"India's" population bomb isn't rocket science

By Razib Khan | August 21, 2010 7:59 pm

The New York Times has a piece up, Defusing India’s Population Time Bomb, which reiterates what I was trying to get at yesterday, India’s demographic problems are localized to particular regions, not the nation as a whole. First, let’s review the world’s population growth & fertility rates:

Now let’s focus on a few nations:

China’s coercive policy is often held up as a great success of the power of government to change from on high. But did you see the world population growth correction in the early 1960s? That was China. If you don’t know what was going on in China then, read books (hint: if you don’t know much about the history of China, you don’t know much about the history of the world). My point is that China’s solution was in part a reaction to a pro-natalist drive encouraged by one of the most powerful crazy men in the history of the world. On pure pragmatic grounds one may say that China had to do something, but their actions in the early 1980s did not occur in a vacuum, and were a consequence of a sequence of earlier events particular to that nation.

Contrast China with South Korea, a culturally similar nation, which went through decades of authoritarian rule, but never imposed coercive family planning policies of the sort common in the People’s Republic. Like Japan and Taiwan South Korea’s fertility and population growth rates declined naturally through economic development. With abundant human capital (high literacy) to start out with these nations replicated, and in some ways exceeded, the trajectory of the European demographic transition concomitant with an increase in economic productivity and urbanization. In fact, their fertility rates are lower than that of China, probably because they’re economically more advanced. If it wasn’t for China’s three decade long dance with crazy Communism the coercive policies in relation to reproduction may never have been necessary.

Economic development isn’t the only way to staunch population growth. Iran has taken a different, and less optimal, but still not grossly coercive, path. Because of the lack of economic opportunity in Iran’s society there was an understanding at both the commanding heights and the grassroots that large families were simply not sustainable, at least not using the quality of life which people had become used to in the 1970s as a reference point.

As I noted yesterday, the problem within India is that there is a wide region-to-region variation. The southern cone of India is already verging toward sub-replacement fertility. A major difference I see between China and India though is that the economically and socially most backward area is the cultural heart of the latter. There may be vague analogies to Italy, where Rome is a government town in the center, while northern Italy is the economic motive force, and southern Italy serves as a vote-bank which reliably backs the party which makes the biggest cash transfer promise. A big difference between Italy and India: the backward region is numerically dominant in India, while it is not in Italy.

Here are two bubble plots which show the divide in India. The size of the bubbles are proportion to the population size of the state. The two ones to the top left are Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

no images were found

The fact is that South Asia is low on the human capital scale:

800px-World_literacy_map_UN

The only long term solution is to leverage the fact that other parts of the world are higher up on the human capital ladder, and still producing innovation and generating new ways to increase productivity. Matt Yglesias has a post up about Japan, from which I got this chart:

TFPjapan-1

Because Japan’s population is shrinking its economy will decline over time. Additionally, because of the unfavorable demographics, with more older people than young workers, it will go through some decline in quality of life. But the average Japanese still consumes at a very high level, it’s not dystopia. Ultimately the Japanese are relying on innovation to buoy their economy. And that’s the real long term solution: without innovation we’re f**ked. Period. Demographic adjustments are really epiphenomena on the margins. That’s why the media can report on both sides of the ledger as if they are both positive and negative. It’s about quality of human capital and the innovation they’re producing, not the quantity of humans.

Image Credit: Wikimedia

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Data Analysis
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  • Marnie

    Razib,

    I haven’t kept up on the latest statistics on this topic, but I’d say that it isn’t always easy to forge innovation and productivity when poverty, high birth rate, and lack of education are the norm.

    Some of the greatest economic advances of the last half century have been made through direct interventions by building trust in local communities, providing access to health care and family planning.

    Compare the improvements in Bangladesh, a country that has employed direct intervention programs to enable women to have fewer children, with Pakistan, a country without such interventions, and which has one of the highest birth rates in the world.

    Organizations such as Pathfinder International have improved reproductive health, lowered birthrate and improved economic wellbeing in some of the most challenged economies in the world.

