Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of… Population Growth?

July 5, 2012 • News

The following opinion piece is written by Derek Hoff, an assistant professor of history at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. Mr. Hoff specializes in the history of American politics and public policy, economic and business history, and the history of demographic ideas and debates. His first book, “The State and the Stork: The Population Debate and Policymaking in United States History,” will be published in 2012 by the University of Chicago Press.

You may also be interested in viewing a 10 minute video prepared by Mark Powell, in which he exposes what he calls “statistical malpractice” at the US Census Bureau. The video does an excellent job of demonstrating the mathematical reality of ongoing rapid population growth in the United States, taking issue with the heavily scripted and seemingly disingenuous remarks of Census Director Groves at the time the 2010 Census results were released.

A modest proposal for a new population debate

The population of the United States is nearly 312 million, and projected to become 440 million by 2050. The U.S. has a higher fertility rate than such middle-income nations as Turkey, Chile and Brazil and is a demographic outlier among wealthy industrialized nations, many of which will see their populations decline in the coming decades. Arguments against population growth emanate from a few environmentalists and anti-immigration voices. And authors like Thomas Friedman worry about population in the context of high energy costs.

But a majority of American social scientists, policymakers and talking heads are celebrating the nation’s remarkable demographic enlargement. In fact, most commentators wish Americans would have still more babies – future workers – to pay baby boomers’ looming Social Security bill and avoid the economic stagnation threatening low-fertility nations like Italy and Japan. TV shows such as “Kate Plus 8” celebrate large families. Conservative politicians dismiss environmentalists as the “‘people are pollution’ crowd.” When the U.S. population crossed the 300-million mark in 2006, The New York Times editorial page declared America’s “teeming immensity keeps us from going stale, and despite some people’s panic attacks, our population issues have mysterious ways of working themselves out. America has big problems, but it also has 300 million reasons to be hopeful.”

Perhaps, but for too long, discussion of population growth’s possible harms has focused exclusively on dire warnings about human survival – the “panic attacks.” Americans should also consider whether a rising population might simply harm what used to be called, in gentler times, “quality of life.” The insistence on an invisible hand of childbirth that “mysteriously” solves population problems also reveals shifts in economic ideas that are shaping today’s population thinking.

The current celebration of population growth in the U.S. has a surprisingly recent lineage. Founders like Thomas Jefferson believed a larger population heralded the kind of crowded, commercial European society from which the colonists fled. The 19th century’s classical economists adopted the logic of Thomas Malthus, a British pastor who wrote in 1798 that population growth eventually swamps the supply of natural resources and drives wages to starvation levels. In the mid-20th century, Keynesian economics held that what matters is not the size of the population, but its saving and consumption patterns. Some Keynesians even argued that zero population growth would promote broadened consumption. And conservationists and intellectuals believed overpopulation created sprawl and reduced amenities like open space and quiet.

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