Monday, April 14, 2014

The population un-bomb

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, demographics, sociology

Disaster sells. When Paul and Anne Ehrlich published The Population Bomb just over 45 years ago they predicted imminent disaster if population continued to increase. I read that book then, and others by either Ehrlich since, and picked up the feeling that they knew they were overstating their case, but felt they had to because otherwise nobody would listen. I don't know if many really were listening, but in fact fertility has fallen in America, and even more in most of Europe. Consider these two figures, from a report by Mark Mather:

Mr. Mather's thesis is the effect of a falling economy on fertility. The data can be interpreted a number of ways, however. For example, the 1960-80 period saw a great increase in American females entering and graduating from universities, chemical birth control (actually conception prevention) was introduced in the mid-60s, and abortion was legalized in 1973; also, the pre-1930 fertility decrease began about 1921, long prior to the great market crash. A careful look at the right third of the upper graph reveals that fertility has been below 2.1 births per woman, considered the replacement level, since 1970. The second chart shows ethnic data. As of the 2010 estimate (that's what the asterisk means) only Hispanics have remained above 2.1 bpw.

On a side note, I have yet to see a good explanation why 2.1 rather than 2.0 is "replacement rate". It is usually said that this accounts for the 5% who do not reproduce, but the figure already includes them in the calculation. I surmise, without formal proof, that the 2.1 figure is related to economic estimates that a small population increase results in the stablest economy, and this has somehow been laundered of this association and been promoted instead as "replacement", when it is actually replacement plus 5%. Spread that 5% over a typical 30-year fertility period, and you get an annual population increase of just over 0.15%. Yet American population is currently growing at 0.7% yearly. World population growth is 1.14%.

The Ehrlich's were right that unfettered population growth is a problem. They were wrong about the timing, but the key element is compounded growth. At its most basic, we need to realize that any rate of growth above zero, carried on long enough, will exceed any criterion you might set. For example, if world population were to continue growing at 1.14% yearly until 2100 (another 86 years), the total growth factor is 1.011486 or 2.65. Today's population, estimated to be 7,156,000,000, would become 18,969,000,000. Nearly 19 billion. The US might fare a little better (unless a few billions decide to relocate here): 1.007086 is "only" 1.82; in 2100 its population could become 571,400,000.

One last point before getting to the book on hand. What if we slow down population growth, say by a factor of 10? That just defers the inevitable, assuming any growth at all. A simple calculation shows that there will still be 19 billion folks on earth at some point, but in 860 years rather than 86. And go the other way. Could Earth support a trillion of us? Posit a 0.1% growth rate: the factor needed is 139.74. Working the math backwards (it requires using logarithms) yields a mere 4,942 years.

Now here is someone who must hope that the planet could support an unbounded number, perhaps trillions or more. Jonathan V. Last has issued What to Expect When No One's Expecting: America's Coming Demographic Disaster. He shows from history that every time a nation has experienced declining population it has fallen. He calls The Population Bomb "one of the most spectacularly foolish books ever published" (p. 7), primarily for historical reasons.

The book provides a fascinating survey of all the factors behind the current trend toward one-child and no-child families, though I hesitate to call a couple who marry with the expectation to remain childless a 'family'. It stretches the definition. Then again, from a Christian perspective, if they want to stay together, marriage is better than shacking up. Note that this lifestyle is only possible—barring medical reasons for infertility—since effective contraception was developed about two generations ago.

One big factor in the West is the rise of hedonism and "positive self esteem" as values in themselves. If you value your pleasure above all else and feel so good about yourself that you lack nothing, in a personal sense, then why have a child? Raising a child costs lots of money, swallows up your time, and induces you to forgo nearly all pleasures. That is, if you are not the kind of monster who refuses to change even a little bit to accommodate the new arrival(s). It may also, under most governmental systems, induce you to marry in case you hadn't already, because of the substantial benefits that accrue to married couples and parents.

However, there are certain benefits to marriage and child-raising, besides those that governments can provide. I have had occasion to counsel young married folks who are having problems. The chief problem is communication (men don't talk and women don't listen – stereotypes that are too true to be funny). I always make sure they know that by marrying they have each entered into a lifelong negotiation. It is impossible for any two people to agree or have the same opinion about absolutely everything. At least in America, if one partner is the "My way or the highway" sort of negotiator, that one will soon be single again. Learning to collaborate and do some horse-trading is a huge factor in what we call maturity.

Then, when children come along, a new set of growth opportunities arises. If you had no self control before, you'll soon learn some, or your child will be short-lived. And you learn the joys of filling a little head full of mush with your own values, hobbies and mannerisms. I remember with the fondness only time can bring, the late nights of carrying a cranky baby in the "colic hold" that soothed him, but only if carried on for long enough. The dogged experimenting with method after method of inducing a 1-year-old who could climb out of his crib to stay put; I finally settled on putting him in and just sitting there to watch.  He would watch back, and gradually his little eyes would droop closed and he'd tip over, fast asleep. This led to some talk, then to story time and later to precious times of reading to each other. I wouldn't give that up for ten centuries of "living the single high life".

But it seems the better educated a population becomes, fewer and fewer are those who are willing to have and raise children. Learning is a more effective method of birth control than a boatload of condoms and a trainload of pills or IUD's. I happen to think this is a good thing, but I'll get more into that anon.

