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Demography Roundup #10
The global "democratic recession" continues + a surprising trend in cancer rates and growing momentum behind cell phone bans.
#1: In 2022, democratic backsliding continued for the sixth year in a row.
For much of the past decade, indexes tracking the state and quality of democracy around the world have uniformly painted a bleak picture of declining democracy and fewer freedoms. (See “Democracy Keeps Declining Worldwide.”) The latest Global State of Democracy report, from the Stockholm-based IGO International IDEA, is no exception.
Much like similar reports from Freedom House and V-Dem Institute, International IDEA analyzes democratic trends in 173 countries and assigns performance scores based on four categories: political representation, rights, rule of law, and political participation.
In 2022, countries with net declines in democratic performance outnumbered those with net advances for the sixth consecutive year. This is the longest period of decline since records began in 1975.
The biggest declines were seen in representation (e.g., credible elections, effective legislatures) and in the rule of law (e.g., judicial independence, predictable law enforcement, absence of corruption), which occurred in every region worldwide. The rights category remained largely stable. So did participation, which the authors of the report paint as a bright spot, stating that “scores remained surprisingly high even in countries with a low level of democratic performance at an institutional level.”
IMO, this is not really encouraging. While institutions such as effective representation (including freedom of assembly and discussion) together with the impartial rule of law (including an independent judiciary and media) are all inextricably part of a healthy liberal democracy, political participation can remain high even in places that are undemocratic. Having citizens who vote in plebiscites and can be energized at will via surveilled social media means little if such civic energy merely rubber-stamps a strongman. As for individual rights, these can be abrogated without much notice if no one is free to notice or comment. Take a look at Hong Kong today.
When modern democracies begin backsliding, they typically revert to a crudely majoritarian version of democracy in which dictators identify the popular will with their own. At a time of crisis, any democracy (including the United States) can be and has been pushed to adopt more authoritarian governance, at least for a short period. The danger, of course, is that the short period may never end—or, worse, that aspiring dictators will themselves foment and aggravate the crisis mood in order to justify their own continuing rule. In virtually all of today’s backtracking democracies, from Myanmar and Afghanistan to Russia and Brazil, leaders see themselves as locked in mortal combat against external adversaries and internal threats, from treachery to corruption.
#2: A new mystery: Why are young women developing lung cancer at higher rates than young men?
Over the last few decades, the decline in lung cancer has been a great American success story. Between 1992 and 2020, the rate of new cases per 100K people declined by -44.5%. And the death rate declined by -46.0%. This trend is primarily due to the dramatic fall in cigarette smoking. (See “Cigarette Smoking Rate Hits New Low” and “The Dramatic Decline in Cancer Mortality.”)
But now a gender imbalance is appearing. According to a recent paper by researchers at the American Cancer Society, between 2000 and 2019, the fall in lung cancer incidence was steeper among men than women. As a result, women ages 35-54 are now diagnosed with lung cancer at slightly higher rates than men of the same age. For example, in the 50-54 age bracket, rates decreased by -44% among men but only -20% among women. Now the incidence rate among this cohort is 36.8 for men vs. 38.5 for women.
This gender disparity is puzzling to researchers. Women have historically smoked less than men. Moreover, the share of lung cancer patients who have never smoked is higher among women than among men (16% vs. 10%).
Experts have floated several theories. It’s possible that women are more exposed to residential carcinogens like asbestos and radon, since they spend more time indoors than men. Another idea is that women may metabolize carcinogens differently. One study has suggested that women are more susceptible to air pollution. But until more research is conducted, we can’t be certain.
#3: “We See It—We Take It”: Florida’s statewide ban on student cell phones.
Parents, educators, and policymakers are increasingly concerned about the effects of social media on today’s youth. Many fear that it facilitates screen addiction, mental distress, body image issues, lower grades, and cyberbullying. (See “Demography Roundup #9.”)
Now Florida has become the first state to take decisive action: In May, the state passed a law that prohibits phone use during class time in all public schools. The policy at Hillsborough County Schools declares: “We see it—we take it.” And Florida’s Orange County, the 8th largest school district in the country, has gone a step further. Last summer, the school board voted unanimously to ban phones during all school hours, not just instructional time. If phones aren’t turned off and in students’ backpacks, they are immediately confiscated. A handful of other public schools (including schools in South Portland, Maine and Charlottesville, Virginia) have implemented similar policies.
While it’s too soon to see the effects of these policies, anecdotal reports from teachers and (even) students are positive. The biggest obstacle to phone bans may be protective Gen-X moms and dads. Some parents in Orange County say they agree with the ban in principle but have a hard time accepting that they can’t communicate with their children during school hours. Ultimately, I suspect most adults agree that youth phone use is out of control, and they will eventually change their expectations for constant communication.
Looking forward, expect these bans to become more common. Remember, “tech-lash” is one issue with bipartisan support. (See “Americans Don’t Trust Big Tech.”)
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