Population: It’s quality that matters, not quantity

From Quillette The End of the World as We Know It?

The gist of this article is that the world needs more people to stave off crisis of innovation, and that arguments against overpopulation and economic destruction due to too many humans, are unfounded. I have seen similar arguments made by, generally, neoliberals, who argue that the world needs more people or that America needs more immigration. For example, the book One Billion Americans, by Matthew Yglesias, published in 2020, makes such an argument. This is in stark contrast to leftists, who tend to argue that the world has too many people and that overpopulation threatens the environment.

I have always found such arguments unconvincing (being more hype and alarmist than credible) and somewhat self-serving or arrogant, because the very people advocating for more population or more immigration either likely stand to benefit economically (such as executives and shareholders of multinational firms making more money due to more population hence more consumer spending and sales), or are immune to the possible side effects, such as tenured professors, journalists, or think tank policy wonks, whose highly technical and or prestigious jobs are not threated by the potential competition of all these additional humans. It is mostly low-skilled workers whose jobs are most at risk of being replaced or wages driven lower. Nor are they going to be exposed to the extra possible crime and general unpleasantness of living in densely populated areas full of sub-100 IQ people.

In regard to the lump of labor fallacy, even if more total jobs are created by having more people, which is to be expected, it will not be the people at the very top whose jobs are going to be shuffled, but rather those at the bottom.

Second, I think quality matters more than quantity. If quantity was of upmost importance, highly populous countries and regions such as Brazil, Mexico (entire South America), Africa, and Turkey would be economic leaders, yet on a per-capita basis, they fall far behind less populous or low-fertility countries such as Sweden, South Korea, Japan, and Denmark. The underlying variable is national IQ, which is of greater importance than just population size and fertility rate.

For the past decade, there has been no shortage of doom and gloom forecasts about Japan’s forever-looming population crisis and demographic crisis, that always seems to be around the corner but never actually comes, yet on a per-capita and dollar-adjusted basis, Japan and its economy and stock market has far surpassed South America, the Middle East, and Southern Europe, all of which have higher fertility rates than Japan.

Silicon Valley, despite low fertility rates (generally, fertility rates are inversely correlated with IQ) and a population of just 3 million people, just by itself is more important economically and in terms of wealth created, than entire states and countries that have tens of millions of people. Same for Seattle and Manhattan.

The greatest threat to humanity’s future is certainly not too many people consuming too many limited natural resources, but rather too few people giving birth to the new humans who will continue the creative work of making the world a better, more hospitable place through technological innovation.

Except that during the period of greatest innovation, the 20th century, the world population was substantially lower. The world population was just 3 billion when the transistor was invented. The world population was just 1 billion when radio communication was invented, around the 1900s. Meanwhile, in spite of the world population surging from 6 billion in 2000 to 7.5 billion as of today, most progress seems to be incremental (faster phones and computers) rather than transformative (entire new technologies rather than improvements to existing ones).

That end is a dramatic population bust that will nosedive toward an empty planet. New research places the beginning of that turn at about 30 years from today.

Unless the world fertility rate drops to near-zero everywhere instantaneously and stays that way for many decades, there is not going to be an empty planet. It is not even close. I hate this kind of hyperbole and alarmism. There is so much population growth, still, especially in third-world countries, that even the worse-case UN prediction still shows population growth as far out as 2050. It will take centuries, not decades, even assuming the worse case scenario, for world population to fall below even a couple billion.

Now, the inflection point from growth to decline may be in 30 years, but that is still a very, very long way from anything even remotely approaching an ’empty planet.’

Lomborg holds that while “global warming is real… it is not the end of the world.” “It is a manageable problem” he adds. He is increasingly dismayed that we live in a world “where almost half the population believes climate change will extinguish humanity” at the precise moment when “the science shows us that fears of a climate apocalypse are unfounded.” Demonstrating this is not difficult. Simply consider what we all need to live: air, water, abundant food, and protection from nature. Each of these are improving in dramatic ways precisely because of technology and growth. The scholars at Our World in Data and the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford demonstrate this.

I think fears of climate change are overblown. I agree that there is enough resources to sustain billions more people, yet this does not imply that this will lead to more innovation or that having more people is necessary desirable.

