The world’s population keeps growing and passed 8 billion in late 2022, but China’s population is now falling. There are concerns over what that means for its economy and the wider global economy. Is Paul Krugman right that a falling population means a weak Chinese economy? Show host Gene Tunny and his colleague Tim Hughes discuss the possible implications of a shrinking China, as well as global population projections out to 2100. The conversation touches on the environmental impact of a growing population and how well-placed we are to manage environmental challenges.
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What’s covered in EP174
- The world’s population is on the rise and passed 8 billion in November 2022 [4:24]
- Why post-war population growth was so strong [7:43]
- What does a declining Chinese population mean for the Chinese and global economies? [14:09]
- The importance of immigration in Australia population growth [19:27]
- How the world’s population will eventually level out toward the end of the century [23:35]
- Can governments solve environmental challenges? Discussion of the hole in the ozone layer and the Montreal Protocol [30:09]
- Paul Krugman vs Dean Baker on the future of China [42:07]
- Tim asks how do you maintain a growth mindset in a declining population? How do you make it work? [47:25]
- Will demographics and a weaker economy bring down the Chinese administration? [53:06]
Links relevant to the conversation
UN World Population Prospects 2022 data
Paul Krugman’s article “The problem(s) with China’s population drop”
Dean Baker’s article “Paul Krugman, China’s Demographic Crisis, and the Which Way Is Up Problem in Economics”
China’s old-age dependency ratio
Stanford Business School article “Baby Bust: Could Population Decline Spell the End of Economic Growth?” discussing Charles I Jones views on the link between population, innovation, and economic growth
Transcript: China’s falling population & global population update – EP174
N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.
Gene Tunny 00:07
Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host, Gene Tunny. I’m a professional economist and former Australian Treasury official. The aim of this show is to help you better understand the big economic issues affecting all our lives. We do this by considering the theory evidence and by hearing a wide range of views. I’m delighted that you can join me for this episode, please check out the show notes for relevant information. Now on to the show. This episode, I discuss China’s falling population and other global population issues with my good friend, Tim Hughes, who helps me out in my business Adapt Economics from time to time. Tim is not an economist, but I always enjoy chatting with him and hearing his views. And I think he asked very good questions, please check out the show notes, relevant links and for some clarifications, for instance, I need to clarify that the fertility rate for Hispanic women in the US has fallen over the last decade, and is now lower than what I remember it being although it’s still higher than for non-Hispanic women. The general point I make about Hispanic fertility contributing to a higher than otherwise, total fertility rate for the US is correct. I think about doing a deeper dive on fertility rates and other demographic issues in a future episode. Please stick around to the end of my conversation with Tim for an afterword from me. Okay, let’s get into it. I hope you enjoy the show. Tim, he is good to have you back on the show in 2023. Good to be back gene. Yes, Tim. Lots to chat about this year for sure. And today, I thought we could talk about one of the big bits of news that’s already come out this year is the news about how China has had a falling population. The population started to fall for the first time. So that was over last year. Did you see that news?
Tim Hughes 02:01
I do. Yeah. And it’s sort of in line with previous conversations we’ve had about world population and declining growth in a lot of countries. But that’s been mainly in the Western countries. So I think it’s the first time we’ve seen this in China.
Gene Tunny 02:15
Yeah, and this is one of the big concerns for China that China could get old before it gets rich. So it’s got an ageing population. And now it’s got a falling population. And there’s concerns about what that means for its economy, its economic dynamism, its ability to look after the elderly people. So that’s one of the concerns, you know, there’s concerns over the dependency ratio and the number of people of working age to support those.
Tim Hughes 02:46
So that’s the same principles. Because I know we’ve talked about a lot of the Western countries have declining, population rates are declining growth rates. So there’ll be the same challenges that those countries face as well, then yeah.
Gene Tunny 03:01
To an extent, it’s much worse in China than in many Western countries, because China really shot itself in the foot, really, if you think about it with that one child policy. And it seemed like a good idea at the time, because at the time, we’re concerned about, well, how do we feed a billion people or so. And so there was a government policy, instituted late 70s, early 80s, that each family can only have one child. And that seemed like a good idea at the time, to help improve living standards, and help feed the population. But what it’s meant 40 years later, is that they’ve now got a declining population. And while they’ve relaxed that one child policy, what they’re finding is that Chinese couples, they’re quite happy with one child, because you know, that’s been the norm for four decades or so.
Tim Hughes 03:56
Yeah, because that was in place until 2016, I saw,
Gene Tunny 03:59
Yeah, around then I think. Yeah.
Tim Hughes 04:03
So I mean, it’s pretty radical, because I guess China is one of the few countries that could implement that – that kind of law. I can’t imagine many countries being able to do that. So it’s interesting seeing it pan out, because it’s interesting that Western countries have a declining growth rate anyway. So without that being put in place.
