Economic Geography

Mapping zones of wealth and poverty; illustrating the global geography of economic development

“Hell Joseon”:  The Paradoxes of South Korean Development

The paradoxes of South Korean development are profound indeed. On the one hand, the country’s rise from crushing poverty to glittering prosperity over the past 60 years has been nothing less than astounding. In 1960, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita gross national income of a miserable $120; today it is one of the wealthiest, with a median household income above those of France, the United Kingdom, and Japan. It has triumphed in the cultural sphere as well, with its music, films, and television shows gaining a huge global audience. Yet for all this success, there is a widespread mood of despondency among many South Koreans, signaled, some argue, by their unwillingness to reproduce. The country’s Total Fertility Rate (TFR) has recently plummeted to 0.7 children per woman, by far the lowest rate in the world. If this trend persists, the South Korean nation will soon begin to rapidly contract. Although mass migration could slow the decline, it faces substantial opposition on cultural grounds. It thus seems to many that South Korea faces a singularly bleak future of national decline.

One can argue, however, that that there is nothing particularly paradoxical about South Korea’s situation, given that all other highly developed countries, bar Israel, have below-replacement levels of fertility. But the broader paradox remains: can seemingly successful socio-economic development really be considered successful if it proves to be demographically unsustainable, dependent on continuing migration streams from less-developed countries whose own birthrates are declining, and which are increasingly opposed by populist-inclining, anti-immigration electorates?

But as many writers have argued, concerns about the current birth dearth may be no more firmly grounded than the earlier fears about a “population explosion” that would supposedly generate mass starvation across the world by the late twentieth century. Indefinitely extrapolating almost any trend can indicate impending calamity, but few persist long enough to reach that point. South Korea’s fertility rate could certainly rebound. And, as many argue, if one considers the fact that South Korea is one of the world’s most densely settled countries, population reduction should not necessarily be considered a negative outcome. Some would also contend that by foregoing childbearing, South Korea’s young adults are better able to enjoy the fruits of their country’s extraordinary economic ascent. Despite its paucity of children, South Korea can therefore still be regarded as a resounding success. As the noted economist and public intellectual Tyler Cowen has recently quipped, “South Korea in 1960 was as poor as Central Africa. Today, it’s a very nice, pretty wonderful country.”

The problem with such thinking, however, is that large proportion of young South Koreans strongly disagree, regarding their country as anything but “nice [and] pretty wonderful.” Since 2016, many of them have been denigrating it as “Hell Joseon” (“Joseon” being the name of early modern Korea, a poor, class-bound, and rigidly hierarchical society.) They have concluded that they have no worthwhile future to anticipate regardless of how hard they work. According to a Wikipedia article, “by 2019, the phrase [Hell Joseon] had been superseded by a new term, ‘Tal-Jo,’ a portmanteau comprising ‘leave’ and ‘Joseon,’ which might be best be translated as ‘Escape Hell.’” To do so, many are simply opting out, giving up on marriage, family, children, and more. Some evidence indicates that this trend is intensifying, propelled by the COVID pandemic but remaining firmly ensconced in its uncertain aftermath. According to one interpretation, many discouraged young adults are now abandoning all hope (see thetable below).

Those who have “given up,” however, represent a small minority of South Korea’s youth, with many more soldiering on through their country’s grueling educational and career-advancement systems. But the problems that the disaffected young have identified afflict the entire country and partially underlie its fertility collapse. These problems, it is essential to note, are not unique to South Korea. They are also found in Japan, China, and Taiwan, and are thus characteristic of East Asia as a whole. But they are more extreme in South Korea, where they have apparently generated an immediate demographic threat.

Ironically, the same trait that allowed South Korea’s breathtaking rise is now contributing to its pending decline: extraordinarily hard work from childhood until retirement. For a compelling fictionalized account of the grueling nature of South Korea’s educational system, I recommend the “Pied Piper” episode of the acclaimed television show Extraordinary Attorney Woo (season 1, episode 9). According to one poll, a lower percentage of South Korean children reported being “happy at school” than those of any other country. Exhausting schedules are also typical of the workplace. As reported in an insightful Washington Post article:

In this working culture, 14-hour days are the norm. In 2012, a left-leaning presidential candidate ran on the slogan: “A life with evenings.” Most frustrating of all, many young people say, is that their parents, who worked long hours to build the “Korean dream,” think the answer is just to put in more effort.

It is not just the long hours that that dishearten young adults, but also the conviction that they will not be able to succeed no matter how hard they work, feeling that the system is rigged against them. Although South Korea purports to be a meritocratic country in which anyone can get ahead by dint of diligence and intelligence, inherited class position, family and school connections, and even place of birth still matter a great deal. But for most parents, the belief in, and the desire for, upward class mobility for their children remains paramount, leading to huge investments in after-school schools and other forms of educational enrichment. The required expenditures are so large that having a second child often becomes financially impossible. This combination of financially stressed and educationally obsessed parents and emotionally stressed and deeply disillusioned children contributes to a yawning generational gap, undermining the cohesion of South Korean society.

As is the case in many other wealthy countries, the high cost of housing is another factor in South Korea’s declining birth rate. Many young couples cannot afford an apartment, let alone a house, large enough to accommodate more than one child. The lack of affordable housing in a country that is beginning to experience population decline might seem surprising, but it has been propelled several factors, including the continuing aggregation of people in a few major cities. Roughly half of the nation now lives in the greater Seoul metropolitan area. The country’s rural population, moreover, continues to shrink, although it is now so small (4.15 percent) that the pace of decline has slackened. Governmental policy, however, is probably more important – and far more perverse. As reported in a 2021 article in Foreign Policy:

The average price of an apartment in Seoul has doubled in the past five years under the current government’s misguided policies on mortgage rules and tax penalties. Four years ago, it would have taken 11 years’ worth of South Korea’s median annual household income to buy an apartment in Seoul. Now, it costs more than 18 years’ worth of income. Rents have shot up, leaving young people with limited savings and without a shelter.

Some observers have linked South Korea’s fertility implosion to its Confucian heritage, which will be the focus of the next GeoCurrents post.

“Hell Joseon”:  The Paradoxes of South Korean Development Read More »

Melbourne Vs. Sydney Revisited

Australia is an unusual country in having two metropolitan areas of roughly equal population that overshadow all others. As the tables posted below show, Melbourne and Sydney each have around five million inhabitants, roughly twice as many as third-ranking Brisbane. It is also not entirely clear which metropolis is larger. Although Sydney has generally received the honor, Melbourne is growing more rapidity and has reportedly “snatched back its crown as Australia’s largest city, knocking Sydney off the top spot.” (Different population figures are derived from different way of spatially delimiting the metro area.)

Few other countries have such dual top cities. The only one that come readily to my mind is Vietnam; Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) both have around eight million inhabitants, with the next largest, Haiphong, coming in at only two million. Such urban duality can lead to sharp cultural rivalry, which is indeed the case in both Australia and Vietnam.

Given their shared top position, Melbourne and Sydney’s differences are worth exploring. As a recent GeoCurrents post noted, Melbourne leans much more to the political left. But how else do they differ? Internet queries deliver mostly tourist-oriented information, focused on climate, sights and scenery, and dining and nightlife. Cultural, social, and economic comparisons are more difficult to find. Several sources, however, note that Melbourne is less expensive, which might be one reason why it is growing more quickly:

The rental prices in Melbourne are a lot more affordable than those in Sydney, which is probably the best thing about Melbourne  when compared to Sydney. It is estimated that the rent for a one-bedroom apartment located in the central business district of Sydney will be approximately AUD $2,689 (US $2127) per month. The same thing in the Australian city of Melbourne will set you back approximately $1,725 (or $1,364 in US currency).

