Thursday, December 18, 2014

The poor problems of longer life expectancy

The December days in India are about family and friends, yes.  But, it is also about guavas.  Every day, I eat a guava with breakfast, a guava or two after lunch, and a guava in the evening.  I suppose it is a pedestrian fruit to the locals who don't seem to care for it at all.  The locals do not know what they are missing out on ;)

A couple of days after landing in Chennai, I walked--bag in hand--to the guava vendor at the street corner. He said it was forty rupees for a half-kilo.

"Forty?" I was genuinely surprised because I think it was only thirty a year ago.

"Usually it is fifty, sir.  Because you are a regular customer it is forty."

The guy was trying to humor this customer!

Two days ago, I walked over there to restock.  He was not there.  No guavas.  I came home empty-handed.  As if the cosmos were watching out for me, my sister came home with a bag of "farm-fresh" guavas.

I wonder about that vendor.  His livelihood is from selling guavas.  If he is sick and is unable to work, then he loses the day's income.

That's is no different from the story of the tailor whose business is nothing but a foot-pedaled sewing machine and needles and threads on the sidewalk.  He has been gone for a few days now because of an appendectomy.  The guy is now financially set back that much more.

Or, take the case of the maid, er, domestic help, at my parents' home.  An older woman, she has been off and on this past week because she is not feeling well.  Even though I have no idea about the local protocols, I told her that she need not come to work if she is not well.  My father joined me.  "At some age, you need to retire and let your sons and daughter take care of you" he said.

She snorted.  "Like they will take care of me.  If I don't earn my livelihood, I won't get any food."

I think about these real people as I consider the celebratory news on the global increase in life expectancy:
Global life expectancy for men and women has increased by about six years over the past two decades, according to one of the most comprehensive studies of global health done so far. The rise in global life expectancy is mainly the result of dramatic advances in health care.
In richer countries longer lifespans are spurred by a big drop in deaths related to heart disease, while poorer countries have seen big declines in the death of children from ailments such as pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria.
In the old country:
In India, which is on track to become the world’s most populous country in less than two decades, life expectancy at birth rose from 57.3 years to 64.2 years for males, and from 58.2 years to 68.5 years for females, according to the Lancet study.
Which is wonderful, indeed.  But, who takes care of the living? In the bad old days, when average life expectancy at birth was a low number, one really did not need to worry about the burdens of old age; there was no need when even living until forty was a big deal.  But, increasingly the worries of the old maid will be the stories all over the world.  As a species, and like other animals, we would have died much younger.  We have artificially lengthened our life spans and created hassles along the way.  I love the fact that we have been able to conquer many ailments that killed us by the millions.  But, am I in the minority to be concerned about the individual and collective responsibility over the tail end of our unnaturally long lives?

"I won't come tomorrow because I am going to the doctor" the maid said as she was leaving.  "But, I will be back the day after that."

All I could do was helplessly nod my head.

Later today, I hope to see the guava vendor.


If 2+2 = 4 in math, what is the answer in maths?

When I was a school kid, one grandmother lived with us for a few years till her death.  She was mighty pleased with whatever we said we did in our classes.  As one who was not schooled beyond the third grade, she was unfamiliar with many words we used that were from the English language.   We kids, of course, would immediately correct her, to which one of her responses, in Tamil, was "I didn't go to a fee-paying school system."

For instance, she referred to "maths" as "maks."  If only she knew that in the US, it was not even maths but math; I wonder how she would have pronounced "math."

The self-appointed spokesman for the "Queen's English" often harasses me for my American spellings, way more than the trouble I gave my grandmother.  So, what is the deal with maths v. math, right?
Americans and Canadians tend to say math while Brits and Australians opt for maths.
The welfare queen, er, Her Majesty, might think that maths is the correct contraction for mathematics.  Not so fast:
In the 17th century, English speakers fell under the spell of a peculiar linguistic fad. With some exceptions, they started to use a seemingly plural form of a field of study to refer to it in the singular. Enter physics, acoustics, economics, acrostics. The rule wasn’t applied uniformly: Disciplines that had been around for a while, such as arithmetic, had already rooted deeply enough in people’s minds to avoid the trend. But mathematic, the classical and somewhat arcane science of all things numerical, acquired an S.
Are you thinking what I am thinking after reading that?  "What the hell is acrostics?"  If you are "puzzled" then go figure that out yourself; I Do It Only Tuesdays!

Where was I?  Yes, about mathematic.  
Math as an autonomous term for mathematics came first to the United States, in 1890.
So, what about in Britain?
The British maths cropped up in 1911, and both terms leapt in usage for their respective countries during the second half of the 20th century.
Wait, so all these mean that there is no damn logic in why and how usages like math and maths developed?
Really, though, fate and chance factor into linguistic trends as much as anything. It only takes a few solemn Oxford whizzes talking about maths before much of London catches on, and then Australia, and then … you do the maths.
Which means if there were enough people like my grandmother, then we might have as well ended up with "maks"?  Well, you do the math! ;)

PS: remember how 2+2 =5 in 1984?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Psst, is it ok to drink? Drink water, that is!

