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More People + More Stuff = More Problems
May 4, 2012 7:48 AM   Subscribe

"The world now has a very clear choice. We can choose to address the twin issues of population and consumption... Or we can choose to do nothing and to drift into a downward vortex of economic, socio-political and environmental ills, leading to a more unequal and inhospitable future." Sir John Sulston, Royal Society Fellow on the Society's recent report "People and the planet".

Key recommendations (abbreviated) of the report include:
  1. The international community must bring the 1.3 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day out of absolute poverty, and reduce the inequality that persists in the world today.
  2. The most developed and the emerging economies must stabilise and then reduce material consumption levels
  3. Reproductive health and voluntary family planning programmes urgently require political leadership and financial commitment, both nationally and internationally.
  4. Population and the environment should not be considered as two separate issues.
Coverage in Wired.co.uk and BBC News (with obligatory fatshot).
posted by nowhere man (63 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm betting we pick "do nothing." Just a hunch.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:57 AM on May 4, 2012 [36 favorites]


There's plenty of political leadership on reproductive health in the U.S. today; too bad it's in the wrong direction.
posted by Currer Belfry at 7:59 AM on May 4, 2012 [8 favorites]


1.The international community must bring the 1.3 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day out of absolute poverty, and reduce the inequality that persists in the world today.

I agree with the first clause, not the second clause (the part after the comma). In other words, I care about what kinds of conditions the poor are living in. It's a huge issue. The importance of helping people rise out of poverty and attain at least basic standards of medical care, sanitation, etc., can hardly be overstated. In contrast, I don't care how much economic "inequality . . . persists in the world." I don't see why anyone cares how much more money a rich person has than a poor person (aside from sheer envy, which is an understandable emotion but not a good basis for public policy). If helping poor people become better off ends up reducing inequality, that's fine. If, on the other hand, creating more wealth all around ends up helping the poor but also helping the rich even more, that's also fine. You could reduce inequality by taking rich people's money and burning it, and I would see nothing admirable about that -- it would mean people like Bill Gates would have less money for taxes and charitable contributions. (I realize no one is suggesting that; it's just a ludicrous example to show that reducing inequality is a trivial goal.) The habit of discussing poverty and inequality as if they're essentially the same issue suggests a fallacious view of the economy as being a zero-sum game, where the size of the pie (total wealth) is fixed, and the only decision to be made is how to slice it up and who to give the slices to. That's a secular article of faith.
posted by John Cohen at 8:03 AM on May 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


I'm not sure it's possible to talk about population growth without sounding a) smug, or b) hypocritical. Which is why I think most people just shrug and keep breeding.
posted by londonmark at 8:03 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I thought the world was already dealing with population by improving health outcomes for infants and life expectancy (the biggest cause of population growth is, counterintuitively, infant mortality).
posted by KokuRyu at 8:06 AM on May 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


I'm not sure it's possible to talk about population growth without sounding a) smug, or b) hypocritical.

Which is a shame, because "population control" in 2012 basically boils down to giving people the ability to choose how many children they have.
posted by theodolite at 8:09 AM on May 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


As far as Malthus goes... He was obviously wrong in the short term. We've gone through at least two different predicted Malthusian catastrophes and the catastrophe has failed to appear. Each time due to better tech (most recently the "green revolution" of the 1950's and 1960's and modern petrochemical derived fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide, focused farming).

But, and this is an important but, ultimately there are limited resources. And we do have an expanding population, and more important a population demanding stuff that requires more resources than were required in the past. And we're running short on the oil that made the most recent avoidance of Malthus possible.

Eventually, barring importing resources from space or other dimensions or something, we are going to run out of the ability to use increasing technology to stretch existing resources to match a growing population. Absent some pretty unlikely technologies (mass conversion, or atomic scale assembly for example) that's going to happen sooner rather than later. We may not be able to tech our way out of the next potential Malthusian catastrophe.

Now, as it happens, I think the population side of the problem is actually one that seems to be self correcting. As affluence increases and standards of living go up, birth rates drop. In the more affluent nations we'd be seeing (slight) population shrinkage if it weren't for immigration. So I really don't think we need any draconian government programs for population control, or even really non-draconian education type programs, for people in the first world.