Elevated housing costs in Sydney reflect the fact that it is wealthier than Melbourne, as can be seen on the paired maps posted below. Note that the top three categories on the Sydney median-family-income map are missing from Melbourne, while the lowest one is missing from Sydney (in Melbourne it is limited to the far peripheral division of Indi). I also included Perth, Western Australia’s only metropolis, in this map set for broader comparative purposes; its income profile is much more like that of Melbourne than that of Sydney. I was surprised to see these lower income figures for Perth, as Western Australia is the country’s richest state on a per capita basis, with a much higher level of GDP per person than either New South Wales or Victoria (see below). Non-metropolitan regions of New South Wales, however, do generally have lower average incomes than non-metropolitan parts of Western Australia (compare, for example, WA’s sparsely settled but mineral-rich Pilbara and NSW’s agrarian New England on the map below).



The more important distinction in income between Sydney and Melbourne, however, is that of differentiation. Although Sydney’s wealthiest division are richer than those of Melbourne, Sydney’s poorest division are slightly poorer than those of Melbourne. The areas of greater Melbourne with median weekly household income below 1,600 Australian dollars are all located in the exurban fringe, whereas those of Sydney form one the city’s main suburban cores. One might expect such income differentiation to lead to a more leftwing voting pattern in Sydney, but the opposite situation holds.

The remaining set of maps show some relatively muted but still significant differences between Australia’s two largest cities. Regarding educational attainment, central Melbourne and central Sydney look quite similar, but Melbourne’s suburbs have a slightly larger percentage of college graduates. Suburban Sydney is somewhat more religious than suburban Melbourne, which reflects the fact that it has a higher percentage of people born outside Australia (see the first to maps below). Both central Melbourne and central Sydney, however, have large immigrant populations and low levels of religious belief. In both metro areas – and presumable across the country – peripheral divisions have mostly Australia-born populations. Regarding marital states, it is notable that Sydney’s wealthy northern suburbs report higher rates of marriage than any electoral divisions of Melbourne.

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Former Imperial Boundaries and Population Density in Poland’s 2023 Election

Poland’s October 2023 election saw a sharp rebuke to the country’s illiberal, governing right-wing coalition. The United Right (ZP), led by the Law and Justice Party (PiS), saw its vote share* drop from 44.6 percent in 2019 to 35.4 percent, undermining its ability to form a new government. But this election was not a victory of the left, but rather of the center, or perhaps even the center-right, depending on how one classifies some of Poland’s political parties. The democratic-socialist Lewica Party (“The Left”) also saw a sharp decline, its vote-share dropping from 12.6 percent to 8.6 percent. In contrast, a sizable gain was realized by the main oppositional group, the centrist Civic Coalition, whose vote share rose from 27.4 to 30.7 percent. The biggest change, however, was the rise of the new Third Way (TD) coalition, which secured 14.4 percent of the vote. Although Third Way is usually regarded as centrist, the Wikipedia classifies it as center-right. Such discrepancies arise from the fact that this coalition’s various factions are ideologically diverse, some being much more centrist than others. But as Third Way overall is pro-EU and favors renewable energy, it is perhaps most accurate regarded, at least in the Polish context, as firmly in the center. It is also noteworthy, however, that Poland’s extreme-right did relatively well in this election, with the anti-EU Confederation for Liberty and Independence taking 7.2 percent of the vote, up from 6.8 in 2019, and the new There Is One Poland (PJJ) gaining another 1.6 percent. The PJJ party, which claims to be the “true right,” grew out of opposition to COVID restrictions and vaccine policies; it also seeks to increase coal mining.

Cartographically informed analyses of this election typically note that the imperial political boundaries that were imposed after the partition and annihilation of Poland in the late 1700s are still visible on the country’s electoral map. As The Economist’s article and accompanying map (see below) show, areas that were under Prussian (subsequently German) rule tended to vote for centrist, pro-EU parties, whereas those that were under Austrian and Russian rule were more inclined to support Euroskeptical, populist-nationalist parties. The same correlation was present in several earlier Polish elections. As The Economist explains:

[M]ost of the east belonged to tsarist Russia, where serfdom remained legal until 1861. By 1900 incomes in what is now western Poland were five times higher than in the east. This gap remains today: Poland’s four eastern provinces are all among the EU’s poorest 20 sub-national regions. Young people growing up in the east quickly move to larger cities, seeking education and private-sector jobs. Those who feel left behind have flocked to PiS, which offers both nationalist rhetoric and monetary hand-outs.

Such analysis is complicated, however, by the fact that most of the areas that had been under German rule had also been mostly populated by ethnic Germans. They were expelled after WWII, replaced mostly by ethnic Poles who had lived in the Russian-ruled east. The Economist explains this seeming paradox as follows:

The Soviet Union claimed a chunk of eastern Poland as the spoils of victory, while Germany was forced to relinquish its own eastern borderlands to Poland. The Polish government responded by resettling millions of people from the territory it lost to the areas it gained. Separated from their families’ fields and villages, these “repatriates” developed a more open and cosmopolitan identity, and grew less receptive to fist-thumping nationalism. Meanwhile, Catholicism remained strongest in Poland’s historic eastern heartland, which developed a fiery sense of pride and suspiciousness of change.


But while Poland’s former imperial divisions are an important factor in its current electoral geography, the situation is not a clear-cut as it might seem. The Economist’s featured map, for example, is based on administrative divisions at the powiat level; if one dives down to the more local gmina level, however, the correlation is no longer as obvious (see the maps below). Nor is The Economist’s economic generalizations about these former imperial divisions entirely accurate. As the Statistics Poland regional GDP map posted below shows, the Warmian–Masurian Voivodeship, formerly the southern half of Germany’s East Prussia, has Poland’s second-lowest level of per capita economic production. Another challenge to the imperial-legacy model of Polish electoral geography comes from comparisons of voting behavior and population density. A X-poster Thorongil notes – and maps (see below) – “a normal map shows the historical partition borders but the truth is that the opposition coalition’s most powerful vote centers are in Poland’s cities, big and small.”

As Thorongil’s map is difficult to interpret, I have tested his assertion by making a series of simpler maps. The first simply locates Poland largest cities on a detailed map of the 2023 election. As can be seen, urban gminy** gave a higher level of support to the centrist Civic Coalition than surrounding areas, but the correlation is by no means overwhelming. Comparing the electoral map to one of population density allows more precise assessment. To do so, I extracted spatial information from a detailed density map (below) and overlaid it on the 2023 electoral map; I also added dotted lines to roughly show the old imperial divisions. The first of these maps outlines Poland’s most sparsely inhabited areas, those with fewer than 50 persons per square kilometer. As can be seen, many of these areas in the former German zone supported United Right, seemingly upholding Thorongil’s density thesis over the imperial-legacy model. The next map outlines high- and medium-high density areas. As can be seen, high-density areas, marked with red and pink borders, had relatively high levels of support for the political center, but this linkage is stronger in the German zone than in the former Russian and Austrian zones. The correlation is not as close, however, in areas of medium-high density (200-100 persons per square kilometer). As can be seen, such areas surrounding the city of Poznan in the former German zone voted strongly for centrists, but most of those in the Katowice area, also in the former German zone, supported the United Right. A number of medium-density gminy in the Krakow (former Austrian) and Warsaw (former Russian) regions also supported United Right.

Both population density and imperial legacies were important factors in the 2023 Polish parliamentary election. But the situation is more complicated than it might appear, and other issues, many of which are of a more local nature, must also be considered. The next post will try to tease out some of them.

** This post considers only the election returns for Poland’s Sejm, its more powerful house of parliament, ignoring the senate vote.

** “Gminy” is the plural form of “gmina.”

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Neighborhood Stereotypes and Recent Voting Patterns in Auckland, New Zealand

Today’s post employs an unusual strategy for analyzing electoral geography, that of comparing local election results with neighborhood stereotypes. Here we look at the Auckland vote in New Zealand’s 2023 election, doing so in light of popular perceptions of different parts of the city as revealed by a detailed “judgmental map of Auckland” (published in 2017 in Newshub; see the previous post). To make the comparisons easier, I have overlaid maps of the 2023 election on sections of the stereotype map. My analysis of these combined maps is merely suggestive and is not informed by any firsthand knowledge of the city. It should thus be taken with a grain of salt.

