Monday Musings

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Start with the brilliant blog post on our most underestimated president, Ulysses S. Grant, from chicagoboyz's Lexington Green.

Here's some more discussion of the Iraqi oil trust proposal, which I (and, apparently, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton) have been pushing for three years. Here is a list of possible objections to the idea by economist Megan McArdle. And some good answers from Ilya Solmin of the Volokh Conspiracy. It seems to me that the problems of determining who's eligible and of setting up a reliable banking system should be readily solvable. And I don't think a payment in the magnitude of $500per person per year is going to discourage many people from working. More likely, many will use it and the guarantee of similar cash flow in the future as capital to set up businesses.

Finally, you've got to watch this two-minute video, showing how the new Conservative Party leader David Cameron has been copying the speaking style and even the exact words of Tony Blair. Derisive commentary comes from Alastair Campbell, the tart-tongued in-house spin doctor at No. 10 Downing Street during most of Blair's prime ministership.

Access to Telephones

Reading the September 27 issue of the TLS, I came across an interesting review of a book called The Human Voice. (I can't find it online.) The reviewer, Jennifer Coates, is identified as professor of English language and linguistics at Roehampton University. The review was interesting, but I was stunned by one snarky sentence set off by parentheses.

"'We,' it should be noted, means the 20 percent of the world's population who have access to telephones." The tone was unmistakable: We rich people in rich countries should be ashamed of ourselves for having telephones when 80 percent of the people in the world don't. Nothing else in this review reeks of this tone. But surely, I thought, that 20 percent figure is wrong.

So I took a look at the Statistical Abstract of the United States online. Here is its onetable on telephone (and computer) ownership by country, for 45 countries in 2003. It makes for fascinating reading. The United States has 62 telephone mainlines per 100 people and 54 cellphone subscribers per 100 people. I take this as pretty much "universal access to telephones." Who in the United States doesn't have access to telephones?

Interestingly, some countries have higher rates of telephone mainlines: Canada (65), Germany (66), Norway (71), Sweden (74), Switzerland (73). I take it this is a function of smaller household size (and thus fewer children per 100 people) and more egalitarian income distribution. I suspect the rate of telephone mainlines is as high in Minnesota and Wisconsin as it is in Norway and Sweden.

Note that many countries have more cellphone subscribers than telephone mainlines. This is the case of advanced countries in Europe (Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom), middle- and low-income countries in Latin America (Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Venezuela), prosperous countries in Asia (Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand), developing countries in the Third World (China, Indonesia, South Africa), and Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. To some extent, this represents people buying cellphones who never had mainlines; they were notoriously hard to get from state-monopoly telephone companies.

Cellphones are well-nigh universal in some countries; here are the countries with 90 or more cellphones per 100 residents: Taiwan (114), Italy (102), Sweden (98), Czech Republic (96), Spain (92), United Kingdom (91), Finland (91), Norway (91), Greece (90).

So let's see how this adds up. Access to telephones is for all practical purposes 100 percent in the United States and Canada, in almost all of Europe and in Australia; and it's pretty close to universal in the economically advanced countries of East Asia. The United States and Canada represent about 5 percent of the world's people, the European Union 6 percent, and prosperous East Asia 4 percent (here's the Statistical Abstract table with populations as of 2004). So that's 15 percent of the world's people, almost every single one of whom has access to telephones.

In China, which has 20 percent of the people in the world, there are 21 telephone mainlines and 21 cellphones per 100 people; that looks like at least 25 percent and quite possibly more have access to telephones: That's an additional 5 percent of the world. In the biggest countries in Latin America, telephone access is less than universal but widespread: Here are the rates of mainlines and cellphones per 100 people in them: Brazil (22, 26), Mexico (16, 29), Colombia (18, 14), Argentina (22, 18). In Brazil, with half the population of South America, and Mexico, with far more people than Central America and the Caribbean combined, it would appear that at least one third of the people have access to telephones. That's 1.5 percent of the world in Brazil and Mexico alone.

Yes, there are still some places where few have access to phones. Cuba, for instance: six mainlines per 100 people and 0.31 cellphone. Communist dictatorships don't want people talking behind their backs. India, with about 17 percent of the world's population: five mainlines and two cellphones. Indonesia, the world's fifth-most-populous nation: four mainlines and nine cellphones. Pakistan: three mainlines and two cellphones. Sub-Saharan Africa: surely much more like this than like South Africa, with 11 mainlines and 36 cellphones. I'm not going to go through all the calculations, but it appears that well over 20 percent of the people in the world have access to telephones.

And remember that the figures for phone ownership are for 2003. Cellphone ownership has been skyrocketing in India for the past three years. It's probably been zooming up in China and other countries, too. It's sad that a majority of the world's people don't have ready access to telephones. But it seems that a lot more than 20 percent do–and that the numbers are rising every day.