And in the third world I'd say that an increased standard of living, better education for women, etc is more effective for population control purposes than any direct addressing of that issue.

But, increasing affluence in the third world is becoming difficult in the current energy climate. Oil is getting scarce, which means more expensive, and even if it wasn't we're starting to see some really disturbing results from using fossil fuel for everything anyway. **IF** current trends continue we'll see much of the third world getting comfortable middle class lives sometime around 2060, and shortly after we'll see their population lines flattening and even going negative. But keeping those trendlines going up is going to be difficult without a new energy source.
posted by sotonohito at 8:10 AM on May 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


[If you have a question about moderation, please hit us up on the contact form don't just complain in the thread, thanks.]
posted by jessamyn at 8:13 AM on May 4, 2012


(the biggest cause of population growth is, counterintuitively, infant mortality).

Is that true? I always thought it was education and access to opportunities (particularly for women).
posted by londonmark at 8:14 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure it's possible to talk about population growth without sounding a) smug, or b) hypocritical. Which is why I think most people just shrug and keep breeding.

Which is unfortunate, because we're going to be hitting into some natural limits that indiscriminately kill thousands of people. Famine, disease, plagues, etc., that we cannot hope to control.
posted by odinsdream at 8:18 AM on May 4, 2012


You could reduce inequality by taking rich people's money and burning it, and I would see nothing admirable about that

I wouldn't suggest we do it, but it wouldn't be without benefit to the poor. With money comes political influence, and that means gaming the system to further benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. Taking that one advantage from the rich could only make our democracies more fair.
posted by rocket88 at 8:18 AM on May 4, 2012 [11 favorites]


Powerful with a capital POW interests (not all of them human, exactly) don't want population control — they want growth, at any cost. Consequently, any and all trends towards population control, no matter how benign, come under the crosshairs (purely for surveying purposes o'course) of the Big Lie Machine. This process cannot be countered without fundamentally retooling the system, a cure which strongly resembles the other two correction processes: natural selection (with the attending odor of rotting meat) and war (with the attending odor of cordite and rotting meat).
posted by tspae at 8:21 AM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


The thinking is that you have to have a lot of babies if you think any given one of them has a high probability of dying. If you happen to know the exact probability of survival P, you can just have 1/P babies. But most people don't know that probability; it's easy to underestimate the probability and therefore overshoot the required number of babies.
posted by Jpfed at 8:21 AM on May 4, 2012


If population is the issue, the best solution is to educate women,, give them access to family planning services, and give them more rights in general.

If given an opportunity for a life outside the roles of "wife and mother" and the ability to choose the size of their families, women will in general have fewer children. Women in Mexico are now choosing to have only two or three children (average family size in 1940 was seven children, today it's 2.5).

The way I see it, the best way to slow population growth and reduce environmental degradation is to give people MORE rights rather than curtail them.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:21 AM on May 4, 2012 [25 favorites]


(Whoops, that's actually seven children in 1940, not 1965.)
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:22 AM on May 4, 2012


If population is the issue, the best solution is to educate women,, give them access to family planning services, and give them more rights in general.

Yeah, it certainly takes our problems out of the realm of "science fiction dystopia" makes the challenge more realistic to achieve.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:31 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Other recommendations made in the report focus on: ... the potential for urbanisation to reduce material consumption

I wonder if this is wholly right. I can see how urbanization might lower the need for transportation and heating, and make water and waste recycling more efficient, but there is a whole cultural aspect of urbanization that might greaten consumption. A town dweller is exposed to more pressures to buy goods, and more openings to do so. For many, living in a town might turn them into a consumer—in the worst meanings of the word—for the first time.
posted by Jehan at 8:32 AM on May 4, 2012


Thanks for those links Rosie.

If you consider the empowerment of women as a key factor in limiting population growth, and then look towards those powerful economic factors that tspae mentions which crave continual growth, what you end up with is a bunch of shady forces actively working against the interests of most women. Much like I believe we are seeing right now in some parts of the US, for example.

Or is that way of thinking too neat?
posted by londonmark at 8:35 AM on May 4, 2012


The habit of discussing poverty and inequality as if they're essentially the same issue suggests a fallacious view of the economy as being a zero-sum game, where the size of the pie (total wealth) is fixed, and the only decision to be made is how to slice it up and who to give the slices to. That's a secular article of faith.

