The 'Right' Level Of Population Growth and Immigration
Jim Blair

An earlier discussion dealt with Greshamite Systems: those that select for their own failure. The most widely known example is Gresham's Law, the economic principle that when several kinds of money are in circulation in the same place, the "bad money drives out the good". But many other examples of the principle exist. Pesticides generate resistant pests, and antibiotics produce resistant diseases.

Years ago, I heard economist Milton Friedman lecture on "the invisible hand in economics and politics". The thesis of the lecture was that in economics, each pursuing their own self interest act to also promote the general good, (as if moved by an invisible hand) as Adam Smith pointed out long ago. But in politics people are often moved (as if by an invisible hand) to act against the common good as well as their own interest. An earlier post by Jay Hanson gave one example of this. I will suggest another.

Overpopulation or under-utilization?

If you believe that there is such a thing as overpopulation, then this example makes sense; otherwise not. I know that some believe that a given amount of land can support an unlimited number of people, and by extension no country, nor the entire world can ever suffer from overpopulation. The resources, including human ones, are just under utilized. I know lots of evidence can be presented to support this view, and in a debate, I could use lots of statistics and graphs showing that the more densely populated countries like Holland, Hong Kong, and Singapore have higher living standards than less populated ones in Africa. The income level in Manhattan is higher than in Appalachia, etc. But I don't believe it to be true: world overpopulation is now a potential problem which may soon become the most serious problem of all.

Is Population Control Self-Defeating?

Even though the proposition is not self-evident, if over- population IS a problem (or potential problem),then consider: it is the industrialized nations of the world which have lower population growth rates (approaching ZPG in some cases). And it is the poor "third world" countries with the high birth rates which have most of the population and most of the population growth. With advances in transportation technology, more people from poor third world countries can move to the lower population growth, richer industrial countries. If there is a common border, as with the US and Mexico, the planes and ships aren't even necessary.

Is this a Greshamite situation? The more a country or group within a country is convinced of the need to and/or is able to restrain its population growth, the more inviting is that place for the overcrowded people where there is no population control. Is this what is happening now in the US, especially California? And to a lesser extent in England and Europe? Only Japan seems relatively unaffected for now.

And if this is an accurate description of the situation, what are the options?

I will introduce some more questions and summarize [some of the issues this whole question raises] with commentary.

Are we slowing down fast enough?

While it is true that the increase in overall human population growth is slowing, is it slowing fast enough? (so to speak) Scientific American, December 1993 has an interesting article on The Fertility Decline in Developing Countries. The projection is that world population will double by 2050, and that 97% of the increase will be in the developing world, where over 1/3 of the population is now less than 15 years old. Another way to say this is that the earth is expected to add as many people in the next 55 years as tn the past million years. And almost all of them will be in the poorest countries.

This raises at least two questions: can the earth support twice the current population, and will the current flow of people into the industrial nations accelerate?

One the first question, Jay Hanson has some evidence that we are getting close to the limit now. Even if he is wrong, is it by a factor of two?

Related to the second question, is California's Proposition 187 a reasonable response to the situation? If not, then what is? And remember that Prop 187 deals only with illegal aliens. What country anywhere in the world welcomes illegal aliens? (Or should anyone who enters the country automatically be here legally? Be granted citizenship?) Can the US continue to remain a "nation" with the current very large influx of legal immigrants?

Them vs. us: who is them, and who is us?

Rupes@voyager.cris.com voices the claim that people have lots of children because they need to (or think they need to) offset high infant mortality, or need the labor. And, related to that, when they move here their birth rate falls. Overall this has been true in the past. But then the idea was to assimilate into the US "melting pot". That is much less the case today. It is no longer "us" industrialized us vs. "them" third world countries. Today there are enclaves of third world cultures scattered about inside the US, maintaining not only their separate language but also their high birth rate. There was a TV special recently about Kurius Joel New York, the religious community where the average woman still is having 10 children, as her parents and grandparents used to. The difference is now most of them survive.

Again, it may be that after several generations, diverse groups will melt into a common culture. But in the past that was the goal. Today the intellectual climate favors maintaining "diversity".

