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Hugh Akston
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msinaisuhtlaM

Post by Hugh Akston » 14 Mar 2012, 00:46

So this David Brooks column is characterized by the vague and directionless handwringing that David Brooks has somehow managed to spin into a paycheck for years. But the topic is one that I have been curious about for a while now.

Every so often I read a news story or column about declining birth rates in America or some other country, followed by DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!! and I wonder if there really are any negative consequences to slow, zero, or even negative population growth aside from the obvious collapse of Social Security-style ponzi schemes direct-transfer welfare programs. Which, BTW, I would be fine with.

Also, who would win in a fist-fight between a New Deal liberal who wants to boost birth rates so that old people can continue to ride on the backs of young people, and an Environmentalist liberal who views every human child born as a malignant tumor on the face of Mother Gaea?
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Re: msinaisuhtlaM

Post by Aresen » 14 Mar 2012, 01:04

Hugh Akston wrote:So this David Brooks column is characterized by the vague and directionless handwringing that David Brooks has somehow managed to spin into a paycheck for years. But the topic is one that I have been curious about for a while now.

Every so often I read a news story or column about declining birth rates in America or some other country, followed by DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!! and I wonder if there really are any negative consequences to slow, zero, or even negative population growth aside from the obvious collapse of Social Security-style ponzi schemes direct-transfer welfare programs. Which, BTW, I would be fine with.
I have stated before that I am fine with a gradually declining population & tend to think the world would be better if the population were to drop to about 10% of present numbers. (I'm not draconian about it. I am perfectly willing to let the declining fertility rate take care of matters over the next few centuries.)
Also, who would win in a fist-fight between a New Deal liberal who wants to boost birth rates so that old people can continue to ride on the backs of young people, and an Environmentalist liberal who views every human child born as a malignant tumor on the face of Mother Gaea?
Definitely the envirolib. They ride bikes and do all kinds of 'eco-friendly' physical stuff. Plus they eats they granola and spinach.
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Re: msinaisuhtlaM

Post by mediageek » 14 Mar 2012, 02:53

The sort of left winger who's all about population reduction is also likely to be the same sort who knows how to make a Molotov Cocktail.
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Re: msinaisuhtlaM

Post by Highway » 14 Mar 2012, 07:25

Hugh Akston wrote:Every so often I read a news story or column about declining birth rates in America or some other country, followed by DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!! and I wonder if there really are any negative consequences to slow, zero, or even negative population growth aside from the obvious collapse of Social Security-style ponzi schemes direct-transfer welfare programs. Which, BTW, I would be fine with.

Also, who would win in a fist-fight between a New Deal liberal who wants to boost birth rates so that old people can continue to ride on the backs of young people, and an Environmentalist liberal who views every human child born as a malignant tumor on the face of Mother Gaea?
I think there are definitely consequences to a more rapidly falling population, but a relatively static population number is probably no problem at all. I can imagine that the world would end up being stable somewhere around 5-7 billion people (believing the latest projection I saw (a few years ago) of a maximum population of somewhere around 9 billion).

As far as the fight, I agree with Aresen that the envirolib would win, especially if you consider the smell weapon they bring along. Seriously folks, there are phosphate-free soaps.
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Re: msinaisuhtlaM

Post by Jadagul » 14 Mar 2012, 08:41

A declining population makes retirement harder. (This is actually completely unrelated to whether the retirement is financed by a government program or by private savings or by charity or whatever. However much stuff is being consumed, someone has to produce all that stuff. If the fraction of people who produce stuff decreases, then all else equal the amount of stuff made per person goes down).

Fewer people makes it harder to achieve economies of scale and specialization. It's pretty obvious to us that it'd suck to live in a world with only a couple hundred people; the same thing happens (to a lesser degree) if we have four billion instead of six billion.

Our economy is currently geared to expect continuously increasing GDP (not just per capita). It's possible, I think, to retool an economy which doesn't expect this, but that would have to actually happen.

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Re: msinaisuhtlaM

Post by Warren » 14 Mar 2012, 09:03

I take the opposite view of your standard whitebellied tree hugger. The more people the better, and the wealthier the better. However, I've read that wealth results in declining population. Meh. So be it. I fear this not. If an again population makes for problems, market forces will find an equal Librium. The scary part is about me personally. Born in 1964 I am at the very end of the boomers. My fear is that my slightly elders are going to collapse the system just as I enter it, making things shittiest for me having to support their privileged asses and getting stiffed when it's my turn.