The belief that we can continue to Grow Our Way Out Of Our Problems is as unfounded as the belief that a Guardian Angel will allow you to safely drive drunk. Inequality is increasing as the 'pie' gets bigger in many parts of the world, including the U.S., and non-sustainable growth is our biggest long-term problem, not just population growth.
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:45 AM on May 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


In contrast, I don't care how much economic "inequality . . . persists in the world." I don't see why anyone cares how much more money a rich person has than a poor person (aside from sheer envy, which is an understandable emotion but not a good basis for public policy).

Well, there are people who think inequality inhibits economic growth and wealth creation for everybody. Also, I think your position is really only reasonable when you're looking at the economy as a snapshot in time. This is because disparities in wealth are basically equivalent to disparities in power, and so as rocket88 points out a group of wealthy people acting in their perceived best interests are plausibly very capable of influencing the proceedings so that other wealth is increasingly directed their way, possibly at the expense of less wealthy groups, in spite of the fact that total wealth is growing. So, basically, a sufficiently large initial inequality may plausibly have a built-in tendency towards an equilibrium state of even larger, and possibly damaging inequality. So while we're both hypothesizing , and so long as there's no empirical evidence eliminating my possibility, I'm going to continue to find it more plausible than one that holds that large-scale inequalities are benign. And, of course, we haven't even talked about the inter-generational effects of income inequality.
posted by invitapriore at 8:52 AM on May 4, 2012 [6 favorites]


@John Cohen "The habit of discussing poverty and inequality as if they're essentially the same issue suggests a fallacious view of the economy as being a zero-sum game, where the size of the pie (total wealth) is fixed, and the only decision to be made is how to slice it up and who to give the slices to. That's a secular article of faith."

The evidence tends to support that position. We've seen amazing economic growth in many nations, including the USA, and the observable result was that well over 90% of that growth went directly to the wealthy.

Clearly the platitude about a rising tide lifting all boats is demonstrably false. Economic growth in the latter part of the 20th and early 21st centuries has almost exclusively benefited the wealthy and (at best) left the poor standing still, and (at worst) actually reduced the wealth and income of the poor and middle class.

Thus it's reasonable to discuss distributing the pie, rather than growing the pie, because growing the pie has proven to be ineffective as a means of poverty reduction.

I find it disturbing that, in the face of so much evidence to the contrary, so many economists continue in the completely unsubstantiated belief that economic growth can eliminate poverty.
posted by sotonohito at 8:54 AM on May 4, 2012 [17 favorites]


I wonder if this is wholly right. I can see how urbanization might lower the need for transportation and heating, and make water and waste recycling more efficient, but there is a whole cultural aspect of urbanization that might greaten consumption. A town dweller is exposed to more pressures to buy goods, and more openings to do so. For many, living in a town might turn them into a consumer—in the worst meanings of the word—for the first time.

This line of thought assumes that non city dwellers are less prone to consumerism, both in desire and opportunity. I have a feeling this isn't the case.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:58 AM on May 4, 2012


And we're not just talking about inequality between the rich and poor in one given country, but international inequality.

We have a finite planet. Some economists believe that economic growth is infinite -- which may be true, given unlimited resources.

But the ability of our single planet to support our consumption and pollution is not infinite. Given this finite planet, it is NOT POSSIBLE for everyone to consume more and more. Therefore, if you wish to reduce poverty and help those who live on less than $2 a day - allow them to consume more resources and (as is inevitable) make more pollution, this means that we (in the rich world) will have to consume fewer resources and make less pollution.

And that is the whole point of the main link: our planet cannot support an infinite growth in population and consumption. It's not economics, it's environmental science.
posted by jb at 9:02 AM on May 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


I find it disturbing that, in the face of so much evidence to the contrary, so many economists continue in the completely unsubstantiated belief that economic growth can eliminate poverty.

I guess you'd have to ask a family that was poor 20 years ago who is wealthy now what they thought about that.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:03 AM on May 4, 2012


Malthusian error: not zero sum gain/loss. It's the "Single Pie Theory," in operation.

