Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Demographics and forces of history

Discussing an article by Edward Luttwak from the Telegraph, Patrick Crozier comments

He makes the point that the reason we can't bear casualties is because with the decline in the birth rate, nowadays families typically only have one male child. But if that is true and it is also true that Third World (including Arab) birth rates are declining then doesn't that tend to imply that the urge to war will come to an end through entirely natural processes? In other words, the current war is no more than a cork bobbing up and down on a demographic tide.

Sometimes, when I am in one of my darker moods I wonder if all this banging on about politics (with the aim of changing things) isn't all a complete waste of time and that politics is controlled by far deeper cultural forces over which we have absolutely no control.

I think that the problem to some extent is that Arab birth rates are not declining, at least not in the way that birth rates are declining in the rest of the world.

An economist I used to work with had a tendency to wrote overviews of the world economy starting with sentences like. "The 21st century economy will be driven by productivity and demographics". He was making a joke, because everything is driven by productivity and demographics. Certainly there is a demographic factor central to the problems of the Middle East are about productivity and demographics. You have a high a birth rate no productive economic use for all the people. Bingo, you have lots of young men with a sense of grievance and nothing to do, and you get things like terrorism. Mixed in with this, you actually do have money in these countries, due to the presence of oil, which means that the grievances in these countries are magnified and affect the rest of the world.

However, this is obviously not the whole story, and the key words in the sentence in suggesting this are "no productive economic use". There is a different pattern that occurs in some other parts of the world, which is that you have population growth, economic uses are found for all the additional people, their human capital is useful, and the consequence of the higher birth rate is a rise in general prosperity and in extreme cases a poor country becomes a rich one. Then the birth rate slows down, but the country is none the less much richer than it was before. Extreme examples of this can be seen in places like Taiwan and South Korea, but less extreme versions (at various stages of development) can be seen in China, India, much of the rest of Asia, and in parts of Latin America. The question really is more why some countries are so much better at using their human capital than others.

Where this pattern has not occurred is in Africa and the Middle East. Some of the blame in the Middle East I think goes to the presence of oil, which has brought wealth without economies that are sophisticated enough to cope with it. Worse, it has brought wealth without economic growth and without the dramatic decline in birth rates, meaning that if the population grows further then everyone gets poorer. In sub-saharan Africa, we have corrupt disfunctional post-colonial states which haven't even got started in terms of building economies that can use their human capital properly. Plus, we have the AIDS crisis, which has completely destroyed the demographic profiles of these countries by killing many of the young and healthy. Even if you could get everything else in these countries right, their very distorted demographic profiles would retard their growth dramatically.

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