Thursday, October 8, 2015

Why America Shouldn't Follow Australia's Lead on Gun Control

Last week on October, an unfortunate shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon took place. Before the facts were even gathered, Obama released a statement about the tragedy, and unsurprisingly blamed guns. As part of his statement, Obama went beyond the usual gun control rhetoric and hinted at gun confiscation:

"We know that other countries, in response to one mass shooting, have been able to craft laws that almost eliminate mass shootings. Friends of ours, allies of ours: Great Britain, Australia, countries like ours. So we know there are ways to prevent it." 

Since Australia has some of the strictest gun laws out there, let's examine the extent to which Australia is an exemplar for gun control, and whether the United States should follow Australia's lead.

On April 28, 1996, a gunman open fired on tourists in Tasmania. 35 were killed and 23 were wounded. In response to the tragedy, the Australian government enacted a series of stringent gun laws. Semi-automatic rifles, as well as semi-automatic and pump shotguns, were banned. The government created a restrictive system on licensing and gun ownership. The Australian government strongly pushed for a gun buyback program, in which it purchased and destroyed about 643 thousand firearms between October 1996 and September 1997. This crackdown on firearms has been lauded by gun control proponents.

We should look at three types of gun-related incidents to see whether the Australian crackdown on guns was a success: homicides, suicides, and other gun-related crimes. A 2008 report from the University of Melbourne (Lee and Suardi, p. 23-24) concludes that "although gun buybacks appear to be a logical and sensible policy that helps to placate the public's fears, the evidence so far suggests that in the Australian context, the high expenditures incurred to fund the 1996 gun buyback has not translated into any tangible reductions in terms of firearms deaths." A 2007 report (Baker and McPhedran) found that the gun laws had positive effects on suicide rates, but nothing significant for homicide rates. The main study lauded by gun control advocates (Leigh and Neill, 2010) points out that gun suicides decreased because of Australia's laws, but were not able to say the same for gun-related homicides. What is interesting in Leigh and Neill's study (p. 40) [see below] is that from 1987 to 2000, the firearm suicide rate is dropping at roughly the same rate pre-buyback that it is when the buyback, which makes it harder to argue a case for correlation.

If I had to summarize the criminology data, there is inconsistent data on the effects of firearm suicides. The suicide rate decrease could be just as easily explained by a suicide prevention initiative that began back in the early 1990s (Klieve et al., 2009), which very well could be causing the ambiguity in the suicide rate data. However, the data are pretty clear in terms of finding that the Australian laws have not impacted the homicide rate in Australia (Baker and McPherdan, 2015). Scholars over at the centrist Brookings Institution (Reuter and Mouzos, 2003, p. 121-122) noticed that there was a "relatively small effect" since the firearms that were confiscated "had not previously been used frequently in crime or suicide." The lack of impact of the buyback program might also have to do with the fact that the increase of gun imports since 1997 replenished the previously destroyed guns, which would put Australia at pre-buyback levels.

According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, the number of murder and manslaughter victims stayed steady from 1993 to 2007, homicides involving firearms as a percentage of total homicides had already been decreasing since 1987, the number of homicide victims increased in 1999, and the number of homicide incidents in Australia had already been decreasing since at least 1990. This doesn't even consider that the number of armed robberies and assaults increased substantially after the gun buyback, or that other violent crime, e.g., sexual assault, kidnapping, were also increasing since the gun buyback (see here and here). Looking at these government data, the only positive thing we can say is that it decreased mass shootings, which is a small subset of gun-related deaths to begin with. Furthermore, something as drastic as a buyback should produce immediate results. Yet in the case of Australia, homicides did not really decrease for eight years, and the number of armed robberies increased shortly thereafter. Suicide rates also stayed at roughly the same rate pre-buyback (Australian Bureau of Statistics, p. 60) as they did immediately after the buyback took into effect.

Let's forget for a moment that the data on the rates of homicides, suicides, and overall violent crime in Australia don't point to the positive effects that gun control proponents were hoping for. Even if Australia were hypothetically a role model for gun control, would it be possible to implement?

