Population Matters

Fogel’s Folly

February 18th, 2010

To borrow from a popular advertising slogan: This is big. A new study by Robert Fogel featured in this month’s Foreign Policy magazine suggests that China’s economy is on track to grow at a far faster rate than generally assumed.  Fogel writes:

In 2040, the Chinese economy will reach $123 trillion, or nearly three times the economic output of the entire globe in 2000. China’s per capita income will hit $85,000, more than double the forecast for the European Union, and also much higher than that of India and Japan. In other words, the average Chinese megacity dweller will be living twice as well as the average Frenchman when China goes from a poor country in 2000 to a superrich country in2040. Although it will not have overtaken the United States in per capita wealth, according to my forecasts, China’s share of global GDP — 40 percent — will dwarf that of the United States (14 percent) and the European Union (5 percent) 30 years from now.

Fogel assumes that China’s economy will continue to grow at double-digit rates because of advances in education, development of China’s rural areas, and rising consumer demand.  Fogel’s prediction cannot be easily dismissed.  He is, after all, the Director of the Center for Population Economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and winner of the 1993 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics.

But extrapolations of economic growth rates are notoriously unreliable. A few decades ago, when Japan’s economic growth performance was the envy of the world, many feared that Japan’s gross domestic product would soon surpass America’s.  Didn’t happen.  Japan’s torrid growth rate cooled after its housing bubble burst in the early 1990s, and it hasn’t fully recovered yet.

But even if Fogel’s projection is only half-right, it’s still very, very BIG.  A recent study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace projects that China’s economy will be 20 percent larger than the U.S. by 2050.  Fogel, on the other hand, is predicting that China’s economy will be nearly 3 times larger than the U.S. by 2040.  And by implication Fogel is suggesting that the global economy will be 6-7 times larger in 2040 than it was in 2000.

The obvious question is this: “What planet is Fogel living on?”  It’s certainly not Earth.  Earth does not have resources to support that kind of economic growth.  It certainly doesn’t have the energy, even if the global economy becomes far less energy-intensive. It certainly doesn’t have the water, even if the global economy becomes far less water-intensive. And it arguably doesn’t have the kind of mineral resources needed to fuel that kind of economic growth either.

And then there’s the little matter of climate change.  Economic growth of the kind forecast by Fogel almost certainly entails a massive increase in deforestation and carbon emissions.  Fogel’s analysis, however, assumes that resource scarcity, climate, and environmental concerns will not impose any constraints on economic growth now or at any time in the next half century.  And because of that he also assumes that population growth is, therefore, good for the global economy.  He’s worried that falling fertility rates in Europe will impede economic growth, but he conveniently overlooks the fact that China’s economic miracle has coincided with a dramatic reduction in its fertility.

He acknowledges that China’s population growth rate, like Europe’s is slowing, but he insists that China will grow despite “its own demographic nightmares.”  He flatly dismisses concerns about fuel scarcity, water shortages, and environmental pollution in China. He says, “Although the critics have a point, these concerns are no secret to China’s leaders; in recent years, Beijing has proven quite adept in tackling problems it has set out to address.”

Quite adept?  Have Chinese leaders solved the problem of fuel scarcity?  Have they eliminated or even ameliorated the water shortages that plague China?  Has environmental pollution in China improved?  I don’t think so.  And what about climate change?  If an ever expanding global economy continues to increase carbon emissions and predictions about rising sea levels are realized, Shanghai and many other part of coastal China will be under water.  Are Chinese leader tackling that little problem as well?

My comments are not directed at China.  No one should begrudge China its rising share of the global economy. But to suggest, as Fogel does, that the Chinese economy and the larger global economy can continue galloping along without any environmental or resource constraints is sheer folly.  If there are practical limits to growth, and there are many reasons to believe that there are such limits, the headlong pursuit of economic growth (and population growth) without regard to those limits means that the world economy will at some point hit a wall.

Fogel’s analysis makes it clear that he does not see such a wall.  And neither do most world leaders. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not there.  Call it Fogel’s Folly.

One Response to “Fogel’s Folly”

  1. Tommy Morris Says:


    Good article, the planet can only support so many, the only thing that I can see putting a halt to economic growth and climate change is peak oil which is not to far away apparently when this eventually happens economic activity will fall drastically, how much damage will be done by then though?


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