Thursday, October 17, 2013

Not the flu

Elizabeth Kolbert writes about Malthus and neo-Malthusians in the current New Yorker ("Fertilizer, fertility, and the clashes over population growth"). I once (briefly) thought that Julian Simon had dealt Malthus a knockout punch but that was silly of me. I mean knockout not only in the way of ideas (people have brains and hands as well as mouths to feed) but also by putting his money where is mouth was and winning the bet with Paul Ehrlich. Kolbert cites Ehrlich and his poor forecasts ("England and all civilized nations stand in peril of not having enough to eat.") but fails to mention Simon or the bet.

She takes a dig at Jonathan Last and then ends on a very strange note. Social insurance proponents had guessed wrong about population growth. This has now put these Ponzi schemes on thin ice. So some guess there will be too many people (Ehrlich and the Malthusians) while others (social insurance engineers) underestimate fertility and population decline.  She seems to shrug.  "It seems that one world can't have two population problems: either the glass is too empty or too full."  Forecasting is hard work.

Kolbert could not bring herself to suggest that lawmakers go easy on the social engineering. That would improve the odds of high-fertility places developing. Let people become prosperous and they will choose smaller families. Depopulation is not some flu-like thing that just seems to show up unexpectedly.