What information?

It was suggested that information is the key. It seems to me that there is a curious blind spot on the topic of population growth. It was much discussed several decades ago, but very little recently. The reason I think is that powerful players including, both the political Right and Left have a problem with the implications of recognizing that a problem even exists, or can ever exist.

The Right is committed to "pro-life" and if too many people could ever be a problem, maybe abortion would become more acceptable. Also, conservatives tend to believe that economic growth can solve all problems. Growth has certainly solved many problems and made life today better for the vast majority of people than it has ever been in the past. But can this continue forever?

On the Left, since the growth is almost all with the politically favored "people of color", any suggestion of a need for population control is a racist plot by the dreaded white males.

The Roman Catholic Church is still fighting contraception, and so can't admit that an overpopulation problem can exist.

And the information that people act on the "local impact on me". not the Global Impact. There was an interesting case in Madison (even little Madison) last summer. A man was being sentenced to jail for robbery on the same day that one of his sons was being sentenced in the next courtroom (touching family scene) The reporter did a nice human interest story on it. Seems the father had 25 kids by 5 women (not married to any of them as you may have guessed- and paying nothing for any of them). Most of the kids over 18 were in various stages of trouble with the law. The legal history of the younger are not open to the public in Wisconsin.

When reading of this case, most reacted with "oh, he shouldn't do that." But from a bio-sociological perspective he is doing exactly the right thing: he should have as many kids as we are willing to support. He is acting on the information he is given.

All the world a Manhattan?

On the topic of exceeding resources and using trade to compensate: yes every city can do it and so can Hong Kong and maybe even Holland. But can the whole world? We are now seeing prime farmland paved over for urban/suburban growth at an accelerating rate. Won't the rising population curve cross the falling farm land curve sometime? Then what?

Two additional thoughts...

Correlation is not cause and effect

It has often been pointed out that there is a drop in population growth in many countries as they industrialize and the standard of living rises. It is usually assumed that the latter is the cause of the former. But the reverse could as well be argued: with fewer children, more can be invested in each, resulting in greater earning potential, and thus higher living standards. If the family farm (or fortune)is divided between fewer children the plots (or shares) are larger and better able to support each child, etc.

The article in Scientific American (December 1993) suggests that neither is the cause of the other; the correlation is just a historical accident. Industrialization and contraception arrived on the scene at about the same time. But then the authors don't really know either.

Implications for NAFTA & GATT

But if one assumes the conventional wisdom of "economic growth is the cause of population growth reduction", I think this has implications about US trade policy. Given that the current world population explosion should be reduced as quickly as is practical, and that most of the population growth is in the developing third world, then it follows that the industrial nations must aid the spread of industrialization to the third world.

For classical liberals (today called "conservatives") this is no problem: they support free trade on principle. Read the section on "comparative advantage" in any economics text. Today it is mostly the political Left (Gephart, Jerry Brown, Jesse Jackson) joined by a few nationalist motivated "conservatives" (Jesse Helms, Pat Buchanan) and Ross Perot who oppose foreign trade. (NOTE: see my post Which Way is PROGRESS?)

While its advocates claim that trade benefits BOTH parties, it is also clear, I think, that the poorer nations benefit MORE. That is, imagine the earth were split into TWO planets, with Western Europe, USA-Canada, and Japan- Hong Kong-Singapore, on one of them and the rest on the other. Which "earth" would suffer more as a result of the split?

Or, look at it another way. The US has a border with Mexico which realistically cannot be sealed. (Even the Florida coast can't be!) The poor Mexican workers will be doing a big share of the low-skill jobs in the next decade: the question is, will the jobs go to THEM in Mexico or will they come to the US to get the jobs? And without investment in Mexico how will the Mexicans make enough to stay home?

I remember after WWII when protectionists in the US argued that we shouldn't have trade with Japan because the Japanese workers were paid such low wages that we couldn't compete. They would "take all our jobs". Companies would invest there for the cheap labor. Well, yes they did. And the Japanese wages quickly caught up.

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