We begin in the heart of the city, Auckland Central. The stereotypes of this Green-voting and strongly left-leaning electorate reflect its division into relatively rich and poor areas, an unexceptional feature for a central-city location: “expensive dining,” “hipsters,” “cruise ships,” “shows,” “porn,” “student ghetto,” “intensification,” and “done up.” The only term that I find confusing is “done up.” From a quick investigation of the term’s use in New Zealand, I infer that in this context it means “refurbished” or perhaps even “gentrified.” If this interpretation is correct, it is not a surprising designation for a Green-supporting area. As the map of the Green party-list vote in Auckland shows, support for the party is strongest near the urban core and declines in the peripheries (ignore the essentially unpopulated western expanse of New Lynn on the map).

The two Auckland electorates that selected candidates in the libertarian-leaning ACT Party, yellow-shaded Epsom and Tamaki, are affluent, inner-suburban communities. On the stereotypes map, Epson is prominently labeled “Double Grammar Zone,” a term that I originally thought might refer to a pretentious manner of speaking found among its well-off residents. Actually, the term is much more prosaic:

Three magical words significantly inflate the value and appeal of an exclusive group of Auckland residences. “Double Grammar Zone” is a most alluring catch-cry to many in this already searing hot market. Yes, these words offer the chance of access to the prestigious and successful Auckland Grammar School and Epsom Girls Grammar School. Experts have long pointed to the difference in price for properties located within the DGZ and noticed that gap widening as the city’s average house price continues to hit monthly record highs.

It is not surprising that residents of such an affluent neighborhood would support an anti-populist, economically conservative party. As the party-list vote map (below) shows, support for the ACT Party is highest in the city’s wealthy eastern fringe. In Epsom, the neighborhood labeled “professors” seems out-of-place; I can only assume that the voting patterns of this area are more like those of neighboring Auckland Central. At first glance, I found the “wankers” label mystifying, as I only understood this word as British term of general abuse that that originally denoted “masturbators.” The Urban Dictionary, however, claims that in New Zealand, Australia, and the UK, “wanker” primarily means “someone excessively and annoyingly pretentious and/or false, with a strong likelihood of working in the creative industries, especially ‘new media.’” I would not expect such “creative types,” however, to vote libertarian; perhaps this “wankerish” part of Epsom also has a different voting profile than the rest of the electorate. The label “Jon Ken” is even more mystifying; all that I could find when searching for that name was a nurse at an Auckland hospital.

The other ACT-supporting electorate in 2023, neighboring Tamaki, is labeled with several terms signifying establishment-oriented affluence: “yuppies,” “old-school suburbia,” “quite nice,” and “almost as nice.” The large-font label “Hannover Finance” refers to “a New Zealand non-bank finance company that focused on lending for high-risk property development that failed in 2010…” Its inclusion and prominence on the map perhaps reflect the common concern in Auckland about surging property prices. One label seems out-of-place for affluent Tamaki: “The Projects.” This term calls to my mind urban redevelopment initiatives in downtrodden neighborhoods. But the economic gradient between wealthy Tamaki and poor, Labour-voting Panumure-Otahutu (labeled “P-O” on the electorate map) to its south is steep, leading me to wonder whether the label has been placed a little too far to the north. But then again, the mapmakers have vastly greater knowledge of Auckland than I do.

The only electorate in the core region of Auckland that supported Labour in 2023 is Mount Albert. Its tags on the stereotype map suggest a relatively poor and ethnically diverse area that is changing as younger and more affluent people move in (“more hipsters,” “coffee,” “next to be gentrified,” and “halal.”) Such a district would be expected to heavily support both Labour and the Green Party, and that is exactly what one finds (see the map for the Green Party-list vote). I am confused, however, by the “Butcher’s” label in northern Mount Albert; perhaps it refers to upscale Omak Meats.

Two electorates in the southern part of the Auckland isthmus, Mount Rosekill and Maungskiekie, voted strongly for Labour in 2020 but switched to the National Party in 2023. Some of the labels placed here suggest a stable working- and lower-middle-class social environment: “alright suburbs,” “shabby suburbs,” and “panel beaters” (car-repair shops). “Mecca” and “noodles dumplings” probably indicate concentrations of immigrants from the Middle East and East Asia, respectively. (“McGehan Close,” to the contrary, denotes a street noted for its “hopelessness,” but it is located in Mount Albert, not Mount Rosekill, indicating either an error by the cartographer or one by me when I combined these maps.)

Labour’s main Auckland stronghold is in the southern part of the city (see the maps below). This is a decidedly poor and ethnically diverse area. The stereotype labels here are telling: “cleaners at your office,” “hardcase,” “Apia” (the capital of Samoa), and, in large font, “extra police resources.” The stark “extra police resources” tag, however, also extends into a much better-off electorate (Takanini), which switched from Labour to the National Party in 2023. To the north of Takanini are two relatively well-to-do electorates that have long supported the National Party and shunned Labour. One of them, Pakuranga, also has relatively high levels of support for ACT. Some of the stereotypes for this electorate, such as “bratty teens” and “wealthier bratty teens” are interesting, but I am especially intrigued by “paranoid South Africans.”

West Auckland (see the map below) includes another electorate that supported Labour in 2023, Kelston, although it did so by a relatively thin margin. Some of its stereotypes – such as “P-Labs” (meth labs) and “Tongans” – indicate the presence of rough neighborhoods and of a large Polynesian immigrant community. To its north is Te-Atatu; noted for its low- and medium-cost housing. The prominent label “Cheryl West” found here refers to a character in a popular television show who supposedly typified the “Westie” personality, defined by Wikipedia as someone “from the outer suburbs who [is] unintelligent, undereducated, unmotivated, unrefined, lacking in fashion sense, working-class or unemployed.” The same article, however, also notes that “Westie” has been gradually shifting from a “pejorative to a societal identifier,” based mostly on its prominence in television shows, song lyrics, and comedy routines. The movement of such a working-class redoubt as Te-Atatu from the Labour Party to the National Party in 2023 is therefore of some significance.


Another western electorate that switched from Labour to National in 2023 is New Lynn. Based on the stereotypes applied to it, such results are surprising. Such tags as “faint whiff of pot,” “hippies,” “potters,” and “artisany type people,” would suggest a decidedly left-leaning population. And that is its historical norm. As the non-updated Wikipedia article on the electorate notes, “It has always been held by members of the Labour Party.” But in 2023, the National Party triumphed in New Lynn both in the party-list vote and the electorate vote, albeit by relatively thin margins. The Green Party vote, however, was fairly large in New Lynn, as would be expected from the labels applied to it. Intriguingly, its new MP, Paulo Reyes Garcia, is an immigration lawyer originally from the Philippines.

The five northern electorates of Auckland (see the map below) all favored the National Party in 2023 in both the part-list vote and the electorate-based vote. In contrast, in 2020 all of them favored the Labour in the party-list vote, as did two in the electorate-based vote. The eastern part of this area is notably affluent, as is reflected by its stereotypes, and therefore would be expected to support the National Party. Two of these tags, “decile 10” and “more like decile 8-9,” need an explanation for non-New Zealanders; “decile” refers to a school-ranking system based on the socio-economic characteristics of their students, with “decile 10” denoting those in the top 10 percent. The term “Lorde” might also be mystifying for some people in other countries; it is the stage name of the well-known Kiwi musician Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor, who was raised in the Northshore electorate in the area under her name label.

The southwestern part of northern Auckland, the Northcote and Upper Harbour electorates, is a mid-income area noted for its Asian immigrants. Such features are indicated by three prominent labels on the stereotype map: “very average,” “Koreans,” and “Chinatown” (although Northcote also includes an area that is evidently populated by “artists too cool for cityside”). Upper Harbour, with its “depressing suburbs,” “car yards,” and “Koreans” saw a particularly sharp drop in support for Labour from 2020 to 2023.

