Population Growth, Changing Demographics, and Western Democracy
The End of the Great Age
In the summer of 1989, Francis Fukuyama, a young deputy director at the U.S. State Department’s policy planning staff, published an article in the intellectual, political quarterly, The National Interest, that was later expanded into a best-selling book, The End of History and the Last Man.
"What we are witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or a passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."
Fukuyama’s thesis, inspired by what Paul Johnson called the Hegelian ‘mental fantasy world of the dialectic method’ [in "Intellectuals"], was consistent with the outlook of a protected civil servant on the receiving end of American tax dollars.
Like his colleagues, the secure minions of the U.S. State Department, he believed that something vaguely known as ‘Western liberal democracy’ was the panacea for all people.
From time to time, when Democrats controlled the White House, State Department bureaucrats were able to use American power to topple strong regimes, to the economic dismay of millions who are unwilling recipients of their elite benevolence.
This happened in Brazil in the late 1970s when Jimmy Carter nudged a mild, semi-democratic military administration into retirement, ending the "Brazilian Miracle" of economic development, bringing to power a civilian army of corrupted politicians and a “Western liberal democracy” that bankrupted the country in three years, pushing millions of Brazilian into a lost decade of poverty and crime, encouraging emigration to the United States.
Again, in 1997, in the regime of Bill Clinton, the State Department backroom helped engineer the downfall of another relatively benign autocrat, Soeharto of Indonesia, who, after having brought great advances to his people during a thirty-year reign, was no longer needed to fight communism.
His precipitous fall combined with the quack medicine of the IMF, democratized corruption, destroyed investor confidence, prolonged the collapse of the Indonesian banking system, and brought widespread, persistent economic distress and contributed to the promulgation of radical Islam.
Fukuyama’s vision of the “End of History” matched the mass psychosis of the Great Bubble.
It showed the same kind of millenarian, non-scientific, bemused thinking that spurred the Federal Reserve to claim having squared the Virtuous Circle of economic policy, while financial experts succumbed to the Efficient Market Hypothesis and whacko theories of the Nobel gods.
If indeed Western liberal democracy is “the final form of human government” as Fukuyama claimed, we have reason to tremble for the future of the race, judging from the tangible results of democratization in Latin America and Russia during the 1980s and 1990s.
There we see institutionalized crime, corruption, hyperinflation, poverty, rebellion, drug abuse, terrorism, and the cancerous growth of territory outside the control of central governments, from the highlands of Columbia to the rubble of Chechnya.
Although Fukuyama’s proclamation of the final stage of human development was certainly premature, by the 1990s there was another kind of “End of History” that was beginning to be discerned.
This was not the culmination of a dialectical evolution towards a utopian political system, but rather the end of a Great Age – the modern economic era that stretches back three hundred years and encompasses the European Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the lives of all the classical and orthodox economists from Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Karl Marx, to Irving Fisher and Franco Modigliani.
The outstanding feature of this Great Age was an explosive population growth never before observed in human history and perhaps never to be seen again.
- From the birth of Christ to the mid-eighteenth century, mankind expanded less than one-tenth of one percent per year.
- In the three centuries from 1100 to 1400, population grew only twenty percent. From 1400 to 1700, the human count did not even double – increasing just seventy percent.
- However, in the three centuries from 1700 to 2000 – the Great Age – the number of people expanded tenfold!
All of what we know as economic theory has been postulated and developed in an environment of constantly increasing population.
Just as we take oxygen for granted in ordering our lives, economists have long assumed that tomorrow will be more crowded than today.
Not only did the number of men and women increase substantially each year since Adam Smith was born, but the population of the monetary economy grew even faster.
In 1776, when Smith published Wealth of Nations, most people were poor farmers, serfs, or slaves and much of their economic activity went on without exchanging money.
In the American colonies, settlers raised their own food, manufactured their own clothes and furniture, and even made their own soap and candles.
However, as the Industrial Revolution progressed, new generations moved from farms to factories and into the monetary economy.
They now received cash wages to exchange for an ever-increasing quantity of goods and services made by others.
The double whammy of increasing population and an expanding monetary economy provided investors with a rosy, implicit growth scenario that stimulated capital markets.
A man who built a widget factory in 1800 could assume there would be a larger market for widgets by 1820 – unless someone invented something better.
Thanks to population growth, the manufacturers of Campbell’s soup, Hellmann’s mayonnaise, Kellogg’s cornflakes, Coca-Cola, and thousands of other well-established goods have seen sales increase for generations, although their products have remained about the same.
