of the term ‘liberal arts’ distinguishes them from the other three traditional university curricula, namely theology, law, and medicine.

Each of these departments typically has its own degree or credential. People studying medicine earn an M.D. (medicinae doctor), lawyers earn a LL.B. (legum baccalaureus, or bachelor of laws) or J.D. (juris doctor), and theologians earn a B.Th. (bachelor of theology). Students of the liberal arts typically earn a B.A. (bachelor of arts), M.A. (master of arts), and finally a Ph.D. (philosophiae doctor) if they continue that far. Traditionally, even if your degree was in theoretical physics, biochemistry, or microbiology you earned a B.A. degree.

Science degrees like the B.Sc. (bachelor of science) and M.Sc. (master of science) are a fairly recent invention. The first ever B.Sc degree was awarded in 1860, which is not all that long ago if we recall that Oxford University was founded in 1096 and isn’t even the oldest European university. Since the B.Sc. does not have much history behind it, awarding this degree is up to the university or department in question. Some universities, even top tier universities, continue to grant only B.A. degrees. This group of universities includes Oxford, a global top-3 university. Yes, the top natural scientists out of Oxford are awarded arts degrees.

Ultimately, the distinction between a B.A. and a B.Sc. is not a meaningful one. If a top school like Oxford remains entrenched in the tradition of ‘liberal arts’, the B.A./B.Sc. distinction cannot be a measure of quality. It’s arbitrary! That said, some departments do have differing requirements for a B.A. or a B.Sc. if they reward both, and the different degree denotes an educational track or focus. My neighbouring psychology department awards B.Sc. to students who take the quantitative track, which focuses on statistical courses and methods, and B.A. to students who take the qualitative track. My own department only grants arts degrees, even if you have a quantitative focus, so my own degrees say ‘arts’. In many schools, however, it’s just up to the student to decide which one they want, and the university awards them accordingly without any requirements. In sum, the notation of a degree can only be relevant if we have more detailed information about how the department which granted it functions.

The Outrageous Cost of Access to Research

As part of my graduate coursework, I took a reading course in family demography. The course was a survey of topics in the sub-field, covering landmark research and more recent developments. Topics included the meaning of family, family change, marriage & cohabitation, union dissolution, remarriage, fertility, and time-use. Over the four-month semester I read two books and 89 research articles as part of the curriculum, plus additional articles, responses, debates, and so on. Thankfully, as a student I had access to these resources for free through the university library, which maintains subscriptions to almost every journal I’ve ever needed to access throughout my education.

Even so, it’s hard not to notice the outrageous prices publishers charge for access to research articles. Usually I stumble upon them when Googling an article title online to find full citation information (issue numbers are frequently left out of article PDFs). I was inspired to write this post when I saw the price for this article:

They’re charging $39.95 USD for an article that’s over a decade old! That’s a few cents short of the cost of both of the books used in this course, combined! And, in Canada, that’s going to be closer to the $50-60 range. For about 20 good pages of content.

I was curious to know the total cost of doing this family demography course, so I looked up the price of every article and added them together. The cheapest item was actually one of the books ($11.99) – together, the books totaled $40.03.

Six of the articles were open access (costing nothing), and two were posted online for free by the professor who wrote them. The total cost of the remaining 81 articles, if bought individually at the cheapest price I could find, was $1917.80 USD (around $2500 CAD). That seems like a large sum to ask someone to pay just to survey key papers in one sub-field. It’s many times the tuition I paid to take the course.

We can reduce the price a bit via JSTOR.org’s JPASS, which is $19.50 per month for unlimited reading. Many of the articles in my course were available via JPASS, which cut the price down to $784.30. The remaining articles would need to be purchased individually. I tried journal subscription and association options, but these did not apply to previous years or were of limited value due to the date spread of the articles in question.

Being experienced in this sort of thing, I scoured the internet for the cheapest price. Of course, if you’re in academia you know all sorts of tricks to reduce the cost of access to research. You can frequently get a paper for free from a professor just by asking them. Some professors (like Dr. Steven Ruggles, bless his soul) host their articles for free right on their personal or faculty websites. JSTOR.org’s JPASS subscription offers access to thousands of journals for about the same price as my combined Netflix and Spotify subscriptions, which is affordable, offering unlimited reading. Where JPASS fails is via limited downloading (which makes note-taking and annotation more difficult), and most journals have a significant time-lag so that you can only read research that’s (in my experience) at least 3 years old (for generous journals) to at least 6-7 years old (e.g. Journal of Marriage and Family). People say ‘open access’ is an option, but of the 89 articles I read only 6 were open access. Sometimes articles are available on the high seas, but this is frequently not the case.

Ultimately, the question here is: can we expect the general public to know how to find research articles for free or cheap, especially considering that this is almost a ‘skill’ we learn over the course of our university education? Personally, I think that expectation is unreasonable, and the cost of access could be damaging to the transmission of knowledge to the public.

One could argue that the price of accessing research can be so high because the time and expertise of people doing this research is valuable. And this would be understandable, if any of the money you spend on these articles actually went back to the professors who wrote them. However, researchers don’t see any royalties on articles they publish; they’re primarily funded by their university or other organization they’re attached to, government grants, or other interested third-parties (and since a large element of research money is typically publicly funded, it’s reasonable to ask why the public doesn’t have access). Journal editors and peer-reviewers usually do their work on a volunteer basis. To top it off, researchers usually have to pay handsome fees to publish in the first place. For instance, the journal Demography charges a $25 fee to have your article even considered. If it’s accepted, it’s an additional $25 per page. Publishing a 20-page research article in Demography will run you $525 minimum. The only return researchers get is prestige (and possibly tenure). So, if you’re not paying for the time and expertise of experts, where is the money going?