This cursory analysis suggests that New Zealand’s National Party currently now enjoys a fairly broad level of support, extending well beyond its upper-middle-class base. It will be interesting to see whether it will be able to retain working-class and immigrant support in the coming years.

As a final note, in doing research for this post I was also surprised to learn that people from Auckland are often disparaged by other New Zealanders. As the Wikipedia article on the term “Jafa” notes:

Jafa is a slang term (sometimes pejorative  for a resident of Auckland, New Zealand. It is an acronym, standing for Just Another Fucking Aucklander. [I]t is considered to be representative of the boorishness of Aucklanders, or the envy of the rest of New Zealand, depending on the perspective. The term has wider currency than the earlier derogatory term “Rangitoto Yank.” A variant is Jaffa, Just Another Fuckwit From Auckland.  … Auckland is alleged to be full of rude, greedy and arrogant people, having a similar reputation as Mumbai and Kolkata in India, Milan and Rome in Italy, Paris in France, London in the United Kingdom, New York City in the United States, or Moscow and Saint Petersburg in Russia.  …Auckland is alleged to be a culturally alien place due to the much higher proportion of non-Maori and nonwhite populations than the rest of the country. Percentage-wise, Auckland has the seventh largest ethnic Chinese population among all urban areas outside Greater China. In the 2006 census, Asians comprised 18.9% of Auckland’s population but only 7.9% in Christchurch, and 14.4% of Auckland’s but merely 2.8% of Christchurch’s population are Pacific Islanders. Most new immigrants to Auckland are from East Asia and South Asia, while people immigrating to other parts of the country show higher percentage rates of UK and South African origins. Auckland is finding itself increasingly marginalised on sports traditionally identified with New Zealand culture, such as rugby and netball, because of high immigrant numbers from countries with little tradition of such sports.

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Patterns of Income Inequality in Major U.S. Metropolitan Areas and Population Change, 2020-2022

The four U.S. states with the highest levels of income inequality are, in order, New York, Connecticut, Louisiana, and Mississippi. When mapped at the county level, however, New York and Connecticut appear to have lower levels of inequality than Louisiana and Mississippi. The seeming discrepancy is easily explained by population density. In New York and Connecticut, high GINI coefficients are found in densely populated counties that are part of the greater New York metropolitan area; counties with smaller cities, in contrast, tend to have average levels of income inequality, whereas most rural counties in these states have relatively low levels. (Unfortunately, the scale of resolution on the maps that I have used does not adequately reveal this phenomenon; most of New York City, for example, is obscured by the heavy black line that is used for state boundaries.) In Louisiana and especially Mississippi, in contrast, many rural and semi-rural counties are characterized by pronounced income inequality.

But how do the high levels of income inequality in the New York area compare to those found in and around other major U.C. cities? To address this question, I extracted details from the county-level GINI map of the United States to show the situation in the vicinity of 16 major metro areas found across the country. As can be seen, in each case the central county or counties, those with the highest population densities, have higher levels of income inequality than the more suburban and peripheral counties.

Such comparisons are made difficult, however, by the incommensurable nature of the units. In some cases, inner counties are extremely small; San Francisco County, for example, is coterminous with the city of San Francisco, whereas New York City is itself divided into multiple counties. In contrast, Phoenix tends to vanish in the vast expanse of Maricopa County.

But even with these limitations in mind, there are still some intriguing lessons to be drawn from these maps. At the high end of the inequality spectrum is Miami, followed by New York and San Francisco, where almost all counties in the greater metro areas have average to high GINI coeffiecient. Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, and Washington DC/Baltimore, in contrast, are surrounded by suburban and peripheral counties with relatively low levels of income inequality. I was surprised to see this pattern in the Washington D.C. area, which is by some measures the wealthiest part of the country. As can be seen on the small map, Baltimore and the District of Columbia are, not surprisingly, characterized by high inequality, as is, more surprisingly, rural Talbot County in eastern Maryland. Affluent Montgomery County, in contrast, falls in the middle category.

Many of the country’s major metropolitan areas saw population decreases between 2020 and 2022. Such declines tended to be steepest in areas of pronounced inequality. The New York metro area, for example, lost 2.6 percent of its population and the San Francisco metro area 3.6 percent, the steepest drop in the country. The less unequal Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, and Phoenix metro areas, in contrast, all gained population. But exceptions are certainly found. The Washington, D.C. area, with its relatively income-equal suburban counties, lost population, although just barely (0.21 percent), while the highly unequal Miami metro area gained population, although again just barely (0.02 percent).

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Geographical Patterns of Income Inequality in the U.S. at the State and County Levels

I have long been intrigued by the geography of income inequality in the United States. As maps of the GINI coefficient show, income inequality is highest some of the country’s richest states (New York, Connecticut) and in some of its poorest (Louisiana, Mississippi). Similarly, some of the country’s most Democratic-voting states and some of its most Republican-voting ones are characterized by pronounced income inequality. Relatively low levels of income inequality are concentrated in an area that might crudely be described as the center-north-west, with four contiguous states occupying the lowest category on the map (Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota). Low population density characterizes states with low income inequality. All of the states in the bottom two categories on this map except Hawaii have a lower-than-average population density. Politically, these states show the same mixed pattern that characterized the most economically polarized states. Although all the states in the lowest GINI category are bright red on electoral maps, two that fall into the next lowest category (Vermont, Hawaii) are bright blue.

A county-level GINI map clarifies the geography of U.S. income inequality and reveals some interesting patterns (unfortunately, the best map that I could find on this topic is somewhat dated). As can be seen, the elevated levels of income inequality found in northeastern states is largely an urban phenomenon. In the southeast, in contrast, some counties with high GINI coefficients are metropolitan (in southeastern Florida, for example), but others are markedly rural. In Western and Great Plains states characterized by relatively low income inequality, quite a few of their rural counties have high GINI scores.

In North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana, some rural counties characterized by high income inequality also have a high percentage of Native American residents. To illustrate this correlation, I have placed a GINI map of the Dakotas next to one of indigenous population percentage. But there are a few striking exceptions to this pattern, two of which are noted on the map. As can be seen, Divide County, North Dakota has a small Native American population and a high GINI coefficient. Pete Morris’s agricultural explanation of income inequality, outlined in his comment on yesterday’s post, is probably relevant here as well. In contrast, Buffalo County, South Dakota has a large Native American population and a low GINI coefficient. Both of these counties have very small populations. Buffalo County is noteworthy for having the least populous county seat in the United States (Gann Valley, with a population of 14).

In the south-central region of the country, most counties with high levels of income inequality have large black populations. But again, interesting exceptions can be found. As can be seen, Jefferson County, Arkansas has a high percentage of Black residents and a mid-level GINI ranking. In contrast, Marshall County, Alabama has a very low percentage of Black residents and a high level of inequality. Jefferson County, intriguingly, is known for its concentration of “correctional facilities,” mostly located in and around Pine Bluff. Marshall County, Alabama, in contrast, is part of the Huntsville-Decatur Combined Statistical Area, a region noted for its many well-paid technical workers, owing largely to that presence of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, the United States Army Aviation and Missile Command, and the FBI ‘s Operational Support Headquarters. Marshall’s largest city, Albertville, is mostly noted, however, as the home of the fire-hydrant-manufacturing Mueller Company. As noted by the Wikipedia article on the city, “Albertville holds the title of “Fire Hydrant Capital of the World.” To commemorate the one millionth fire hydrant, a chrome fire hydrant was placed outside the Albertville Chamber of Commerce.”

The next GeoCurrents post will examine the geography of income  inequality in the country’s largest metropolitan areas.

