Malthusianism Redux

Malthusian economics held for all of history prior to 1800. I think it would be fair to say that it held even before we evolved into humans, though that might be a reach--I don't know. Today, Malthusian economics doesn't hold. We're getting richer every day.

A prediction about whether Malthusian economics will re-assert in the future should, I think, hinge on an explanation of why it doesn't hold today. Are we living in a brief anomaly, a temporary blip in time? Or have we undergone a secular, permanent change?

In the discussion below, I didn't see any convincing explanation of why we no longer live in a Malthusian world. I see two factors at work:

1) Technology grows much faster than population. If the population doubles, but technology allows us produce four times the stuff from the same resources, people still get richer.

2) People have fewer children.

Regarding the future, I have no idea if technology will continue to grow faster indefinitely. But why are people deciding to have fewer children?

I'm talking far out of my league here, but I think people have undergone a shift in reproductive strategy from one of dandelions to one of mammals. (Is there a better analogy?) Dandelions spread their many seeds as far and wide as possible. Some will thrive; many won't. Mammals invest heavily into a small number of offspring. Today's middle class parents want to get their kids into college for white-collar jobs. They can't do that if they have too many children.

The other variable might be selfish parents-- how can I enjoy my own life (big screen TV, vacations, retirement) if I have too many children?

I'm not sure how, if at all, the dynamics change in the far future. I'm not convinced of Malthusian re-assertion.

Share this

Malthusian economics held

Malthusian economics held for all of history prior to 1800.

Not necessarily true. What do you mean? Do you mean that every person without exception lived at a subsistence level until 1800? Obviously untrue. Okay, so do you mean that at least some people lived at a subsistence level? Ah, but if you are using the latter definition, then Malthusian economics holds even today: in North Korea, so I am told, there are people living at a substistence level.

I offer the following alternative: all along, some fraction of humanity has managed to escape subsistence level. Today is no exception in kind, only in degree. Looking around the world I attempt to identify those humans living at or near subsistence level. The basket cases appear to be places afflicted by bad government or chaos. What those have in common is weak property rights.

Technology grows much faster than population. If the population doubles, but technology allows us produce four times the stuff from the same resources, people still get richer.

But we can compare low and high populations in space, not just time. Compare the wealth of someone living in a city with the relative wealth of someone living in the country. Cities are crowded and the country is open, so to a first approximation there are more resources immediately to hand per capita in the country than there are in the city. And yet it is the city dweller who is richer. "But", you object, "the city dweller is having the countryside's wealth delivered to him." Oh, really? By magic? The city-dweller manages to convince the country-dweller to send him things because he is offering the country-dweller value for value. The notion that city-dwellers somehow are parasites on the countryside is Leninesque.

So, what makes the city-dwellers so rich? Of course it's their proximity to each other. In other words, it's population density: the higher the population density, the richer the city can become. Someone objects, "but what about the slums in Mumbai depicted in Slumdog Millionaire"? What else do you expect from the socialist basket case that India was until recently?

So: we see that at any given time per capita wealth is positively correlated with population density, i.e. the city is richer than the country. And the proximity is a key contributing cause because it allows specialization, division of labor.

But wait a second, if the escape from grinding poverty is the effect of an increase in population density (provided property is secure), then...Malthusian economics sure don't seem to be holding, do they?

I'm talking far out of my

I'm talking far out of my league here, but I think people have undergone a shift in reproductive strategy from one of dandelions to one of mammals. (Is there a better analogy?) Dandelions spread their many seeds as far and wide as possible. Some will thrive; many won't. Mammals invest heavily into a small number of offspring. Today's middle class parents want to get their kids into college for white-collar jobs. They can't do that if they have too many children.

The only difference between that and the theory I outlined in comments is that you don't give any explanation of that shift, and I do.

I was skeptical of your explanation because....

...govt was a lot smaller prior to 1800. In general where govt is small, property rights are strong. That's not always the case (tragedy of the commons), but it throws a small wrench in the theory that we escaped Malthusianism because of property rights.

But that was not my theory.

But that was not my theory. You write:

it throws a small wrench in the theory that we escaped Malthusianism because of property rights.