Demographers have long been concerned about this. The “news” part here is how much more dire the Gates research is. Using a more sophisticated analysis than the United Nations and other leading global think tanks have employed to date reveals the world’s population shortfall will be markedly more dramatic, and sooner, than anyone anticipated. The BBC described it as a “jaw dropping global crash.” And none of these demographers see this as a good thing. Quite the opposite. No fewer than 23 leading nations—including Japan, Spain, South Korea, and Italy—will see their population cut in half by 2100. China’s will drop by a stunning 48 percent, knocking it out of contention as the world’s economic super-power. This precipitous decline will not be caused by disease, famine, or any kind of natural disaster. The missing population will simply never have been born. Their would-be parents are simply forgetting to have them.

But here is the problem…if we are quick to dismiss dire projections about global warning and overpopulation, why should we instinctively trust these dire forecasts of depopulation? This seems like the Gell-Mann amnesia effect. How many times over the past decade have experts made projections that failed to come true? Remember those forecasts in 2016 of Hillary winning by a landslide? Or predictions/forecasts made in the 1970s about global warning, melting icecaps flooding coastal cities, and peak oil. How is this any different? How do we separate irrational fears from rational ones? That is a much harder question.

2100 is such a long way off. There are too many possible variables to consider. Sure, you can plug some numbers into a formula, but extrapolated over such a long time-frame, even small adjustments of the imputed initial variables can lead to huge differences in forecasts. This implies that one must have extreme confidence in the ability to estimate the variables themselves, which is typically not possible in the social sciences.

I think one should be skeptical of all social science models and projections of crisis, whether about global warming, overpopulation, economics, or depopulation. In 2008-2011, there were forecasts by economics experts of decades-long economic stagnation similar to Japan; instead, the US economy and stock market recovered very quickly (all the lost GDP from 2007-2009 was recovered within 18 months) , especially relative to the rest of the world, thanks to massive consumer spending, record corporate profits, and tech innovation. Few foresaw such a strong, v-shaped recovery in the US stock market and economy that followed from such a bad recession. 200 years ago, there were fears of a ‘horse shortage’ because that was the major form of transportation at the time; in retrospect, such fears seem silly but at the time was taken seriously by the leading experts.

Beyond this, the projected fertility rates in 183 of 195 countries will not be high enough to maintain current populations by the century’s end. That is called negative population growth and once it starts, it probably won’t stop. These scholars predict that sub-Saharan and North Africa, as well as the Middle East, will be the only super regions fertile enough to maintain their populations without dramatic immigration policies.

By that logic, the Black Death and other depopulation events should have continued indefinitely, but they did not. There is no reason to assume or any immutable law of nature that just because population growth becomes negative that it must stay that way. Also notice how the author is moving goalposts. Initially the concern was world population falling, but amends the forecast to exclude ‘sub-Saharan and North Africa, as well as the Middle East’ from the depopulation crisis. So the problem is not so much a global depopulation crisis but rather a depopulation crisis among developed, European (hint: white) countries, which is a valid concern.

This is what the end of humanity looks like. Professor Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine and head of the Gates study, told the BBC, “I find people laugh it off… they can’t imagine it could be true, they think women will just decide to have more kids. If you can’t [find a solution] then eventually the species disappears.” And the solutions that developed countries have tried of late are not working.

Again, more hyperbole. Fertility rates are just averages. Some people and groups within the population will have higher fertility rates, and those people will pass their genes for increased fertility, so there will never be a scenario in which everyone stops having kids, as fertility is always on a spectrum. It is possible that increased innovation and economic productivity will be enough to offset this population decline such that world GDP does not fall despite a lower population, similar to how Silicon Valley has a low population but a lot of economic output and wealth on a per-capita basis, or how automation made farming a smaller share of the global economy and workforce.

The article goes on to predict a crisis in innovation due to depopulation. The author fails to grasp or ignores that the link between innovation and population are not that strong. The regions that have the greatest population growth such as Africa, West Asia, and South-East Asia also have little innovation on a per-capita basis relative to Europe, Japan, and the US. China has considerable population growth and innovation, but the innovation is limited to the major urban regions.

Overall, in regard to economic performance and innovation, quality matters more than quantity, and that considerable skepticism is justified in regard to forecasts and projections made in the social sciences, especially when such forecasts are 100 years into the future and involve crisis. The solution for reversing population decline for high-IQ groups is something as simple as economic incentives. Instead of spending trillions of dollars on programs that do not do anything but line the pockets of bureaucrats and big businesses, how about generous financial incentives for high-IQ people to procreate. Something so simple could work, but current programs amount to throwing more good money at the bad.