A study of the long-term growth of the profits of American business shows that the expansion of corporate earnings has been correlated to population increase.
The natural benefits of population growth and an expanding monetary economy were multiplied in North America where a seemingly unlimited supply of free public land attracted massive immigration of excess labor, suffering under the cramped monarchies of Old Europe.
The United States combined the advantages of rapidly growing population with ideas about public education, laissez faire economics, the goodness of man, and the pursuit of happiness that were inspired by Presbyterian thinkers like Adam Smith and others of the Scottish Enlightenment.
In contrast, leaders in South and Central America with similar opportunities, misused the natural abundance of land and gave away vast latifúndios to a few well-born Iberian captains and sons-of-somebody, granting business monopolies and sterilizing resources in unproductive holdings, discouraging public education and non-docile immigration, and using official state religion, as Marx claimed, as the opium of the people.
The bitterness engendered by misguided capitalism is on display in the politically explicit murals of Diego Rivera in Mexico City.
In the last half of the twentieth century, a fourth dynamic entered into the mix to further boost the economic population – the movement of women from home to the paid workforce.
The expansion of the monetary population was thus powered by four engines that varied in effectiveness from country to country:
- natural procreation,
- industrialization, and
- the paid employment of women.
The Threat of Changing Demographics
In April 2002, the United Nations held the Second World Assembly on Aging and announced that by 2050 it was expected that for the first time in history, the number of older persons in the world would exceed the number of the young.
By 1998, this historic reversal had already taken place in the more developed regions.
Some of the conclusions in the executive summary for this conference are worth quoting:
“The steady increase of older age groups in national populations, both in absolute numbers and in relation to the working-age population, has a direct bearing on the inter-generational and intra-generational equity and solidarity that are the foundations of society.”
“Population ageing is profound, having major consequences and implications for all facets of human life. In the economic area, population ageing will have an impact on economic growth, savings, investment and consumption, labor markets, pensions, taxation and intergenerational transfers.”
“Population ageing is enduring. During the twentieth century the proportion of older persons continued to rise, and this trend is expected to continue into the twenty-first century. The trend towards older populations is largely irreversible, with the young populations of the past unlikely to occur again.”
Some demographers now predict that not only will there be a major shift in the balance between young and old that will affect the pattern of savings and investment, but also that fast population growth that started in the eighteenth century will come to a halt sometime in the twenty-first century.
This, in effect, will signal the end of the Great Age and will sound the death knell of three hundred years of economic theories that have been predicated on population growth as a constant in society.
It seems possible that population increase will slow and come to a standstill in the twenty-first century.
This will tilt the balance of savings and investment. World population may even decline, with unforeseen consequences for capital markets.
Promoters of Negative Population Growth (NPG), linked to powerful lobbies like the Sierra Club, hope for a smaller human race and a return of the wilderness. Stable or negative population growth would bring a revolution in economic theory and radical change in the savings and investment industries.
The decade-long fall in Japanese stock prices and the bursting of the Great Bubble in America, both signaled an excess of savings over investment and were possible harbingers of a true “paradigm shift” in capital markets – much different from the optimistic connotation when this term was bandied by stock hucksters in the 1990s.
Returning to Fukuyama’s End of History, we are reminded that, like economic theory, the development of Western liberal democracies is also a product of the Great Age – three hundred years of rapidly increasing world population.
Just as stable or declining populations may signal the end of orthodox economics, the need for more precise regulation of population and the balance between savings and investment may require evolution to new, more appropriate political systems.
Looking Back: When Savings Were Scarce
In the early days of the Great Age there was an excess of workers and a shortage of savings.
- Wages were low.
- Capitalists could treat workers harshly – even worse than slaves – because replacements could easily be found.
- Workers were literally a dime a dozen (and still are in the poorer, high-unemployment countries of the world).
Capital accumulated in relatively few hands, as first-comers used profits to re-invest in a growing market. In this favorable demographic setting, economists, who were themselves generally without substantial wealth, saw what appeared to be a natural conflict between labor and capital, giving rise to socialist idealism, monopolistic labor unions, Marxism, and the noxious dialectics of communism.
By the twentieth century, much of the world fell under the sway of socialist-communist heresies, collapsing finally under an impossible burden of micro-managed systems of a complexity that went beyond the understanding of any leader, no matter how well intentioned.
Free market economies, on the other hand, had the advantage of diversified decision-making that eventually produced a surplus of goods and lifted wages, diminishing the supposed natural clash between capital and labor.
