Growth is not always good. Sometimes it’s a malignant cancer that will kill an individual. Sometimes it leads to eradication of resources, which causes extinction of a species, or as we are seeing now, many species.
Yet every economist whose views I can remember reading in the mass media takes population growth as one of the givens of all economic systems. Without population growth, all economic systems are bound to fail, say the most doctrinaire. Funny, they always cite ancient Rome (Edward Gibbon and others), yet always neglect Western Europe in the 14th century after the Black Plague took out a third of the population and the price of labor skyrocketed, leading to the time of the greatest average economic well-being in the entire history of the West (See Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror and Fernand Braudel’s Capitalism and Civilization).
I can understand the right-wing preoccupation with growth. Yet when liberal economists such as Paul Krugman and Robert Reich talk about the need to stimulate greater spending, they are saying that we have to grow our way out of the recession. In a warming world of diminishing resources, why aren’t these estimable gentlemen instead giving us a cookbook for adjusting to no growth and, dare I say it, economic shrinkage resulting from a necessary decrease in population?
The latest to suggest we have to breed our way out of economic disaster is Philip Longman in “Think Again: Global Aging” in the latest issue of Foreign Policy.
Longman accurately describes the graying of the planet as Western European nations, the United States, Japan and China all get older. The article is worth reading for the facts, but his recommendation unfortunately falls back on the old “let’s breed our way to economic security” argument.
His concern is that there won’t be enough young people to pay for all the old people around. The man shows no imagination! Since we know the population is both aging and shrinking, why can’t we plan for it by allocating more resources now to pay for future retirement and medical needs? Can’t we begin to channel more of our young people into careers serving the elderly and fewer into careers serving our very young?
Isn’t it clear to Longman that if we don’t reduce our population, we threaten the existence of ourselves and most other animal life on the Earth?
Of course, I am confident our numbers will be reduced, in some combination of the following ways:
- Responsible human action.
I vote for D. But try as I may, I can’t find a contemporary or recent economist willing to provide a game plan on how to make it happen. There wasn’t even anything useful on the website of Negative Population Growth.
I am not an economist, so I can’t construct an elaborate and mathematically verifiable theory of the no-growth economy, but I can suggest some specific actions we might take to manage the downward economic size that negative population growth will entail:
- Job-sharing, which really means cutting the number of hours that are considered full time, which will have the net effect of raising the price of labor; what I’m saying is that people will work 30 hours a week and make what they’re making now working 40.
- Return to some labor-intensive ways of doing some things such as farming to give more people jobs, which will also pollute the environment less by substituting humans for mechanical power while again raising the value of labor, and in the case of agriculture also lead to healthier food.
- Create a new set of human and civic needs to be filled by the economy creating more jobs, such as more mass transit, regular infrastructure improvements, more public parks, cleaner streets, more services for the homeless and universal health care.
- Establish active immigration programs from the poorer countries to the Western nations and Japan, which are losing population, to keep at a steady state or even growing those advanced economies whose people are leading the way in population shrinkage.
- Reallocate educational resources towards professions serving the elderly.
What I find interesting about this list of mine is that everything I’m recommending requires either a more equitable distribution of wealth and/or a greater reliance on government services or regulation. That may explain why right-wing economists want no part of a no-growth world.
I want to close with a plea to my readers to let me know if you know of any economists or books that focus on creating a successful economic system for a shrinking population.