We need to clarify what you mean, and what you think I meant. Do you think I meant:

we escaped Malthusianism exclusively because of property rights and for no other reason, no other contributing factor.

or did you think I meant:

we escaped Malthusianism because of a combination of property rights and other factors, such as increased population and improved technology.

In fact it was the latter that is closer to what I believe, and that I believe my remarks are consistent with. I recall talking about an increase in population size. I recall talking about cities, how they demonstrate the wealth-enhancing effects of a dense population.

Now let us examine what throws a small wrench into my theory:

govt was a lot smaller prior to 1800

And so was population, and technology was much lower-level then. So it doesn't really do much to rebut the explanation, as far as I can see.

Also I'm not sure I agree

Also I'm not sure I agree with the characterization of my comments as "the theory that we escaped Malthusianism because of property rights", because I haven't accepted that Malthus's explanation was ever right. (I haven't rejected it.) I don't dispute the raw evidence about the level of poverty up to 1800; what I don't necessarily accept is a specific theory of it.

I'm talking far out of my

I'm talking far out of my league here, but I think people have undergone a shift in reproductive strategy from one of dandelions to one of mammals. (Is there a better analogy?) Dandelions spread their many seeds as far and wide as possible. Some will thrive; many won't. Mammals invest heavily into a small number of offspring. Today's middle class parents want to get their kids into college for white-collar jobs. They can't do that if they have too many children.

The term is r-strategist vs K-strategist; investment in big litters or high chances of survival per offspring.

I am skeptical of the idea that there is some 'deliberate' shift on this spectrum occuring. Having less than two children is suicidal in evolutionary terms, even having two children is.

The simple explanation for the declining fertility rates is us hacking our urges. Urges are there to promote biologically desirable behavior. The urge to get laid always sufficed just fine to ensure reproduction, but in a post-contraceptive world, the game has changed.

In the long term, this can not be a stable pattern, and there will be tremendous selective pressure on any behavioral traits that increase fertility. Prehaps ones that are less easily hacked, such as a more direct and profound urge for the outcome of sex rather than the act itself.

Indeed the obvious reason why our economy is not malthusian at the moment is that through technology, the growth of our wealth has outpaced the growth of our population very strongly.

But id argue that this cannot continue. While there is an enormous amount of flexibility in what you do with your stuff rather than how much of it you have, on a fundamental level there are some hard constraints: computation consumes energy (exergy really), etc. Physics do set some hard limits on raw resource input, and our ability to reach new materials is bounded cubically, whereas population growth outside the context of a hacked reproductive mechanism, is exponential.

Its a rather theoretical excercise because I dont see this being relevant anywhere within any of our lifetimes, but in the long run, Malthusiansism must necessarily prevail.

A quibble or two

I am skeptical of the idea that there is some 'deliberate' shift on this spectrum occurring. Having less than two children is suicidal in evolutionary terms, even having two children is.

Optimal strategies depend on circumstances. I suspect that for most of human history this statement would be true. Whether this statement is true in the context of today’s industrialized nations is unclear to me, as discussed below.

Urges are there to promote biologically desirable behavior.

To clarify, certain traits and behaviors get passed from parent to child. The theory of evolution suggests that, to the extent that an organism has traits and behaviors that permit it to survive and reproduce, the next generation will tend to have those traits and behaviors too. Consequently we have cause to believe that a species’s natural traits and behaviors are the traits and behaviors that were the most adaptive within the context in which the species evolved.

Humans have a natural propensity to see certain optical illusions, presumably reflecting an optimal trade-off between accuracy and reaction speed within the visual cortex. It is unclear that this trade-off is optimal under today’s circumstances. Humans evolved a natural affinity for sweet foods, presumably reflecting the nutritional value of sweet foods found in nature; it is far from clear that this affinity is adaptive today. Similarly, the adrenalin that floods my body when I experience stress could arguably save my life if I were confronted with a saber-tooth tiger, but when I’m confronted by my boss the adrenalin merely gives me heart disease.

By the same token, the fact that humans historically developed a natural urge for sex is hardly conclusive evidence regarding “biologically desirable behavior” in the context of today’s world.

In the long term, this can not be a stable pattern, and there will be tremendous selective pressure on any behavioral traits that increase fertility. Perhaps ones that are less easily hacked, such as a more direct and profound urge for the outcome of sex rather than the act itself.