The operative premise is that the wealthy get a disproportional share of the pie. Stated one way: Americans have a higher standard of living than anybody else. (This metric uses the possession of consumer goods to measure a living standard.) Under this metric, not enough stuff exists to supply the world with all the consumer goods that Americans have. That means that a certain portion of the world's population always must do without them.

The error is in buying into the assumption that we all must eat from the same pie. Sadly, world economies buy into this error, so an actual discrepancy exists--because the discrepancy creates the driving engine of the economic system, namely, the profit margin.

Consider (as one important example) that energy is supplied through only a few channels, primarily non-renewable carbon-based sources, and a few branching methods, such as hydro-electric power. Right now the paradigm has large corporations in control of energy sources and distribution. All other business models conform to this paradigm--the bigger the company, the more power it has. Under this model, it's always necessary to suborn labor to capital in order to optimize profits: we'll never outgrow the need to have children in third-world countries sew our jeans, and we don't care how much dye we dump into the river. Profit-based models prefer the logic of the market place over the needs of mere humans. Anything that modulates profit is anathema.

This is a gloomy state of affairs. Unfortunately, we won't be able to do anything about it until Picard and Kirk get back from the Continuum with the dilithium we need to provide free energy to the world. Even then, I dunno. We still have deal with the Borg.
posted by mule98J at 9:12 AM on May 4, 2012


I'm betting we pick "do nothing." Just a hunch.

That sounds like something a liberal would say. I propose a committee to determine who exactly "we" is.
posted by Fizz at 9:13 AM on May 4, 2012


@KokuRyu A few outliers do not a solution make. We still have widespread poverty. In fact, in the USA, poverty has grown and currently around 50% of the population is in a state of poverty.

The fact that there is (very) limited economic mobility in the USA does not change the simple, undeniable, fact that in the past few decades economic growth has gone almost entirely to those already wealthy, and if we are to rely on economic growth to end poverty the exact opposite would have to be the case.
posted by sotonohito at 9:16 AM on May 4, 2012


Clearly the platitude about a rising tide lifting all boats is demonstrably false. Economic growth in the latter part of the 20th and early 21st centuries has almost exclusively benefited the wealthy and (at best) left the poor standing still, and (at worst) actually reduced the wealth and income of the poor and middle class.

I'm not so sure it's demonstrably false. Standards of living have largely risen globally. Even when the wealthy have benefited more than the poor and middle class.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:16 AM on May 4, 2012


I don't see why anyone cares how much more money a rich person has than a poor person...

Because when a few people at the top get way richer than everybody else, they tend to use their money to obtain political control, rig the game in their favor, and engage in financial shenanigans that wreck the economy for everybody. If my neighbor works harder than I do, and uses the resulting wealth to buy a boat, I don't care at all. More power to him. If he uses his wealth to buy a senator, I really do.

Or, from a purely practical standpoint: if a society is rigidly divided between rich and poor, then eventually the poor are going to kill the rich and take all their shit, or at least try to.
posted by steambadger at 9:31 AM on May 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


The error is in buying into the assumption that we all must eat from the same pie.

Have you got another planet handy? That's awesome.

I only have this one, and my astrophysicist friend has assured me that the faster-than-light travel necessary for extra-planetary colonies is not going to happen unless most of what we think we know about physics is wrong. So I'm operating on the assumption that I'll have to make do with the planet we've got.
posted by jb at 9:47 AM on May 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


In the long run, we'll always get population control. It'll just go by the names of the Four Horsemen. Especially War.
posted by Zed at 9:48 AM on May 4, 2012


We've seen amazing economic growth in many nations, including the USA, and the observable result was that well over 90% of that growth went directly to the wealthy.

Do you have a cite for that?
posted by malocchio at 9:57 AM on May 4, 2012


Clearly the platitude about a rising tide lifting all boats is demonstrably false. Economic growth in the latter part of the 20th and early 21st centuries has almost exclusively benefited the wealthy and (at best) left the poor standing still, and (at worst) actually reduced the wealth and income of the poor and middle class.

I'm not so sure it's demonstrably false. Standards of living have largely risen globally. Even when the wealthy have benefited more than the poor and middle class.
posted by 2N2222 at 12:16 PM on May 4 [+] [!]