    Its that model that leads to the greatest stability in the long run. Trying to improve innovation and productivity at the top, thinking that the birth rate will lower itself eventually as things improve, can leave a lot of people behind, without options, who still will not be able to choose to have smaller, healthier and more educated children.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    both issues are important. my main point is that the *policy* and *media* discussion focuses on short-term demographic parameters. the reality is that it’s probably more important to focus on innovation, and how to foster it.

    Its that model that leads to the greatest stability in the long run. Trying to improve innovation and productivity at the top, thinking that the birth rate will lower itself eventually as things improve, can leave a lot of people behind, without options, who still will not be able to choose to have smaller, healthier and more educated children.

    between 1800 and 1970 the wage gap between skilled and unskilled shrank in the developed world. that’s a function of innovation. the family-size project has been around since the paleolithic, and practiced periodically by many populations at the malthusian limit. i’m a little confused as to why you think that that particular cultural shift is sustainable. history is filled with pro and anti natalist cycles.

  • Marnie

    Innovation alone does not drive prosperity. It certainly is necessary for prosperity and quality of life, but it is not the only ingredient needed.

  • John Emerson

    Talking about things in real time, in the midst of events, is different than talking about the past. For example, nowadays you might hear someone say “All that alarmism about population was crap. Birthrates are declining almost everywhere”. But the birthrates are declining in part because of the alarmism. Most of the world has moved away from natalism in part because of the alarmism — the high birth rates weren’t simply “natural”, they were encouraged by propaganda, government policies, restrictions on birth control, public opinion, and so on. (The baby boom coincided with a tremendous propaganda push in favor of family life, motherhood, etc.) So even if most people don’t become ZPGers, just turning off the natalism means that population automatically finds its natural level.

    Anti-natalists sometimes used inevitability talk — “The world population will be 100 billion by 2020!!!!” But that was just rhetoric. Inevitability talk was used to strengthen the effect of a warning meant to change behavior which in turn would prevent the feeared outcome. Politics works like that.

    People now talk as though development inevitably leads to reductions of birthrates. This is just the same rhetorical hooplah, though. One thing development does is puts people in touch with anti-natalist ideas, anti-natalist tools like birth control, etc., and this can be done without much development (China).

    In short, if someone gives a warning causing people to takes steps tso that the disaster doesn’t happen, you thank them for the warning, you don’t laugh at them because their predictions failed.

    Inevitability came to science through physics and it is very powerful there in many areas. As you climb the levels of emergence, though, there’s less and less inevitability, and when people talk about inevitability in history or social life, most of the time they’re just blowing smoke.

  • Tim DeLaney

    Population growth is not what should trouble us. It is population itself that we should worry about. There are today too many of us.

    The elephant in the room is energy, most especially fossil energy. Agriculture today relies heavily on fossil fuels for fertilizer, mechanized farming, irrigation, and food distribution.

    There is a finite supply of fossil fuel. When it runs out, as it must, we will no longer be able to feed 6.8 billion people. What population could the earth comfortably sustain without abundant fossil fuel? Estimates differ, but it’s a lot less than 6.8 billion. My uneducated guess is 3 billion–the earth’s population in 1960, the starting point for the “green revolution”.

    Each year we add about 80 million to our population. That’s 80 million eventual starvation victims added every year. As bad as that news is, I think the worse news is that even if we found the will to reduce our population, demographics works against us. Any plan to sharply reduce our population by humane means would result in a disproportionate number of people too old to contribute.

    The paradoxical fact is that the green revolution of the past 50 years, far from alleviating starvation, will ultimately *cause* billions of starvation related deaths.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    between 1800 and 1970 the wage gap between skilled and unskilled shrank in the developed world. that’s a function of innovation.

    That’s also a function of unionization, a strong public sector, and economic democracy – probably more so than the invention of new machinery.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    probably more so than the invention of new machinery.

    probably not. though i’ll be happy to be proven wrong by cliometric data.