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Re: msinaisuhtlaM

Post by GinSlinger » 14 Mar 2012, 09:31

Jadagul wrote:A declining population makes retirement harder. (This is actually completely unrelated to whether the retirement is financed by a government program or by private savings or by charity or whatever. However much stuff is being consumed, someone has to produce all that stuff. If the fraction of people who produce stuff decreases, then all else equal the amount of stuff made per person goes down).
That's a pretty big ceteris paribus, isn't it? Isn't one possible explanation of declining birth rates that retirement is actually becoming easier? IOW, as the price of goods goes down, there's less need of large families to provide for the family.

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Re: msinaisuhtlaM

Post by JasonL » 14 Mar 2012, 10:45

Declining population is a disaster in developing economies, where human capital is the best capital to throw at productivity. For advanced economies? I'm not sure it really matters that much unless the percentage of unproductive increases to some unsustainable level when you take total population one way or the other.

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Re: msinaisuhtlaM

Post by Jennifer » 14 Mar 2012, 10:54

Jadagul wrote:A declining population makes retirement harder. (This is actually completely unrelated to whether the retirement is financed by a government program or by private savings or by charity or whatever. However much stuff is being consumed, someone has to produce all that stuff. If the fraction of people who produce stuff decreases, then all else equal the amount of stuff made per person goes down).
But all else isn't equal; productivity per-person is going up. Indeed, I've read persuasive arguments that this explains the growing wealth gap/declining wages in America: per-person productivity is going up, less workers needed to do the same thing.

It takes serious balls to look at a country with an unemployment rate of (depending who you ask) up to 15 or 20 percent, and think "Know what this country needs? More desperate workers competing for jobs."

I think population reduction would be great, and not in a hypocritical Al Gore "now that I have four kids I believe nobody should have more than two" way. I have no kids, and consider that my gift to future generations.

The Black Death was horrible for those who lived through it, and especially for those who died in it, but the non-aristocrat survivors were MUCH better off.
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Re: msinaisuhtlaM

Post by dhex » 14 Mar 2012, 11:13

It takes serious balls to look at a country with an unemployment rate of (depending who you ask) up to 15 or 20 percent, and think "Know what this country needs? More desperate workers competing for jobs."
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Re: msinaisuhtlaM

Post by JasonL » 14 Mar 2012, 11:16

You have to be a bit careful on that claim Jennifer. There is a reason tiny Nepalese villages aren't wealthy even though they have small populations. There is a size of market that makes the introduction of capital effective and the division of labor possible, and those are the generators of wealth. The guy who can specialize in plumbing is many many times wealthier in a society of 1 million toilets than he is in a society of 100 toilets. In the latter he essentially can't be a plumber because the market doesn't allow it.

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Re: msinaisuhtlaM

Post by Highway » 14 Mar 2012, 11:23

There is also the argument to be made that declining or steady population, combined with improvements in quality of life and environmental stewardship, relieves pressure to explore and that it will have a negative effect on space travel development. I'd hope that's not necessarily the case, but it's a plausible point: we don't need the elbow room for people, why do we need to get off of Earth?
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Re: msinaisuhtlaM

Post by Aresen » 14 Mar 2012, 12:11

JasonL wrote:You have to be a bit careful on that claim Jennifer. There is a reason tiny Nepalese villages aren't wealthy even though they have small populations. There is a size of market that makes the introduction of capital effective and the division of labor possible, and those are the generators of wealth. The guy who can specialize in plumbing is many many times wealthier in a society of 1 million toilets than he is in a society of 100 toilets. In the latter he essentially can't be a plumber because the market doesn't allow it.
OTOH, within 100 years, I don't think any definable job is going to be done by anything but a robot, unless the 'human' element is a desirable part of the experience. Plumbers, electricians, carpenters & virtually every other 'skilled' trade will be automated within 2 generations. So will most housekeeping functions. In a century, a village of 5 houses will have better services than any city in the world has today. The people will be connected in ways we cannot imagine and will have access to any desired product on the planet within 24 hours*.

*The latter will not apply in the US due to the influence of the USPS.
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Re: msinaisuhtlaM

Post by thoreau » 14 Mar 2012, 13:22

A few things:

1) Most resource projections turn out to be wrong, but the world is nonetheless finite. Clearly, at some point, constraints will become real. We can debate how far we are from that point (and we're probably farther than the pessimists believe) but it does not automatically follow that all population growth is good, now and forever.

2) Before resource constraints hit, the damage that we do will hit. How does one constrain CO2 output in a world with a population that is growing in size and prosperity? The good news, of course, is that prosperity, coupled with reproductive freedom for women, is the best way to constrain population growth noncoercively.

3) It is true that there ain't much room for a plumbing specialist in a village of 100 toilets. There is in a place with a few thousand toilets. Multiply that by several, and now there's room for competition to maintain efficiency. Multiply that by a few dozen more, and now there's room for some niches and hence innovators. Beyond that, how much is gained by going up to even more billions? Once the world is above a certain size, it's not clear to me that adding more is the best way to get innovation.