Throughout long periods of the Great Age, savings were scarce. In the eighteenth century, most people did not live long enough to fret about retirement.
Farmers sired ample broods that provided in-house labor.
They nurtured hope that at least one child would remain on the farm to care for parents in their dotage.
In nineteenth century Western societies, the tradition of large families and the Christian commandment to honor one’s father and mother seemed to provide a safety net that reduced the need to save.
At the same time, a relative lack of material comfort favored current consumption over saving.
There were compelling reasons to install indoor toilets and electric lights rather than save money for the few declining years that would likely be spent at the family homestead, comforted by offspring with a sense of filial duty.
Most savers invested in their own farms or businesses, giving credence to the economists’ assumption that savings were always equal to investment.
Indeed, orthodox economics makes more sense if we assume continuous population growth, with savers investing in their own enterprises.
In three hundred years of an ever-expanding monetized population, economists developed a backward-looking persistence of vision that blurred perception of the shortage of equities that drove the Great Bubble of the 1990s.
In nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American political discourse was framed in the context of growing populations and a shortage of savings.
The shortage of savings led to high interest and higher dividends.
An Increasing Propensity to Save
By the 1980s, in developed countries, people had obtained most of life’s necessities.
The desire to consume became less urgent.
Interest in purchasing yet another kitchen gadget had waned, giving way to fear of insufficient means to pay for assisted living facilities in old age.
The extraordinary practice of corporate stock buybacks combined with the public’s more urgent need to save and preference for equities over debt, led to the Great Bubble of the 1990s.
The balance between savings and consumption tipped in favor of the former as families got smaller, divorce flourished, life expectancy increased, and the uninsured elderly, expecting to get by, were pushed into poverty by unconscionable medical bills, meager social security and pensions, while disinterested, self-absorbed younger generations looked away.
During the eighties and nineties, Americans who were born in the first twenty-five years of the century unloaded their retirement holdings – mostly equities – at ever-higher prices to those who were in diapers during the thirties, forties, and fifties.
The outlook for the coming generations of savers is less sanguine.
Revival of the long, contented bull market of the closing decades of the twentieth century may become less likely as the Great Age winds down and as demographic trends of three hundred years become history.
In the eighteenth century, an early economist, Thomas Malthus, warned that with an increasing population, people might someday outgrow their capacity to produce food and that starvation might ensue.
He reasoned that mankind’s natural sexual drives would produce more and more people who would be dependent on a fixed stock of land and natural resources.
However, Malthus had confused cause and effect.
- Sexual urges had been around throughout the evolution of human life without leading to a disastrous population explosion.
- Population growth was the outcome of better science and increased productivity.
Rather than carrying the seeds of destruction, population expansion was the fruit of progress – the result of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.
Science was not the savior that rescued mankind from the Malthusian nightmare but was instead the charioteer that drove demographic expansion and increased productivity in tandem.
For a student of natural history – an avocation popular in the eighteenth century – Malthusian preoccupation with man outgrowing the food supply made sense.
Animal populations expand and contract in response to forces of nature outside the control of the animals themselves.
Humans were the first animals to gain some ability to expand their own life expectancy, while increasing the food supply faster than their numbers.
There are limitations on population growth, other than those in the restricted Malthusian model of diminishing food supplies.
Science and technology that spurred population in the first two-thirds of the Great Age began to exert a contrary effect by the twentieth century through the perfection of birth control methods and safe abortion, now legalized. Growth began to slow.
Medical advances helped people live longer, extending retirement years and increasing the need to save.
The Malthusian threat, never substantiated in its original form, was transformed by latter-day worriers into a generalized fear that mankind would outgrow the world and be poisoned in its wastes.
Movements to save whales, to recycle garbage and paper, and to halt global warming all carried the message that people were bad for Gaia – the earth spirit – and that population growth must be stopped and even reversed.
Stone markers on the roadsides of central Java read, “ Dua anak-anak cukup” – “Two children are enough”.
The Children’s Defense Fund urged against teen-age pregnancies with a poster that asked, “Will your child learn to multiply before she learns to subtract?”
In the Clinton Administration, USAID abandoned Reagan-Bush capital market development programs in the third world to instead distribute condoms and promote family planning.
In most of the world, family size is inversely correlated with education and income.
Consequently, population growth has been slowing faster in the advanced nations than in the emerging markets.
The cost of raising two children from birth to college in an upper middle class family in New York City can exceed five hundred thousand dollars, if the children are to benefit from safe, quality private schooling and the best health care.