The Australian gun ban was able to confiscate about a fifth of the country's guns, and that was with much fervor. To apply that confiscation rate to the United States and try to confiscate a minimum of 20 percent of 357 million guns, which is 71.4 million firearms, is just untenable without using police force. Let's also recall that the number of guns in the past couple of decades went from 192 million in 1994 to 310 million in 2009. Even with this increase in American gun ownership, violent crime has decreased. New Zealand also experienced increased firearm ownership rates while homicide rates decreased in the same time period (McPherdan et al., 2010), which begs the question of necessity of a gun ban.

What also worries me about when people say we should follow Australia's example is that they mean mandatory confiscation of firearms. Not only does that violate the Second Amendment, but it also comes into conflict with the United States' gun culture. Even the Left-leaning Mother Jones concedes that a buyback program would not work in the United States. Australia did not have a Bill of Rights, which made it all the easier for the Australian government to confiscate firearms. Furthermore, Australia is an island nation-state without domestic gun manufacturers, which also allows for easier enforcement. Combine the poor performance Australia's gun ban and the infeasibility of implementing a gun ban in the United States, and I can make a very educated guess that a gun ban would not take place in the United States anytime soon, which is why I would rather steer the argument towards public policy that would actually lower gun violence (another blog entry for another time, to be sure) instead of steering us towards a mirage of "common sense" nirvana.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Why We Read the Seemingly Depressing Book of Ecclesiastes on Sukkot

Sukkot, which is the Feast of the Tabernacles that typically takes place around late September/early October, originally started as a harvest festival for the ancient Israelites. It is also referred to as זמן שמחתינו, or the "time of our joy," for a variety of reasons. Being the festive holiday it is, it comes off as a peculiar tradition [for Ashkenazi Jews] to read the Book of Ecclesiastes, also referred to as קהלת (Kohelet), during the Shabbat Sukkot services as a way to celebrate this rejoicing. The Book starts off with "Futility of futilities, all is futile (Ecclesiastes 1:2)" and continues with such lines as "for with much wisdom comes much grift, and he who increases knowledge increases pain (1:18)," "What does joy accomplish? (2:2)," and "for the fate of men and the fate of beast, they have the same has no superiority over beast, for all is futile (3:19)." It seems counterintuitive to read a dejecting text that points out the futility of life on a time where we celebrate the joy in our lives, so I did some research in hopes to resolve the paradox:

  1. Let's not take it too far with the joy. Maimonides teaches the Aristotelian idea of the golden mean, which is to say that we should not take our מדות (character traits) to extremes. The trait of joy is no exception. In the Mussar text ארחות צדיקים ("The Ways of the Righteous"), if we give in entirely to humor or frivolity, we detract our focus from G-d. Ecclesiastes is the antidote to lightheartedness (Avudraham; R. Azaryah Figo). The joy we should feel is not for frivolity, but in serving G-d (Sefer HaMagid, Vol. III).
  2. Joy is not about material wealth. King Solomon was a man who had hundreds of wives and concubines, as well as all the riches a man could imagine. At the end of the day, King Solomon realized just how transient material wealth can be, and how futile it was to chase after it (Ecclesiastes 1:11). We read Ecclesiastes at this time of year to remind ourselves that we are to rejoice in our lot, and that happiness will not be found in chasing after insane amounts of wealth (R. Mordechai Yaffe).
  3. Ecclesiastes is about steadfastness to Torah. The Talmudic rabbis wanted to censor the Book of Ecclesiastes as apocryphal because its contradictory statements would end up confusing the masses (Shabbat 30b). However, the Rabbis decided not to suppress the text because the text begins with matters of Torah (Ecclesiastes 1:3) and ends with matters of Torah (Ecclesiastes 12:13). When discussing the question of "what profit does man have under the sun (1:3)," the Rabbis interpreted that as those who go "before the sun," i.e., study Torah, then one profits. In spite of the skepticism that King Solomon expresses throughout the Book, he concludes that the purpose of life is to "fear G-d, and keep His mitzvahs because that is the whole man (12:13)."
  4. Faith in the midst of uncertainty. In Ein Ayah, R. Avraham Yitzchak Kook points out that in spite of the intellectual pursuit, King Solomon ultimately returns to fear of G-d. Ecclesiastes is a reflection of how many people struggle with life. It can be confusing, contradictory, unfair, and downright harsh. As I wrote in a previous entry, faith is not acceptance in the form of passivity. We are allowed to question the purpose of it all and do so quite profoundly. At the end, of the day, we stick with G-d. We struggle, question, and wonder, and yet still remain within the framework of Judaism because the Jewish tradition allows for us to be human. The ability to stay steadfast to Judaism while still contending with the inconsistencies and injustices  of life that we observe and process with our rational faculties is the Ecclesiastical experience. It is to remind us that even in the unknown, we can still find meaning in life and experience joy. 
  5. Accepting the transience of our physical livesThere is a Midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:10) that says that King Solomon wrote this text at the end of his life, a time during which he reflected on all he had done. For King Solomon, he viewed life as a הבל (Ecclesiastes 1:2). The word הבל is commonly mistranslated as "futility"; a better translation would be "breath." For King Solomon, he realized that life was but a fleeting moment, and G-d was eternal. We can amass wealth and power, but there is an end for us. A definite, inevitable end. King Solomon realized this after all the wisdom and wealth he gained during his lifetime. It is my hope that we can not only realize the gift that life has to offer us and the important things in life, but to realize that the amount of time we have to enjoy and experience that life is like the length of a breath. People come, people go. The world in which we live is all too temporary. The sobering message that Ecclesiastes sends us is that we should enjoy and appreciate it while we still can. Having that level of radical acceptance to understand the ephemeral nature of life and how to fulfill your true calling within a small amount of time is the true joy of reading Ecclesiastes on Sukkot.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Soaking the Rich With Higher Income Taxes Won't Help with Income Inequality

There are those in the United States who have so much wealth that they don't know what to do with it while there are others who have to work hard to earn an honest living or even survive from day-to-day. The sort of outlandishness that is exhibited by the exceptionally wealthy comes off as unfair to many. The latest Gallup poll on the subject shows that 52 percent support redistributing wealth by heavily taxing the rich. Bernie Sanders is making it one of the cornerstones of his presidential campaign. It is such a part of Sander's campaign that he stated that he would love to soak the rich with a marginal tax rate of 90 percent because honestly, how else do you expect him to pay for his costly, insolvent programs that would most probably do the exact opposite that he intends?

As proponents of this line of thought would like to think, "If we could simply tax the rich and spread some of that money around, we could make a huge difference in the lives of so many Americans." To quote Penn Jillette, "Voting for our government to use guns to give money to help poor and suffering people is immoral, self-righteous, bullying laziness." But let's set aside moral or philosophical qualms for now. Let's also set aside how this would increase revenue (see herehere, and here), how it would affect economic growth, decrease work incentives for the rich, create new reasons to evade taxes, or how the welfare system creates disincentives to work. I would like to answer the question of whether increasing income taxes on the wealthy would solve income inequality woes.

Taking from Peter to give to Paul seems intuitively sound at first glance. The government takes money from the rich to give to the poor. The poor take that money, purchase goods and services that they desperately need, and circulate that money into the economy. This would give the poor a great economic boost, and subsequently pull the poor out of poverty. As nice as that might sound, there has been some recently published research to counter that notion.

Earlier this week, the Brookings Institution released a paper entitled "Would a significant increase in the top income tax rate substantially alter income inequality?" Let's keep in mind that the Brookings Institution is not a conservative think-tank or a proponent of the free market system. The Brookings Institution tends to be more centrist (although sometimes more Left-of-center than it likes to admit), and comments often enough on the importance of dealing with income inequality. It came as a surprise to some, including one of the researchers of the paper, that soaking the rich with a higher marginal income tax rate would do so little to help with income inequality. How so?

