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Should you be reading someone that claims “this is what economists think,” particularly if said person is not an economist, you may either want to head for the intellectual exits or you might want to politely send a note to the author/speaker asking them for evidence that ALL economists think that. Even better, you can ask them for evidence that ANY SMALL SHARE of economists believe or think such a thing.

Here is the latest, as I prep a lecture on fisheries for my enviro class:

 But four socioeconomic factors hinder progressive actions to attaining zero or negative population growth in the USA.

1) Population growth is a component of economic growth, determining its natural rate (Harrod 1939). In addition, neoclassical economists regard population growth as necessary for per capita growth in gross domestic product (GDP) over the long term (Romer 1990; Jones 1998). That is, neoclassical economists believe more people are needed to stimulate more consumption per person. And economics, regardless of the general ignorance of its practitioners in the laws of physics and ecology, has greater influence in governments than the natural sciences. Likewise, governments and the media pay greater attention to short-term economic indicators than multiple indicators of ecological status and trends that are reported with lower frequencies and have far greater long-term implications for Earth’s biota (e.g. Stocker et al. 2013; USEPA 2009; 2013).

Let’s ignore the very premise of the point for now – for it is undeniably the case that as economies grow, fertility rates decline. It might reasonably be argued that the only reason population grew at all since 1800 is that we’ve defeated disease faster than our fertility decisions changed, but we’ve caught up now. Population demographers understand that world population will peak at somewhere between 9 and 10 billion people later this century, and this is a number WELL within the capacity of Earth’s resources to sustain. But let’s just make believe this is not true, because if we just say something is true, it must be – totally ignoring where and how the cleanest places on the planet actually came to be that way.

Take the second sentence of the second paragraph. I took 3 years of economics as an undergrad, 5 years in grad school, and about a decade of studying since I graduated from grad school, and I never once was taught that long-run GDP growth was not possible without population GROWTH. Now, there surely is some minimum level of population that is probably necessary to take advantage of the division of labor and scale economies to deliver such wonderful things as wireless computers, but population growth as a necessary condition for economic growth? We must be residing in CO and WA.

But hey, he linked to an econ paper. Let’s check what Romer actually says.

Growth in this model is driven by technological change that arises
from intentional investment decisions made by profit-maximizing
agents. The distinguishing feature of the technology as an input is
that it is neither a conventional good nor a public good; it is a non-
rival, partially excludable good. Because of the nonconvexity in-
troduced by a nonrival good, price-taking competition cannot be
supported. Instead, the equilibrium is one with monopolistic compe-
tition. The main conclusions are that the stock of human capital
determines the rate of growth, that too little human capital is de-
voted to research in equilibrium, that integration into world markets
will increase growth rates, and that having a large population is NOT 
sufficient to generate growth.

Later in the paper we encounter:

If access to a large number of workers or
consumers were all that mattered, having a large population would be
a good substitute for trade with other nations. The model here sug-
gests that what is important for growth is integration not into an
economy with a large number of people but rather into one with a
large amount of human capital.

Maybe my JSTOR version leaves out the part where he argues that population is necessary for economic growth. By the way, the JPE, which that article is published in, is hosted at Chicago and is thought to be the “free-market” journal, so I’m not just picking on some journal that is not likely to support such a position. And I sure would like to see the textbook that Mr. Hughes is using to maybe find the evidence for the point he is making, Which is ironic given his following sentence, chastising economists for not understanding the laws of physics and ecology (yours truly notwithstanding, who was of course a physics major in college and spends his free time in the ecology literature) – it’s perfectly believable that economists are unaware of basic physics and ecology because we come out of the womb doing nothing but economics and studying nothing but economics in college and beyond, but of course the biologists, and just about anyone writing in economics, gets to assert that they therefore appreciate, respect and understand the laws of economics and human behavior, … well, it’s hard to be charitable when this is standard fare.

And as far as economists having greater influence than natural scientists on the political process, that is a pretty broad statement, and in my view is devoid of any scientific content. It’s certainly not testable, so I guess in pre-eminent publications by pre-eminent scientists we can masquerade opinions as science. This is sad not only from a personal level but also because it undermines the good science that is out there being done. But if economists have outsized influence, then why do tariffs, quotas and other trade restrictions exist? The “consensus”on free-trade in economics is stronger than any “climate consensus” yet I have never seen a serious political movement in the US toward free trade. Or abolishing price controls. Or any of the other things that are pretty standard fare in economics. But hey, if a scientist, a SCIENTIST, just says something about economics, it MUST be true. As far as natural scientists being ignored? I don’t know, it’s a broad statement. There are millions of interests pushing and pulling on the political process and every one of those interests, including the economists, can make a similar claim and have some semblance of being correct. But what particularly important aspects of natural science are being ignored? Is it the “consensus” among natural scientists that population is bad? Well, that is not exactly a scientifically tenable position, so is it bad for the political process to not be beholden to positions that are not entirely certain?

Later in Mr. Hughes’ post we see a claim about immigrants coming here who have higher fertility rates than American natives, but of course he says nothing of what economic growth (ironically by coming to the US in the first place) would do to those fertility rates. A NICE research topic for my students who keep asking me about them would be to examine fertility rates of immigrants to America over time as compared to their countries of origin and for the native born American population. But again, for a scientist, we can just accept his point without evidence – that’s the scientific method, right?

And then there’s this whopper:

Nonetheless, there is ample evidence that increased economic opportunity alone, or the perception thereof, stimulates population growth

Really? See this. Science. I suppose you can accuse me of not showing that chart in regression form, again, students looking for a nice simple research paper would do well to control for all other factors that impact fertility and then show the relationship between income growth and income levels and fertility. I am sure I am cherry picking here because I am … well … evil … and an economist.

FINALLY, here is today’s treat from the serious people at Vox. Because, yes, a late night TV show (a good one I admit) is really the serious place to destroy the idea that hard work makes you rich. Two quick points. First, do the serious people at Vox believe that NOT working hard will make you rich? And since when has anyone claimed that hard work was a sufficient condition for success? Second, early in the “article” we see that “the system” that Vox and pollsters refer to is the “economic system.” Well, there ISN’T one. There is a political system that is consciously chosen. At best the economic system emerges. In any case, the political system is surely rigged in favor of certain people. Let’s not get into the premise of the entire argument, which has had way too much unhelpful ink spilled on it. I am not going to add to the din any more than I already have.

And you all wonder why I am heading back into the woods.

2 Responses to “Public Service Announcement, Redux”

  1. Harry says:

    Wintercow gets full credit for thoroughness in preparing for his class, having found the Letter from the President of the Fisheries Association. One can imagine how his office at headquarters is decorated, with a big marlin on the wall and bronze statues of Ariel and Neptune flanking his desk. It sounds like he is concerned about overpopulation.

    Wintercow should refer him to the USDA program to promote and control chicken population growth, which depends on rooster confinement. If the USDA system is carefully followed, you end up with enough eggs to feed your family without squandering chicken feed.

    If Wintercow gets the right pictures (salmon spawning before being eaten by grizzly bears, cockfighting videos, etc.) that first class could be lively.

  2. Scott says:

    It Certainly is infuriating material to read – and its EVERYWHERE.

    I am envious of your students who are sitting in on the lecture on fisheries. I find aquaculture to be particularly fascinating, and I imagine it will be an exciting industry for innovative entrepreneurs to enter into. In NYS it seems to me that most fisheries are operated by the State, perhaps in years to come we will see more private investment into aquaculture…

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