A few years ago, before my trip to Tanzania, I went to get the yellow-fever shot and medication to keep malaria away from me.  The doctor advised getting a bunch of other precautionary shots as well, which seemed reasonable to me.  "Let's do a blood test first and see where you are" he said.  "Because you grew up in India, chances are high that you already had a Hep A infection" the doctor added.

What the what?  I had Hep A?  I remember a typhoid infection during my undergraduate years, which then relapsed as well.  But, Hep A?  When did that happen?  Why me?  Woe is me!

I forget now what the blood tests revealed.  But, there is a good reason why the doctor conjectured about Hep A:
Hepatitis A is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis A virus. The virus is primarily spread when an uninfected (and unvaccinated) person ingests food or water that is contaminated with the faeces of an infected person. The disease is closely associated with unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and poor personal hygiene.
Food or water "that is contaminated with the faeces of an infected person."  Gross, right?  But, ahem, remember the crap floating in the tasty Thamirabarani River back at my grandmother's village?  And who knows what else!

These days, there is bottled water everywhere in India.  Huge containers of potable water are delivered to homes, though I have no idea whether these are safe to drink.  I trust this is ok.  At this stage in my life, I don't want to know either ;)

My daily American life is a total contrast to this life in the old country.  There, I open the water faucet, place a glass under the clear flow and drink that tasty, sweet, cold water.  No worries about germs, infectious diseases, and crap.  One of the very, very few countries in this world where drinking the water from the faucet poses no health risk.  If Rome wasn't built in a day, water that is safe to drink did not happen overnight either; it began a century ago in the US:
The first standards for drinking water in America were developed by the Public Health Service in 1914, two years after the famed aviation brother Wilbur Wright died of typhoid. The federal standards addressed bacteriological threats, but the PHS’ powers were limited, so the standards applied only to interstate common carriers such as trains, buses, and ships. Water providers to these carriers had to use chlorination, and this soon covered all the major cities.
There are paranoid environmentalists and health-nutcases who, even now, think that chlorination is harmful to humans.  Maybe. But, I don't care.  Because, unsafe water is a gazillion times worse than chlorine in water.
Our tap water is safer than it has ever been. But continued protection of our drinking water for the next 40 years will require vigilance and perhaps a transformation. It should not be surprising that something as fundamental and pervasive as drinking water cannot be fully protected by a single statute. We are used to enjoying safe water and paying monthly bills as “consumer drinkers.” Fundamental protection of our drinking water will not occur, however, unless we take on the role of “citizen drinkers,” using our political process to demand effective protection through better enforcement of our laws and renewed scrutiny of activities threatening our source waters.
I will drink to that.  After I reach home, that is ;)

Monday, December 15, 2014

Is the middle-class American Dream dead?

"How's the US economy?" asked an old high school friend.  That is one of the questions he asks me every time we meet.  I suppose there is a professional interest too for him--his executive career is tied to the outsourced back-office operations of a US-based financial firm.

"The economy has definitely picked up" I replied.  And added the commentary that is not new in this blog: "but, the middle-class jobs are not there, which is a big problem."

A couple of days later, it was a similar question from a couple and I replayed my reply.  I continued with "my favorite examples are Facebook and WhatsApp.  They have created billions of dollars, but next to nothing in terms of jobs."

The American model that dominates our thinking is the experience for two generations from the early 1940s.  With a high school diploma, one clocked in and clocked out at work and was assured of a successful middle-class life.  Now, the US and the world are full of வேலையில்லா பட்டதாரிகள் (unemployed college graduates,) as an autorickshaw driver commented two days ago.

What happened?

Offshoring and automation happened.  The old middle class model has been obliterated.
Yes, the stock market is soaring, the unemployment rate is finally retreating after the Great Recession and the economy added 321,000 jobs last month. But all that growth has done nothing to boost pay for the typical American worker. Average wages haven’t risen over the last year, after adjusting for inflation. Real household median income is still lower than it was when the recession ended.
Make no mistake: The American middle class is in trouble.
I have been delivering this bottom-line of the middle class in trouble for a number of years now.  But, hey, who cares about what I say, right?  So, will let some other person say that instead!
Millions of American jobs disappeared during the 1990, 2001 and 2008 recessions. That’s what happens in recessions. But for decades after World War II, lost jobs came back when the economy picked up again. These times, they didn’t. And it was a particular sort of job that disappeared permanently in those downturns, economists from Duke University and the University of British Columbia have found: jobs that companies could easily outsource overseas or replace with a machine.
Economists call those jobs “middle-skill” jobs. They include a lot of factory work — the country is down about 5.5 million manufacturing jobs since 1990, according to the Labor Department — but also a lot of clerical and sales tasks that can be handled easily from a country where workers make a fraction of what they make here.
The sophistication in automation, which seems to have a Moore's Law equivalent of its own with the automation getting better and better every single day, means that there will be lesser and lesser demand for the "middle-skill" labor.  The American middle class model is doomed.  I don't see a way out of this at all.