[As a side note, it also came as a shock to these same researchers that increasing access to college education would also have minimal effects on income inequality.]

Currently, the top individual income tax rate is at 39.6 percent. The researchers at the Brookings Institution ran a microsimulation to see what would happen if that tax rate were raised to 50 percent. To find out how this would affect income inequality, they took a look at the effects it would have on the Gini coefficient. Essentially, the Gini coefficient is a 0 to 1 scale measuring the dispersion of income distribution in a given nation (further explanation is here). The main thing that surprised me was that the Brookings Institution had the pre-tax Gini coefficient at 0.61 because looking at data for the World Bank, the CIA, United Nations, and the OECD, it is considered lower than 0.61.

However, let's assume that the Gini coefficient is that high. Under the current law, government redistribution lowers that to 0.574. Assuming that the tax revenue would be an explicit redistribution of wealth to the lowest quintile, the difference between current law and raising the marginal income tax to 50 percent would change the Gini coefficient to 0.571 (Table 2). That is a measly 0.003 points on the Gini scale, which is only a 0.52 percent change!

Raising the marginal tax rate to soak the rich is yet another example of how misguided good intentions can be. Increasing the marginal income tax might help to increase government revenues (only to a certain point before the reality of the Laffer curve kicks in), but decreasing income inequality by an amount of any significance is certainly not a reason to do so. The poor are not poor because the rich are rich, and trying to redistribute wealth in a "soak the rich" fashion is not going to ameliorate that. It would be nice to have a discussion about how public policy should be more than feel-good activism, but I suspect with the 2016 election cycle in swing, I doubt the majority of American people can transcend the knee-jerk, populist sentiments of sticking it to the rich.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Federally Subsidized School Lunches: Why There Is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

No individual who even remotely has a moral compass likes to see starving people. This is all the more so when seeing children who are dealing with malnutrition. However, ensuring that low-income children have adequate nutrition is the sort of argument that makes the case for a National School Lunch Program (NSLP) an easy sell. Although the NSLP started off as a way to deal with "surplus" food during the Great Depression and evolved into a WWII-era, national security concern to make sure people were fit for military service, it has become a program that has provided school meals to millions of children across the country. It was amazing to learn about many other facts about child nutrition programs from the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) latest report on the subject. The argument of "Think of the children" has been used in everything from trying to ban video games to banning same-sex adoption to funding universal preschool. Arguing that we should provide children with better nutrition via the National School Lunch Program is a politically viable to maintain, but it doesn't answer the the underlying question of whether the federal government's role as the nation's lunch lady does children any favors.

These federal programs provide lunch for about 30 million children through the NSLP, and breakfast for 14 million children through the School Breakfast Program (SBP). Children from households up to 130 percent of the federal poverty line receive meals for free. Children from households for 130 to 185 percent of the poverty line are heavily subsidized, and any child beyond that federal poverty line receive a more modest subsidy (CBO, p. 1). While the Census Bureau has found that about 1.5 million children have potentially been pulled out of poverty, it also admits that its figures are most probably an overestimation given that it assumes optimal value of a school lunch (Census, p. 19).

The federal government spends quite a bit of money on food subsidies for children in school. According to the CBO report, $12.7 billion was spent on the NSLP in 2014, $3.7 billion on the SBP, and another $3.6 billion to both provide nutritional assistance outside of schools, as well as for school programs during the summer. (CBO, p. 1). These programs total to $20 billion per annum, which is about 0.11 percent of the country's GDP and 0.56 percent of the federal government's budget. These figures are nowhere as big as Social Security, Medicare, or military spending, but these smaller figures, when added together, make an impact on maintaining the country's debt-to-GDP ratio. Also, let's keep in mind that the spending on these programs has doubled since the 1990s (CBO, p. 2) while K-12 enrollment has only increased about 17 percent.

