A New Measure of Development: Well-being

Even economists aren't satisfied with gross domestic product and incomes anymore.  Now we also want to know how happy people are and how much they feel they can realize their potential. 

What's the best measure of progress in the global economy?  Even economists aren't satisfied with gross domestic product and incomes anymore.  Now we also want to know how happy people are and how much they feel they can realize their potential.  These are the right goals for economic policy, but pursuing them raises some difficult questions.  How can we compare one person's well-being to another's?  Can we put a dollar value on well-being, so we know how much to spend on it?


For the past couple of decades, people working in health care have been trying to answer these questions.  Health care is costly, and getting the most bang for the buck means making tradeoffs between people's well-being.  Now, the same methodology is being applied to another field where funding is scarce: aid for global development.  At the Overseas Development Institute in London, Claire Melamed and her colleagues are at the forefront of this exciting and essential new approach.  They answered a few of my questions this week:

Econ201: Why is it important to measure people's well-being rather than their life expectancies, incomes, etc?

ODI: This project is less about measuring well-being directly than about trying to understand how much different components of well-being (income, health, etc.) contribute to people's own sense of how their lives are.  So we are not proposing a move away from objective measures entirely, but are suggesting that as an input into policy and resource  allocation decisions it would be useful to know more about how people value the different components of what is sometimes called 'well-being'.

Econ201: Why do we need a measure of well-being that is standard across many groups of people?

ODI: Because policy decisions are made with reference to different groups - so that a decision to allocate resources for an intervention that affects one group will have an impact on the resources available to spend on other groups.  A common measure would help people making these decisions to work out how overall needs differ between groups and what they are getting from their spend in different areas.

We are also trying to think about how different groups of people value different things. It would be perfectly possible that the result is that the instrument we end up with has to be modified for different country contexts for example. What we are proposing is a standard instrument to allocate resources but the weights that each component are assigned in the instrument could vary across groups of people. This also is the case in health; the EQ-5D for instance is evaluated in different countries and groups of people to obtain different sets of weights for each of the health dimensions.

Econ201: Health is a fairly specific area, so the questions you can ask to compute measures like quality-adjusted life years and the like are somewhat limited.  Well-being is much broader, with many potential contributors.  How will you constrain the methodology to make it manageable?

ODI: This was the subject of much discussion at a recent workshop with health economists and development experts to discuss this methodology.  The health people felt that what they were trying to measure was also pretty broad, so in some ways the expansion was less than we had perhaps thought. The key thing to keep in mind is what is relevant  for public policy interventions and what is measurable in a fairly consistent way. We could, as a first step, limit the dimensions of well-being to those which are likely to be the subject of policy or spending interventions - so, for example, religious belief, which we know is important to well-being, could be excluded.  This will be one of the areas we explore in the pilot project. 

Econ201: Why do you think 'deprived' people would have different contributors to well-being than wealthier people?  Has income been shown to change the health metrics you're using as models? Have other factors?

ODI: This is very much an open and debated question, and I am not at all sure that they would have systematically different preferences - again, this is a question for the pilot project. We are also very interested in finding out if poor people have preferences which are different to government officials or aid workers - which would be quite illuminating for thinking about the politics of aid and development interventions.

Econ201: To what degree are you looking into evaluation of well-being over time?  In the aid community, should the relative values of well-being today and well-being in the future depend on the donor's preferences or the beneficiaries' preferences?

ODI: One of things this can help us explore is how much donor and beneficiary preferences differ and in what ways. A pilot project could only give us a snapshot, but if it is successful it would be interesting to keep updating the data to review any changes (as they do in the health sector).

Econ201: Could the tools that you are creating for global development eventually complement or replace existing metrics for evaluating social and economic policy? 

ODI: Complement yes, I very much hope so! Replace - not entirely, as I think there is information that won't be captured by this project which is still important.

You can follow Claire on Twitter at @clairemelamed to read about the progress of her project.

Image Credit: Atakan Sevgi/Flickr

Trusting your instincts is lazy: Poker pro Liv Boeree on Big Think Edge

International poker champion Liv Boeree teaches decision-making for Big Think Edge.