U.S. Uninsured: How Many People Are We Referring To?

The United States is one of the few remaining developed countries which has yet to implement some form of universal health care. Despite its imperfections, the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) brought the U.S. one small step closer to such an achievement. Republican politicians have steadfastly opposed the ACA, and have promised to repeal the Act since its promulgation. With the inauguration of Donald Trump, the Presidency, House, and Senate are controlled by Republicans, and the threat of ACA repeal is more real now than ever – with repeal promised for Spring 2017. To their credit, Republicans have changed ‘repeal’ to ‘repeal and replace,’ but disunity over what should replace the ACA has left many people concerned about their insurance coverage. Naturally, others have doubted whether a viable replacement will materialize at all.

If the ACA is repealed without replacement, things do not look well. The Urban Institute ran the numbers, and predict that the proportion of uninsured people will be greater after repeal than it was before the introduction of the ACA. They estimate that 29.782 million Americans will become uninsured by 2019, for a total of 58.718 million uninsured. Some will suggest that, in terms of the country as a whole, 58.7 million may not seem too bad. After all, if this means that about 21% of the non-elderly U.S. population (274.316 million), or about 18% of the total U.S. population (321.774 million) doesn’t have health insurance, it also means that large majorities (about 79% and 82% respectively) of people do have insurance. Of course, having insurance does not mean a person also has adequate coverage, or that their insurance is not an economic burden, or any number of other critiques which are beyond the scope of my argument. What I really want to get into is that number: 58.7 million.

The problem with thinking about populations in terms of percentages is we have a tendency to forget about the quantities of people we’re actually referring to. The United States is the third-most populous country in the world, being something of an outlier among developed countries, and so in many cases using percentages and proportions no longer makes sense. In other fields, a risk increase from 0.0001 to 0.0005 may be communicated as an increase of 500%, but this percentage statistic is used to hide the extremely small numbers that are actually at stake. In the case of uninsured Americans, percentages can be used to hide extremely large numbers, dismissing them as a minority of people. Because, really: 58,718,000 people is a lot of people. It may as well be an entire country of people. In fact, it’s about an Italy worth of people.

An Italy worth of people? Yes. In 2015 (most recent data), Italy had a population of about 59,798,000. ACA repeal without replacement will result in the equivalent of almost the entire population of Italy losing their health insurance.

Thinking of populations in units of ‘other countries’ is nothing new, if a bit confusing at first. The following image, which has floated around the Internet for quite a while (originating here), illustrates the idea nicely:

US Population in units of Canadas

The size of the population of Canada is between one-ninth and one-tenth the size of the U.S. population, thus we can easily use Canada as a unit to measure the U.S. population (U.S. pop. ≈ 10 Canadas; the author of the image rounded up). This exercise can seem a bit silly, but it’s also useful because it helps put very large numbers into perspective. Numbers like 321,774,000 and 58,718,000 are beyond the scope of anything most of us experience in our day-to-day lives. Changing the way we approach these numbers can give them some clarity.

In the name of perspective, I found the number of soon-to-be-uninsured and total uninsured people in the United States, estimated by 2019, in units of other developed countries with universal health care systems. These countries have a variety of insurance systems – including single-payer, two-tier, or a strong insurance mandate – suggesting that universal health care can be achieved through many different approaches. Combined, these countries have a population of 466.426 million people.

To-Be Uninsured Total Uninsured Population (2015)
1.24 Australias 2.45 Australias 23.969 million
3.49 Austrias 6.87 Austrias 8.545 million
2.64 Belgiums 5.20 Belgiums 11.299 million
0.83 Canadas 1.63 Canadas 35.940 million
5.25 Denmarks 10.36 Denmarks 5.669 million
5.41 Finlands 10.67 Finlands 5.503 million
0.46 Frances 0.91 Frances 64.395 million
0.37 Germanys 0.73 Germanys 80.689 million
6.35 Irelands 12.53 Irelands 4.688 million
0.50 Italys 0.98 Italys 59.798 million
1.76 Netherlands 3.47 Netherlands 16.925 million
6.58 New Zealands 12.96 New Zealands 4.529 million
5.72 Norways 11.27 Norways 5.211 million
2.88 Portugals 5.67 Portugals 10.350 million
0.65 Spains 1.27 Spains 46.122 million
3.05 Swedens 6.00 Swedens 9.779 million
3.59 Switzerlands 7.08 Switzerlands 8.299 million
0.46 United Kingdoms 0.91 United Kingdoms 64.716 million

Sweden is a pretty good fit. The number of people estimated to be uninsured in the United States by 2019 is six Swedens (or, six times the population of Sweden).

In many of these countries, the number of uninsured people at any one time is typically only a few thousand, consisting of new residents who haven’t yet been able to sign up for insurance (some jurisdictions have waiting periods, e.g. 3 months). In others, everyone receives some coverage automatically.

This list is not exhaustive; certainly there are other countries with universal health care regimes. These countries were chosen for their political diversity, and because the extent to which they are ‘developed’ or ‘Western’ is not subject to scrutiny. It includes countries which, in their other areas of domestic policy, typically have interventionist policy approaches (such as Sweden and Denmark), means-tested policy approaches (such as Spain and Italy), or somewhere in between (such as UK and France). Even Switzerland, which is relatively conservative and tends to favor state-level governance (canton) over federal-level governance, is represented.

At a time when universal health care is not only a standard feature of developed countries, but increasingly a feature of developing countries, it would appear that the United States is falling behind – probably at the expense of the health of Americans.

Sources:

Blumberg, Linda J., Matthew Buettgens  & John Holahan. 2016. “Implications of partial repeal of the ACA through reconcilliation.” Urban Institute, Health Policy Center.

United Nations. 2015. World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, Key Findings and Advance Tables. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division.

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