The price tag for the taxpayer, the unsafe amount of the chemical known as bisphenol A (BPA) found in school meals, or the fact that $12.5 million was spent on ineligible candidates should not be the only things we should consider when looking at the effectiveness of these food subsidy programs. 1,400 school districts have opted out of the USDA School Lunch Program since the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which was the USDA's attempt at greater regulations to make school lunches. The number of lunches served since 2010 has also been on the decline, and that does not even consider an increased enrollment size.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) published an indicting report about the NSLP back in 2014. According to the GAO report, there was a decline in program participation of 1.6 million students, an increase in wasted food, issues with compliance of high nutritional standards in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, and price increases as a result of the already-existing subsidies. These standards have resulted in increased food costs [for students who are not beneficiaries], insufficient food storage, and newer kitchen equipment. Look at the fun regulations and standards set out by the United States Department of Agriculture on school lunches, and it should be no mystery why this has been an issue. Some of the crazier regulations include having to eat foods from at least three out of the five major food groups (one being produce), being prohibited from taking food out from the cafeteria to eat later, or making it nigh impossible to hide vegetables in more palatable foods. The School Nutrition Association, which is an organization of 55,000 school nutrition professionals, thinks that the regulations are too cumbersome, which is why the SNA is calling for more flexibility within the regulations.

The GAO is not the only one with intriguing results. According to a National School Boards Association survey conducted last year, 81.8 percent of schools saw significant increases in food costs, 83.7 percent of schools saw an increase in food waste, and 71.6 percent of schools noticed a decrease of students participating in the school lunch programs.

I was able to find a few more related studies, and showed that an estimated $1.2 billion dollars a year is wasted (Cohen et al., 2014). While preliminary research suggest that there has been a slight uptick in fruit and vegetable consumption, researchers from Harvard School of Public Health also found that the federal programs were not causing a decrease in food waste, and that 60 to 75 percent of vegetables and 45 percent of fruits are still being discarded. Johns Hopkins University also found that although the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act provides healthier options, only about a quarter of the children are actually eating the healthier food. Another study, which actually compares produce consumption before and after the Healthy hunger Free Kids Act, shows that while there was a 29 percent increase of students taking fruits and vegetables, there was a 13 percent decrease in consumption because the children did not want to eat the healthier foods (Amin et al., 2015).

What should we do to help bring healthier food options for our children? The CBO makes a few suggestions in their report. Three of those policy alternatives are to increase the income limit for free school meals and to increase the reimbursement rate by 10¢, neither of which deal with the underlying issues. Removing the subsidies for higher-income households would eliminate at least some of the distortionary effects of the subsidy, which could be good. The CBO mentions the possibility of replacing the program with a smaller block grant because it would make spending more predictable and provide states with more freedom to spend the money. However, block grants would a) reduce programming for some, and b) make it more difficult to automatically adjust to economic hardship (CBO, p. 1).

Ideally, we would be in a world in which the government does not act as a micromanaging interferer, and parents capably monitor what their children eat for lunch. Parents play a much larger role in a child's life than a school cafeteria does, so it should be no surprise that parenting styles play a vital role in a child's food consumption patterns. This is why we should not only encourage students to opt out of this program, but also for families to work with religious organizations, businesses, and social organizations, e.g., Revolution Foods, to help create healthier meals for our children. It would be great to see parents parent or at least collaborate with local organizations to provide healthier meals, but it might be too much to ask in our rat-racer world in which parents feel pressed for time.