    Innovation alone does not drive prosperity. It certainly is necessary for prosperity and quality of life, but it is not the only ingredient needed.

    innovation is often sufficient because it has a host of knock-on effects (smaller family sizes follow from urbanization, etc.).

    Most of the world has moved away from natalism in part because of the alarmism — the high birth rates weren’t simply “natural”, they were encouraged by propaganda, government policies, restrictions on birth control, public opinion, and so on. (The baby boom coincided with a tremendous propaganda push in favor of family life, motherhood, etc.)

    i don’t think it was so top-down. i also don’t see “most of the world” moving away from natalism because of alarmism. to my knowledge that wasn’t the case in east asia excluding china or europe, where fertility declined before people know why or what. did it decline in southern europe because of alarmism? in brazil, where there’s such a land deficit? some concrete examples excepting china and iran would be nice, though in both cases i doubt it was from reading *the population bomb*. rather, the economic and social realities were pretty obvious to the leaders of the society, as they were to ancient greek city-states, who encouraged emigration (or kicked people out) to reduce population pressures.

    and even if i grant the value of alarmism (which i think basically has resulted in smart secular liberals in the west having fewer children or none at all), i think the issue i’m highlighting is the disjunction between treatment of demographic parameters and technological ones. there is coverage in innovation dearth, but it’s always in a small-bore proximate sense. i.e., “less innovation = less growth = less jobs.” in contrast, population issues are treated in grand terms. the reality though is that innovation has a greater medium term impact on the world that population parameters. we know at in extreme situations how to shift the population parameters. we still don’t know how to encourage innovation, or not encourage it.

  • azmyth

    Food supply is a necessary condition to population expansion. Population can not expand past its ability to feed itself. Therefore, since our population has grown rapidly, our capacity to feed ourselves must have also expanded at at least that rate. In an ever expanding fraction of the world, obesity is the problem, not starvation. Additionally, the long term trend in birth rates is up and the long term trend in agricultural productivity is up. Less than 2% of America’s population is farmers, and yet it is a net food exporter. Does any of this sound like a population bomb? No. As China and India have gotten richer, their birth rates have fallen, just as Europe’s did a half a century ago. No coercive policies are needed, nor are they morally right.

    Secondly, innovation is not exogenous to the population size. The more people there are, the more scientists there are and the faster technology will grow. China and India’s entry into the developed world will triple the number of scientists and potentially triple the amount of innovation in the world.

  • Chris T

    “The elephant in the room is energy, most especially fossil energy. Agriculture today relies heavily on fossil fuels for fertilizer, mechanized farming, irrigation, and food distribution. ”

    It does today, there is nothing that says it always must. Alternatives to FFs do exist now and become even more feasible in the future.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    … i’ll be happy to be proven wrong by cliometric data.

    With all due respect to the immortal Clio, I think the shoe is on the other foot here.

    The question on the table is the wage gap, not overall productivity (where the leading role of innovation is undeniable). But when you’re talking about distribution, where can it be shown that any technical change has ever led to “haves” sharing more with “have-nots” without the latter first applying decisive sociopolitical pressure?

    As for “how to encourage innovation”, may I suggest education subsidies, policies favorable to new/small business formation, serious antitrust enforcement, and consistent grants for basic research?

  • Chris T

    “the high birth rates weren’t simply “natural”, they were encouraged by propaganda, government policies, restrictions on birth control, public opinion, and so on.”

    Except that the places today with the highest birth rates are also the ones with the least effective governments. Meanwhile many of the countries where governments are attempting to *raise* birthrates have very low FRs and have for some time despite government efforts. You can explain fertility rates entirely through economics without resorting to any other explanations.

    Razib: “less innovation = less growth = less jobs.”

    Conversely, long term growth must occur for more innovation to be supported. Something ‘no-growth’ proponents do not understand. They’re effectively advocating suicide.

    azmyth: “The more people there are, the more scientists there are and the faster technology will grow.”

