Posts tagged with: Demographic economics

The Transom links today to a piece about how Proctor & Gamble is ramping up product lines aimed at older adults. “The flip side of the low birthrate is we’re all living longer,” said corporate exec Tom Falk.

In fact, the global trend over the last two hundred years has been toward longer lives and fewer babies. This trend really gathered momentum in just the last half-century or so. Consider this short video I put together for a talk at last month’s Acton University.

The two axes correspond to fertility (horizontal) and life expectancy (vertical). So in the bottom right we are having more children and shorter lives, while in the upper left we are having fewer children and living longer. Each of the countries in the world is represented by a circle, whose size is determined by size of population. Each region is also color coded.

What you’ll see as we move forward through the last two centuries is a gradual shift toward the upper left, which turns into a rush after about 1950. There are a few lagging countries in Africa, which still are moving toward the upper left, just a bit more slowly. Watch it again, and note the brief drops in life expectancy corresponding to each of the twentieth-century world wars.

Where we start in 1800 was just about where humans have been for recorded history: short lives and lots of kids. Now within the last 50 years we’ve seen a monumental shift that really is unprecedented on a global scale. Think for a few minutes about the complex causes of this shift and the massive changes in social, political, and economic dynamics that undergird it and also flow out of it.

We really have never seen its like before.

overpopulationThe Nordic philosopher and priest Anders Chydenius (1729-1803) — the “Adam Smith of the North” — once asked:

Would the Great Master, who adorns the valley with flowers and covers the cliff itself with grass and mosses, exhibit such a great mistake in man, his masterpiece, that man should not be able to enrich the globe with as many inhabitants as it can support? That would be a mean thought even in a Pagan, but blasphemy in a Christian, when reading the Almighty’s precept: ‘Be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth.’

Unfortunately, this mean and blasphemous thought was soon popularized as an obvious and incontrovertible fact by Chydenius’ contemporary, the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus. In An Essay on the Principle of Population Malthus argued that excesses in population are held within resource limits by two types of checks: positive checks (hunger, disease, war) raised the death rate while preventative checks (abortion, birth control, postponement of marriage) lowered the birth rate.
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family-reading-bible-3The decline of marriage and fertility is one factor in the global economic crisis, says sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox:

The long-term fortunes of the modern economy depend in part on the strength and sustainability of the family, both in relation to fertility trends and to marriage trends. This basic, but often overlooked, principle is now at work in the current global economic crisis.

That is, one reason that some of the world’s leading economies — from Japan to Italy to Spain to the euro zone as a whole — are facing fiscal challenges is that their fertility rates have been below replacement levels (2.1 children per woman) for decades. Persistent sub-replacement fertility eventually translates into fewer workers relative to retirees, which puts tremendous strains on public coffers and the economy as a whole. Indeed, one recent study finds that almost half of the recent run-up in public debt in the West can be attributed to rapid aging over the last two decades.

Read more . . .

I and Jordan Ballor have already commented on Ender’s Game this week (here and here), but the story is literally packed with insightful themes, many of which touch upon issues relevant to Acton’s core principles. Another such issue is that of the problems with Neo-Malthusianism, the belief that overpopulation poses such a serious threat to civilization and the environment that population control measures become ethical imperatives.

Such a perspective tends to rely on one or both of the following fallacies: a zero-sum conception of economics ignorant of the last 200 years of sustained economic growth, which have allowed humankind to escape the Mathusian trap; or a belief that people are the problem when it comes to poverty.

In Ender’s Game, the story begins (more obviously in the book) with the fact that Ender Wiggen (Asa Butterfield) is a “Third,” a third-born child in a time when the international government of Earth had adopted a two-child policy. His parents had received special permission to have a Third because their first two children, Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) and Valentine (Abigail Breslin), had shown so much promise. Unfortunately, Peter had proven too aggressive and Valentine too compassionate. The government hoped that Ender would be a happy middle. (more…)

“The power of population,” wrote the Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus in 1798, “is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” In other words, unless population growth is checked by moral restraint (refraining from having babies) or disaster (disease, famine, war) widespread poverty and degradation inevitably result. Or so thought Malthus and many other intellectuals of his era.

Unfortunately, methods of population control range from the unpleasant (disease, famine, war) to the downright horrifying (abstinence).
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[Thanks to RealClearWorld, ThePulp.it, NewsBusters and PewSitter.com for linking to this commentary.] Over at the American Spectator, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg points to Europe’s “perceptible inability” to acknowledge some of the deeper dynamics driving its financial crisis. And these are primarily a “slow-motion population implosion” complicated by the exodus of young European Union citizens and the return of hundreds of thousands of immigrants to their homes in developing nations. That is an ominous development for a region where the dependency rate — the ratio of retirees per member of the labor force — has ratcheted up as the welfare state has ballooned over several decades.

Gregg:

These facts have made some Europeans willing to ponder the necessity of labor-market and welfare reform, not least because those countries that have weathered the crisis better than others (e.g., Germany and Sweden) actually implemented such changes in the 2000s. Getting Europeans to talk publicly about the continent’s population-trends and their economic consequences, however, is a different matter.

Why? One reason is that many Europeans have long been in thrall to the over-population gospel. Long before Paul Erhlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) — whose doomsday future-scenarios of a world devastated by famines, mass disease, and social unrest unleashed by overpopulation never materialized — numerous European economists had bought into this thesis.

In 1798, the Anglican vicar and one of the first modern economists, Thomas Malthus, published his Essay on the Principle of Population. This argued that growing populations would produce an increasing labor-supply. The result, Malthus insisted, would be lower wages and therefore mass poverty. “The power of population,” he claimed, “is so superior to the power of the Earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.” Another English philosopher-economist, John Stuart Mill, was so convinced by Malthusian arguments that he actually spent time in London parks distributing birth-control pamphlets to bemused onlookers.

Read Samuel Gregg’s “Europe in Demographic Denial” on the American Spectator.