Geographical Patterns of Income Inequality in the U.S. at the State and County Levels Read More »

Explaining Seeming Discrepancies on County-Level Income Maps of the United States

When working on a recent GeoCurrents post that involved maps of income in the United States, I noticed a few unusual patterns. A number of counties, for example, are mapped as having relatively high per capita personal income and relatively low median household income, whereas in others the opposite pattern obtains. In part this is a matter of household size, an explanation that works particularly well for Utah. Consider, for example Utah County, Utah which is characterized by relatively low per capita personal income, relatively high median household income, and a large number of people per household. In contrast, Grand County is characterized by relatively high per capita personal income, relatively low median household income, and a small number of people per household.

In Utah, the number of people per household correlates closely with religion. Members of the LDS church (Mormons) often have high fertility rates, leading to large households. Utah County, Utah, home of Brigham Young University, is usually considered the cultural center of the LDS faith. As can be seen on the second map below, Utah County has one of the highest fertility rates in the country. In contrast, Grand County has a relatively low fertility level (which is not shown in the map due to its small population) and the lowest LDS percentage in the state. Whereas Utah as a whole is roughly 62% Mormon, in Grand County the figure is only 26%.

These easy correlations, however, collapse when one examines North Dakota. As can be seen on the map below, Cavalier County has the highest per capita personal income in the state, which is why it is outlined with a heavy white line on the map posted here. But Cavalier County is also characterized by relatively low median household income and relatively few people per household. This seeming anomaly can be explained by taking into account the different way that the two income measurements are determined. Median household income is calculated by taking the income of all households in a county and finding the middle point; per capita personal income, on the other hand, is calculated by dividing the total income of all persons in the county by the population. If a county has a small population with a few very high-income individuals, the per capita personal income figure is inflated, whereas the median household income figure will remain low if most households have lower incomes.

If this explanation is correct, one would expect Cavalier County to have a relatively high Gini Coefficient, which measures the degree of inequality. The most recent GINI map of all U.S. counties that I was able to find (posted below) indicates that this is indeed the case. Overall, North Dakota is characterized by very wide range in GINI figures, which is probably largely an attribute of the small populations of most of its counties.

 Regardless of its income level, Cavalier has not exactly been a thriving county over the past century. It had more than 15,000 people in 1920 and fewer than 4,000 in 2020.

Explaining Seeming Discrepancies on County-Level Income Maps of the United States Read More »

The Unique Multiply Enclosed Back Sea, and the Crucial Grain Supply of Ancient Athens

As noted in the previous post, the “marginal sea” concept has little utility for geo-historical analysis. More useful is the idea of what might be termed an “enclosed sea,” meaning one whose entrance to the open ocean, or strait, is narrow enough that it could have been controlled by a strong state in the ancient, medieval, and early modern periods. Such enclosed seas are few. If we limit our attention to parts of the world that had states during these times, there are really only four straits that count: the Strait of Gibraltar, separating the Mediterranean from the Atlantic; the Danish straits, separating the Baltic Sea from the open margins of the Atlantic; the Strait of Hormuz separating the Persian Gulf from the Indian Ocean; and the Bab-el-Mandeb, separating the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean. Of these, the 13-kilometers-wide Strait of Gibraltar is the narrowest. The Bab-el-Mandeb, in contrast, is 26 kilometers wide at its narrowest extent, whereas the Strait of Hormuz is 39 kilometers wide at its narrowest extent. The Danish Straits do entail some narrow passages, but there are three of them, and the most important, the Great Belt, is 16 kilometers wide at its narrowest point.


The Mediterranean is not only the most enclosed sea, but is also the largest by far. More significant, it opens up to its own enclosed seas, all of which are connected by even narrower passages. The long and meandering Dardanelles, which links the Mediterranean’s marginal Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara, is only 0.75 kilometers wide at its narrowest extent, as is the Bosphorus, which connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. The Strait of Kerch, which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, is much wider, 3.1 kilometers at its narrowest extent, but is still significantly narrower than the Strait of Gibraltar.

Such observations lead to an inescapable conclusion: the Black Sea system, including Marmara and Azov, is a unique physical-geographical entity. There is nothing else remotely like it on earth, an oddly unrecognized fact. It is also noteworthy that the Black Sea lies near the center of the segment of the world that includes the other enclosed seas, as can be seen on the maps posted below.

The enclosed nature of the Black Sea system has been geopolitically important during several historical periods. Consider, for example, the situation of Athens during its heyday in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. After the defeat of the Persian Empire, Athens was eager to secure access to the Black Sea and its many resources. The Delian League that is soon created maintained control over both the Dardanelles and the Bosporus. After its defeat by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, Athens lost this informal Aegean empire, and thus found itself in a strained situation. It eventually cobbled together a new but less-imperial Second Athenian League, which included cities along the Dardanelles and Bosporus. It was at this time that Black Sea grain became essential for the sustenance of Athens (and several other Greek city states). Securing access to the essential grain supply also entailed maintaining a tight alliance with the culturally hybrid Greco-Scythian Bosporan Kingdom, which sat astride the Strait of Kerch (then called the Cimmerian/Kimmerian Bosporus). Fish supplies from the highly productive Sea of Azov and the rivers that flowed into it were also an important resource for Athens, underscoring the significance of its connection with the long-lived (438 BCE –527 CE) Bosporan Kingdom.

For a fascinating account of this relationship, I recommend Alfonso Moreno’s “Athenian Wheat-Tsars: Black Sea Grain and Elite Culture,” which is found in an important book entitled The Black Sea in Antiquity: Regional and Interregional Economic Exchanges. Moreno highlights the close ties between Athenian elites associated with the school of Isocrates (an extremely important although under-appreciated intellectual and political operative), and the Greco-Scythian elites of the Bosporan Kingdom. His final words are worth quoting:

Two things only were needed to ensure the permanence of this system: the good-will of the Bosporan kings, and Athenian control of the route between [the Cimmerian Bosporus and Athens]. As long as Athenian political leadership could provide this, Athens would be fed and a few of its politicians gain enormous power. If correct, we may have here a very different way of understanding this trade: an oligarchic grain supply sustaining a professedly democratic state.

Although the fifth century BCE is usually considered the golden age of ancient Athens, the fourth century BCE was in many respects a more intellectually vibrant period. To a large extent, the culture that allowed such intellectual flourishing was underwritten by the grain and other resources that flowed in from the Black Sea, which in turn entailed maintaining close relations with the states that controlled the crucial choke points leading from the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Azov.

The Unique Multiply Enclosed Back Sea, and the Crucial Grain Supply of Ancient Athens Read More »

Wage Differences Across the Republic of Georgia

The GeoStat data page on the Republic of Georgia includes information on the Average Monthly Remuneration in Business Sector by municipality. As Georgia is divided into many municipalities, mapping these data helps reveal the level of economic differentiation across the country (assuming that the data are accurate). As the resulting map shows, income levels in the business sector vary widely across Georgia, with a low of 301 Georgian Lari a month in Shuakhevi in the southwest to a high of 1,814 Lari a month in Bolnisi in the south-center-east. (The current exchange rate is 2.56 Lari to a US dollar).


Overall, the geographical patterns found on this map are vague, with high-, middle-, and low-income municipalities scattered across most reaches of the country. But some patterns can be discerned. The area in and around Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital and by far its largest city, is a relatively high-income area, as would be expected. The Black Sea cities of Batumi and Poti also have relatively high levels of (business) income, the former noted for its tourism-based econony and the latter for its port facilities. But Georgia’s other main urban-focused municipalities (Kutaisi, Rustavi, Gori, and Zugdidi) do not rank high. To some extent, this low showing reflects the industrial decline of the post-Soviet period. As the Wikipedia articles on Kutaisi and Rustavi explain:

Kutaisi was a major industrial center before Georgia’s independence on 9 April 1991. Independence was followed by the economic collapse of the country, and, as a result, many inhabitants of Kutaisi have had to work abroad. Small-scale trade prevails among the rest of the population.

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 proved disastrous for Rustavi, as it also caused the collapse of the integrated Soviet economy of which the city was a key part. Most of its industrial plants were shut down and 65% of the city’s population became unemployed, with the attendant social problems of high crime and acute poverty that such a situation brings.