Standards of living have gone up and down over time and in different places. You also have to ask yourself: whose standard of living? If you take an average of consumption, obviously that would go up as the economy increases. But one average could equal two people having a solid meal, or one person having a feast while the other goes hungry. Average consumption per person is the same in either case.

19th century economic growth in north India accompanied LOWERED standards of living. Economic growth in 19th century Britain accompanied some increase in standards of living overall, but at the bottom of the social ladder this increase was not very much at all and many people in 1900 were living in the same or worse condition than labourers in 1700 and 1800 when it came to housing and food. Currently, growing inequality (and the political instability this can feed) is one of the top concerns of both people and the government in China, as that economic growth has been extremely uneven.

How economic growth affects a population depends on policy - both from employers and from governments. It seems like economic growth may also itself be dependent on rising standards of living -- you can't have a full industrial revolution, after all, if you have no one to sell your factory goods to.
posted by jb at 10:04 AM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Because when a few people at the top get way richer than everybody else, they tend to use their money to obtain political control, rig the game in their favor, and engage in financial shenanigans that wreck the economy for everybody. If my neighbor works harder than I do, and uses the resulting wealth to buy a boat, I don't care at all. More power to him. If he uses his wealth to buy a senator, I really do.

This is true, but then again, when wasn't it true? The rich and powerful have always had inordinate influence over their polities. This isn't some revolutionary change we're dealing with in these modern times.

Or, from a purely practical standpoint: if a society is rigidly divided between rich and poor, then eventually the poor are going to kill the rich and take all their shit, or at least try to.

As unequal as the US has been, and presumably gotten worse in the last couple decades, it seems killing the rich and taking their shit has continued to fall out of favor. Violent crime rates have fallen over that same period.

I think there is good reasons to be concerned about inequality overall. But when equality is framed as pacification, the reason starts to look more primal, cynical, and ugly.
posted by 2N2222 at 10:08 AM on May 4, 2012


> In fact, in the USA, poverty has grown and currently around 50% of the population is in a state of poverty.

Latest figures released by the Department of Pulling Numbers Out Of Our Ass.
posted by jfuller at 10:30 AM on May 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Its a pretty shitty problem. The workable solutions are either unfeasible or unethical or both. Doing nothing eventually drives us to one of the unethical solutions or to a lemming-like hedging of the population (eventually meaning when we can no longer draw three crops a year out of what used to be good soil with chemical cocktail Blah).

Aside from the practical benefits of lowering the global population, the aesthetic benefits of not being able to spit from my bathroom window onto the side of my neighbors tenement greatly appeal to me.
posted by Slackermagee at 10:31 AM on May 4, 2012


Aside from the practical benefits of lowering the global population.

Global population? *Ahem.* I live in a country (Sweden) the size of the U.S. West Coast with the population of 9,5m. There are more people in NYC alone than in all of Sweden. The fact is that most European countries are actually shrinking in population and are only sustained by the influx of people from other places.

It is not a global problem; it is a regional problem affecting the entire globe.
posted by three blind mice at 10:49 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


we're going to be hitting into some natural limits that indiscriminately kill thousands

The error is in buying into the assumption that we all must eat from the same pie.



Man is the pie that bakes and eats itself.
posted by CynicalKnight at 10:49 AM on May 4, 2012


The international community must bring the 1.3 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day out of absolute poverty, and reduce the inequality that persists in the world today.

Happily, we're already doing so. You'll notice that the comparisons are between 2005 and 2008, the most recent year for which we have useful global data. That takes us up to just before the financial crisis, so I'm not sure how well this pace has been sustained over the last few years; but it should be noted that the crisis has fallen disproportionately on developed countries, and economists have been pleasantly surprised to see that it has had little impact on the economic growth of poorer nations.

It's not gravy, by any means, but it's not dust and ashes either. I have to say I'm somewhat mystified that positive news like this has received so little coverage in the progressive press or discussion in places like MeFi, where it ought to be an occasion for celebration.
posted by anigbrowl at 10:53 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


As usual, Malthusians are the biggest threat to the poor, who are the only ones whose choices will be restricted. The increase in state power needed to achieve "income equality" will as always be exploited by the kind of people who were supposed to be cut down to size.

