👶 The non-insane argument for America having more babies
Also: 5 Quick Questions for … economists Ryan Murphy and Colin O’Reilly on 'anti-growth safetyism'
In This Issue
The Essay: The non-insane argument for America having more babies
5QQ: 5 Quick Questions for … economists Ryan Murphy and Colin O’Reilly on “anti-growth safetyism”
Quote of the Issue
“Man is diminished if he lives without knowledge of his past; without hope of a future he becomes a beast.” - P.D. James, The Children of Men
The non-insane argument for America having more babies
The issue of population, whether one thinks it’s exploding or collapsing, has always been and will likely continue to be filled with plenty of crazy. And a new piece in Wired by journalist Virginia Heffernan, “The Real Reason Elon Musk Wants You to Have More Babies,” does a good job highlighting the kookiness on both sides. We can forgive Thomas Malthus in the late 18th century for underestimating human ingenuity — it was the early days for the Industrial Revolution, after all — and for thinking past human performance was a good guideline for predicting future results. Population had always eventually outrun food supply, and there was little reason to think it would ever be otherwise. So obviously humanity would either have to let more people die — plague and war already pretty effective constraints here — or prevent more people from ever existing.
In the new book Slouching Toward Utopia, economist Brad DeLong describes the latter approach thusly: “… a society in which paternal authority kept women virgins until the age of twenty-eight or so, and in which, even after the age of twenty-eight, government restrictions kept women without the blessing of a current marriage from making love, and in which religion-induced fear of damnation kept women from evading those restrictions.”
Yet modern population worries have often showed a similar authoritarian bent. Heffernan notes that Paul Ehrlich — Stanford University butterfly researcher, author of the 1968 tract The Population Bomb, and frequent 1970s guest on The Tonight Show — offered some pretty draconian remedies for overpopulation: “ … steep taxes on diapers, mass sterilization, and the addition of sterility agents to food exported to foreign populations.” Then there was another Stanford scholar, microbiologist Garrett Hardin, who went there in a 1971 New York Times op-ed, “The Right to Breed,” a piece that Heffernan writes is now considered steeped in “quasi-fascist ethnonationalism.” Hardin:
What are we to do? We have only two options. We can go back to the world of two hundred years ago, eliminating the welfare state and making the family once more fully responsible for its breeding decisions. Population control can be achieved in this way — but only if we can, with equanimity, watch children starve. If we are unwilling to go back, then we must go forward and bring power and responsibility together in a new locus, in the community itself. If the community has the responsibility of keeping children alive it must also have the power to decide when they may be procreated. Only so can we save ourselves from the degradation of runaway population growth. It is not a question of freedom vs. nonfreedom. If we defend the freedom to breed, we shall ultimately lose all other freedoms as a result of unbearable overcrowding. By denying the right of individuals to breed without limit we can at least make it possible to preserve other freedoms that may, on examination, be deemed more precious than the freedom to breed.
Often embedded in this view is the notion that overpopulation really becomes a problem when the wrong sorts of people procreate at will. And in this way, some of the overpopulation worriers of the past can be linked to some underpopulation worriers today: The right sorts of people aren’t having enough kids! Heffernan:
J. D. Vance, the Ohio-based venture capitalist, mewled to Tucker Carlson last year that “childless cat ladies” run the United States. To promote pregnancies in such ladies, Vance—his logic shaky—proposed an “outright ban” on pornography. “If we want a healthy ruling class in this country … we should support more people who actually have kids,” he said. Population concerns rattle Carlson too. For years he’s been preoccupied with unnamed ghouls who are disappearing white people to replace them with “new people, more obedient voters from the Third World.” The culprits are white women of his own social class for not being fruitful enough. In July, Carlson told the journalist Ben Smith that he’s “not mad at Black people” because he reserves that vitriol for a “38-year-old female white lawyer with a barren personal life.” “I hate you!” he shouted merrily.
