Joel Kotkin, a fellow at Chapman University in Orange, CA and the Legatum Institute, a London-based think tank, has authored a new book, entitled, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, published in February 2010 by Penguin Press. I haven’t read the book yet, but I have read an article [“What America will look like in 2050”] that he wrote for AOL on the same subject. Like his book, it extols the virtues of population growth. He falsely equates a “population boom” with an “economic boom.” Here’s the response that I just sent to AOL:
Joel Kotkin’s “What America will look like in 2050” is a remarkably myopic look at America’s future. Adding another 100 million people to the U.S. population will not, as he suggests, put America “on a growth track far faster than most other major nations in the world.” Nor will it, as he proposes, bring forth a “host” of economic and social benefits. Rather, such growth will pose a host of challenges that, if not met, could endanger our quality of life and the planet at large.
Kotkin might be right to suggest that population growth will help to boost America’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but GDP is a seriously flawed measure of prosperity and wellbeing. When we deplete scare resources like oil, natural gas, rare earth metals, forests, and topsoil, GDP and incomes may be temporarily boosted, but the country is not richer in any real sense. Similarly, when we have to build more roads, schools and infrastructure simply to accommodate more people, GDP increases, but it doesn’t necessarily improve standards of living.
Even if GDP itself was an accurate measure of economic wellbeing, what we ought to be concerned with is not GDP, but per capita GDP. If America’s population grows ten percent and its GDP grows 10%, the average American is not any richer or poorer. If American population grows 10% and its GDP increases only 5%, Americans are actually worse off, not better. And that’s what would happen if we don’t produce the jobs that a hundred million more people will demand by midcentury.
It’s true that aging industrial societies, like the U.S., face economic challenges as the ratio of workers to retirees increases, but adding more people and dependents (i.e. children) is not a recipe for prosperity. If the costs of an aging society are to be borne, and they must be, the proper solution is more savings and investment, not more population. If the U.S. needs more consumers to maintain employment, there are plenty of “new consumers” in China, India, and other rapidly developing nations to employ workers in the U.S. and elsewhere. In the long run, increased productivity, not procreation, will determine whether America and other countries prosper. Population growth is not an easy economic cure; it’s not even a cure.
Kotkin’s population prescription also conveniently ignores what increased population will do to increase America’s already oversized ecological footprint. While the U.S. has less than 5% of the world’s population, we consumer about 20-25% of the world’s resources and, historically, the U.S. has accounted for a similar percentage of the world’s carbon emissions. Simply put, on a per capita basis we consumer more, waste more, and pollute more than almost any other country. Adding another 100 million Americans by midcentury will make the challenge of radically reducing America’s carbon and greenhouse gas emissions a whole lot harder. It will also serve to make us even more dependent on foreign oil than we are today. And it will also speed the despoilation of the planet, as we import more resources and product to build more homes, schools and cars to accommodate still more people living the American lifestyle.
Joel Kotkin is to be congratulated for taking time to look into America’s future, but his vision is myopic. He needs new glasses. A visionary he is not.
Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President