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Are you an overbuyer or an underbuyer?

One way to limit clutter is by being mindful of your spending.

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  • Overbuyers are people who love to buy — they stockpile things as a result. These are individuals who are prone to run out of space in trying to store their stuff and they may even lose track of what — and how much of what — they have.
  • One way overbuyers can limit their waste, both money and space wise, is by storing items at the store, and then buy them when they really need them.
  • Underbuyers tend to go to extraordinary lengths to not buy things. They save money and do fewer errands, however, they often make do with shabby personal items. They may also, when they finally decide to go out to buy a product, go without entirely because the item may no longer be available.

Five Hawks Down: watch the tragic migration of six Californian raptors

Tracking project establishes northern Argentina is wintering ground of Swainson's hawks

Image: @TrackingTalons / Ruland Kolen
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  • Watch these six dots move across the map and be moved yourself: this is a story about coming of age, discovery, hardship, death and survival.
  • Each dot is a tag attached to the talon of a Swainson's Hawk. We follow them on their very first migration, from northern California all the way down to Argentina.
  • After one year, only one is still alive.

Discovered: destination Argentina

Image: @TrackingTalons

Young Swainson's hawks were found to migrate to northern Argentina

The Buteo swainsoni is a slim, graceful hawk that nests from the Great Plains all the way to northern California.

It feeds mainly on insects, but will also prey on rodents, snakes and birds when raising their young. These learn to fly about 45 days after hatching but may remain with their parents until fall migration, building up flying skills and fat reserves.

A common sight in summer over the Prairies and the West, Swainson's hawks disappear every autumn. While it was assumed they migrated south, it was long unclear precisely where they went.

A group of researchers that has been studying raptors in northern California for over 40 years has now established exactly where young Swainson's hawks go in winter. The story of their odyssey, summarised in a 30-second clip (scroll down), is both amazing and shocking.

Harnessing the hawks

Image: @TrackingTalons, found here on imgur.

A Swainson's hawk, with tracking device.

The team harnessed six Swainson's hawks in July, as they were six weeks old and just learning to fly. The clip covers 14 months, until next August – so basically, the first year of flight.

Each harness contains a solar-powered tracker and weighs 20 grams, which represents just 3% of the bird's body weight. To minimise the burden, only females were harnessed: as with most raptors, Swainson's hawk females generally are bigger than males.

The first shock occurs just one month (or about 2.4 seconds) from the start of the clip: the first dot disappears. The first casualty. A fledgling no more than two months old, who never made it further than 20 miles from its nest.

By that time, the remaining five are well on their way, clustering around the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas. Swainson's hawks usually travel at around 40 mph (65 km/h) but can almost double that speed when they're stooping (i.e. dive down, especially when attacking prey).

'Migration unrest'

There's a strong genetic component to migration. As usual, the Germans have nice single word to summarise this complex concept: Zugunruhe ('tsook-n-roowa'), literally: 'migration unrest' (1). It denotes the seasonal urge of migratory animals – especially birds – to get on their way. Zugunruhe exhibits especially as restless behaviour around nightfall. The number of nights on which it occurs is apparently higher if the distance to be travelled is longer.

The birds may have the urge to go south, but genetics doesn't tell them the exact route. They have to find that out by trial and error. Hence the circling about by the specimens in this clip: they're getting a sense of where to find food and which direction to go. Their migratory paths will be refined by experience – if they're lucky enough to survive that long.

Each bird flies solo: their paths often strongly diverge, and if they seem to meet up occasionally, that's just an illusion: even when the dots are close together, they can still be dozens if not hundreds of miles apart.

Panama snack stop

Image: @TrackingTalons

The Central American isthmus is a major bird migration corridor

They generally follow the same route as it is the path of least resistance: follow mountain ranges, stay over land. Like most raptors, Swainson's hawks migration paths are land-based: not just so they can roost at night, but mainly to benefit from the thermals and updrafts to keep them aloft. That reduces the need to flap wings, and thus their energy spend – even though the trip will take longer that way.