Bias alert: I have seven kids. Although I have only one sibling, I couldn’t imagine not having a big family by modern standards. A lot of work, but rewarding work. “At least 51 percent of the time,” as I like to joke. But the ratio of good times to tough times is actually far higher. That said, if people choose to have smaller families or remain childless, no judgement from me. No one is going to be persuaded to have bigger families by appealing to a sense of obligation to society and its future.
Still, as the headline of this issue reveals, I think having more babies is a good thing. This is an economic argument. But before I get to mine, let me say what my argument isn’t. It isn’t the diabolical one Heffernan attributes — wrongly, I think — to Elon Musk, who has publicly warned about the risks from falling births:
A shrinking population may well say something important about a society. As one demographer puts it, "The birth rate is a barometer of despair. Young people won't make plans to have babies unless they're optimistic about the future." But not just that. Some research suggests that birth rates represent something even more abstract: transcendence. “In this telling,” writes economist Lyman Stone, “the economic calculus takes a back seat. People had more kids in the past not because it was necessary, but because it was their duty: to God, to their family, to their people, or simply to the idea of humanity.” Now more think the future can fend for itself.
There are also numerous economic implications from a shrinking population. Among them:
“Keeping labor productivity growth constant, a shrinking working age population reduces the potential GDP level and slows down potential GDP growth,” notes a Goldman Sachs analysis. Moreover, an economy with a greater working-age population is generally assumed to have higher savings rates which would add to GDP growth by boosting investment rates.
Some research finds the older a country’s population, the lower its overall rate of entrepreneurship.
The fewer people you have, the smaller share of the population that can be devoted to doing scientific and technological research, reducing idea creation. In the 2020 paper “The End of Economic Growth? Unintended Consequences of a Declining Population,” economist Charles I. Jones warns of an “empty planet” scenario of falling population and stagnant incomes.
Heffernan suggests Musk is an alarmist who, as the headline of her piece suggests, cares only about cheap workers, just like any diabolical capitalist:
“If people don’t have more children, civilization is going to crumble,” proclaimed Elon Musk from a Tesla factory late last year. … Musk spoke his truth at a Wall Street Journal event while hyping his proposed Tesla bot, an android that performs grunt work. Only a bot army, he said, can meet the corporate need for laborers willing to work without rest, meals, or complaint. (Human dignity is a drag on profits.) But until the bots are up and running, Musk’s Squid Game still needs flesh-and-blood workers. … When an alarmist claim can be flipped like a coin without losing its tone, its empirical underpinnings seem sus. It’s possible that cultural capos who complain about population are not talking numbers at all. Rather, they’re fantasizing about tightening the reins on workers and women. We need more babies, fewer babies, cheaper babies, better babies. The women are failing at reproduction, and their children aren’t botlike enough.
An America where a) more people have the number of kids they would like and which b) attracts far more immigrants (an easier proposition, policy-wise) is almost certainly going to be a more dynamic and prosperous place and a more capable geopolitical player. Another “American Century” and all that. I recently noted that, using UN estimates, America will have 120 million more people than today, China 400 million fewer by the year 2100. (Some studies show even more Chinese shrinkage.) But America’s century-end population could be bigger if we made it a national goal. And thinking that’s a good thing hardly makes one a worker- and woman-suppressing nationalist crazy.
💡 5 Quick Questions for … economists Ryan Murphy and Colin O’Reilly on “anti-growth safetyism”
“Anti-Growth Safetyism simply stops innovation in its place by erecting barriers in the name of safety (for people or the environment) that are basically impossible to overcome, such that many of our technologies are stuck in the 1970s,” write Ryan Murphy (Southern Methodist University) and Colin O’Reilly (Creighton University) in a recent article titled “Anti-growth safetyism” for Works in Progress. The economist duo go on to explain how risk aversion has stifled innovation and, therefore, economic growth for the past half century.