While I suspect that humans evolved the urge for sex as an adaptive strategy to promote reproduction, the urges are quite distinct. (Thank you, Captain Obvious!) If men actually had a biological urge to reproduce, you’d observe them lining up around the block outside of every sperm bank. You don’t; they don’t.

Having fewer children

There are many factors that contribute to a lower fertility rate.

- Children are seen as exspensive. Where in the past a child was provided with a change of clothes and some food, now there are all sorts of technological gadgets that every child "needs". E.G., my three-year-old insists she needs an i-phone.

- People are starting families later. The amount of people going to college has increased, and it is considered good planning by most to wait until after college to have children. Some women wait to start a family until they are more settled in their career. It is quite common to spend long periods dating; engagements of two or three years cause no stir. All this leads to starting reproduction later, while the end of the reproductive years has not changed, leaving a smaller window in which to have children.

- Advancements in contraception. Technological advances - latex, hormone control, etc. - and the education of how to use them has led to a large degree of control over when a child will come. People like this, and the number of children decreases.

- As you said, people are selfish. I look at my three-year-old and say just fifteen years until she is gone and I can do whatever I want, if I have another child now that will go up another four years. I don't want to sound like I hate my daughter or anything, it is just something that goes through the back of my head.

2) People have fewer

2) People have fewer children.

True, not only fertility has declined, but population growth rate has declined steadily in the world over the last 40 years. The problem of course is that can only be a transition. There are people way above average and they tend to have children in kind.

and yes, I know

and yes, I know

Evolution doesn't apply to sentient beings

Thanks to modern morals and meds, the human race is becoming less physically fit. Probably less mentally fit.

Rabbits vs Elephants is the

Rabbits vs Elephants is the best analogy I know of for the different reproductive strategies. Rabbits have hundreds of offspring in order to increase the likelihood that a few will make it into adulthood and each baby rabbit spends very little time with their parents before they are turned loose into the wild. Elephants, because they are higher on the food chain and are at a lower risk of predators have only a few children that are then invested heavily in via time and resources.

That being said I thought this whole malthus thing had been dis-proven most recently by Julian Simon, but by others as well.

This is from wikipedia:

Simon's 1981 book The Ultimate Resource is a criticism of what was then the conventional wisdom on population growth, raw-material scarcity and resource consumption. Simon argues that our notions of increasing resource-scarcity ignore the long-term declines in wage-adjusted raw material prices. Viewed economically, he argues, increasing wealth and technology make more resources available; although supplies may be limited physically they may be viewed as economically indefinite as old resources are recycled and new alternatives are developed by the market. Simon challenged the notion of a pending Malthusian catastrophe—that an increase in population has negative economic consequences; that population is a drain on natural resources; and that we stand at risk of running out of resources through over-consumption. Simon argues that population is the solution to resource scarcities and environmental problems, since people and markets innovate.

The Malthusian world is based upon the idea that humans are like deer. Deer populations, when unchecked by predators, will start eating themselves out of house and home via population growth. The only solution for the deer is to move into other areas. If they cannot expand into larger areas, then they will die. If they can expand their range, they eventually run up against a new predator and the population growth slows down again.

Humans do not function this way. If we run scarce on an important resource, let's say a food, we figure out another way to get it, or we find a different food. What if we run out of farm-able land? We'll use more hydroponics and/or other tech. What if we run out of clean water? We will start converting saltwater to freshwater. What if we run out of energy? Well if the sun stops shining, the earth goes cold, and all the waterways on earth stop flowing we would probably be in trouble, but I don't think you could blame that on population growth.

BTW, we have a culture that kind of looks down on stay-at-home moms, kind of looks down on stay-at-home dads, kind of looks down on working moms, kind of looks down on "workaholic" dads, kind of looks down on living with grandparents, and kind of looks down on having grandparents or other family members extensively caring for your kids, etc.

So it's not just about what a person can afford. Even when you love the idea of having lots of kids there is a big "how the hell am I supposed to do this" worked into the equation. Plus many women (and men occasionally) can run into problems when they take time off to have kids. How I got treated when I returned from maternity leave made me seriously question my plans on how many kids I wanted to have.