Doomsday Graphs

Years ago, I read The Population Bomb by Paul and Anne Ehrlich. The Ehrlichs saw population racing out of control worldwide, outstripping our abilities to feed and support all the new mouths.  Widespread famines in the 1970s and 1980s were on the horizon (the book published in 1968) and we were reaching a critical point when earth's carrying capacity would be exceeded.

The Ehrlichs recommended a system of triage, characterizing whole nations as savable or basket cases. India was one of those basket cases.  Resources should be focused on the nations that stood half a chance, they argued.

It was alarming.  No, it was frightening. Zero population growth became the goal of a generation. We looked down upon anyone with more than two children, as though that were the ultimate expression of selfish disregard for the rest of the world.

But it was the graphs, those crazy scary graphs that really caught us.  Consider the trajectory here of world population growth:

The eye follows that line, imagines it beyond 2010, on into 2050, 2100.  Obviously the growth rate would be unsustainable.

But since 1970, since the Population Bomb, the developing world has indeed been, well, developing. I was in India in 1972.  The dire poverty and hopelessness overwhelmed me at the time. India then had 600 million people. 90% of them lived in severe poverty.  Today, India has twice as many people and 40% are in poverty.  India is a technology center and teems with factories and shopping centers.  India's farms are second in the world in total agricultural output. (The US is first)

While famines still persist, they are due to a combination of droughts and political instability, not food shortages. It has been war zones like Sudan, Ethiopia and Congo that face famines in modern times. 

The graph above predicted about 7 billion people on earth today.  That's actually about right.  But let's look at the rest of that graph, based on higher standards of living around the world, increased infant survival rates, improved contraceptive availability and women's education -- yes, those are the factors that matter.

What happened to that scary steep line?  It leveled off and is expected to actually reduce somewhat over the next 50 years. When families are more prosperous and when women have opportunities, children become a financial liability instead of financial assets.  Put another way, kids are expensive.  They cost, they don't contribute (in work).  Families therefore choose to have fewer of them.  And that is what is happening.  Global poverty is on the decline.

"The share of people in the developing world who live in extreme poverty has been reduced from 1 in 2 in 1980 to 1 in 5 today, according to the World Bank. Now the aim is to reduce that to almost zero by 2030." (Nicholas Kristof, NY Times, 28 Sept 2013)
I've seen a lot of those scary graphs lately and each time, I'm newly startled.  We should be.  But sometimes, just sometimes, those graphs are incomplete.  They may not turn out to be lines, like the world population graph, they could become parabolas.  It won't happen by doing nothing, but it could happen by doing something.

Here are the projections from the Social Security Administration on future and past payouts from Social Security and Medicare.  The blue line is Social Security; the red line is Medicare.  Note the trajectory of the line from 2010 until 2030.  Clearly there's an explosion of payments that also can not be sustainable.

But then take a look at the rest of the graph. What you're seeing is the bubble of baby boomers, those who paid in over their entire working lives, and now reach retirement and begin to withdraw.  Behind them however, are smaller generations and the graph stabilizes.

One of my favorites was the graph shared by Republicans before the 2012 election regarding gasoline prices.  The proponents correctly showed that between President Obama's inauguration and the campaign, gasoline prices had doubled.  Here is the chart:

Shocking, isn't it? Of course, few of us can remember $1.87 gasoline, so we were skeptical.  But in fact, the chart is correct.  But dishonest nevertheless.  Here's the rest of that chart:

You probably recall that the President was sworn into office just as the worldwide economy was crashing to a halt.  Gasoline prices tanked (excuse the pun), and fell precipitously in 2009.  But the prices in the anti-Obama graph above are carefully selected to create an impression that is misleading.

Today I read an article in conservative media about government debt held by the public soaring into the stratosphere.  The article left the impression that the Obama government has vastly overspent and inflated the national debt.  The reality though, was that the share of debt owed to Social Security was temporarily offset during the two years of the Social Security tax cut (2% from 2010-2012 as part of the stimulus) by public bonds.

Cherry-picking your data is done by both sides.  We want our numbers to confirm our version of the facts.  But next time you see some alarming statistics, do a little research.  Find out if what you're seeing is cherry-picked and therefore distorted or whether it truly shows a disturbing trend.

It won't be as fun but at least it will be true.