I highly recommend reading the article in full, but if you’re left with a few lingering questions, perhaps the five below answers from the authors will satisfy your curiosity.
1/ What is anti-growth safetyism and how is it distinct from the complaints libertarians have been making about overregulation for decades?
Most of the time when people discuss regulation, they mean things like the minimum wage or OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) rules applied to businesses. Or pointless “red tape.” These kinds of regulations are generally harmful for economic performance on the margin, but it is tough to construct a counterfactual where the world would be drastically different if these individual regulations did not exist in the United States. The minimum wage is relatively low already in the US by international standards. Many things that OSHA requires are codifying safety measures that businesses would already be doing.
What differentiates anti-growth safetyism is the case made by J. Storrs Hall in Where Is My Flying Car? that particular pieces of regulation concerning aviation and energy have effectively shut down innovation in those sectors since the 1970s, which very plausibly had the potential to generate radical improvements in our standard of living. These regulations may have prevented us today from enjoying clean power that is “too cheap to meter.” Literal flying cars would be a luxury affordable by the upper-middle class. And we don’t live in this world because we simply chose not to live in it? That seems a bit more consequential than most regulations — and we say that as people who are rather skeptical of regulation!
The rationale for these rules has been public health or environmental concerns to the exclusion of everything else. Of course, if we had clean, incredibly efficient power, there would be much less particulate matter in the air, and global warming may not be a thing. So, the concerns expressed to justify these regulations aren’t actually about the environment or public health, but that particular risks are salient.
2/ How is anti-growth safetyism different from the precautionary principle?
We should note that we introduced the concept of anti-growth safetyism while writing the essay as a means of articulating what makes these regulations different from other kinds of regulations.
There is a large degree of overlap between the two concepts, as there is also with Nassim Taleb’s “antifragility.” But we can imagine the precautionary principle applied to much different concepts than protecting the environment, where the effects of applying the principle on growth are tertiary in importance. For example, one could apply the precautionary principle in order to say that we should never release a prisoner early from prison, because there is a chance the prisoner could commit a homicide. And people have structured arguments like this previously for political reasons.
Nassim Taleb’s argument concerns the presence of asymmetric distributions of payoffs implying the prudence of a bias against change, under specific epistemic circumstances.
Anti-growth safetyism demands that certain kinds of innovation and growth be ruled out by regulatory assumption. It’s a very particular kind of precautionary principle that is applied. It isn’t applied because of specific uncertainties about aviation or nuclear energy if we assess them side-by-side with other fields that are less regulated. We simply decided these particular risks are scary and salient, so regulators decided never again are we going to substantively innovate.
We can imagine circumstances for nuclear where we advance far past where we are now, and some of Taleb’s intuition concerning risk, uncertainty, and “antifragility” may apply. We do not think we are anywhere close to where those concerns are relevant, as of now.
3/ You describe anti-growth safetyism as a "cultural force" that's broader than government regulation. Is safetyism primarily a public policy problem or something else?
It is ultimately policymakers, whether politicians, bureaucrats, or staffers, that instituted these policies. But fears of nuclear and the complete unwillingness on the part of the public to assess health or environmental risks in any systematic way seems reinforced by culture. Look at Captain Planet or how nuclear power is portrayed in The Simpsons. Or the oeuvre of Michael Crichton. Whether these are the symptom of what the public wants to believe, or its cause, there is a clear cultural dimension to anti-growth safetyism.
4/ What's the most convincing case that today's median household income could be triple its current value but for anti-growth safetyism? What's the best case against this counterfactual?
In our essay, we determine that most of the literature in economics assessing the effects of regulation does not apply to anti-growth safetyism because very little data on regulation relates to it. Where Is My Flying Car? reports results from a paper suggesting the counterfactual with no increases in regulation since the 1950s is that median household income would have tripled relative to where it is now. We have other reasons for being skeptical of that particular paper, but in any case, its measure of regulation (the number of pages of regulation in the United States) do not really address anti-growth safetyism.