Apparently, in all of history, only one nation has rebounded from a long-term falling population: Georgia in Eastern Europe. The secret of their success is the beloved patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilia II. He announced in 2007 that he would "personally baptize any child born to parents who already had two or more children" (p. 159). Births increased 20% the following year and continued to surge. America has no Patriarch. We're too fractious for that.

In the end, Jon Last tries his best not to sound like a doomsayer. He wants to remain optimistic. He has suggestions, tailored to the American situation, that he hopes would improve things—that is, raise the fertility rate.
  1. Social Security "distorts the 'market value' of children and forces fertility rates down" (p. 162). He passes along a suggestion by Phillip Longman to dramatically reduce the SSI tax the more children a family has, until the last one reaches age 18. (I suggest the subsequent increase be phased in to avoid sticker shock when the last kid leaves home!) He also briefly surveys related suggestions by others.
  2. College costs make anxious parents more anxious, and strongly deter many from childbearing. The system is out of whack. What about eliminating the need for college, for many jobs. Is it really useful for an employer to require a BA degree when what you really want is to know of someone is bright and has good work habits? Yeah, the degree sort of proves that (not always!), but so would admittance testing. IQ tests by employers were banned in 1971 on the grounds of racial discrimination, but schools use them (SAT and ACT are IQ tests). So companies foist off the job on the schools, but students then have to go into debt to the tune of $30,000-$100,000 and get "the sheepskin". A few wise companies just want to know if an 18-year-old was offered admission to a good school. The author proposes a federal degree-granting body that certifies any student who passes certain tests. I guess you could spend a year or so watching and studying using Khan Academy videos, for example, and pass a bunch of tests. You know, I like that idea, even if I loathe the notion of yet another federal agency.
  3. "The Dirt Gap" reflects the much greater cost of real estate wherever the jobs are. When people go to a workplace they either must live close by, or commute. I endured 9 years of a 40-mile commute each way. Luckily I can read in a moving vehicle, so I pooled with others and used those 1.5 to 2 hours daily (when I wasn't the driver) more productively as a result. I remember living in Los Angeles. For one job, I rode my bicycle, because I could get there quicker: 9 miles in 20 minutes versus 30 minutes by car. During rush hour in major cities, even the freeways average 10 mph (16 kph). Years ago I could trot along about that fast, on foot! One solution is a huge increase in telecommuting. Any job that primarily uses computer skills can be done anywhere on the planet with high-speed Internet service. The last several years before I retired, half my colleagues were in Gurgaon, India. We didn't need much face-to-face, but we video conferenced every couple of weeks. 7AM here was 6PM there, and those guys would work a late day for the purpose, while we stateside folks started early that day (I usually began close to 6AM anyway).
  4. Immigration…we just think the "illegals" are a problem. Though there is a lot of variation, immigrants and their children tend to be harder working and more innovative than "people who have always lived there" (that is, four or more generations). American has been lucky to assimilate most immigrants within a generation or two. And I learned long ago that moving to a new place just within my own country is a great boost to well-being. There is some kind of value to being the kind of person who can "up sticks and go". A close relative greatly hindered his career because he allowed his wife to persuade him to stay within driving distance of her parents.
  5. Church. It is falling out of favor with the liberal elite. Yet it is strange: people in America attend church at rates much higher than in any other Western country, and at the same time, our demographics and economy are healthier. The author's concluding paragraph of this section is telling:
"…there are many perfectly good reasons to have a baby (curiosity, vanity and naïveté all come to mind.) But at the end of the day, there's only one good reason to go through the trouble a second time: Because you believe, in some sense, that God wants you to."

As the author demonstrates, history shows that reducing population means trouble. But I think the reason is different than he states. Our economic system is designed for a growing population. Growing companies cannot cope with shrinking customer bases, and there is not a single executive in all the countries on Earth who has been trained to guide a company properly when the market for its widgets gradually and steadily decreases. This phenomenon needs study. I must agree in part with Paul Ehrlich that unbounded population growth cannot be sustained. At some point, population must decrease, or nature will, quite impersonally, force it to decrease in numerous unpleasant ways. I am of the opinion that 7+ billion is already too many, particularly so if we have the heart to wish them all a standard of living that is something above subsistence poverty.

Let's consider Costa Rica, a constitutional republic with a GDP per person of about $13,000. That is pretty good for South and Central America. It is about 1/4 of the figure for the U.S. About 80% of Earthlings live on less. To raise them all to this level would require more than doubling global GDP; perhaps tripling it (purchasing power parity calculations are notoriously difficult and error-prone). Either way, there isn't enough planet to do so. My estimate is that grinding poverty cannot be eliminated until the population is about half what it is at present. Thus I must disagree with Mr. Last. Growing the population might be good under the current economic system, but we won't be able to afford the current economic system very much longer.

A new economic system must be devised, one that allows persons and companies to survive and even thrive as population resettles itself to a level that Earth can sustain for the very long term. I would hope this author and others would bend their considerable skills to determining the key factors that make our economies collapse when population takes even the smallest of downturns, and to inventing a new kind of economics for an Earth in a steady state, and during the population reduction that leads to it.

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