The economics of population imbalance

That is the topic of my latest column for The Upshot at The New York Times, here is an excerpt:

Unfortunately, regions with rapidly growing populations, like Africa and South Asia, often have lower living standards. In our likely global future, these regions will have more people than they can comfortably support, while many countries in the West and in East Asia will have too few young people for prosperous economies.

As an economist, I see an obvious solution: Relatively underpopulated and highly developed countries could profitably take in young Africans and South Asians — and both sides would gain. Yet it’s far from clear that all nations that could benefit from this policy would entertain it, partly because of persistent racial and cultural bias. There is also the legitimate question of how quickly immigrants can adjust to new environments, especially if they are arriving with weak educational backgrounds as the job market demands ever-stronger skills.

…If you’re not convinced that a declining population is a problem, consider Japan. In terms of real gross domestic product per hour worked, Japan has continued to have good performance, but it has a fundamental problem: The working-age population has been declining since about 1997. And Japan’s overall population has been growing older, so with fewer workers supporting so many retirees, national savings will dwindle and resources will be diverted from urgent tasks like revitalizing companies and otherwise invigorating the economy. Japan has already gone from being a miracle exporter to a country that runs steady trade deficits. Perhaps there is simply no narrowly economic recipe to keep its economy growing; Edward Hugh made this argument in his recent ebook, “The A B E of Economics.”

I am extremely pessimistic that we will manage to achieve any more than a small amount of workable population transfers.  Furthermore potential underpopulation is one of the most serious and underrated problems today, as Robin Hanson argued a few years ago.

There is also this bit, the first sentence of which may remind you of Steve Sailer:

France, Israel and Singapore are three countries where population issues are being discussed quite frankly; all have explicit public policies to encourage more births. And more countries will probably go down this route. Encouraging people to have more children, and generally bidding for human talent, may characterize the economic policies of the future, just as cities and states today bid for football stadiums and factories.

By the way, recent reports indicate that the relaxation of China’s one-child policy have led to many fewer births than were expected.  And this new paper (pdf) indicate that immigrant inflows raise the birth rates of native women by making child care more affordable.


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