Gene Tunny 04:24
Yeah. And one of the other big challenges for China, which is less of a challenge for Australia, and for the US, for example. Immigration is a that helps us alleviate some of the challenges from an ageing population, not completely. We’ve got a really strong immigration programme here in Australia, the US gets a lot of immigrants from all around the world. And also because the US has got the benefit of having a large Hispanic population and the fertility rate among Hispanics. So people from Mexico or from South America or wherever Puerto Rico, it’s, I don’t know, it’s over 2.1 For sure, which is the replacement rate. And so what that means is that the US, their fertility rate is not as low as in other other economies. And so they’ve there not the pressure doesn’t come a lot from that source. I mean, in Australia, we’ll end up having that that natural increase turned to a natural decrease eventually. And then we will have to start relying on immigration for additional people at the moment, we’ve still got some natural increase, because we’ve got, because the baby boomer cohort was so big, and then their children, there was plenty of them. And so there are still more people being born in Australia than dying. You get a problem if you don’t have people being born and you got everyone die in, that’s when you know, you don’t have immigration. And that’s what’s happening with China.
Tim Hughes 05:56
immigration has been a big part of national growth for so many countries for since forever. Like, that’s always been the case. And so certainly, places like Australia has count on that massively. Zooming out to a macro level. We’ve been talking about the cause, I remember we had this conversation years ago, and I was open-minded at the time but I was wondering, like, what happens, you know, if world population gets out of control? And you mentioned at the time that the thinking was it was going to level off around 2050 at around 10 billion? I think that might have been raised?
Gene Tunny 06:33
Yeah, it’s been revised. So if we look, we might go to the World Population Prospects. So I’ll put a link in the show notes to this. This is the really authoritative set of projections from the UN. And I mean, they’re really good. They essentially, they were forecasting that China’s population would start declining around now. Yeah. And, you know, India’s, the mean, India’s population is going to overtake China pretty soon, if it hasn’t already overtaken China’s population that we chat about that a bit later. There are some good references I found on that. They’re on the 8 billion mark now. Yeah, I think we crossed 8 billion last year. If you look at the world population, Prospects report, they’re released last year. So the world’s population is projected to reach 8 billion on 15 November 2022. Can you remember what you’re doing that day, Tim?
Tim Hughes 07:24
Gene Tunny 07:25
No. But that was back to the momentous day for the world. So you know, 8 billion amazing. I don’t know what it was, when I was born, it might have been in the 70s. It might have been put it in the shownotes. But I remember when I was at school, it was 5 billion or so
Tim Hughes 07:43
This is a thing that I saw, I remember at the time when we first had this conversation, because the rate of the doubling of the world’s population was so fast. I mean, the turn of the century around the First World War turn of the previous century, is around the 2 billion mark, I believe. And so to get where we are now is like a billion. I mean, that’s a huge growth. And this is the history of the universe, for instance, like for our species on this planet, any planet, you know, to be this money. So it’s a really, it’s a really fast growth.
Gene Tunny 08:19
So why that occurred? It’s because of improvements in agriculture is because of the fertiliser, the ability that’s that process the was invented by those German chemists.
Tim Hughes 08:33
Those German chemists, yes.
Gene Tunny 08:34
I’m not going to pronounce it. I’ll mispronounce it for sure. But there’s a there was a process that to artificially or create ammonium, I think for fertiliser, if I remember correctly, so there’s a something like that there’s a there’s a chemical process that was perfected in the early 20th century by some German chemists. And that meant that we were able to produce, you know, fertiliser artificially, and then that meant that our agriculture could be much more productive. And all of these, you know, we could support much larger populations in India and Bangladesh, and all over Asia, in Africa. So that’s a big part of it. And the other part of it, of course, is just improvements in public health and understanding of germs and bacteria and viruses and all of that eradication of smallpox, all sorts of things that have that mean that billions of people who wouldn’t have been born or wouldn’t have survived beyond infancy, are able to survive and now we’ve got 8 billion people. It’s just incredible. When you think about it.
Tim Hughes 09:42
Infant mortality at that time was terrible, like, it was very common for families to have any number of kids who didn’t make it through to adulthood. And that has definitely improved.
Gene Tunny 09:58
Well, just got any I mean, you got any cemetery and yeah, any older cemetery and you just see all the graves and memorials to infants. It’s incredible, isn’t it?
Tim Hughes 10:08
But go back to the conversation that started this? Well, certainly, as far as I was aware, because so I was of the mind, like, you know, what happens if we just get more and more and more, there’s a massive problem, and it just gets out of control. But you mentioned that this was actually foreseen that there will be a levelling off. So this extreme growth that we’ve seen from so taking that 2 billion mark around the 1900 mark, 2 billion to where we are now 8 billion. I mean, if, you know, I’m thinking, Well, what happens at the point where we can’t sustain any more people, but it was foreseen that we would have this levelling off around 2050. And then 2100, not much growth between 2050 and 2100. Is that still the case?
Gene Tunny 10:49
Yeah, yeah. So if I’m looking, I’m looking at the UN, the world population projections that were put out last year, the latest projections by the United Nations, suggests that the global population could grow to around eight and a half billion in 2039. 9.7 billion in 2050. And 10.4 billion in 2100.
Tim Hughes 11:12
So that’s a real that’s slowing down a hell of a lot from where we are now.
