16 Comments
Jan 12Liked by John Quiggin

John, without having seen the long version of your argument, my only quibble is that a period of below replacement fertility in the world, while clearly desirable for the next several decades and perhaps longer, should ultimately give way to a situation in which we achieve a steady-state population in a democratically and socially acceptable way.

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Hell yes, I am 100% with you. Very keen for more on this!

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Jan 13Liked by John Quiggin

Aldous Huxley's Fifth Philosopher's Song (from long-ago memory):

A million million spermatazoa, all of them alive

Out of that multitude but one poor Noah dares hope to survive

And of that billion [sic] minus one might have chanced to be

A Shakespeare, another Newton, a new Donne, but the one

Was me

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Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure (late 19th century) is based on the same point. And, as I just discovered, he took the title of Far from the Madding Crowd from Gray's elegy

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Like you I favour a smaller human population in the long term. In the short-term since so much private investment is in housing that will pose deflationary forces. That challenge should be met by riding them out - we should not be addressing short-term stabilisation issues with a population growth Ponzi scheme anyway. More generally there are efficiency losses with smaller populations since fewer possible trades can be done - its the reverse of "gains-from-trade" arguments. You have to be careful of these foregone gains since they would anyway, otherwise be associated with external costs such as congestion, pollution and GGEs. Likewise the deflationary impulse to private investment would be offset by much cheaper housing and a desirable redistribution from old people to young - things have worked in the opposite direction over recent decades as the redistribution from labour to owners of fixed assets suggests. Housing should cease to be a target of policy but instead become an inexpensive means for securing life. People would not need to spend most of their life repaying mortgages and there would be a shift towards labour incomes at the expense of capital. Much less spending need be devoted to expanding infrastructure to accommodate larger populations in cities that are characterised by increasing costs of infrastructure provision. People could spend more of their lives trying to be Mozarts or Picasso's. This might in turn lead to some (limited) rebound increase in fertility as couples find the costs of having children fall relative to the cost of housing them. The current decline in birth rates in China, Japan and in many other countries such as Italy should be welcome. Australia too should not be increasing our population by relying all the time on immigration to keep our population growing.

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The distinction you make between the number and "quality" of people was raised by Gary Becker in his "Treatise on the Family" in relation to children. Parents could invest in "numbers" or in "quality'. When kids could work as farm help farmers had lots of them. When they couldn't they were sent off to boarding school. I still think Becker's book is one of the most important economic studies ever written. Explained the demographic transition.

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Jan 13·edited Jan 16

It seems to me rather optimistic that having the education will get someone somewhere. Just talked with someone who has 2 Master degrees with great GPA, speaks 13 languages (naturally some are very similar to each other, and not all great, still, quite a few fluent) and does not find a normal job. Unfortunately, not that rare. The most absurd example from personal knowledge is probably a young, healthy acquaintance that got a good medical degree. She's doing some low level aid job. And it's not like my social circle is particular large.

Yet allegedly, labour is super scare and many people (Profs for example) run around telling people everybody will get a great job and does not have to work half as hard as they used to etc. People just have to fit perfect - exactly right degree, right age, right skin colour, right passport, healthy, no CV gap whatsoever, otherwise they do not count as qualified candidates. It's not like many of those things have to cumulate.

In case the connection to potential geniuses is not obvious: The concept is rather questionable for me in the first place, but even conceding some personal talent is such a decisive factor that produces new unique value*: I don't think society would notice the geniuses even when people have received all the resources to show their potential, when they deviate from the desired group. I’d go even further, society will not notice it if people already did the work in most cases. Some things like poems probably have already been written, put in the trash-box and forgotten a hundred times at the same level as the ones that are considered genius work. But then, people who do not get encouraged won't start focusing on entrepreneurial, artistic or academic adventures even after the perfect educational preparation for it.

*My model especially regarding artistic work is more that "great" work is mostly a question of social interaction and state of technology. More often than, not, it also does take non-trivial amounts of other people's resources. At some point, there was the right time for Mozart, or Kraftwerk, or the Beatles. And all three examples required non-trivial material resources to make their music work. If it had not been those, someone else would have done something very similar that would be regarded as the genius music. Don't doubt that those people who get there also usually have extraordinary "talent" high IQs, great musical hearing, worked hard, and things like that (next to pure random luck and privileges). But if we had none of those available, it seems to me someone else, or a bigger team of someone elses would have gotten there with not too much of a time gap.

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Since we’re discussing literature and economics, I can’t help recalling that Charles Babbage took issue with Tennyson’s couplet:

“Every moment dies a man,

Every moment one is born.”

pointing out that this would mean that population growth is static, which is not the case. He suggested the line be replaced with

“Every moment dies a man,

Every moment 1 1/16 is born.”