At a minimum, it would be nice to not only limit the federal government's scope, but to also leave the standardization to more local authorities. The federal government shouldn't be treating children as if they were all obese individuals who can only handle very few calories lest they die of cardiovascular disease in five years. Each child's nutritional scenario is different, and school food authorities (or even better, parents) should be able to have more flexibility instead of being constrained by a one-size-fits all model that clearly isn't working. Parents and school food authorities would have a better idea of a given child's nutrition than some bureaucrat in Washington D.C. By generating program flexibility and simplification, we can start to focus on providing healthy nutrition towards children with less interfering, stifling government regulations.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Americans Aren't As Poor As Latest Census Poverty Data Suggest

Late last week, the Census Bureau released its latest data on poverty statistics (see full report here). According to the Census Bureau, the poverty rate is at 14.8 percent, or at 46.7 million in poverty. This poverty rate is 2.7 percentage points higher than it was in 2007, which was the year before the Great Recession. Based on these numbers, the current average income is roughly the same as inflation-adjusted income for 1999. Per the Census Bureau's table [below], I also see that the poverty rate has hovered around 15 percent since the War on Poverty in 1965, but I'll leave that one alone for now. Based on these numbers, it seems like the American government has barely made a dent in its poverty rate. 46.7 million people dealing with poverty sounds like an awful lot, but I have to ask whether the number is that high, so at the very least, we can have a contextualized conversation about poverty in the United States.

A good place to start is to see how the Census Bureau is measuring poverty. Looking at the metrics that the Census Bureau uses, the primary ones actually overstate the extent of poverty in this country. Let's take a look at what those are:
  1. Pre-tax income. If the government only provided a minimal, temporary safety net, then I could understand there being a negligible difference between measuring total income pre-tax and post-tax. However, that is not the world in which we live. There are many welfare programs that act as non-cash benefits for families in the United States, which brings me to my second point...
  2. Treatment of non-cash benefits. It is nice to see that unemployment benefits and Social Security are factored into the equation because they have a sizable impact on a family's budget. However, the fact that the Census Bureau does not include non-cash benefits in their figures. The average monthly food stamp benefits in this country is about $125 per month. Medicaid spending, which is health care dollars low-income and/or disabled individuals, is not a small amount. The child tax credit can be up to $1,000. The average Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) refund was about $2,500 in 2014. Housing subsidies, school lunch subsidies, the list goes on. When we start to total these non-cash, post-tax benefits, they start to add up to a different amount (much like I alluded to back in 2012). If we adjust for post-tax income, much like economist Scott Winship does, households' incomes are actually higher than they ever have been.
  3. Poverty threshold statistics. While it's interesting to see that the Census Bureau has 48 different types of thresholds based on age and family size, does anyone find it peculiar that there is no geographic variation whatsoever? Cost of living varies from state to state, as well as between urban, suburban, and rural areas. The fact that geographic variation is not considered by the Census Bureau should give us reason to pause. 
  4. Inflation. The official poverty thresholds are updated by the Consumer Price Index (CPI-U). The CPI-U overstates inflation in a few ways. The first is substitution bias. If a price of a good, let's say oranges, increases substantially [relative to substitute goods], then consumers are more likely to choose the lower-price alternative. The second issue with the CPI-U is a quality bias. Over time, technological progress tends to increase the longevity and usefulness of a product. As an example, a computer in 1982 has much less capabilities and cost more than it does now. Third, there is a new product bias. Products are not introduced to the CPI's basket of goods until they become more commonplace. This means that the CPI misses the dramatic price drop with new technological products. Overstating inflation does not have implications just for poverty statistics, but with rate of return on investments and real GDP growth figures.

I don't mind having a conversation about the pervasiveness of poverty (particularly in comparison to other countries) and what we can do to mitigate it, but can we at least use statistics that tell a more accurate story so we know can properly diagnose?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

What Modern-Day Jews Can Learn From the Scapegoat Ritual

Judaism is not immune from that which is seemingly bizarre. Since we're approaching Yom Kippur, the practice that I have in mind is the scapegoat ritual. In the colloquial sense, a scapegoat is someone who blamed for the faults or wrongdoings of others. The modern-day concept of the scapegoat has some basis in the original scapegoat ritual that is in Leviticus 16. Essentially, the scapegoat ritual entailed using two goats: one for G-d and the other "for Azazel" (לעזאזל). The goat for G-d was sacrificed in a purification offering (Leviticus 16:9). What happened with the goat "for Azazel"? The High Priest would lay his hands on that goat, confess over it the sins and transgressions of Israel, thereby [symbolically] transferring the Jewish people's sins to the goat. The goat is then set free into the wilderness (Leviticus 16:20-22).

