The Bear’s Lair: The world’s greatest need is fewer people

While we are in a brief period of decent global growth, the underlying productivity trends in rich countries are disquieting. What’s more, it now seems likely that, except in the United States, we will not escape the zero-interest rate lunacy before the next downturn. Even more disquieting is a re-acceleration of global population growth, so that the United Nations’ 2100 projection has risen from 10.1 billion to 11.2 billion just in the few years since 2010. That vicious combination, of foolish policy, low productivity growth and rapid population growth, seems likely to push humanity back into poverty.

Population growth is closely but inversely linked to economic growth, in both directions. The most obvious feedback loop is that higher population growth puts an enormous strain on housing, schooling and infrastructure, meaning that a heavy proportion of output must be devoted to these essentially unproductive uses, leaving less for productivity-enhancing innovations. However, there also appears to be a feedback loop in the other direction. If economic growth slackens, especially in poor countries, the factors that have been lifting people out of poverty slacken, and the birth rate goes up, since poverty increases it. That in turn causes the long-term population projections to soar substantially.

We have seen the latter effect since 2000. In the long-term U.N. projections of 2004, world population was expected to peak at 9.22 billion by 2075, and to have declined to 9.1 billion by 2100 – indeed the global population projected for 2300 was only 8.9 billion, a very tolerable figure that far out, suggesting that environmental and other constrains would be conquerable. By 2010, after the economically sluggish latter years of the 2000s had boosted births, the 2100 projection had already increased to 10.1 billion with, alas, no peak in the projections but only continued growth. By 2017, the projected 2100 population had added yet another 1.1 billion and was now growing substantially right through the 21st century and presumably well into the 22nd.

The short-term population growth from the 2004 projection was only moderate; the 2004 projection for 2018 population was about 7.5 billion, whereas the reality is close to 7.8 billion. Yet the past decade and a half, instead of seeing a continued slowing in population growth from 1.22% annually in 2000-2005 to about 0.95% annually in 2015-20, as was projected in 2004, has seen a slowing only to an annual 1.12%. Project that additional population exuberance to 2100, and you get the unpleasant situation forecast in the UN 2017 projection.

Nigeria in 2100 will have a population of 794 million so if Lagos, its capital, keeps its current share of Nigeria’s population, its 2100 population will be 101 million. Imagine a Nigeria only moderately richer than it is today, and imagine within that a city of 101 million, with infrastructure totally insufficient to that population, and with heat, slums and disease at their inevitable level. It will resemble Manchester in 1825, only much hotter, with a similar level of drainage, clean water and healthcare and 1000 times the population. It’s a pretty good recipe for Hell – so much for the silly theory that cities are the main bastions of civilization. With a global population of 11.2 billion, if we don’t have huge per capita economic growth and technological advance, the life of the world’s average inhabitant will be surprisingly short, surprisingly brutish and very nasty. We will be well on the way to undoing all the blissful, life-enhancing good done by the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions.

Paul Ehrlich first forecast demographic catastrophe, in his 1968 “The Population Bomb” and his failed prediction of mass starvation and multi-million deaths in the U.S. by 1980 has since been used to discredit all population doom-mongering. It was the first of a fashionable series of doom-mongering books, most of which, notably the 1972 Club of Rome’s “Limits to Growth” fantasy, focused on environmental rather than agricultural disasters. While their predictions were off, however, these books popularized and seemed to justify massive government intervention in the global economy, almost all of which has made the economic outlook very much worse.

The reality is that there is a very unpleasant adverse feedback loop here. Loony environmentalist socialists get themselves elected worldwide and introduce massive regulatory schemes such as the global warming boondoggle that sharply slow the world’s rate of economic growth and especially productivity growth. Massive amounts of resources are diverted to what is essentially unproductive activity, such as everything associated with Tesla Inc.(NYSE:TSLA).

All the unproductive activity and even more unproductive regulations bring two unpleasant results. First, with slower economic growth in poor countries, the global population curve tilts upwards, thus worsening the environmental problem and the poverty problem together. Second, since with all the regulations and nonsensical activity capitalism does not appear to be working too well, dozy global electorates are seduced into ever sillier attempts to undermine the capitalist system. Alexis Tsipras of Greece could never have got elected in 2009, but now he is entrenched apparently for all time to come, slowly destroying the Greek economy – what’s left of it – while receiving subsidies and pats on the head from Brussels Central, which never saw a socialist experiment it didn’t like.

Ehrlich of course had solutions for the population side of the problem, mostly involving forced sterilization – in that sense “The Population Bomb” could not be written now, since it took an attitude to population control that went out in most countries after the early 1940s. But Ehrlich being wrong about over-population does not mean it cannot happen, just as the Club of Rome predicting global economic collapse does not mean that can’t happen either (though it probably helps if your econometric models don’t have exploding error terms, as the Club of Rome’s did – their economic collapses were literally baked into the software by economists who didn’t understand the math.)

The main recommendation for world policymakers must surely be to avoid policymaking based on environmental hysterias. If the costs of the new policy are sufficiently great, they depress the global economy, prevent the very poor from becoming less so and increase global population, which makes the long-term environmental problem worse. The decline in U.S. productivity growth since 1973 is pretty clearly due to the rise in regulation of all kinds; the pathetic performance of EU productivity in the last two decades is also due to the same disease of excessive regulation. Applying environmental regulation to poor countries is even more damaging; their economies are often heavily manufacturing-oriented; hence environmental regulation bears especially harshly.

I have also written previously that the ideal population-suppressing policy is a modest pension at the age of 70 for all inhabitants of Africa; this would cost only a few billion (because there are relatively few 70-year-old Africans) yet it would remove the incentive for younger Africans to have large families to support them in their old age, pushing them faster than normal to the rich-country habit of limited fertility. The cost of such a move would be far below that of most environmental initiatives, yet it would have beneficial long-term environmental effects exceeding all but the most fortunate of those initiatives.

Finally, the world must get rid of the zero-interest rate policies of the last decade. The correlation is too great; the policies destroyed productivity growth simultaneously in all four major rich-country regions from their imposition around 2008. Now the one country that has partially abandoned them, the United States, has seen a partial revival in productivity growth. Zero interest rates, negative in real terms, cause an explosion of badly-directed investment in both public and private sectors.

Because of the importance of rich countries in the world economy, their zero-rate policies have had a knock-on effect, producing excessive unproductive investment in other countries, where they have not been imposed. The huge boondoggle of China’s empty apartment and office blocks and its “One Belt One Road” international infrastructure investment program, almost entirely state-funded, are examples of this. The World Bank’s failures for half a century have proved that poor countries subjected to massive foreign investment programs in large-scale projects merely lose the ability to generate wealth among their own small firms, and so remain more impoverished than they need to.

Thomas Malthus was right about population; he just had the intellectual bad luck to write in 1798, at the opening of the greatest favorable revolution in world possibilities in human history, past and probably future. The world’s ideal population is probably about the 1 billion at which it stood when Malthus wrote. If for various reasons of bad policy, or even because of Professor Robert Gordon’s postulated slowdown of innovation, we are ending the productivity explosion of industrialization, we must also take steps to bring population back down to the Malthus-era level.

(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)