How China Realized a Demographic Dividend

This article was first published at Exante Data’s Money Inside and Out.

China was ready for its historic opportunity.

Although a widely used aphorism, “demographics is destiny” is not strictly true in the modern era. Long gone are the days when troop size could on its own determine the outcome of a war, or when deploying manpower on a massive scale could result in a decisive economic advantage. Brute force just isn’t what it used to be. Today, thanks to advanced technology, small groups can inflict enormous damage in war, and a handful of software programmers can create billions in new wealth.

That said, demographics remains an important part of destiny in combination with other non-demographic factors.

Some of these factors can mitigate, or even completely counteract, a deteriorating demographic picture. Others can multiply the positive effects of demographics. This distinction—between demographics as a leading determinant of national stature vs. demographics as merely one of several components —can be illustrated by the following two opinions.

The first is a view promoted among others by Fareed Zakaria in his book The Post-American World (2008). Here is Zakaria in a 2008 Newsweek column The Rise of the Restrepeating the theme of his book:

It is an accident of history that for the last several centuries, the richest countries in the world have all been very small in terms of population. Denmark has 5.5 million people, the Netherlands has 16.6 million. The United States is the biggest of the bunch and has dominated the advanced industrial world. But the real giants—China, India, Brazil—have been sleeping, unable or unwilling to join the world of functioning economies. Now they are on the move and naturally, given their size, they will have a large footprint on the map of the future.

The second is from Winston Churchill’s speech Fifty Years Hence. It is from 1931 but remains as pertinent as ever:

When we look back beyond a hundred years over the long trails of history, we see immediately why the age we live in differs from all other ages in human annals. Mankind has sometimes traveled forwards and sometimes backwards, or has stood still even for hundreds of years. It remained stationary in India and in China for thousands of years. What is it that has produced this new prodigious speed of man? Science is the cause. Her once feeble vanguards, often trampled down, often perishing in isolation, have now become a vast organized united class-conscious army marching forward upon all the fronts towards objectives none may measure or define. It is a proud, ambitious army which cares nothing for all the laws that men have made; nothing for their most time-honoured customs, or most dearly cherished beliefs, or deepest instincts. It is this power called Science which has laid hold of us, conscripted us into its regiments and batteries, set us to work upon its highways and in its arsenals; rewarded us for our services, healed us when we were wounded, trained us when we were young, pensioned us when we were worn out. None of the generations of men before the last two or three were ever gripped for good or ill and handled like this.

Zakaria was not wrong about the growth of China, India, Brazil and others (he was after all writing in 2008 when that growth was already evident) but he gave demographics more weight than it deserves. Zakaria saw the overwhelming success of the less populous West as an “accident of history” while “the real giants – China, India, Brazil – have been sleeping, unable or unwilling to join the world of functioning economies.”

By contrast, Churchill saw the West’s advance as no accident and as the logical result of scientific progress. Note in the excerpt Churchill’s mention of India and China, to emphasize that demographics had been overtaken by science.

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The Cure for Inequality is More Laissez-Faire

That means less cronyism and more competition.

“Inequality is not necessarily bad in itself: the key question is to decide whether it is justified.”____ Thomas Piketty in Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Piketty’s words read like a premise that is only half right, followed by a problematic corollary. Reasonable people will agree that some inequality is not only “not necessarily bad” but also very desirable and very necessary in order to stimulate the economy’s entrepreneurial and innovative spirits. Further, if some inequality is desirable, how much is enough and how much is too much? And who gets to decide?

Clearly, there will never be a consensus on this. And it is not a satisfactory solution that the majority party would decide for the next four or eight or twelve years. The back and forth dominance of one party over the other would mean that any measures enacted to combat extreme inequality would at best amount to a feeble and erratic effort instead of a long-term cure, while the underlying problem gets larger with every electoral cycle.

To make things worse, both of the major parties in the United States are mistaken to ascribe inequality to an excess of capitalism. Democrats claim that growing inequality is the result of unbridled ‘wild west’ capitalism. And Republicans argue that it is a mostly acceptable byproduct of capitalism. But extreme inequality is in fact caused by insufficient competition. Given  that competition is the lifeblood of capitalism, it follows that inequality is the result, not of capitalism, but of a lack of capitalism.

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Future Hubs of Africa and Asia

On UN projections between 2015 and 2050, the world population will grow by nearly 2.38 billion people, from 7.35 billion to 9.73 billion. Although this 32% growth is a big increase, it marks a slowdown from the 66% growth rate recorded in the preceding 35 years (1980-2015). Total Fertility Rates (TFRs) have come down all over the world and are expected to continue falling.
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About half of the 2.38 billion increase will take place in sub-Saharan Africa and nearly 40% in Asia. India is the biggest contributor with a net addition of 394 million, followed by Nigeria (216m), Pakistan (120m), DR Congo (118m) and Ethiopia (89m). By 2050, all of these countries will feature in the top 10 populations by size, a list that will include the United States (expected to rank fourth) but not one European country. Outside of Africa and Asia ex-China, regional populations will be growing slowly (the Americas), stagnating (China, Europe), or receding (Japan, Eastern Europe). Read more

In One Chart: Achieving the Demographic Dividend

The experience of China provides a useful policy template for countries with booming populations in south and southeast Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa. The Chinese boom showed that a growing working-age population combined with a declining fertility ratio can result in a large demographic dividend if certain conditions are met. As noted in this recent post, two important drivers of lower fertility are an increase in female literacy and a decline in child mortality. Read more

Now a Trade Partnership with Africa?

A few days ago, the United States reached agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with eleven other nations (see list in tables below). Here is how the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) describes the TPP on its web page:

President Obama’s trade agenda is dedicated to expanding economic opportunity for American workers, farmers, ranchers, and businesses. That’s why we are negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 21st century trade agreement that will boost U.S. economic growth, support American jobs, and grow Made-in-America exports to some of the most dynamic and fastest growing countries in the world.

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