I was pleasantly surprised by Dick Smith’s Population Puzzle documentary last night. He covered most of the key economic arguments against growth, including a rebuttal of the skills shortage and age dependency arguments. I was not taken by the food security argument, but was impressed by the way he highlighted the clash over land use on the urban fringes (where some of the most fertile soils are found).
Most importantly Dick raised the issue of vested interests promoting population growth early in his piece. He rightly singled out the property development lobby as a key exponent of higher population growth, and their obvious vested interests which do not align with the interests of most Australians.
Page 58 of today’s Financial Review has run a pro-population growth response to the Dick Smith documentary, advocating population growth on the grounds of economies of scale – an argument that is easily debunked.
A second argument appeals to economies of scale and suggests that with greater domestic consumption industries can expand to a point where they have economies of scale that make them internationally competitive. Why domestic population is currently a barrier to industry development is beyond me. If there are no artificial constraints on trade, shouldn’t the world be the marketplace of any industry even in its infancy? This argument only works if you couple high population with protectionism.
Economies of scale from increasing the size of the market only apply to monopolies in any case, and even then it is hard to know whether futher efficiency gains are possible (and whether they would be passed on to consumers).
But the confusion of the pro-population growth position is revealed later in the article when it states:
Of course it is possible to have economic growth without population growth – by setting up the conditions for higher productivity growth.
But the ‘meeting the challenges of growth’ argument persists in the end. We are apparently better off investing in massive duplication of infrastructure (roads, housing, energy and water) to accommodate higher population growth, which decreases productivity and economic growth, rather than focus on improving the productivity of the existing population - an absurd conclusion.
I have explained in detail in a previous post how housing investment and other infrastructure duplication does not improve productivity – it is a short term cost that simply allows more people to be equally as productive as the current population at some time in the future. Slower population growth is the recipe for improved per capita well being.
The relationship between growth and productivity is interlinked, but not in the way pro-population growth advocates maintain. Higher population growth is strongly negatively correlated with improved productivity. The graph below uses the ABS multifactor productivity measure and percentage change in population growth to demonstrate. Productivity improved most dramatically when population growth was around 1%.