Which is also why I increasingly find it very, very difficult to deal with students--at my university, they typically come from lower-middle-class and lower-income backgrounds, with the hope and promise that a college diploma will vault them into the prosperous lives promised to Americans.  If I give them my take along the lines of this and many other posts at this blog, I will not be even a little bit encouraging.  On the other hand, not telling them means wilful concealment of the truth as I see it.  Hopefully, some read this blog and the warning:
Even if they all earned degrees, who would hire them?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

My life as a middle-class academic ... is one gross lie!

Back when I was a kid, I gathered from family conversations that my people in Pattamadai and Sengottai were rich.  Which confused me because I didn't see any evidence of that wealth.  At our home, heck, we didn't even have a fridge because we couldn't afford one.  The old beaten up car had already been sold and my father bicycled to the store even though he was a part of the upper management in the company town.  "Rich, my ass!" is what I would have said if I had known such language back then ;)

I suppose they were framing it within the contexts of Sengottai and Pattamadai and Neyveli, while my yardstick was, well, my classmates and schoolmates, some of whom had cars and scooters and bikes and, yes, refrigerators.  "Rich" is a relative concept.

Poor and poverty is easy to define, but once past the abject poverty, are we poor or rich?  I, therefore, settled on identifying my family as "middle class." Sometimes I said "upper-middle class."  Of course, now I know better, but wisdom is always a day late!

Who might be the middle-class in India now?  A fairly straightforward question to ask, right?  The older I get, even simple questions become difficult, it feels like.
The rapid growth of the Indian economy over the past three decades has led to a substantial expansion of India’s “middle class”. This has triggered a robust debate over who in India actually belongs to the “middle class,” its size, composition, and political and social behaviour.
A "robust debate" means that this is no simple question.
But even if acceptable measures and hard data could be marshalled, they would still be ill-equipped to nail down a rather elusive concept: whether Indians actually believe and behave as if they are part of the middle class. Self-identification of class status is important because it suggests the possibility that Indians may behave in ways that are actually at odds with material realities.
To investigate this, the latest Lok survey asked respondents from across the country whether they considered their family to be a “middle class” family.
"the possibility that Indians may behave in ways that are actually at odds with material realities" is an interesting phrasing that immediately signals that there is something exciting coming.  So, what is that?
To our surprise, nearly half (49 per cent) of all survey respondents believed their family is a middle class family. There was, as one would expect, great variation in responses across states. For instance, while 68 per cent of respondents in Karnataka believed their family belonged to the middle class, just 29 per cent of respondents in Madhya Pradesh felt the same. Self-identification as middle class is expectedly more prevalent among urban respondents (56 per cent) but the share of rural individuals claiming to be middle class is also remarkably high (46 per cent).
It is a surprise because:
But the extent of “middle class” identification is striking, not simply because of its size or the fact that it seems to run counter to households’ own economic realities, but also because it appears to have powerful experiential effects on respondents’ social attitudes.
If only somebody would say all these in easy to understand words, right?  Here it is:
The results show an extraordinary tendency for people to consider themselves middle class even if they are in fact very poor. The study defined the "lower" annual income bracket as those earning RS 36,000 per year or less, which works out to approximately $1.50 per day. And yet 46 percent of urban residents in that income bracket reported that their families were "middle class," as did 44 percent of those in rural areas.
That's right, folks--even those earning a buck-and-a-half a day identify themselves as middle class.

The economic well-being is a state of mind, once past that horrible, abject poverty.  You are as rich or as poor as you think you are.

Which is why we folks who are rich--yes, you and I are part of the global rich, despite what my "poor" socialist colleagues claim--feel like we are sliding down from the middle class.  After all, our frames of reference are, well, those Facebook and Wall Street people we read about, who earn gazillions.  The football coach at the university in the town where I live earns in a year twice the total amount that I hope I will be able to earn before I die!  Won't I feel poor then?  Am I not justified in thinking, believing, that I am slipping down to the category of low-income, after having lived a life of "upper-middle class?"  Woe is me!

If only!

I am one heck of a rich man.  My parents were right (dammit!)--my people were rich.  To think otherwise is the grossest of insults to the happy "middle class" that earns even as low as $1.50 a day.