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Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Tragically True: The Political Economy of Population

Sincere people have launched a new campaign which is intended to focus the affluent world's attention on the growing global problem of children who are physically and intellectually stunted by insufficient food in the first two years of life. Causes include the undernourishment of pregnant and breast-feeding mothers, as well as a lack of food and milk ingested by infants themselves. The number of children already exposed and likely to be exposed to these conditions in the next couple of years is being assessed at half-a-billion, five hundred million, 500,000,000. So many children are in this position because so many have been born, and have survived up to now, through an explosion of medical care and in particular of preventative medicine which has issued drugs and supplied vaccines on an unprecedented scale. The medication is also more effective than in earlier decades, though the fecundity of this process is in some cases being challenged by the build-up of resistence by the diseases to the drugs that are in use. There are clear signs that the battle between the mutation of diseases and the development of treatments for those diseases has become increasingly costly.

The vast majority of the population explosion is occurring in less-developed countries where religion is strong, such as the Muslim world, in Catholic [and increasingly evangelical Christian] Latin America, in parts of Africa and in India. Hitherto both the development of drugs and funding programmes for their distribution have been based in the most developed countries. There has been a significant net transfer of resources from the relatively-rich to the relatively-poor: but although the lives of hundreds of millions of people have beneficially been prolonged, and their fertility has been enhanced, the most conspicuous net returns are the catastrophe of physically and mentally stunted young lives and massive unemployment among young adults.

The idealists who have volunteered to lead the new fundraising campaign have ascribed the intensification of the problem of infant malnutrition to short-term factors: referring specifically to the impact of rising global energy prices and the increasing demand for food from the emerging consumer class in China. These market pressures are asserted to be leaving too little affordable food for the poorest families in less developed countries.

The countries that house the majority of the poorest people cannot produce enough food for their population from their own resources, even in years when there is adequate rain and no significent pestilence. Yet rampant population growth continues in those countries as more millions of babies who were saved by international aid agencies reach adulthood and exercise their right themselves to produce babies.

The simple Malthusian principle - that population increase has a tendency to exceed the growth of production of the means of subsistence - appears to be working through in the most brutal form. Millions of people are breeding children for whom they cannot provide enough food, and they live in societies which do not teach parental responsibility for the succour of children; and their rulers do not accept an obligation on the state either to promote population control or to invest sufficiently to provide adequate food for the whole population.

The crucial perception that is explained in PPE [see the link from this blogsite] is that the outputs of human intelligence, applied as ik [protected intellectual property], are capable of transcending Malthus' Principle of Population and any immediately adverse operation of the Law of Diminishing Returns. But it is apparent now that humans' unwillingness to recognise the obvious arithmetic of population growth is the most massive threat that the species has ever faced. Science has been applied to create cures for diseases; and philanthropy has brought the fruits of that science to most groups of the human race, so that the number of humans has expanded to over five billion. Humans must now confront the challenge of how to reduce the rate of growth of the population to that which can experience a good lifestyle given the limitations of the world's current, degenerate economic and political institutions.

Profoundly reconstructed systems of Political Economy and of Government are needed to ensure that the full range of accessible technologies is engaged and optimised to support human beings and to invest for their future. This extent of change will take a long time to implement, even if the principles for reconstruction could be agreed. Naive concepts of equality - either in the demands that will be made on different people in their capacity as producers or in the distribution of rewards to consumers - have given rise to a dangerous delusion that many democratic politicians are still propagating. Those individuals who have most to contribute to a new technological revolution will require - and deserve - exceptional rewards. The creators of the ik that alone can allow humanity to survive and to progress in civilisation must be recognised, protected and rewarded. Many politicians, and even more commentators, baulk at such a simple principle. They avoid quoting the pristine Leninist slogan "From each according to his ability, to each according the his needs!" but Obama's rhetoric of 'change' is based on both psychological and sociological assumptions that have significant traction only among those who feel they are 'disadvantaged' and would benefit from the distribution of more money by the state [from higher taxes on the 'rich']. No credible school of Political Economy - or even of Economics - would advance such a proposition now.

This is not to say that altruism has died: far from it. Bill and Miranda Gates have allocated the bulk of their wealth - that Bill's inventions have fairly and properly generated - to their Foundation. That money has been so well-used [according to fashionable doctrine] that other megarich individuals - led by Warren Buffet - have either pledged funds to the same Foundation or have set up their own. This will accelerate the growth of population in the areas where the Malthusian effect is most conspicuous.  Tragically, infants who have been kept alive by the application of drugs and disinfectants are now at risk of malnutrition: and each individual who grows to adulthood through the involuntary support of foreign taxpayers and the spontaneous generosity of charitable foundations is set to breed children who will themselves present demands to the international community. If the current fashion for taxing the 'rich' until it hurts is enacted, there will be less money available for charitable donation. If unemployment remains high and rates of growth remain low in postindustrial countries, the ability and the willingness of taxpayers to support 'International Development' will decline and eventually disappear. Yet the global problems of poverty, malnutrition and starvation will continue to grow. The reduction or withdrawal of the flow of funds from the relatively affluent parts of the world will cause far more resentment than past and present donations attract gratitude. The simplistic explanation for the antipathy that some British tourists receive in France - "they'll never forgive us for helping them" [in two World Wars] - will apply on a massive scale as the global flow of benefactions is reduced.

It is urgently necessary that the world order is given proper consideration in international institutions. Unless the truths of Political Economy are central to the deliberation, the future phases of the crisis will be far more profound  than the present tragedy of malnourished children. Unless humanity thinks past the immediate problem, we will all become hopelessly mired in it.

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