Monday, August 4, 2008

Supply And Demand

According to various pundits, my generation is the first one that is predicted not to have a quality of life that exceeds that of their predecessors. Quality of life is ill-defined, but what has been presented in these arguments seems to revolve around cost of living vs. compensation, amount of leisure time, job satisfaction, and feeling of control over one's own destiny. Clearly, this is a rather American definition of what constitutes a quality life. Being an American, it resonates with me.

I feel that if the pundits are correct about the effect, the cause they are always claim to be seeking is fairly obvious. It is not some mysterious conflation of economic subtleties. It isn't globalization, global warming, or even wage deflation, per se. Those things are all symptoms of what I think is the larger issue: the supply of people exceeds the demand.

It is not popular to talk about population control. Many people feel it is their God-given right to reproduce as prolifically as is conceivable. They forget that with rights come responsibilities, and that the world's excess supply of people is leading to compensation deflation and resource contention as there are more people than jobs and resources in our current markets. New jobs can indeed be created the by new demands placed on the global resource system by new people, but there is a tipping point beyond which this benefit is exceeded by the detriment of trying to incorporate many new people into the economic system. I don't know if we're past that tipping point, but it is obvious to me that our current economic and social structures, when coupled with this population boom, put us at least dangerously close to it.

Related to this issue is longevity. I am in favor of longevity, since I myself would like to live a nice long time, but with these increases in longevity come extended stays in the workplace for a large number of people and this taxes the economic system. The market is not expanding at a rate which creates quality, desirable jobs for younger people who are unable to fill existing positions, because those positions are held by Baby Boomers who are neither retiring nor dying. With increased longevity either needs to come an economic system in which opportunity expands proportionally to population growth (and given that the world is not infinite, there is a tipping point here also beyond which that is impossible), or a decrease in fertility. If we haven't passed the tipping point, the market could in theory expand in this way -- but it currently is not.

But don't just blame the so-called third world, or "foreigners" in general. Sure, many jobs (not just blue collar ones) in the U.S. and Europe are experiencing wage drag due to competition from China, India and other developing nations. Never mind that American and European companies owned by American and European investors also encourage this competition in order to increase their profit margins by stifling compensation gains -- right here at home we have a different kind of disparity based on job displacement by population.

The Baby Boomers, that 60's generation who thought they would save the world, are actually a population bubble whose longevity, fertility, and expansive lifestyle (and concomitant resource usage) is in fact a population spike which is causing (or at least stoking) a number of the economic and social justice problems they claimed were of utmost importance to them. Despite America's youth-centric culture, the Baby Boomers are the largest population of any generation to cling to power, authority, and money so late into life.

Someone who was 20 in 1968 is now 60. With current projected lifespans, these people are likely to live another 20-40 years. Those who do retire will strain the Social Security system, requiring my generation to pay an unprecedented amount for their upkeep, for an unprecedented length of time. Those who do not retire are ensconced in all the jobs that my generation would like to have, which might make it possible for at least some of us to own our own homes, and destinies, and at the same time chip in for the care and feeding of aging Boomers.

It is possible that growth will increase, and certainly folks like myself who have attempted to help create new markets such as computing and biotech are trying to make that happen. However, should sufficient growth not come to pass, the "correction" to compensate for Boomer-inflated markets will fall squarely on the shoulders of me, you and a lot of folks just like us. This would be a much bigger correction than the ones after either the Internet or housing bubbles, and it's already starting to happen. In order to curtail this economic slide, many more people need to become involved in opening up new markets and expanding existing ones -- especially those who benefit from the current system and might not see the benefits to adjusting it, as they control the resources needed to do it.

Even if we can stimulate sufficient economic growth, we also, as a global community, still need to start looking seriously at population. No matter how sensible new policies and how robust new markets may become, the planet is a finite system and therefore there is some number of people beyond which there will simply not be enough resources to go around. In order for a maximal number of people (all around the world, not just in the US) to live a good life, there must be fewer people than this limit. I certainly don't support either genocide or eugenics, but rather I'd like to see sensible population planning policies which use education and economic incentives to encourage birth control and responsible family planning. Fecundism at any cost is a dead-end path, and it's about time the human race let go of this misguided ideology.


hatsumi said...

I envy your ability to sound so...what's the phrase... PC? No, not quite. Opinionated without being an asshole? Yeah. That's probably closer. I make it a point to have conversations about stuff like this only with close family members because I'm not quite so nice about it. Not that I believe in genocide or any of that yucky stuff, either, but breeders drive me crazy.

As a parent of a single child, I have to admit that having offspring is one of the most awesome things EVER. :) My son is more important to me than anything and I love him more than anything or anyone else in the world. Would I have another? Hell, no. This is for many reasons. First and foremost is that my family enjoys a certain level of financial and material comfort that we REALLY enjoy. Sticking a new human in there would just throw that out the window.

Second, with the economy the way that it is, bringing another child into the world would do him or her a serious disservice. When I was growing up, I was lucky that my parents were able to survive very comfortably on a single income. My mom was a housewife and full-time mom, who had the time to actually PARENT me. Today, few families can afford to survive on one income, let alone survive comfortably. So the parents aren't home, the kids are babysat by electronics, and they end up missing so many core values that our generation and the generations before us take almost for granted.

A woman I game with online has a daughter. Her husband is a construction worker and makes decent money, so they can live on a single income. However, they have almost no savings and the only entertainment she can really afford is her $15/month game account. They really only have enough to make ends meet. But now they're trying to have another child. She goes on and on about how she wants another one, but then two seconds later will complain about barely being able to pay their bills. I understand how she feels about having another child. There are times that I would like another one, too, but reality and sensibility quickly bring me back to my senses.

Then I have another friend who is pregnant with her 5th child. She and her husband can afford it, but I still feel that they are breeders. I do not understand why they feel the need to increase the population by THAT many. There are already too many people, too few jobs, and the distribution of wealth is too screwed up. Having lots and lots of kids will simply make it worse. When I worked at a military hospital, I remember seeing all these families with some guy, a pregnant wife, and 3 kids trailing behind. And all I could think of was, "Ugh. Just STOP." I know I'm rude, but I can't help it. Drives me NUTS.