There hasn't been a Temple for over two millennia. Even when there was a Temple, the passage comes with a bigger issue: vicarious atonement. The fact that one can sin all year and have their sins transferred to a goat is, in all honesty, un-Jewish. I'm not saying that simply because Christians like using this passage to make some unfounded parallel between the scapegoat and Jesus, although if the sacrifice were that powerful, why would it need to be done every year? But I digress.

The scapegoat ritual is perturbing upon first glance because if taken literally, it means we don't have to care about the moral or ethical implications of our actions. "Why be good if the goat can absolve me of my sins?" It's the same reason I have an issue with the "Jewish" practice of kapparot (כפרות). Much like I do with other practices, I have to wonder whether the goat was literally supposed to atone for our sins or whether the ritual is an action-based meditation (e.g., tashlich) in which we are supposed to be motivated to something else.

Maybe the ritual symbolizes that instead of life being dictated by fate or random occurrences, we are meant to live a life with meaning and moral imperative. Maybe it symbolizes that while we have to pay a price for our sins (i.e., the first goat), we still need to confess our sins and do our best to uproot them from our lives. That is why interestingly enough, the most of the steps of teshuvah (repentance) are in the scapegoat ritual. In the scapegoat ritual, we realize we have sinned. We have to offer something to [do our best to] reverse the effects of the sin. We also have to confess our sins. The trick to this is that last step of teshuvah, which is that we make sure we don't commit the same sin again. Perhaps the fact that the scapegoat ritual was done every year, instead of as a one-time ritual, is to remind us that keeping ourselves in check and not screwing up is not a task for the fainthearted. Whether we revert back to a sin or shortcoming is up to the individual, not some goat dispatched in the wilderness. Even if the goat literally was meant to absolve us from sin for the previous year, we decide our own fate in terms of whether we choose to err in a certain fashion.

The great rabbi Maimonides (Rambam) viewed the scapegoat figuratively (Guide for the Perplexed, III, xlvi). In the Guide for the Perplexed, Rambam says that it's literally "not a sacrifice to Azazel, G-d forbid." For Rambam, the purpose of the ritual is to be a powerful allegory that impresses upon the mind of the individual that sins lead him to a wasteland. Ultimately, it was to be a spiritual wake-up call and turn back to G-d in teshuvah. Although we don't have a scapegoat ritual anymore, I hope we can all find that something that can wake us up and engender real change to make us more spiritual, more morally upright, and better human beings.

גמר חתימה טובה

Thursday, September 17, 2015

China's One-Child Policy at 35: Successful Family Planning or Demographic Nightmare?

Family planning policy can be quite the hot button issue because, at least in the context of the Western world, it ranges from whether abortion should legally be a choice or whether employers should be mandated to provide birth control to their employees. It wouldn't cross the minds of most of us in the Western world to debate the merits of the government mandating abortions. However, if we were looking at this from a Sinocentric perspective, it would be the sort of public policy debate one would be having. Tomorrow will be the thirty-fifth anniversary in which the Chinese government enacted the One-Child Policy (计划生育政策). The reason for such draconian policy was social engineering. The Chinese government was worried about the economic and social impacts of overpopulation, and thought that limiting childbearing to one child per family was a good idea.

While the One-Child Policy is administered by the Ministry of Health, it is enforced at the provincial level and experiences varied levels of enforcement. The Chinese government has used heavy fines, firing people from their jobs, and forced sterilization and abortions to keep population growth at a minimum. At this juncture, the laws have been relaxed enough where the law de facto has become a Two-Child Policy for many of the provinces. Regardless of the extent to which the laws have been relaxed, the law has been in place with enough force where it has had impact. According to the Chinese government, the have been up to 400 million prevented births due to the One-Child Policy. Setting the moral implications aside for a moment (as hard as that might be), let's ask ourselves whether it was good public policy.

