The bogus baby bust nightmare

A declining population doesn't automatically result in declining prosperity. Even the Black Death had a silver lining.

Published June 19, 2008 10:45AM (EDT)

Forget about rising energy prices, climate change, plunging biodiversity and all manner of ills that in one way or another can be connected to the proliferation of humans on the planet. Jeff Jacoby, the conservative columnist for the Boston Globe, tells us that the real problem we should be worring about is "The Coming Population Bust." (Thanks to Mark Thoma for the tip.)

Extrapolating from the decline in fertility rates currently occuring in many of the more economically prosperous countries in the world, Jacoby tells us that fewer human beings would be a disaster.

True, fewer human beings would mean fewer mouths to feed. It would also mean fewer entrepreneurs, fewer pioneers, fewer problem-solvers. Which is why it is not an increase but the coming decrease in human population that should engender foreboding. For as Phillip Longman, a scholar of demographics and economics at the New America Foundation, observes: "Never in history have we had economic prosperity accompanied by depopulation."

...By mid-century, according to one UN estimate, there will be 248 million fewer children than there are now. To a culture that has been endlessly hectored about the dangers of overpopulation, that might sound like welcome news. It isn't. No society gains when it loses its most precious resource, and no resource is more valuable than the human mind. The coming demographic winter will chill us all.

Never mind that by mid-century, there will also be about 2.5 billion more people in total on the planet than there are now, which some people think will probably be quite sufficient to provide all the problem-solvers we're likely to need. If Thomas Malthus really was wrong, as Jacoby confidently asserts, we'll find out soon enough. How the World Works doesn't rule out the possibility that human ingenuity will find ways to squeeze continued prosperity out of a shrinking planet, but I am also unconvinced by the argument that just because a couple of hundred years of technological progress have allowed us to escape the consequences that befall every other biological population that expands too quickly, we are guaranteed unlimited growth and prosperity, ad infinitum.

But that's not what I want to focus on right now. I'm more interested in the assertion that "Never in history have we had economic prosperity accompanied by depopulation."

Is that really true? I am reminded of a startling section from Ronald Findlay and Kevin H. O'Rourke's "Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium," concerning the consequences of the Black Death for the European economy.

Drastic depopulation in Western Europe appears to have led to a dramatic improvement in the living standards of the surviving working class. Total production, is is true, declined overall, but there was a significant rise in "per capita real income and wealth, since land and physical capital remain unchanged and the livestock population was apparently unaffected by the plague."

With less labor available, surviving workers were able to command a premium.

... The data suggest a sharp rise in English real wages from the middle of the fourteenth century. Real wages continued rising for about a century, so that by the middle of the fifteenth century laborers were earning more than twice as much in real terms as they had been doing on the eve of the Black Death...

I will concede that there is some cognitive dissonance to be mined in the concept of the Black Death having an upside. It's not exactly a strategy one would recommend to labor organizers, for example. But the fundamental premise is provocative: a world with fewer people competing against each other could mean a better life for the workers who do end up getting born.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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