A better way is to make possible exchange and networking among the people who are there. Being a researcher, I'm in the business of innovation. If we canceled all the conferences (i.e. opportunities for exchange) but doubled the number of people in the labs, we'd get less innovation than we have right now, even if the doubling brought in the absolute smartest people currently doing other things.

So, it isn't clear to me that a world with substantially fewer people is such a bad thing, if that reduction happens gradually and non-coercively, and is accompanied by greater prosperity for those who are there and greater networking and exchange among them.

Finally, you might question whether it is possible for the world to be more prosperous with fewer people and hence fewer workers and innovators. It has often been observed that what the world has right now is not a shortage of food, but a lack of proper mechanisms to get food to people, usually due to interference in markets. The same could be said of many other things. If we want a more prosperous world, we don't need more people to throw at the problem, we need fewer obstacles in front of the people.
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Re: msinaisuhtlaM

Post by Eric the .5b » 14 Mar 2012, 13:51

thoreau wrote:Once the world is above a certain size, it's not clear to me that adding more is the best way to get innovation.
What's the "certain size", and what's the mechanism to justify your intuition on this?
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Re: msinaisuhtlaM

Post by Mo » 14 Mar 2012, 13:55

Jennifer wrote:But all else isn't equal; productivity per-person is going up. Indeed, I've read persuasive arguments that this explains the growing wealth gap/declining wages in America: per-person productivity is going up, less workers needed to do the same thing.

It takes serious balls to look at a country with an unemployment rate of (depending who you ask) up to 15 or 20 percent, and think "Know what this country needs? More desperate workers competing for jobs."

I think population reduction would be great, and not in a hypocritical Al Gore "now that I have four kids I believe nobody should have more than two" way. I have no kids, and consider that my gift to future generations.

The Black Death was horrible for those who lived through it, and especially for those who died in it, but the non-aristocrat survivors were MUCH better off.
U-6 isn't unemployment, and it never has been. Also, I think it's presumptuous to think that the current unemployment rate is the new baseline. Considering that the jobless rate has been going down consistently and all of the subsequent adjustments have been in a positive direction.

And while wages rose for peasants after the Black Death (DEMAND CURV), that does not mean that outcomes are better with a decline in population. Wages are higher in Luxembourg than the US, but that doesn't mean Luxembourg does more for humanity. Much of the strength of the US economy is due to our massive population.
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Re: msinaisuhtlaM

Post by thoreau » 14 Mar 2012, 14:40

Eric the .5b wrote:
thoreau wrote:Once the world is above a certain size, it's not clear to me that adding more is the best way to get innovation.
What's the "certain size", and what's the mechanism to justify your intuition on this?
I don't have a good answer for the size, but the mechanism behind my assertion is that throwing more people at a problem is not the only way to get innovation. Having them interact is another way to get innovation. A world of a thousand geniuses who sit in isolated places laboring in obscurity is probably less innovative than a world in which 300 of those geniuses start talking to each other.

Granted, I'm mostly talking about innovation in basic science, because that's what I know, but I understand that there are reasons why industries often congregate geographically, why people in the same field have conferences and networking events, etc. So, a world of 4 billion people with more opportunities to interact in the right way (remember, a very large chunk of the world's population has limited digital communication access and limited education) might be more innovative than the 7 billion that we have.
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Re: msinaisuhtlaM

Post by Jennifer » 14 Mar 2012, 14:49

JasonL wrote:You have to be a bit careful on that claim Jennifer. There is a reason tiny Nepalese villages aren't wealthy even though they have small populations.
Yeah: shitty technology and, even worse, little-to-no connection with the rest of the world. The US, even with our big population, would be in pretty poor economic shape if we pretended we were an economic island isolated form everyone else.
And while wages rose for peasants after the Black Death (DEMAND CURV), that does not mean that outcomes are better with a decline in population. Wages are higher in Luxembourg than the US, but that doesn't mean Luxembourg does more for humanity. Much of the strength of the US economy is due to our massive population.
By that argument, India and China should have even stronger economies than we do.
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Re: msinaisuhtlaM

Post by JasonL » 14 Mar 2012, 15:20

I don't think it's as obvious there is a necessary limit to economic gains from larger economies. How many layers of specialization can be exploited that result in mutual gain? You start off making sandwiches for 50 people in the village. Your market grows and you get a meat slicer, dramatically lowering the production cost of a sandwich and allowing you to serve more people. Your market grows more and bread specialists and cheese specialists and condiment specialists arise. Your market grows and you get gourmet and low cost niche products in each line. Your market grows and the grains that go into the breads have technology applied to specialize them for sandwichy goodness. You can keep doing this. There are some kinds of specialization and application of capital that don't make sense except in very large markets, and larger markets tend to reveal more fine structure for more specialization and capital and so on. The question is: is there a market limit where the increase in value added from specialization and application of capital does not increase value sufficiently to create a surplus that would offset the need of a very large population. It seems plausible to me that a geometric population growth vs. a linear productivity growth would create this story as Malthus suggested - but that's not what we've experienced. The rate of increase of population isn't that large and especially in poorer parts of the world, the potential gains from even basic Smithian operations have not been realized.