Let's start with China's fertility rate. After all, it was the fear of excess population growth that triggered the One-Child Policy in the first place. Per the diagram from Pew Research [below], what we see is that the fertility peaked at about 6.0 in the mid-1960s and took a sharp decline by the late 1970s to less than 3.0, which was when Chinese government officials started to consider the One-Child Policy.

Source: Pew Research

One of the major issues with the One-Child Policy is that the Chinese government includes prevented births from the 1970s, which is 10 years before the One-Child Policy is enacted. Peer countries also had similar fertility rate declines in the latter twentieth century. As such, the vast majority of births had been averted due to a naturally declining fertility rate, not because of the One-Child Policy (Wang et al., 2013, p. 121). Even if the One-Child Policy never was enacted, China's fertility rate probably would have been around 1.5 by 2010 (ibid., p. 122). There ended up being 50 million families with only one child (ibid., p. 124). While it would be tenuous to assume that every single of those 50 million families opted for one child only because of the policy, it does at least bring the number of averted births done considerably from the commonly touted number of 400 million.

While the impact of the One-Child Policy was less minimal relative to what the Chinese government estimated, the One-Child Policy still impacted the sex ratio in China (ibid., p. 123). While part of the preference towards males is due to historical patriarchal views (e.g., ancestral worship, property inheritance), it more so has to do with the fact that sons are preferred to help maintain farmland in the rural areas. This de facto gendercide is perturbing to say the least.  The United Nations Population Fund points out that while the sex ratio ticked up a little bit between 1964 and 1982 [to 109:100, which is slightly above the natural sex ratio of 105:100], the ratio was really exacerbated after the One-Child Policy took into effect. When looking at the difference between rural areas and urban areas, the sex ratio is less skewed in urban areas (i.e., the ratio is currently 112:100 in urban areas versus 119:100 in rural areas) since the incentive for son preference is smaller. I have to wonder whether the One-Child Policy has been responsible for an insanely high household savings rate [to the point where people won't spend to help boost the economy] or fewer married men resulted in higher crime rates.

Then there is the matter of the dependency ratio. By 2050, there will only be about two workers to support each retiree (Howden and Zhou, 2014, p. 19). Chinese families face the "4-2-1 dilemma" in which four grandparents are supported by two parents, and two parents supported by one child. This imbalance puts quite the pressure on younger generations to support their elders. China is facing an acute worker shortage. By 2050, it is projected by the United Nations that 13.7 percent of the population will be over 65 years of age, and only 48 percent of the population will be of working age (ibid., p. 21). This downward pressure will be felt in China's GDP growth, which the Chinese government regrettably uses as its sole metric of economic success. None of this gets into the distinct possibility that the One-Child Policy has exacerbated the female suicide rate.

Postscript: Even though its effects have been exaggerated, the One-Child Policy still has caused damage to Chinese society. The One-Child Policy violates the choices of women over the bodies, changed kin relations in Chinese culture, reduced the propensity to conceive (Howden and Zhou, p. 22), created a long-term labor shortage, and it adversely altered sex and dependency ratios. In terms of demographics, China's numbers are going down and will continue going down to the point where China's population might actually decrease. China's focus should not be on a population boom, but rather what to do with its lower fertility rate. China can change its sex ratio, but much like South Korea, such change takes time (Chung and Gupta, 2007).

Increasing fertility rates will face the uphill battles of economic development, urbanization, and cultural shifts, all of which disincentivize Chinese women to procreate. The problem is that China's fertility rate is at 1.5, which is well below replacement rates. Since countries with fertility rates below 1.5 have not been able to recover, I have to wonder if it's too late for China.

Population-boosting policies require more time for its results to take in effect, which is just another way of saying that China is an inevitable, ticking demographic time bomb waiting to happen. Demographically speaking, anything China would do to ameliorate the situation (and that includes reversing the enactment of the One-Child Policy this very second) will take at least three decades to take into effect.