MethodLogical is now at

MethodLogical is now at

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Friday, March 25, 2011



The Horror of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic

Posted: 24 Mar 2011 01:08 PM PDT

In terms of incomprehensible enormity, what is commonly known as the “Spanish Flu” is in a league of its own. It is commonly estimated to have killed between 50 and 100 million people. If it were a genocidal dictator it would outrank all its peers by an order of magnitude. Compared with the World Wars, it .

In doing research on Indian census coding schemes for one of my projects, I just stumbled across this table that helps put the Great Influenza into perspective. Wikipedia cites a mortality rate of 5% in India from the 1918 pandemic. In that table, you can see that (ignoring other factors) it appears to have totally undone an entire decade of population growth in that country. Stunning.

Incidentally The Great Influenza is among my favorite books, a wonderful mix of medical history, scientific thriller, and horror novel. Read it if you want to freak out about the next flu strain that Adam brings up on this blog.

Idealizing the rural poor: American Heritage Edition

Posted: 24 Mar 2011 08:21 AM PDT

In a recent NYT article, Robert Shiller makes the case for indexing state-funded pensions to state GDP. This is a really sensible idea, but his framing device rubs me the wrong way:

NOT so very long ago, most Americans lived on farms, with three generations under one roof: grandparents, parents and children.

Farming was — and still is — a risky undertaking. Sometimes, you have good weather and abundant crops, sometimes bad weather and meager crops. How did our forebears manage their risks, which were as significant for them as the booms and busts of our 21st-century economy are to us?

In good times, all three generations consumed a lot. In bad times, all three consumed less. The risks were spread among the extended family. This is risk management at its most basic level. It is called sharing.

This is a perfectly good example of sharing the costs of aggregate volatility (although he makes that link poorly, waiting until the ). But that’s not why he chose it. Shiller repeatedly references “the old-time farm” to take advantage of Americans’ incorrect perception that things were “better” and “simpler” back in the old days. We commonly take a similar (and similarly incorrect) view of contemporary rural poverty around the world: witness the bullcrap-tacular email forward about the Mexican Fisherman and the American CEO.

I object to this kind of rhetoric because it feeds all sorts of misguided advocacy and political action. For example, people often campaign to ban so-called sweatshops because they do not realize how much worse the outside option is.

Hat tip on the Shiller piece: Ben Meiselman