WRT the argument about everything being so dominated by technology that the specialization story no longer applies, I'd just note that more customers for technological products means more potential to make specialized technologies, etc. Unless you are talking about the end of innovation, the larger market story would still seem to hold.

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Re: msinaisuhtlaM

Post by Mo » 14 Mar 2012, 15:25

Jennifer wrote:By that argument, India and China should have even stronger economies than we do.
The could. Size isn't destiny, though. There are all sorts of other issues in those economies that hold them back.
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Re: msinaisuhtlaM

Post by Jennifer » 14 Mar 2012, 15:32

If "high birth rates," taken by themselves, equals "prosperity," then the inner-city slums of Connecticut should be economic powerhouses. Remember that facepalming post I made when my former (then-current) employer ran a "Donate to this charity" article, and the case study was about a never-married woman who had to quit her McDonald's cashier job when she caught pregnant with her ninth kid? She is indeed increasing wealth, in the sense of "qualifying for bigger welfare checks," yet I still think she would be less-poor had she settled for just the first two offspring, or better yet if she'd never spawned at all. (I subscribe to the old-fashioned idea "If you can't even support yourself, you sure as hell can't support a baby too.") I would certainly be much poorer than I am now, if I had even ONE kid to support.

We're long past the days when we needed a large (and largely disposable) supply of able-bodied workers to increase wealth. Remember that thread we had a couple weeks ago, about the possibility that we've reached the point of diminishing returns concerning population growth? The days when "a healthy body and a willingness to work" were all it took to get a job with a self-sufficient income are largely gone; robots do much of the grunt work now. What's needed are intelligent, skilled workers: quality, not quantity. Having a small number of children and raising them well is better than having a large number of children and raising them badly.
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Re: msinaisuhtlaM

Post by Jennifer » 14 Mar 2012, 15:35

I will also confess: I am deeply suspicious of this "OMG low birth rates!!!" article coming out around the same time the Republican Party decided en masse "Y'know what the real threat is facing America today? Not the economy, not our decaying civil liberties, not our insane military overreach -- no, the problem is, too many women have too much access to birth control."
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Re: msinaisuhtlaM

Post by thoreau » 14 Mar 2012, 15:38

Jennifer wrote:If "high birth rates," taken by themselves, equals "prosperity," then the inner-city slums of Connecticut should be economic powerhouses.
Nobody said that. Even though I disagree with the people here on the desirability of further population growth, nobody said that higher birth rates should be taken by themselves as indicators of prosperity.
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Re: msinaisuhtlaM

Post by Jennifer » 14 Mar 2012, 15:41

thoreau wrote:
Jennifer wrote:If "high birth rates," taken by themselves, equals "prosperity," then the inner-city slums of Connecticut should be economic powerhouses.
Nobody said that. Even though I disagree with the people here on the desirability of further population growth, nobody said that higher birth rates should be taken by themselves as indicators of prosperity.
True. But there is a strong implication here that "high birth rates and/or a steadily growing population are necessary for prosperity."
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Re: msinaisuhtlaM

Post by Eric the .5b » 14 Mar 2012, 15:43

thoreau wrote:I don't have a good answer for the size, but the mechanism behind my assertion is that throwing more people at a problem is not the only way to get innovation. Having them interact is another way to get innovation. A world of a thousand geniuses who sit in isolated places laboring in obscurity is probably less innovative than a world in which 300 of those geniuses start talking to each other.
Which says absolutely nothing about whether it's better to have a thousand geniuses or just 300. And in fact, in a world where the number of geniuses has gone up to a thousand, you could have three groups of 300 talking, or two of five hundred, or one of the whole thousand. All other things being equal, you have to make something unequal for more "geniuses" not to produce more.

Now there is an unequal factor - infrastructure. But there's a reason it's called the developing world. Population is expected to stabilize this century, and infrastructure will catch up (and at any given moment, there are now more people with more access to infrastructure than there were before). 4 billion people with infrastructure might beat 7 billion with most having less infrastructure, but will it beat 10 billion people with infrastructure?

Your argument seems to be inexplicably based on there being some optimum number of researchers we just happen to be vaguely near. If we grabbed a random physicist from 1912 or 1862, or maybe even 1962, do you think those people would expect it ever to be necessary for someone to specialize in the work you're doing right now?
"Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer."
Cet animal est très méchant / Quand on l'attaque il se défend.

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