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Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Posted by Matthew
U.N. official: World can't afford rich China

While I find myself questioning anything the UN says these days, especially when it comes to the environment, this does bring up reoccuring question. I've heard people discuss this off and on for the last few years, and everyone pretty much agrees, that yeah, China's economic growth is going to be a big problem both economically and ecologically. Of course this all boils down to overpopulation (There is no answer to that either). So what is to be done? Can't be good I should think.

Anyway, that's a few years off yet, but James I was wondering if you'd care to chime in on the economic nature of pushing every country towards "first world status"... how long can we do that? Has that topic ever come up in your econ studies?

Jake -- I have sort of a problem with this story's premises.

First, all ecological studies talking about capacity are based on a concept called ecological footprint. It is the amount of space (including resources) that is required to support a certain amount of people. The problem with these studies is that they are very technology dependent. Sure, if all the people in China are burning coal to heat their homes, we are probably not going to have enough coal. If all of the people in China were to industrialize today (and they behave exactly like people in the West), that situation would be untenable. But that is a big if. I would like to think that we are going to have at least one technological advance in resources use. Furthermore, if we consider the economics, why would China industrialize using a technology that uses really expensive scare resources (it would either A) slow modernization or B) inspire new technologies).

Second, the concept of overpopulation is an outdated and incorrect concept. It was created by Paul Ehrlich (Stanford Prof.) at the beginning of the environmental movement to explain why exponential population growth is bad (see "The Population Bomb," 1968). However, this assertion has not been borne out. As societies become more affluent the birth rate falls rather than rises, in some case to below replacement (see Europe). Parts of China, particularly Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, alreadly have declining birth rates. Also, China has a big gender gap (female infanticide and under reporting because of social norms) that will contribute to declining birth rates in the future. Thus, most demographers would suggest that as China became more modern it would stop growing as rapidly (and begin to decline). Again, overpopulation is based on an idea of technology.

Finally, it is such a piece of Western liberal arrogance that we should save the Chinese from their technology. Clearly, they couldn't do it for themselves. And God forbid that they would want to participate our corrupt Western capitalism with all its horrible things.

Sorry about the rant, but it just bugs me how some of this trash passes for science.

James -- I haven't read the article, but I've read your posts. I may get a chance to comment later, but my first impression is that this is a non-issue. As countries move from industrial to technological economies, they produce less pollution not more. In fact, one of the big complaints about the Kyoto protocols is that they exempt 2nd and 3rd world countries like India, even though by most measures, they're the worst offenders on so-called green-house gases. As for overpopulation, I agree with Jake. Wasn't it Malthus who predicted the J-curve on population? Think about it this way. How many of your friends were 1 of 9 children? As economies become more advanced, populations become more educated, and practices such as family planning and contraception become more common place. At the same time, as infant mortality decreases, potential parents don't try to have as many children. Now, in order for their economy and therefore standard of living to improve, China will probably need to institute a fair number of market reforms, and move toward real capitalism. Command and control is a downward spiral. Modernization and liberalization of markets will likely improve the situation.

Matt -- I agree wholeheartedly with everything y'all said. And the article is crap, don't bother reading it. My question was more about the economics implications A) to the US with China becoming a first world economic monster with its already enourmous pop. and B) the broader idea of the world all moving towards "better jobs"... as in who picks the coffee for 10 cents an hour? Whilst I realize that the nature of a well oiled free market system will probably work out all the kinks as we go along I was wondering what sorts of forces are at work there. Consider Saudi Arabia with an over educated population for its economy. Nobody wants to do the joe jobs. I know I know, S.A. is a special case and their problems are all self inflicted, but they provide a convenient example to consider. Will simple market force take over and joe jobs start paying higher? But what will that do to inflation?


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