In contrast, several primarily rural municipalities have relatively high rankings. Sitting at the top is Bolnisi, an ethnically distinctive area. Its population is primarily Azerbaijani speaking (63%). Its capital, also called Bolnisi, has an unusual ethnic history. Home around 10,000 people, Bolnisi city was established by German (Swabian) immigrants in 1818, who called their new town Yekaterinenfeld. These migrants developed the agrarian and agro-industrial infrastructure of the region, which may contribute to its current prosperity – along with gold mining. As explained in the Wikipedia article:

The main occupations of the colonist Germans were viticulture, horticulture, fruit growing and cattle breeding. At the same time, irrigation, underground drainage and irrigation canals were constructed in Yekaterinenfeld, as well as wine, cognac and cheese factories, and leather and furniture factories. The town’s contemporary economy is mostly agrarian with the notable exceptions of a winery, brewery, and a gold mine in the nearby village of Kazreti.

Several other primarily rural municipalities with relatively levels of business income have strong tourism sectors. These include Mestia in the mountainous northwest, famed for both its natural beauty and its unique architecture. As the Wikipedia article on the town of Mestia notes:

Despite its small size, the townlet was an important centre of Georgian culture for centuries and contains a number of medieval monuments, such as churches and forts, included in a list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The townlet is dominated by stone defensive towers of a type seen in Ushguli and Mestia proper (“Svan towers”). A typical Svan fortified dwelling consisted of a tower, an adjacent house (machubi) and some other household structures encircled by a defensive wall.

Kvareli, a high-income municipality in Georgia’s mountainous northeast, also has a number of tourism attractions, and is noted for its wine production. In west-central Georgia, high-income Kharagauli is the gateway to Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park. Nearby Zestafoni, another relatively high-income municipality, is another important wine-producing area, and is also the site of a large ferro-alloy plant that processes manganese ore. The ore is mined in adjacent Chiatura municipality, which also posts relatively high business-income figures.

These are obviously just preliminary observations, based on casual reading. Much more research would have to be conducted to make any conclusive statements. I was also unable to find any possible reasons for the low levels of business income in such municipalities as Vani and Shuakhevi.

Wage Differences Across the Republic of Georgia Read More »

Economic Geography of the Republic of Georgia, Part 1

(Note to Readers: As I have been invited to give a talk at an academic conference on the Black Sea region to be held in Batumi, Georgia in early June, I will be blogging extensively on this part of the world over the next two months. I begin today by posting several simple economic maps of the Republic of Georgia.)

The Republic of Georgia is a middle-middle-income country; according to the IMF, in 2022 its per capita Gross Domestic Product (in Purchasing Power Parity) was just below the global average (19,789 current international dollars for Georgia as compared to 20,886 for the world.) As country-level economic figures obscure regional variation, I looked for a map of “per capita GDP in Georgia by region” but did not find one. After some searching, I did locate an English-language version of a site called “Statistical Information by Regions and Municipalities of Georgia” that provides the data that can be used to make such a map. (Unfortunately, there are some minor informational discrepancies on this site; I used the “comparison of regions” feature rather than the map-based information portal, but I do not know which one has more accurate or up-to-date information.)

My main reason for making this map was to see if there is a significant economic distinction between eastern and western Georgia. As will be explored in later posts, these two halves of the country have very distinctive histories and geographies. I expected to find the highest levels of economic development in and around Tbilisi, located in the central part of eastern Georgia, which is by far the largest city in the country. I also expected to find a relatively high per capita GDP figure for the Adjara region in the southwest, where the tourist-oriented city of Batumi is located. Otherwise, I had no expectations.

The GDP map that I made, posted below, does show Tbilisi as having a significantly higher level of economic development than the rest of the country. Adjara also has a higher level of per capita GDP than the national average, although not by much. Overall, the map reveals Georgia as having relatively minor economic differentiation by region. Overall, the western part of the country has slightly higher per capita GDP figures than the eastern half, with the exceptions of Tbilisi and the region just to its north (Mtskheta-Mtianeti).

Regional per capita GDP figures can be misleading, however, as they do not necessarily reflect average income levels. Fortunately, the “Statistical Information by Regions and Municipalities of Georgia” website also has data on the “Average Monthly Remuneration of Employed Persons.” Mapping this information also shows relatively low levels of differentiation across the country, but in this case eastern Georgia comes out slightly ahead of western Georgia.

In both maps, the western region of Guria is shown as having Georgia’s lowest economic figures. Guria’s relatively low level of economic production might seem to defy the stereotype of the region in Georgian popular culture, which emphasizes the ability of its inhabitants to accomplish tasks very quickly. As noted by Bedisa Dumbadze in an article in Georgian Journal:

The explanation of the region’s name “the land of restless” is absolutely suitable for Gurians. Their smart and comical character is well-known throughout Georgia. The inhabitants of the area are thought to be relatively fast in contrast to the inhabitants of other regions. They have special habit of doing everything in a very fast manner. Sometimes it is really difficult to understand what Gurian person is talking about because they speak really fast. There are many jokes about Gurians always being in a hurry. As a result, they manage to do everything in a very short period of time.

Finally, I use the same data source to make a map of unemployment rates by region. As can be seen, Georgia as a whole has a high level of unemployment, with figures varying widely from region to region. I was surprised to see that Tbilisi has a higher-than-average unemployment rate. Even more unexpected was the relatively low unemployment rate it the eastern region of Kakheti, which is shown as having relatively low economic indicators on the other two maps.

I hope to reach a better understanding of these patterns as I continue to learn about the Republic of Georgia. I also want to see if clearer economic patterns might emerge through more fine-scale mapping. The data source that I used today also has information at the municipal level. As Georgia is entirely divided into 76 separate municipalities, such a map can be constructed for the entire country. Making this map will take some time, but I hope to be able to post it within the next week or two.

Economic Geography of the Republic of Georgia, Part 1 Read More »

Africa’s Questionable Expansion of Regional Political Organizations

Africa is noted for cooperation among its many countries. All African states belong to the African Union (AU), although four are currently suspended due to recent military coups (Sudan, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea). Owing in part to the AU, and its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, Africa has few conflicts among is internationally recognized sovereign states, although it has many conflicts within them. The AU defines Africa broadly, seeking to promote solidarity and cohesion across both the continent and the nearby island countries of the Atlantic and Indians oceans.

The African Union also seeks to promote economic growth and cooperation among its member states, mainly through on its ambitious New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). A cornerstone of NEPAD is the creation and strengthening of Regional Economic Communities (RECs), groups of neighboring countries designed to foster economic integration. In theory, such smaller organizations can cooperate more effectively than the union as a whole. The eight officially recognized RECs (mapped below) are described as the “building blocks” of the AU and its grand developmental vision. In addition, six other African political-economic blocks have not received official AU recognition. (Four of these unofficial groups are depicted in the final map in the series posted below; note that the Indian Ocean Commission also an includes France, which is not shown on the map, although two of its overseas departments, Mayotte and Réunion, are.)

Although economic cooperative among neighboring countries can help propel economic and social development, the utility of Africa’s RECs is questionable. Several of them continue to add new members, becoming unwieldly in the process. Overlap is now pronounced. Democratic Republic of Congo, a country that hardly manages to govern itself, now belongs to four of these “communities.” Barely functional Somalia belongs to three and has applied for membership in a fourth. Several of the RECs have expanded well beyond the regions that supposedly define them. Consider CEN-SAD: The Community of Sahel-Saharan States. As can be seen on the map posted below, its original members were all located in the Sahara-Sahel belt, a region faced with many similar environmental and economic challenges. But CEN-SAD now includes countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone that are far removed from the hyper-arid Sahara and the semi-arid Sahel located immediately south of the great desert.