Every progressive concern for inequality in this thread is a vote to exacerbate it.
posted by michaelh at 10:54 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


In fact, in the USA, poverty has grown and currently around 50% of the population is in a state of poverty.

I call extreme bullshit. Recent data from the US census office puts the poverty rate at ~15%, not 50%. Not that 15% is anything to be proud of, but it's less than 1/3 of what you're claiming. If you're going to make bold claims, then back them up with data. If you won't, then why should I take your claims seriously?

On the subject of global poverty, I should also have included this link from the world bank. Check out the graphs on page 2.
posted by anigbrowl at 11:04 AM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm sure the Quiverfull people will be down with this.
posted by Flunkie at 11:08 AM on May 4, 2012


As usual, Malthusians are the biggest threat to the poor, who are the only ones whose choices will be restricted. The increase in state power needed to achieve "income equality" will as always be exploited by the kind of people who were supposed to be cut down to size.

Every progressive concern for inequality in this thread is a vote to exacerbate it.
posted by michaelh at 1:54 PM on May 4 [+] [!]


Citation please?

Because I'll give you some: 30 years of market fundamentalism has increased poverty. The developing countries which are doing well are exactly those which are not run according to market fundamentalism - China and India. And even in those countries, growing inequality has stymied further growth because the domestic markets simply do not have enough purchasing power.

You have in this thread historians and other people who know economic history: what has happened in the past does not support your assertion. Throughout the past 500 years, the European economy has grown remarkably. This growth did not substantially improve living conditions for the labouring classes until the 20th century when labour unions and social democrats fought for better wages and better living standards.

As for Malthus - He wasn't wrong about farming in Britain. By the end of the 19th century, Britain was (and still is) dependent on food imports to feed their population. He was, however, very wrong about what are effective ways to limit population growth, and he didn't realize that reducing inequality, raising living standards and creating a social safety net that didn't rely on having children - along with access to effective birth control - did more to reduce birth rates than any harsh Poor Law ever would.

As for the "increase in state power" required to ameliorate inequality - do you seriously believe that Sweden or Denmark have more state power than the United States? They just use their state power to better the lives of their citizens, rather than to incarcerate them.
posted by jb at 11:09 AM on May 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


It used to be that the discussion about finite resources would turn nasty because it would easily degenerate into talk about forcing poor people to have fewer kids. Fortunately, population growth is now slowing by itself, without any force being involved. The UN projects the Earth's population will peak around 2070 at about 30% more people than today, and will then start dropping. We can handle that.

Now let's focus on how to use fewer and more renewable resources!
posted by Triplanetary at 11:11 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Anyone who argues that reducing inequality isn't important are far more like Malthus than anyone worried about inequality.
posted by jb at 11:12 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


It used to be that the discussion about finite resources would turn nasty because it would easily degenerate into talk about forcing poor people to have fewer kids.

Which is ironic, of course, given that the children of the rich (aka we in the developed world) consume far more resources per child.

Reducing population growth is one strategy. But it's not as important as reducing consumption by the highest consumers (again us).

That said, I support birth control programs around the world because planning fertility can be such a boon for women and families.
posted by jb at 11:15 AM on May 4, 2012


jfuller and anigbrowl I screwed up and read the nearly 50 million in poverty as a percentage rather than a number.

malocchio http://www.motherjones.com/files/averagehouseholdincome.pdf

Income for the upper 20% increased sharply, income for everyone else stayed pretty much flat.

Looks self evident to me that most of the gains from a growing economy went to the wealthy and left everyone else behind.
posted by sotonohito at 11:31 AM on May 4, 2012


Because I'll give you some: 30 years of market fundamentalism has increased poverty. The developing countries which are doing well are exactly those which are not run according to market fundamentalism - China and India. And even in those countries, growing inequality has stymied further growth because the domestic markets simply do not have enough purchasing power.

30 years of what? I fill out too much paperwork to believe this. You can only help the poor by decreasing the number of rules they need to understand. H&R Block's "I Got People" doesn't cut it.
posted by michaelh at 11:35 AM on May 4, 2012


In most countries, people are CHOOSING to have smaller families. No-one is forcing them. Small families are what they WANT - especially women. The link to the NYTimes article on Mexican families is a case in point. The younger women are saying "I want two or three kids," not "I'm being forced to have a smaller family."