(He regretted the actual figure was too long to fit the line.)

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(Cross-commented at johnquiggin.com)

There is a famous legend about the boyhood of Carl Friedrich Gauss that illustrates Gray’s and JQ’s point with a happy ending, with the additional advantage of being basically true. One modern retelling:

“In the 1780s a provincial German schoolmaster gave his class the tedious assignment of summing the first 100 integers. The teacher’s aim was to keep the kids quiet for half an hour, but one young pupil almost immediately produced an answer: 1 + 2 + 3 + … + 98 + 99 + 100 = 5,050. The smart aleck was Carl Friedrich Gauss, who would go on to join the short list of candidates for greatest mathematician ever. Gauss was not a calculating prodigy who added up all those numbers in his head. He had a deeper insight: If you “fold” the series of numbers in the middle and add them in pairs—1 + 100, 2 + 99, 3 + 98, and so on—all the pairs sum to 101. There are 50 such pairs, and so the grand total is simply 50×101. The more general formula, for a list of consecutive numbers from 1 through n, is n(n + 1)/2.”

I say this legend is true because Gauss came from a working-class family. Wikipedia: “His father … worked in several jobs, as butcher, bricklayer, gardener, and as treasurer of a death-benefit fund […] his wife Dorothea, Carl Friedrich’s mother, was nearly illiterate.” Boys went to school in the duchy of Hannover, but it was a pretty basic school. Gifted kids like Carl Friedrich are a problem for teachers, and it was against the odds that this particular schoolmaster recognized that this boy was not just bright - there is at least one in every class – but a one-in-a-million talent, and gave him the first essential push up he first rung of a very high ladder. He could just as easily have crushed the talent with ridicule and neglect, as surely often happens. Interesting that as a famous scholar, Gauss worked like his father on the problems of a pension fund, inventing statistics on the way.

PS. You can have a go at putting a number to the Gray undercount. Assume that potential genius is 100% genetic and randomly distributed. Draw up a list of fulfilled geniuses and allocate their family background to an income class, say rich (Darwin, Maxwell, Tolstoy), middle (Newton, Shakespeare, Bach) and working (Gauss, Faraday, Mendeleev). Estimate the shares of these classes in the general population. Compare with the class ratios of the geniuses. The difference is the Gray undercount. One problem is that class ratios change overtime, and the geniuses are too few to break up by period. Herr Professor Dr. Gauss may have a fix.

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My position is anti-anti-natalist. The idea that falling fertility levels may be a symptom of something bad [the timing of child rearing costs in the life cycle, land use and building code restrictions that make housing especially expensive in high productivity areas are good candidates, customs that exaggerate the opportunity cost of time spent on child rearing (particularly by women)] makes sense to me. But the proper response it is to remove the obstacles to child rearing, not encourage child rearing, per se.

The idea that falling fertility levels are intrinsically bad for per capita flourishing does not make a lot of sense. The bad outcomes attributed to falling population levels, mostly related to older people having higher costs of medical care and eventually custodial care, is just an issue of how those services have been mis-financed in the past and could be better financed in the future. And letting people immigrate to places where they are more productive is a good idea in and of itself, not as a way of addressing poorly financed systems of transfers to older people.

In other words, it's Tinbergen all the way down.

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The only sensible way to use utilitarianism is to acknowledge that taking it too far leads to philosophical outcomes which lead to practical outcomes which drastically reduce overall utility. There are rather odd assumptions behind the "next Mozart" argument that could easily be varied to deliver a conclusion less likely to lead to misery and suffering, so it behoves the maker of the argument to change their assumptions. In particular, there's something very strange going on with time in this argument. Who cares if fewer people have to wait longer for the next Mozart? I already know I'm not going to read every novel I want to before I die, and I'm 45.

On a more prosaic level, who was the last Mozart? Who was the last Einstein? Has economics ever had an Einstein? If Einstein had been hit by a bus the day before he shared his first major idea, how long would it have taken for us to figure it all out? Did he bring us forward by centuries? Decades? Years? Months? Weeks?

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Presumably "pre-figured hundred years ago" = "pre-figured nearly three hundred years ago"?

I share your skepticism about the "More Einsteins!" argument for pronatalism, as well as your utopion* vision of "a world where everyone has a chance to be a great poet or inventor" (or the Marxian version where we all get to be hunters, fishers, cattle rearers, and critics in the course of each day). However, it will take a more detailed economic model of technological and artistic innovation for this line of thought to be convincing, so I look forward to the full version of your argument.

*(Typo left intact in accordance with the rule that every comment pointing out a typo must itself include a typo.)

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