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Population growth doesn’t drive economic growth

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Posted: Friday, April 19, 2013 11:33 am

Earlier this week, the Senate introduced its long-promised immigration bill. As expected, the legislation set off the first of what will be multiple rounds of bitter debate as to whether the bill is good for America.

I’ll leave aside the legislation’s particulars to focus instead on what may be its worst long-term effect — more people will migrate to an already overcrowded America. The Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, S. 744, will increase legal immigration, in theory supported by most Americans, by more than 50 percent to about 1.5 million annually.

Each year for at least a decade, 1.5 million new legal immigrants will arrive — 15 million during 10 years. Eventually, the new immigrants can petition for their family to join them, which means still more people. The combination of immigration and natural population increases creates unsustainable growth.

The “growth is good” philosophy is the leading culprit. The Chamber of Commerce, the agriculture industry and Silicon Valley want more workers — cheap, pliant ones, preferably. Religious leaders hope for fuller pews; politicians, more voters. Major corporations supported the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act for the same reason they back it today: a lust for a large pool of low-wage labor.

Unlike many wealthy nations whose populations will stabilize or decrease in coming decades, the United States, the world’s third most populous country, is expected to grow to 420.3 million by 2060, from 315.7 million people today. Our fertility rate, 1.9 births per woman and slightly below the 2.1 replacement rate, has dipped since the Great Recession. Nevertheless it remains one of the highest among wealthy, industrial countries and ties or exceeds fertility rates in middle-income nations. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, America’s population will rise into the foreseeable future.

Numerous theories that the nation is experiencing fertility and an aging crisis that creates the need for more births and more immigration don’t withstand scrutiny. The last so-called birthing crisis in the late 1960s and early 1970s doomed the once-popular Zero Population Growth movement. Since then, support for a stable American population has faded to the point where debate about population levels is a politically incorrect taboo.

Many conservatives and liberals incorrectly think that population growth drives economic growth. In his book, “The State and the Stork: The Population Debate and Policy Making in U.S. History,” Kansas State University associate history professor Derek S. Hoff wrote that until new laissez-faire economics became the vogue in the 1970s and 1980s, most economists agreed that what mattered was not population size but a nation’s human capital, as well as its savings, investment and consumption practices.

Indeed, some economists argued that a smaller but more productive population would enhance growth and lead to a more just society, something missing in America’s two-tiered economic culture.

Why elites fear declining population is a mystery. Prosperity and low population are linked worldwide.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Denmark has the world’s happiest citizens and most tightly knit families. The OECD attributes the Danes’ high lifestyle satisfaction to the Danish government’s focus on improving the middle class. On the other hand, nations like Egypt and Pakistan, with high birthrates, are locked in poverty and, consequently, ongoing civil strife.

Demography isn’t the only variable in America’s future. Politics and public policy will play a vital role. Societies that depend on importing more poor to enter at the wage scale’s bottom to increase the standard of living for those at the top are unjust. America’s goal should be to create a prosperous nation with fair wealth distribution and zero population growth.

Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008. He lives in Pittsburgh, one of few major American cities with stable population.

Contact Joe at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

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