The main problem with Africa’s regional-political approach to economic development is that it is relatively expensive and requires a lot of attention from governmental officials who might be better off focusing on domestic issues. Such complications are noted in several relevant Wikipedia articles. The one on the RECs mentions that “multiple and confusing membership creates duplication and sometimes competition in activities, while placing additional burdens on already over-stretched foreign affairs staff to attend all the various summits and other meetings.” The article on the New Partnership for Africa’s Development has more pointed wording:

More recently, NEPAD has also been criticised by some of its initial backers, including notably Senegalese President Abdoulaya Wade who accused NEPAD of wasting hundreds of millions of dollars and achieving nothing. Like many other intergovernmental bodies, NEPAD suffers from slow decision-making, and a relatively poorly resourced and often cumbersome implementing framework. The great lack of information about the day-to-day activities of the NEPAD secretariat—the website is notably uninformative—does not help its case.

Creating such regional organizations is a tempting and understandable developmental strategy. Doing so makes it seem as if African leaders are deeply committed to peace, international cooperation, and economic betterment. But such a strategy can easily be overextended, with rapidly diminishing utility as the number of organizations and their geographical coverage increases. It would seem that such a situation has been reached in Africa.

Africa’s Questionable Expansion of Regional Political Organizations Read More »

Per Capita GDP in Nepal and the Rest of South Asia

The most recent GeoCurrents post compared Nepal with the other political units of the southern Himalayan region on the basis of the Human Development Index (HDI). Today’s post does the same in terms of per capita GDP. The map below shows the per capita GDP standings (in Purchasing Power Parity) in 2020-2021 of the independent countries of greater South Asia along with the states of India (and India’s two largest union territories). This map is problematic in that the data for the states of India and for the region’s independent countries are not completely comparable, as is explained in the map legend. But the general pattern is clear: Nepal continues to lag behind its Himalayan neighbors on this metric, just as it does in regard to the HDI. The gap between Nepal and the Indian state of Sikkim is stark, especially when one considers the close cultural and physiographic similarities of these two polities. Sikkim is actually more Nepali than Nepal, in that only 44.6 percent of the people of Nepal speak Nepali as their first language whereas 66.6% of those in Sikkim do (with only 6.9 speaking Sikkimese). It is also noteworthy that Nepal falls into the same category on this map as the Indian union territory of Jammu and Kashmir (demoted from state status in 2019). On the HDI map, Jammu and Kashmir has a significantly higher standing than Nepal. Finally, note that Pakistan scores much better in this regard than it does in terms of HDI.

The second map is limited to the states and larger union territories of India, showing their per capita GDP in PPP for 2020-2021. Here there are no problems with data comparability. What I find surprising about this map is the relatively low standing, compared to those of neighboring states, of Maharashtra and Punjab. Maharashtra is often considered to be India’s economic pacesetter, and it clearly has India’s largest GDP in total. Punjab, in earlier decades, stood near the top of the per capita GDP list of Indian states. It is interesting that Punjab has lagged behind its neighbor, Haryana. Together, these two states are the core area of India’s agricultural green revolution, and until recently they had more similar developmental indicators.

Bihar, not surprisingly, stands at the bottom of the per capita GDP list for India. Bihar comes in last place in almost every socio-economic indicator in India. I once quipped when teaching that Bihar has been described as India’s Mississippi, meaning that it is in the bottom position in almost everything. That statement deeply offended a student in the classroom from Mississippi, leading me to stop making such comparisons in the classroom.

It is also notable that the small state of Manipur in far eastern India comes in at a much lower ranking on the per capita GDP map than it does on the HDI map. Manipur, like its highland neighbors, has relatively high levels of education, which propels it into a higher overall developmental position than its economic figures alone would warrant.

In the classroom, I like to complement maps of per capita GDP with ones showing per capita income. Per capita GDP can be quite misleading, as regions that have high levels of economic output based on a few key economic sectors, such as mining, often appear much more prosperous than they really are. China’s region of Inner Mongolia exemplifies this problem. I therefore made a map of India showing per capita income based on the most recent data that I could easily find (2017-2018). As can be seen, however, this map is very similar to the 2020-2021 per capita GDP map.

Per Capita GDP in Nepal and the Rest of South Asia Read More »

Human Development Index Mapped for Greater South Asia and the Southern Himalayan Belt.

A recent GeoCurrents post on Nepal noted that the country has experienced less development than the rest of the southern Himalayan region, which was illustrated with an old map of per capita GDP. A more recent map of the Human Development Index (HDI) makes the same point: Nepal scores worse on this metric than either Bhutan or any of India’s Himalayan states.

The 2021 map of the Human Development Index (HDI) across greater South Asia shows the Himalayan belt in general ranking significantly higher than the adjacent lowlands of north-central and northeastern India. These results may seem paradoxical, as highland areas of rough topography are often much less developed than nearby areas of flat topography, which typically have much better infrastructure. But in many parts of the world, this generalization does not hold. As can be seen in the map below, the mountains of far-northeastern India have much higher levels of human development than the adjacent lowlands, whether in India, Bangladesh, or Burma. India’s small states along the Burmese boundary have relatively high HDI scores despite their rugged topography, problems with ethnic insurgency, and history of relative isolation. This seeming anomaly is partially explained by the educational focus of Christian missionaries in the region. Nagaland, Mizoram, and Meghalaya all have solid Christian majorities, while Manipur is almost half Christian and Arunachal Pradesh has a Christian plurality. Recent Indian infrastructural investments, along with the gradual reduction in insurgency, have also boosted human and economic development in the region.

The densely populated lowland states of north-central India have the country’s lowest levels of human development, despite forming the historical core of South Asia. This area of low HDI also extends into the mostly lowland state of Assam in northeastern India. Somewhat higher levels of human development, however, are encountered in the lowland Bengali-speaking zone encompassing Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal and Tripura. This area was until recently one of the poorest and least developed parts of South Asia, but it has experienced significant improvements in recent years. It is probably not coincidental that Bengalis have a well-deserved reputation for educational interest and intellectual engagement. To reflect the relatively high position of the Bengali-speaking zone in lowland northeastern South Asia, I have reconfigured the South Asia HDI map to depict Bengal as if it were a separate polity.

The partition of British India in 1947 was also a partition of Bengal, and the violence and economic destruction associated with it long held back the Bengali-speaking zone. A similar event occurred on the other side of South Asia, as the partition of British India was also a partition of Punjab. But here an entirely different pattern emerged. The parts of pre-partition Punjab that went to India (Punjab State, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh) have all experienced striking improvements in human well-being. The large Pakistani province of Punjab, on the other hand, has lagged behind, as has most of the rest of the country in which it is located. This pattern is not easy to explain. From 1947 to 1971, when Pakistan and Bangladesh formed one country, what was then West Pakistan was far ahead of what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) on almost every economic and human-developmental score. But while Bangladesh experienced substantial improvements, Pakistan has struggled.

To illustrate the human-developmental gap between Pakistan and India/Bangladesh, I made another iteration of the HDI map that breaks down both Pakistan and India into their largest constituent units. I had to go back to 2019 to find easily accessible HDI data at this level, and I am not sure if the data are fully comparable. What the map shows, however, is stark, with Pakistani Punjab and most of the rest of the country coming in with scores much lower than almost any part of India. The extraordinarily low HDI figure for Balochistan is highly significant, helping explain the long-running insurgency of this resource-rich region.

Pakistan’s higher HDI values are found in the mountainous northern regions of the country. Other than tiny Islamabad, the country’s highest HDI levels are in Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan (areas claimed by India). Gilgit-Baltistan is noted for his extremely rugged topography and, until recently, its relative isolation from the rest of the world. It has, however, seen remarkable gains in education and social development more generally over the past several decades. Pakistani infrastructural investments, aimed at securing access to western China, have no doubt play a role. More important have been the developmental projects of the Aga Khan Foundation. Many of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan are Nizari Ismai’li Shia Muslims, a group headed by the Aga Khan. The Nizari Ismai’lis in general are a cosmopolitan, liberal, and well-educated people, and their leaders are keen to help their co-religionists in the most remote and rugged corners of northern Pakistan.

