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Anxious accountant and time bomb

Don’t Make America Mate Again

Making More Babies the Wrong Cure for Birth Dearth Anxiety

The headline on a recent Bloomberg commentary just begs for infamy on our Wall of Shame:

Make America Mate Again

Really! Is University of Georgia associate professor of history Stephen Mihm kidding? Is he not familiar with Easter Island or the collapse of other civilizations of the past that outgrew the carrying capacity of their region? Apparently. Mihm laments a slowing U.S. population growth rate:

“…a worrisome trend: The population grew a subdued 0.7 percent, the lowest rate of growth since the Great Depression years of 1936 and 1937.”

His first mistake is to “Ask an economist why this matters….” Many, not all, economists focus on the pursuit of economic growth to the exclusion of inconvenient truths of physical science. So much so, that I’m inclined to revise the famous William Shakespeare line from Henry VI to:

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the economists.”

For today, let’s just focus on Mihm:

“…it’s hard to deny that the demographic slowdown, should it continue, likely puts a damper on future economic growth.”

Mihm goes so far as to postulate that the Great Depression may have been caused, or at least worsened, by a decline in both birth and immigration rates in the U.S. We were saved, apparently, by the post-war baby boom.

“That population boom and the consumer demand it begot, is often credited with averting a return to the gloomy days of the 1930s.”

That consumer demand is a key point in my skewering here of Mihm’s piece. Like many of the economists who ignore the limits of the biosphere in which our economy exists, Mihm just focuses on the dollars. He assumes a bigger economy is better than a smaller one, and therefore we need more people consuming more stuff. This is really problematic. I’ll refer Mihm to read up on limits to growth. If you want to know the truth, the evidence is clear that the scale of the human enterprise has outgrown the planet. We have too many people and they are consuming too much stuff. So Mihm’s solution is pure folly; the problem is not a problem. A slowing population growth rate is good news. And so is less economic growth.

I’m forced to admit, however, the simple fact that endless economic growth on a finite planet is physically impossible won’t allay the anxiety of those who are convinced GDP growth is the source of all things good. I think I do have something Mihm and other growth worship disciples can take for their birth-dearth anxiety: Step back and think this through. You might reach the logical conclusion that an economy just needs to be big enough to meet the needs of the population. A bigger population requires a larger economy, and a smaller population has fewer needs and therefore a smaller economy. Duh.

Did you get that? Worrying about the impact on GDP of population stabilization or even contraction springs from a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of our economy. If you, or Mihm, take nothing else away from this critique, please take this. The purpose of the economy is to meet the needs of the people. More people, bigger economy. Fewer people, smaller economy. Case closed.

I do feel the need to pile on just one more thing. I find repugnant the suggestion that women need to be birthing more babies to goose GDP. The womb is not a capitalist tool. Neither are babies.

I’m not going to kid you and suggest that this birth dearth hysteria is rare. But it should be. Still, Bloomberg’s Max Berley, the editor responsible for this piece making the light of day, ought to recognize its flaws, its denial of the realities of climate change and other evidence that we’ve overpopulated the planet.

I get the sense Berley is pretty smart. If he’s knowledgeable about limits to growth, perhaps his philosophy is to offer space to a broad spectrum of viewpoints, even the loony ones. I owe him thanks for giving me something ludicrous to write about today. Perhaps he has to live in denial due to the nature of Bloomberg’s services and audience. But I sure hope he’ll include at Bloomberg some more realistic and intelligent writing – of the sort provided by Herman Daly, Brian Czech, Rob Dietz, Gus Speth or Tim Jackson.


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Dave Gardner

Producer of the documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth. Dave writes and speaks regularly on the subject of growth addiction, including the pro-growth media bias that perpetuates prosperity-from-growth mythology.

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