China is an exception with its draconian one-child policy; but by and large, when women are educated, given more respect as individuals in a particular society, and have access to free or low-cost family planning - they choose to have fewer children. All under their own steam and without coercion.

If anything, a large family often represents a lack of choice for women. That's what "keep 'em barefoot and pregnant" means. Sure, there are some women who want a large family for their own personal reasons but there aren't enough to really impact population growth. (And, the US Quiverfull movement is big on the subordination of women, so my correlation between female powerlessness and large families stands even in a Western nation. I noted that the decline in religious influence has contributed to the desire for fewer children in Mexico.)
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 11:39 AM on May 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


http://www.motherjones.com/files/averagehouseholdincome.pdf

While the graph illustrates the problem of growing income inequality in the U.S., I don't really think it supports the broader claim that I quoted.
posted by malocchio at 12:01 PM on May 4, 2012


The UN projects the Earth's population will peak around 2070 at about 30% more people than today, and will then start dropping. We can handle that.

*Maybe* we can handle that, assuming that the price of oil per gallon somehow remains below the price of bottled water per gallon for the next sixty years, and assuming that changing weather patterns due to global warming don't fuck up food production. The likelihood of these assumptions is left as an exercise for the reader. And of course, the cost of handling that would be the further impoverishing of the world's biodiversity.
posted by IjonTichy at 12:29 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


While poverty in the United States may not be at 50% only about 50% of our population makes enough money to pay taxes. You don't have to make very much money to pay taxes...

Minimum wage isn't going to make you much of a tax payer.
posted by pdxpogo at 12:30 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


China is an exception with its draconian one-child policy;

Is it really draconian or just realistic? China has 1/6th the world's population in much less than 1/6th of the world's resource base. A population that is industrializing and adopting 1st world consumption habits. Doubling their population during the increasing surviability but not yet decreasing birth rate generation would have been a disaster.

There were obviously problem in implementation but as a policy objective it seems pretty rational.
posted by Mitheral at 12:49 PM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sotonohito, I think you might find it a bit more productive to look at the source data. There has been a recessionary dip in the last few years which has, indeed, seen income going down somewhat for lower quintiles and flowing upwards toward the wealthy - although this is a pattern visible in previous recessions and generally seems to show only that the wealthy recover first, which is sort of what you'd expect. But although the wealthy most certainly gain most, when you graph the data you see that the lower quintiles have also seen fairly consistent income gains in real terms. The disproportion goes down the income scale, which is to say that the bottom 60% does better than the bottom 40%, which does better than the bottom 20%.

That Mother Jones graph is deeply misleading because everything is shown relative to the top 1%. That's similar to including the height of pro basketball players as a separate category in order to argue that average height has remained flat. Another way to think about it would be to compare the income of one very very wealthy person - Bill Gates, say - with the population as a whole. Well, if you plot '99.999%' on one line and 'Bill Gates' on another, it will look like nobody else has seen any serious income growth over the last 40 years because Bill Gates' wealth has grown so spectacularly - which would be ridiculous, for obvious reasons. What's being shown in these graphs is an absolute measure of income distribution over time, but it's being presented as a measure of relative change. It would be much more appropriate to plot the % change from the previous year, which would allow you to make comparisons of multiple population cohorts on the same 1-100 scale. You should also be wondering why it only goes up to 2007; because you'd see a big dip in incomes for the top 1% post-2008, most likely, much as incomes for the top 1% plunged after the dotcom bust.
posted by anigbrowl at 12:52 PM on May 4, 2012


If the "trickle down" effect of globalization has helped lift some out of poverty it has done so as a by-product of the wealth creation process, which has simultaneously funneled most of the spoils to the rich while exacting heavy tolls on societies and the environment. It seems quite possible that, globally and over the long haul, socio-economic development via largely unregulated markets has done more harm than good. (See externalities, climate change.) I personally think the free market is a poor substitute for public policy and programs that are specifically designed to tackle social issues like poverty and inequality.

Obviously, creating and implementing said programs (or regulating the existing systems for that matter) has proved a monumental challenge. But if you accept that humanity is living unsustainably (we'll need five planets if everyone wants to live like an American) at some point we're going to have to collectively work together to set ourselves on a sustainable path. I wish us luck, because rebooting the goals of humanity (hint: it ain't just about making money or me and mine) could result in making this corner of the universe an even nicer place to live, perhaps even save the planet itself. It might even be fun.