    There are limits to this. If there are too many people compared to your resource base, than most of society’s available resources will be going to basic survival with little left over for innovation.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    pierce, fair enough. i am curious enough that i wish i had the time to dig right now, but i don’t. and you obviously don’t have the inclination either, so confident are you in your beliefs. i guess that’s the internet, but it’s nice when readers help out by actually doing some leg work instead of just asserting and repeating what they believe. though some readers do do so, so i guess i won’t get too pessimistic.

  • Tim DeLaney

    “The elephant in the room is energy, most especially fossil energy. Agriculture today relies heavily on fossil fuels for fertilizer, mechanized farming, irrigation, and food distribution. ” ( Chris T quoting Tim)

    “It does today, there is nothing that says it always must. Alternatives to FFs do exist now and become even more feasible in the future.” — Chris T

    I completely agree with you. However, we don’t seem to be developing those alternatives very quickly. Perhaps if we realized how many lives were at risk, we would redouble our efforts.

    The problem is that energy prices can be extremely volatile over the short haul. If a farmer cannot sell his crop for more than it costs to plant and harvest, it won’t be grown. The three billion people (to pick a number from the air) who might be hanging in the balance cannot wait a year or two while energy prices stabilize. We need plentiful, reliable energy at a reasonable cost. FF’s won’t provide that much longer. We can disagree on the timeline, but most experts think we’re in the last few decades of cheap and abundant FF energy. Some would say we have less time. (Google “peak oil” if you want to be frightened.)

    What is the future? My bet for the long term (say 100 to 200 years from now) is fusion. Until then nuclear seems like the best bet. How many new nuclear plants are
    now in progress in the US?

  • Pierce R. Butler

    While my time is indeed stretched, I’m not offering links to hard data because the question is vague. More precisely, it lacks referents.

    Where would you go to find specifics on any episode in history where unskilled labor has advanced socioeconomically without significant agitation? The only such case I can think of is the redistribution of resources in Europe after the Black Death, when abandoned land/towns/etc were peacefully taken over by survivors & immigrants: reliable stats for the proceedings are somewhat scarce.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    While my time is indeed stretched, I’m not offering links to hard data because the question is vague. More precisely, it lacks referents.

    you’re an asshole. if it was so vague why did you disagree? just man up and say you don’t have time/inclination. i made an assertion, you disagreed. now it’s all “vague.” if it was vague with no good referents you shouldn’t have offered a fucking initial dissenting opinion in the way you did, since i supposedly didn’t say anything precise in the first place. yes, i think in fact that i could have been a lot clearer with what i said, and thought the same too, but i didn’t push that line of thought since you seemed to have a clear and distinct sense of what i was supposedly getting at in your initial comment,. i proceeded to waste time thinking over what you said, what i meant, and calculated whether i should expend some of my waking hours doing a lit search.

    and i was just going to look in the bibliogrpahy of farewell to alms since some of the original assertions came out of there.

    p.s. this is another clue to readers that the comment threads aren’t about winning/losing. if you want to do that, go play world of warcraft.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Last I heard, ad hominem rejoinders were still considered fallacious. Still, it’s nice to meet someone who really understands me…

    Can you name an instance of unskilled workers gaining an improved socioeconomic status without first exerting significant political force? When and where? You started by citing the 1800-1970 period, but the evidence is very strong for major pressure by organized labor (well, it may stretch definitions a bit to call Ned Ludd an organizer, but he was definitely all about pressure) throughout that period.

    Or perhaps the rise of the working/small farm/mercantile class in North America during the middle and late 19th century? That case only holds if you ignore the transfer of resources from the indigenous owners to European immigrants – a process greatly facilitated by federal programs (see Custer, G.A., et al).

    Trying to stay on topic: just what were you trying to say with “… between 1800 and 1970 the wage gap between skilled and unskilled shrank in the developed world. that’s a function of innovation.”? Were you referring to what we now call “social engineering” rather than technological change? Or if you did mean technology, please provide one or more examples of mechanical inventions which raised wages for the unskilled where no political machinations were involved.