When this burden is further augmented by tax laws that do not favor large families and an increased risk of divorce with legal settlements that give unending financial pain to both father and mother, the economics of marriage and procreation shift.
When society allows the bond between the generations to break – with children suing their parents for imagined shortcomings, or seeking court orders to keep fathers from their offspring or grandparents from grandchildren, and while sons and daughters allow mothers and fathers to spend their final years in dismal, impersonal institutions, rarely visited, drugged into a stupor, and subject to abuse by strangers – the rational person has reason to abstain from the hard task of child-rearing, opting instead to divert resources for immediate personal gratification and a more prosperous old age.
The sexual customs that Malthus assumed would ensure population growth have changed gradually over two centuries.
Societal norms and traditions have an enduring impact on population and economics.
The utopian, celibate settlements of the United Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, the Shakers of eighteenth century America, are now empty, the inevitable result of banned sexual activity, leaving only a wistful remembrance of well-made furniture, once prosperous model farms, quaint communal living, and loud religious singing.
Society may choose to emphasize the recreational aspects of sex, rather than the obvious procreative aim shared with lesser animals.
- Jocelyn Elders, U.S. Surgeon General under President Clinton, enthusiastically urged Americans to indulge in masturbation.
- Clinton, himself, set new standards for Presidential behavior by bringing oral sex to the Oval Office.
- The U.S. Supreme Court consistently rules in favor of pornography and this form of “free speech” now holds sway over a large segment of the Internet.
- Main-stream television, such as HBO’s Sex and the City, shows women excitedly discussing genitalia of partners and the relative merits of enterprising variations of romantic interaction, while evincing unmitigated disgust for the possibility of childbirth or motherhood.
In the future, recreational sex may be completely divorced from the need for human contact, as suggested in the science-fiction movie, "Demolition Man", in which Sylvester Stallone and Sandra Bullock engage in cyber-sex at a distance.
The implications for the future of the family and world population trends would not seem to be positive.
Society may also sponsor forms of lifelong companionship and economic cohabitation that do not involve children and families.
Homosexual activity, for example, if sufficiently widespread, could help to drive procreative outcomes below the replacement level, forcing a population decline with unforeseen consequences.
Nevertheless, this behavior is not only condoned, but is actively promoted by the intellectual elite in many developed nations.
Gay and lesbian associations have proliferated throughout the American university system and the homosexual lifestyle is regularly honored at commencement ceremonies of American colleges.
Liberal churches are sanctioning same-sex marriages and there are movements to provide the same legal, social service, and tax benefits to homosexual couples as to traditional marriages.
American legislators have made it a greater crime to murder a homosexual than a straight person.
By the end of the twentieth century, gays were parading down Fifth Avenue in New York, pushing aside traditional celebrants of national and ethnic pride and demanding quotas and affirmative action for homosexuals.
Nature or Nuture?
Proponents of homosexuality argue that the practice is genetic and not learned.
Therefore, they say there should be no more discrimination against homosexuals than against people born with red hair or blue eyes.
Their opponents tend to believe that homosexuality is not an innate characteristic, but rather a bad habit to be avoided.
In either case, it is clear that homosexuality is not conducive to population growth.
If those in favor of homosexuality are in error – in other words, if the practice is learned, rather than innate – affirmative action, marriage and social benefits, and aggressive promotion of the gay life style could eventually lead to a substantial increase in the number of homosexuals and contribute to a decline of population, with negative connotations for capital markets.
Although mankind has learned to control the outcome of its reproductive urgings, safely avoiding unwanted children by pills, IUDs, condoms, and abortions, people have not yet discovered how to calibrate the world population.
Efforts to limit population, often successful, lack controls.
In other words, no one knows how to keep growth at a precise, desired level.
No one even knows what the ideal population should be.
Shifting demographic conditions, in which variations in generational cohorts interact with modified population growth, may become the major political issue in the twenty-first century.
Already in the United States, strong positions with regards to abortion and homosexuality – essentially population issues, although usually not recognized as such – have replaced labor / capital and hard-money / soft-money disputes of earlier times.
Before proceeding, check your progress:
In his book, "The End of History and the Last Man", Francis Fukuyama argued that the ideal form of government was:
The 300 years of the "Great Age" that includes all of modern economics and the industrial and scientific revolutions, was characterized by:
In the long run, which policy or outcome would be better for profits and sales of Coca Cola, Campbell's Soup, and Hellmann's Mayonaise?
Population Growth : continued >
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