Without getting too, too far into the weeds, if we were to make the case for the empirical significance of anti-growth safetyism, we would need to find a result in the scholarly literature that applied data measuring anti-growth safetyism regulation, and which was relevant for the United States. Most studies construct a counterfactual by asking what happens if you make a country look more like the United States or another capitalistic country, not what happens when a capitalistic country deregulates further.
We were able to identify a single paper that both used data on anti-growth safetyism (or something plausibly close to it) and was relevant to innovation in the United States. It suggested that the United States might be able to get an additional percentage point per year of growth through deregulation. This is a larger effect than it sounds, but it is still likely short of the claim that we could have tripled median household income through deregulation. (The paper cited in Where is My Flying Car finds that deregulation could have yielded two additional percentage points of growth per year in the United States for the better part of a century, which adds up to a very large number.)
What we think is that the empirical literature on regulation in economics simply isn’t well-designed to answer what the effects are of anti-growth safetyism. But we when zeroed in a paper that could be somewhat thought of in terms of anti-growth safetyism, we observe a rather large effect (one percentage point), and the measured effect may have been larger still if it measured anti-growth safetyism more explicitly and accurately. Two percentage points isn’t entirely out of the question.
Even if we had perfect data, however, it is unclear whether we could even work out the effect of anti-growth safetyism using a standard method, because all countries that are in a position to do the kind of frontier innovation you would need to do in aviation or nuclear power already disallow it because of anti-growth safetyism. There may just not be enough variation across countries and across recent history to get a full sense of the counterfactual.
Regarding the case against the claim that median income would triple, you may note that it took us a lot of steps to get to a place where we thought any research was relevant to a counterfactual for what the United States would have looked like in the absence of anti-growth safetyism. The counterfactual world where slamming on the brakes of science in the 1970s never took place is not something that is very easy to bring data to because it’s a world that has never existed. It is “out of sample” in a true, deep sense.
The second of our concerns regarding the realism of “tripling median income relative to where we are now” is that, were that to have taken place, it would have not only been necessary for deregulations to lead to a jolt of growth in the United States for a few years, but the jolt must persist for decades and decades. The reason we have for thinking this counterfactual is plausible is due to the strength of Storrs Hall’s narrative, but it remains a narrative, not data.
5/ What do you mean by bureaucrats prioritizing "Cover Your Ass"? What creates that incentive?
Absolutely no one wants to have their decision result in another Three Mile Island or a plane crash. Never mind that Three Mile Island was nothing like Chernobyl or that the appropriate weight to assign safety in aviation is less than “infinite.” Allowing experimentation where it isn’t “necessary” and that experimentation resulting in one of these well-publicized accidents is one of the few ways one can imagine a bureaucrat facing the death of their career and a disgraced personal reputation. The answer for them, then, is to never allow innovation at all, regardless of the costs, benefits, and risks actually involved.
Any sense that bureaucrats may be acting in the public interest quickly goes out the window when the topic turns to the prospect of blame and their continued employment. See not only the regulation of aviation or energy, but also the slowness of regulatory actions surrounding COVID-19, or the utter refusal earlier this year to allow imports of baby formula. Better to literally risk babies starving from a lack of baby formula than to allow for the miniscule probability that formula from the European Union somehow isn’t up to standards for the United States, and the bureaucrat gets in trouble! Cover your ass!
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Beyond Catastrophe: A New Climate Reality Is Coming Into View - David Wallace-Wells, NY Times Magazine
How to escape scientific stagnation - The Economist
Capitalism and Socialism: Toward a Common Understanding - John Bitzan, Profectus
U.S. Immigration Has Become an Elaborate Bait and Switch - Edward Alden, Foreign Policy
From $1.90 to $2.15 a day: the updated International Poverty Line - Joe Hasell, Our World in Data
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