The Struggle for More Workers.

The world’s population currently is about 7.2 billion people. For many years apocalyptic visions inspired by Thomas Malthus haunted the sleep of demographers. Then, fertility rates in many high birth-rate countries began to decline. Current estimates now project that the world’s population will “peak” at about 9 billion people.[1]

However, that consensus has just come under attack. Many countries in South Asia and Africa continue to experience rapidly rising populations. The African fertility rate, in particular, has failed to follow the downward track projected from early statistics. Some population experts now believe that the population of the world may reach a population of 12.3 billion people by 2100.[2] Moreover, their populations are rising without the economic growth to be able to provide them with a decent standard of living. Back to Malthus on steroids.

Conversely, many other countries find themselves with a birthrate below the replacement level. The working age population of Japan began to decline about 1997. There is no sign that it will start to rise again anytime soon. That means a shrinking population of workers will have to support a growing population of retirees. Enhanced productivity can off-set this problem, but—at the moment—it isn’t. Japan’s trade balance has shift from running export surpluses to import surpluses. What’s true of Japan is or soon will be true of many other countries with low birthrates and high life expectancy. Chinese couples will have to juggle running or working in sweat-shops with caring for their aging parents as well as their own children. The Italians find themselves in an even worse boat than do the Chinese.

What’s the solution to this two-headed problem? If one approaches it from a strictly economic perspective, then one solution is to foster the migration of surplus population from Africa and South Asia to population deficient countries. Brilliant! The further triumph of the equilibrium model.[3] Why haven’t we done this already? There are two big stumbling blocks: the educational differences and the cultural differences.

The Educational problem is simply stated: poor countries have poor school systems, but the developed countries need educated workers. Some migrants will need more education.

The Cultural problem is simply stated: immigrant-receiving countries will want the newcomers to adapt swiftly to established culture, rather than to adapt themselves to a foreign culture. To avoid the sort of social problems that have overtaken Britain, France, and Germany, there would have to be some flexibility on both sides.

Is it worth thinking about “Aid to Potential Immigrants” stations abroad? ICE, the Department of Labor, and the Department of Education could maintain offices in places like India, Taiwan, Israel, the Philippines, and South Africa. They could both recruit and evaluate immigrants. Travel costs could be subsidized in whole or in part.

Is it worth thinking about the possible resistance from population-surplus countries? It’s not like someone is going to up-date Emma Lazarus: “Give us your aged, your stupid, your weak of will.” Advanced economies will be trying to cherry-pick the “best and the brightest” people from societies that are struggling to raise their own standard of living. What population-surplus countries prefer to do is to get rid of their problems. That doesn’t mean that things can’t work out. Look at Mariel. Look at Australia.

[1] Tyler Cowan, “Rebalancing the Population Scales,” NYT, 9 November 2014.

[2] I’ll be long dead by then, so you deal with it.

[3] It’s a constant in human thought, like symmetry in ideals of Beauty and Justice. See:

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