Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Myth of the Population Boon

Economists like to tie a nation’s health to its demography; too many old people is not good; too many children is not good until later; the assumed ideal is to have many working age people and few of both young and old. Economists prefer to have a single model that fits all situations. Given that mature, wealthy societies are producing populations with larger fractions of old people, their obvious solution is to produce sufficient tax payers to subsidize the golden years of these seniors. However, this requires maintaining a birth rate that produces population growth that matches the growth in seniors—an ever-growing population. Can this possibly make sense?

Philip E. Auerswald provides arguments that support the notion that population growth is beneficial, although he stops short of declaring it to be necessary. His essay appeared in The American Interest and was titled The Population Boon.

Auerswald takes great pleasure in pointing out that Malthus was proven wrong (thus far!). He delights in concluding that the explosion in population over the last few generations has been accompanied by a similar growth in income.

"Population really starts to take off, though, after World War II. In the second half of the 20th century, global population more than doubles, from roughly 2.5 billion in 1950 to almost 6 billion in 2000. And the data show that, in material terms at least, individual well-being (as measured by global per capita income) takes off at exactly the same time as population."

He further extends this conclusion over a longer period of time.

"....the two processes—increasing population and increasing wealth on a global scale—have been strongly correlated over the past two millennia."

The author argues that this correlation is derived from the fact that creativity can be taken as a universal constant independent of country and time. Therefore, the more people, the greater the likelihood of creative sparks.

"....the likelihood of great invention is pretty much a constant in all cultures, through all periods of time, and this assumption seems to fit the data on the long-term evolution of human society pretty well."

"Over the very long term, the evidence supports the claim that the creativity of individuals powers human productivity and the improvements in societal well-being that follow. More people imply a likelihood of more ideas; more ideas, in turn, imply more of the great ideas that ultimately propel human societies toward increased prosperity."

From this logic comes the claim of a "population boon."

Auerswald’s article illustrates the difficulties in applying a simple model to the entire human population. Every nation provides a different history. By Auerswald’s logic, one would assume that the wealth that was created over recent centuries was shared in a somewhat equal fashion. Good luck in finding data to support that notion!

The sort of creative individuals who make a difference in a society are what Malcolm Gladwell would refer to as "Outliers." As he so eloquently illustrates, these outliers are not necessarily the best and the brightest, but rather, they are usually those who have, at some point in their lives, been awarded greater opportunity to develop and demonstrate their capabilities than many others with equivalent potential. Given this as a fact, the means of encouraging greater creativity is to provide greater opportunity to develop and utilize skills, not to create more babies. Society produces more potential "outliers" now than it can handle.

The notion that a growing population is, in itself, an aid in producing innovation, creativity, and social progress is nonsense. Depending on circumstances, a growing population can be as much a bane as a boon.

It is no accident that fertility is falling in wealthy societies. This decline in birthrate seems inevitable. It is as though humans are following an impulse as old as life itself. Organisms evolved by insuring that their genes were passed on to the next generation. This biological imperative did not involve producing as many offspring as possible; it involved producing offspring that could survive. A mechanism for eliminating those that could not be fed and cared for had to be developed.

As the social and economic costs of feeding, clothing, sheltering, and educating a child have increased, humans seem to have instinctively limited the number of children they produce in order to better focus their finite resources. This is a good thing for children, for families, for societies, and for humanity.

Nations and economists will have to learn how to deal with declining populations. There is no economic or physical law indicating that a society declining in numbers must be a society declining in quality.

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