    Not having immediate access to “Farewell to Alms”, I can only thank you for the reference and put it on my look-for-at-the-library list.

    And sorry, I don’t know diddly about online games, so probably would be wiped out instantly in that arena. With fact-based arguments regarding history and politics, I at least have a perceptible chance – is that the game we’re playing now, or am I about to be zapped by a bloodcurdling curse?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Last I heard, ad hominem rejoinders were still considered fallacious. Still, it’s nice to meet someone who really understands me…

    i’m not arguing with you. i was expressing the frustration of your discussion earlier style, a style i encounter regularly on the internet, and is a waste of time.

    i’ve moved to agnosticism on initial question at this point after your points. but after you moved me to ill-temper on this issue i moved looking into it further down in my task-stack. feel free to post further comments if you find anything else of interest, but i’ll have to leave the discussion for later….

  • Pierce R. Butler

    It looks like we may be approaching progress here. I don’t come to your blog to waste my time or yours, and hope we can both work on keeping it that way.

    i’ve moved to agnosticism on initial question at this point …

    Well, there’s “soft” agnosticism (“I/we don’t know…”) and “hard” agnosticism (“It is impossible to know…”). My position on most unresolved historical questions floats somewhere between the two, but at least in this case further empirical research is possible.

    As far as further comments go, all I can offer is that I looked up a couple of reviews of Farewell to Alms, and so far lean towards what seems to be the consensus of reaction (“Interesting, but there’s this gap between research findings and conclusion…”).

    It is a bit surprising to see you citing that work when a local search produces a result from this blog headlined “Gregory Clark is an idiot” (though that in itself is not surprising, given the odd evo-psych claims Clark reportedly makes). Since clicking on same produces only a “Sorry, no attachments matched your criteria.” message, it looks like this puzzle remains in the hard-agnosticism box until further notice.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    i cited something clark mentioned as an aside as if it was factual consensus (wage gap). there are aspects of *farewell to alms* which are tendentious. but his narrative about the malthusian trap is well regarded. e.g.,

    http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2007/08/greg-clarks-new.html

  • Sujay Rao Mandavilli

    Implement the following Ten point formula immediately. Only this will work.
    1. The central government must set up a coordinator for all high growth states. The coordinator must be appointed by the central government, but will work with state government. District coordinators too must be appointed to prepare action plans and continuously monitor the situation, make modifications, share ideas, success stories and research success stories in India and abroad. Each district can have volunteers. This must be implemented in addition to the ideas stated above. The coordinator must monitor implementation of SSA, PMGSY, NRHM, NREGS as well. This will help greatly because too many good ideas are implemented only in a very small region. Good practices in one region are not implemented elsewhere. This is the biggest roadblock to the family planning program and the biggest failure of central governments. The coordinator will also advise state governments about good practices in other states.
    2. Monetary incentive must be given by both Central and State Governments and there must be a uniform central policy

    A hypothetical scheme would be as follows

    Sterilization after 2 children Rs x
    Sterilization after 2 children (at least 1 girl) Rs 2x
    Sterilization after 2 children (both girls) Rs 3x
    Sterilization after 1 child Rs 4x
    Sterilization after 1 child (girl) Rs 6x

    3. Incentives for the girl child

    Special incentives for the education of the girl child, for higher education etc. This is being implemented by individual state governments but there is no central government policy

    4. Multimedia campaign to spread awareness and explain why population control is important to the county and the region, besides the family. The importance of family planning to the region, to the country and to natural resources must also be explained and we have for too long vacillated between inaction and coercion

    5. Catch them young: To explain the benefits. Incorporate Family planning awareness in the SSA

    6. Make family planning material available through fair price and ration shops in all villages

    7. Roping in leading personalities like film actors and religious leaders to spread the message of family planning

    8. Special package for senior citizens in NREGS. This is very important to rein in population growth

    9. Special package to corporates and other individuals who wish to contribute to family planning initiatives

    10. To encourage adult literacy programs particularly female literacy

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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