As this clip demonstrates, the land-migration imperative means the Central American isthmus is a hotspot for bird migration. Indeed, Panama and Costa Rica are favourite destinations for bird watchers, when the season's right. A bit to the north, Veracruz in Mexico is another bird migration hotspot.

It's thought most hawks don't eat at all on migration. This clip shows an exception to that rule: on the way back, one bird takes an extended stopover of a couple of weeks in Panama, probably spending its time there foraging for food.

So, when they finally arrive in northern Argentina, after 6 to 8 weeks' migration, the hawks are pretty famished. Until a few decades ago, they fed on locusts. For their own reasons, local farmers have been getting rid of those. The hawks now concentrate on grasshoppers, and basically anything else that's edible.

For first-time visitors, finding what they need is not easy. Three of the five dots go dark. These birds probably died from starvation. But two birds thrive: they roam the region until winter rears its head in South America, and it's time to head back north again, where summer is getting under way.

Both dots make it back across the border, but unfortunately, right at the end of the clip, one of the surviving two birds expires.

Harsh, but not unusual

Image: @TrackingTalons, found here on imgur.

This old lady is 27 years old, but still nesting.

While a one-in-six survival rate may seem alarmingly harsh, it's not that unusual. First-year mortality for Swainson's Hawks is between 50% and 80%. Disease, starvation, predators and power lines – to name just a few common causes of death - take out a big number.

Only 10% to 15% of the young 'uns make it past their third or fourth year into adulthood, but from then on, annual survival rates are much better: around 90%. Adult Swainson's Hawks can expect to live into their low teens. There's one documented example of a female Swainson's Hawk in the wild who was at least 27 years old (and still nesting!)

The Californian population of Swainson's Hawks plummeted by about 90% at the end of last century but is now again increasing well. The monitoring project that produced this clip has been going for about four decades but is seeing its funding dry up. Check them out and consider supporting them (see details below).

Image: Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

Migration trajectory of B95, the 'Moonbird'.

Not all migrating birds shun the ocean. Here's an incredible map of an incredible migration path that's even longer than that of the Swainson's hawks.

In February 1995, a red knot (Calidris canutus rufa) in Tierra del Fuego (southern Argentina) was banded with the tag B95. That particular bird, likely born in 1993, was recaptured at least three times and resighted as recently as May 2014, in the Canadian Arctic.

B95 is more commonly known as 'Moonbird', because the length of its annual migration (app. 20,000 miles; 32,000 km) combined with its extreme longevity (if still alive, it's 25-26 years old now) means its total lifetime flight exceeds the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

As many other shorebirds do, the red knot takes the Atlantic Flyway hugging the coastline and crossing to South America via the ocean.

B95 has become the poster bird of conservationists in both North and South America. A book titled Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 (2012) received numerous awards, B95 has a statue in Mispillion Harbor on Delaware Bay and the City of Rio Grande on Tierra del Fuego has proclaimed B95 its natural ambassador.

Perhaps one day the nameless Swainson's Hawks in this clip, fallen in service of their ancestral instincts – against the odds of human increasing interference – will receive a similar honour.

Migration clip found here at the DataIsBeautiful subreddit. Read through the comments to learn a lot more about Swainson's Hawks, and raptors in general.

Check out the California raptor tracking programme 'Tracking Talons' on Twitter at @TrackingTalons, on their Facebook page, and on their website.

Strange Maps #965

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

(1) 'Zug' is a wonderfully polyvalent German word. It can mean: a train, a chess move, a characteristic, a stroke, a draft (of a plan), a gulp (of air), a drag (from a cigarette), a swig (from a bottle), and more.

A new study has investigated who watched the ISIS beheading videos, why, and what effect it had on them

This is the first study to explore not only what percentage of people in the general population choose to watch videos of graphic real-life violence, but also why.

Mind & Brain

In the summer of 2014, two videos were released that shocked the world. They showed the beheadings, by ISIS, of two American journalists – first, James Foley and then Steven Sotloff. Though the videos were widely discussed on TV, print and online news, most outlets did not show the full footage. However, it was not difficult to find links to the videos online.

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