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Pondering Pittsburgh: Prosperity Does Not Require Population Growth
Growing up in small town America in the 1940s and 50s was in retrospect a great experience. Such was my fate: a small stable nuclear family, conscientious well-employed father, non-working mother, only one sibling rival—a sister five years younger.
I recently went back to my home town of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, for my 60th high school reunion. In many ways, I found things hadn't changed very much. Greensburg is a quiet and prosperous city of some 50,000, the county seat of Westmoreland County, about 32 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. I imagine there are many small towns and cities around the US that fit that description. Certainly there are many in rural and semi rural areas of Pennsylvania.
Of course, the dominant Western Pennsylvania city, Pittsburgh, has transformed itself from a smoky rust belter into a high tech medical Mecca, whose population has been halved, yet remains a comfortable, generally prosperous place where people like to live. That raises a relevant point for later.
After a good visit with an old friend there, he subsequently emailed me a rather poignant note which raised an interesting question.
My friend wrote in part:
"The one big thing I do wonder about in the whole immigration issue is this: What would be the economic result if we were able to stop or drastically slow immigration? I read in The Economist and similar publications that Japan, most European countries (and China) all have enormous problems facing them because of the aging of their populations. All of them have low birth rates within their native populations and few allow or receive much immigration.
"Economic pundits contrast their situations with that of the US which has a relatively young population only because of immigration. (Our population of northern European descent has a very low birth rate too.)
"The countries with low immigration and aging populations are expected to suffer severe problems in funding their equivalents to our Social Security and Medicare with a diminishing number young workers paying into the system and more and more oldsters on the receiving end.
"What would be the solution to funding our Social Security and Medicare if we were able to stop immigration? When I look around Greensburg and Pittsburgh which are ethnically Germanic, Italian, British Isles and Slavic I see a population which is old and tired.
"You can go door to door in Greensburg, as I have with political messages, and find a large majority of retired people. It is unusual in most Greensburg neighborhoods to have a working-age person come to the door. We have almost no Hispanic, Asian or African American population here.
"It is certainly comfortable for me and most of my friends and neighbors to live in such a cocoon, but is it economically feasible in the long run? I would be interested to hear your enlightened view on this problem."
Good questions. I sought perspective from a true expert, the Special Project Director at the Federation for American Immigration Studies (FAIR), Jack Martin, and got some thoughts that are at least the beginning of an answer:
Jack offered these helpful comments:
"Part of the answer is that, along with our greater longevity, we are in better health longer and should be expected to have a longer productive life. If that means working beyond what is currently thought of as retirement age, so be it.
"There are going to be some shrinking pains, to correct for the growing pains we are now experiencing. But, there is not any way to achieve a demographic transition without some pain, and the pain that we should be experiencing is one that leaves a more sustainable future for our descendants."
"Another part of the answer is that the period of low U.S. immigration from 1925 to 1975 showed that we did not need to have large-scale immigration to have a healthy economy (for most of that period). You might want to look again at the Issue Brief Low Immigration and Economic Growth on FAIR's website."
"I would also suggest to your friend that he read Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train by Brian Czech. Czech is a biologist and university professor. Publishers Weekly wrote about the book, '[Czech] is as good at popularizing economics as Carl Sagan was science.
"Finally, it is worthwhile to read the August 17, 2009 article in the Christian Science Monitor entitled "Is Population Growth A Ponzi Scheme?" Its author, David R. Francis, says that 'notions that population growth is a boon for prosperity – or that national political success depends on it – are "Ponzi demography," says Joseph Chamie, former director of the population division of the United Nations.'"
Although population in places like Africa is growing faster than their governments can accommodate the new arrivals, some leaders there still urge more population growth–in Zambia, for example, which I visited in April.
Yet the latest research shows that control of births has a much greater effect on curbing global warming than similar money spent on carbon controls. In a September 21, 2009 report on Lou Dobbs Tonight reporter Casey Wian colorfully said:
"The cheapest way to stop global climate change is not converting to solar power or buying a hybrid car. It's putting on a condom. That's the conclusion of a London School Of Economics study showing that money spent on contraception is about five times more efficient than money spent on clean energy technologies. It backs up a recent Oregon State University study that concludes overpopulation is the single biggest threat to the environment."
Yet the Washington Post reports that when it asked a U.N. official about family planning and the environment, the official replied "to bring the issue up would be an insult to developing countries."[Fewer Emitters, Lower Emissions, Less Cost: Reducing Future Carbon Emissions By Investing In Family Planning | A Cost/ Benefit Analysis, By Thomas Wire, August 2009 (PDF)]
Oh, and what about nearby Pittsburgh, where I lived for many years, which proudly hosted the G-20 this week? The Washington Post has just carried a glowing piece about Pittsburgh's transforming itself from a smoky rust belt citadel into a high tech medical Mecca. [Pittsburgh Shows How the Rust Belt Can Be Polished Up | Host of G-20 Summit Has Evolved, By Alexi Mostrous, September 24, 2009]
What needs to be further said is that Pittsburgh is a microcosm of what the world now needs to do—namely transition from a period of unsustainable growth to a level of stability.
The "aging" bugaboo, pushed by the greedy growth crowd, is proven by Pittsburgh's transition to be a hollow canard.
Donald A. Collins [email him], is a freelance writer living in Washington DC and a former long time member of the board of FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform. His views are his own.