Forgive me if I've drifted into My Little Pony land here a bit.

Oh, and how about this page from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities for some rising inequality stats? See especially "Broad Trends in Income Inequality" section.
posted by nowhere man at 1:49 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


jfuller and anigbrowl I screwed up and read the nearly 50 million in poverty as a percentage rather than a number.

Actually, also in your defense sotonhito, there were initially reports after the latest census that the census had found roughly 50% of Americans either in the low income or poverty range. Apparently, after some follow-up analysis and fact-checking, the actual percentage was found to be only around 32% or a third of the US population either in low income or poverty status.

Either way, we've got historically high rates of people at least feeling the pinch nowadays. Roughly a third of Americans are seeing hard times right now.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:51 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


> I screwed up and read the nearly 50 million in poverty as a percentage rather than a number.

In all seriousness, the proposition that every second person you see on the street is living in poverty didn't set off any sort of "wait, that's impossible" alarm? I think you can safely turn down the gain on all your doom sensors.
posted by jfuller at 2:00 PM on May 4, 2012


That doesn't seem unlikely at all if one is living in poverty; most of the people you see would be living in poverty too. People you see on the street is a pretty non representive sample of the nation's population.
posted by Mitheral at 2:08 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


jfuller In the USA "poverty" doesn't equate living on the street. Given a continuing economic crisis with no real signs of recovery yet and massive and widespread unemployment, no it really didn't set off my BS alarms.

anigbrowl The page you linked seems to support my contention that a rising tide does not, in fact, raise all boats and that growing our way out of poverty simply won't work. The rich eat almost all the economic gains, and the poor get a few tiny scraps. Yeah, perhaps after hundreds of years of that sort of distribution of growth gains we'll grow our way out of poverty, but as a solution for poverty its pretty miserable.

I'm not against economic growth, but I think viewing it as a poverty cure is foolish. We've got to address distribution of wealth.
posted by sotonohito at 2:14 PM on May 4, 2012


The poor stay poor, the rich get rich.
That's how it goes, everybody knows.
posted by mek at 2:27 PM on May 4, 2012


In all seriousness, the proposition that every second person you see on the street is living in poverty didn't set off any sort of "wait, that's impossible" alarm? I think you can safely turn down the gain on all your doom sensors.
posted by jfuller at 2:00 PM on May 4 [+] [!]

jfuller In the USA "poverty" doesn't equate living on the street. Given a continuing economic crisis with no real signs of recovery yet and massive and widespread unemployment, no it really didn't set off my BS alarms.


I'd like to discuss this further, but in the face of reading comprehension failures like the above, what's the point? Please take a look at the numbers on the links I've provided already, such as the census bureau data. Look at how the income for the bottom quintiles has changed, for example. The poor have being doing quite a bit better than 'a few tiny scraps.' The real income threshold separating the lowest and second-lowest quintile has increased sevenfold over the last 40 years, for example.
posted by anigbrowl at 5:17 PM on May 4, 2012


In contrast, I don't care how much economic "inequality . . . persists in the world." I don't see why anyone cares how much more money a rich person has than a poor person

This is just naive, and ignorant. Whether you agree with it or not, there is a tonne of serious data out there about the deletrious effects of inequality. It's hardly some kind of unsubstantiated fringe belief - heck it's something people have been talking about for decades, cf. Rawls and his "veil of ignorance".

I care a lot about inequality, and I think it's very harmful for a society.
posted by smoke at 8:26 PM on May 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


The rich and powerful have always had inordinate influence over their polities.

True. And the greater the inequality, the greater the influence. I don't think the historical preponderance of inequality is an argument against taking it seriously, though.

...killing the rich and taking their shit has continued to fall out of favor.


Yes. Either the myth that everyone can be rich has been successfully sold, or we haven't reached the breaking point yet.

But when equality is framed as pacification, the reason starts to look more primal, cynical, and ugly.

Oh, I agree. I was just suggesting one reason why the rich might care about inequality.
posted by steambadger at 7:32 AM on May 6, 2012


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