The final map in this post is the base map on which all of the other maps are constructed. Like all GeoCurrents maps, it is made in simple presentation software, Apple Keynote (equivalent to PowerPoint). Before long, I hope to make this map available for free on this website in both Keynote and PowerPoint formats. It is a very simple matter to click on any of the units and change their color or their boundaries in any way one sees fit. Similarly, the place names can be deleted, and others can be added, very easily.

Human Development Index Mapped for Greater South Asia and the Southern Himalayan Belt. Read More »

Cannabis Legalization in the U.S. Elections of 2022

The 2022 midterm elections in the United States had mixed results for cannabis legalization. Voters in Maryland and Missouri approved legalization measures, easily in the first case and by a relatively narrow margin in the second (see the charts below). Missouri thus became the third solidly “red state” to allow cannabis consumption without a medical recommendation, following Alaska and Montana. Voters in Arkansas and South Dakota, however, rejected legalization, with a 56% “no” vote in the former state and a 55% “no” vote in the latter. The South Dakota vote took many by surprise, as just two years earlier a legalization referendum passed, which was later invalidated in court. South Dakota voters will again take on the issue in the fall of 2023, but indications for legalization are not positive. As reported by, “a statewide poll conducted this summer revealed that South Dakotans’ general sentiment toward legalizing recreational marijuana has shifted over the past two years, signaling that a referendum on the issue this fall could fail.” At the federal level, meanwhile, congressional efforts to eliminate the de jure cannabis prohibition stalled out, yet again.

The failure of federal cannabis legalization, and in some states as well, seems to defy the general public will. Opinion polls conducted by a variety of organizations show overwhelming support. An October 2021 Gallup poll found that even 50% of Republicans favor full legalization, with Democrats and independents offering overwhelming approval (83% and 71%). Similar results have been obtained by other polling agencies. A 2022 CBS/YouGov poll found a 66% level of support for legalization at both the federal and state levels. According to this poll, Republicans overall narrowly oppose legalization (51% to 49%), but those below the age of 45 solidly support it (59%). A 2022 Pew survey found that only 10 percent of Americans think that cannabis should be illegal for all purposes. According to the same poll, Americans in every age bracket except that of the elderly (75+) favor full legalization.

Given these numbers, along with the fact that American voters are roughly evenly divided among Republicans, Democrats and independents, the persistence of federal anti-cannabis laws is difficult to explain. In this arena, seems that Congress is defying the public will. Quandaries also emerge at the state level. Even in deep blue Hawaii and Delaware, cannabis remains legal only for medical uses, and in several purplish states it remains fully illegal (Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Georgia). How can these results be squared with public opinion polls that shows overwhelming support for legalization?

A variety of factors are probably at play. Simple inertia probably plays a role, and as a result it seems likely that Hawaii and Delaware will opt for legalization before too long. More important, however, is the concerted opposition of anti-cannabis forces. A sizable minority of Americans is vehemently opposed, with many regarding marijuana as nothing less than the “devil’s weed.”* As is often the case, the desires a vehement minority can override the less passionate concerns of a substantial majority. It is significant that legalization has often occurred through popular referenda rather than through legislation, as legislators can be more easily swayed by interest groups than the voters at large.

But another factor may be involved as well. Legalization, it turns out, has often yielded discouraging or even disastrous results. With revenues much lower than expected, chaotic business environments, and a thriving black market, states like California demonstrate the potential hazards of a poorly formulated legal regime. As a result, some legislators, and many voters, may ultimately favor legalization, yet still reject whatever proposal is put before them, skeptical that it gets it right. These issues will be examined in much greater detail in later posts

*The term “devil’s weed” is used most often for Datura, or jimsonweed, which contains several powerful and poisonous psychoactive substances. For a religiously informed discussion of cannabis as the “devil’s weed,” see Marijuana – The Devil’s Weed?, by Dr. Joe Fawcett.

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Turkey’s Dependence on Russian Energy, and Its Recent Natural Gas Discoveries

Turkey (officially, Türkiye) is an energy-poor country. Roughly 85% of its energy supply comes from fossil fuels, roughly equally divided among coal, oil, and natural gas. Coal is mined domestically and imported, but almost all of Turkey’s natural gas and oil comes from other countries. Russia supplies roughly half of its natural gas. Unlike most NATO countries, Turkey has not placed sanctions on Russia, and as a result its natural gas imports continue unabated.

Turkey also figures prominently in Russia’s global energy strategy. Two major pipelines transport Russian natural gas to Turkey, one of which (TurkStream) was recently completed (2020). Moscow and Ankara have hoped to turn Turkey into a major natural gas hub, allowing Russia to export gas to southern Europe without having to move it across Ukraine. The Ukraine War has complicated but not undermined such plans. As recently reported by Natural Gas Intelligence, “Russia is turning to Turkey as a potential natural gas hub partner with a new sense of urgency to find new export outlets for volumes left stranded by damages to the Nord Stream pipelines in September.” The Russian-Turkish energy partnership extends beyond natural gas. In 2021, Russia was Turkey’s second largest supplier of coal, following Colombia. Turkey’s first nuclear power plant (Akkuyu), has been jointly built by the Russian firm Atomstroexport and the Turkish construction company Özdoğu; it is expected to come online in 2023.  Financing has been almost entirely provided by Russian investors.

Political tensions between Russia and Turkey have periodically intruded on their energy collaboration. Most recently, Ankara irritated Moscow by asking for a 25 percent discount on natural gas payments and requesting that all payments be delayed until 2024 due to domestic economic problems. Building a Turkish hub for Russian gas exports also faces external economic and geopolitical obstacles, particularly from other NATO countries. As recently noted by Natural Gas Intelligence:

A Russia/Turkey gas hub would have to secure financing for the billions of dollars needed to construct new subsea pipelines under the Black Sea, which is currently in a war zone. Without access to Western technology and financing, a new pipeline project could take years to build.

Turkey’s energy prospects, however, have recently been transformed by substantial natural gas discoveries in its Black Sea Exclusive Economic Zone. In the final week of 2022, an estimated 170 billion-cubic-meter gas reserve was found at the Çaycuma-1 field. Combined with previous recent discoveries in the Sakarya field, Turkey’s natural gas reserves have been elevated to 710 billion cubic meters. Gas from these fields should become available sometime in 2023, alleviating Turkey’s energy crunch. Discoveries to date, however, are not adequate to meet long-term needs, as the country consumes 50 to 60 billion cubic meters of gas every year. To put recent Turkish discoveries in global context, Russia has proven natural gas reserves of some 50,000 cubic kilometers.

Coal remains one of Turkey’s major energy sources, thwarting its ability to decrease its carbon emissions. Turkey’s domestic coal industry is highly subsidized in order to reduce natural gas imports. Lignite, the least energy-dense and most polluting form of coal, predominates. Coal production surged from 2015 to 2019 but has declined since then. To meet the country’s growing demand, imports have surged in recent years. The war in Ukraine, however, has disrupted supplies and increased costs, generating economic hardship. Particularly hard hit is Turkey’s large and energy-intensive cement industry. CemNet reported in March 2022 that the Turkish cement industry was facing an “imminent crisis.”  In 2014, Turkey was the world’s fifth largest cement producer, following only China, India, the United States, and Iran.

Turkey has made relatively modest investments in renewable energy. Hydropower has long provided roughly 20 percent of its electricity, but recent droughts have reduced the supply. Turkey’s has good climatological potential for solar and wind, and wind power is now growing, providing about 10 percent of the country’s electricity. In 2021 the energy think tank Ember reported that “it is now cheaper to build new wind or solar for power generation in Turkey than running even the most efficient hard coal power plant that relies on coal imports.” Ember’s analysts thus foresee an accelerating transition to renewable power, with a “win-win-win situation” resulting in “lower import bills, lower emissions, [and a] lower carbon levy by the EU.” Such hopes may be overstated. Energy intermittency and the lack of economically feasible storage still poses a major obstacle to solar and wind energy development in Turkey – as in the rest of the world.

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