Gene Tunny 11:15
Yeah, yeah. And that’s because of that demographic transition they talk about. So I think we talked about that last time. How as economies get wealthier, as people get wealthier, public health improves, then they have fewer children.
Tim Hughes 11:30
That’s interesting to me, because you would think it’d be quite logical to think it would go the other way, that people would have more children under those circumstances. But there’s actually fewer.
Gene Tunny 11:39
Yeah, yeah because in poorer economies in poorer countries, children are in insurance policy. And they help look after their parents in old age. Yeah, So that’s, that’s how it works.
Tim Hughes 11:52
I’m thinking that my kids, I might have to mention that to them.
Gene Tunny 11:58
Yeah, so that’s why. And historically, yet, so you’d have that have more children, of course, birth controls, and other another thing, too, right. So birth controls part of the story. But I think largely, it’s, it’s due to the fact that if you’re in a more if you’re in a poorer economy, then it’s probably more likely to be agrarian, or you have lots of people on the farm. And you know, having children’s that’s, that’s your workforce. Right. Okay. Yeah. So, I mean, that sounds harsh, but that’s what it is, right. So that’s your workforce, it’s to help you out in the home, and it’s to look after you when you’re old. And so that’s why in poor economies, they have more children, and there tends to be this demographic transition, that’s well observed that countries really have this sharp or this big drop in fertility, as they get wealthier.
Tim Hughes 12:53
It’s a really interesting, I mean, I think it’s a good thing, like, you’d have to say, you know, I mean, I was, I was pleased and relieved, to see that that was going to level off, you know, because it’s obviously, you know, if we think of like, a parasitic kind of relationship, you know, and the planet, if we’re a parasite on this earth, and just gonna get too many of us, and potentially, like, trash it, which is still possible with 10 billion people. But it looks like everything’s turning around there to make better choices towards the future generations. So hopefully, that works out. But if the population was going to keep growing, that was certainly going to be a bigger issue. But hopefully, that will make it easier for us to manage the planet and our lives on it in some more sustainable way, you know, that we can sort of level out and do something. And I know, this then brought us to another question of, you know, sustainable growth being constant. Always more, always more. What would that sustainable contraction look like? Or D growth or flexible growth, that we’ve got a few different terms for it that we’ve come with for it. But it’s an interesting sort of concept of like, well, you know, not everything is going to grow, grow, grow. So how do we sort of like, manage that levelling out, you know, as humans on this planet?
Gene Tunny 14:09
Yeah. Well, this is one of the big questions about the Chinese economy and what that means for the global economy. Paul Krugman wrote a really provocative, I mean, really well written piece in The New York Times following that news, or might have been earlier actually a better check when he released it. We might cover that in a moment because there is a question about what a declining population in China or Japan what that means for the dynamism of the economy and your ability to keep everyone employed. So we might talk about that. Just wonder if we need to go back over those world population implication?
Tim Hughes 14:47
Yes. Because that’s in China, for instance. That’s what implications already hasn’t it with what’s going on there. So there’s a lot to unpack just with China, let alone the rest of the world.
Gene Tunny 15:00
Yeah, so these are the big takeaways from this World Population Prospects report. So population growth is caused in part by declining levels of mortality as reflected in increased levels of life expectancy at birth. So globally, life expectancy reached 72.8 years in 2019. So that 72.8 years, that’s a globally that’s not that’s across the whole world, right, not just in the wealthy countries an increase of almost nine years since 1990. So that’s a huge achievement. The other thing I think’s really interesting, in this UN report, this is this demographic transition we were talking about. In 2021, the average fertility of the world’s population stood at 2.3 births per woman over a lifetime. So that’s above the replacement rate of 2.1. Because you need that extra point one to account for the fact that some children won’t make it out of childhood. So that’s 2.3 births per woman over a lifetime having for having fallen from about five births per woman in 1950. Wow, that’s extraordinary, isn’t it? Global fertility is projected to decline further to 2.1 births per woman by 2050.
Tim Hughes 16:14
So was the baby boom, in 1950, yeah?
Gene Tunny 16:18
Yeah, I mean, a lot of that’s going to be in the reason, it was five births per woman. A lot of those births would be occurring in the developing economies in the emerging economies in India and China, because I think China had a big baby boom. And in Australian trying to remember what our fertility rate got up to, I think it peaked in the early 60s, because I remember looking at the data, because we will look when we were working on the intergenerational report in treasury, we were all over this data, I think, maybe got to three or three, between three and four. In Australia, which was pretty high for Australia. Now it’s under two. So it’s below replacement, if I remember correctly.
Tim Hughes 17:01
That reminds me because wasn’t it Peter Costello, who said, have one for each other and one for the country? Yes. So that was the opposite of what China were doing. So Australia was like popping out? Well.
Gene Tunny 17:11
Because we were determined that we need people. Yeah, so it’s interesting. So historically, we wanted to grow Australia’s population for defence reasons. I think Arthur Cornwall who was a minister under Chifley I think that was his he wanted and that’s why he encouraged migration. Isn’t that how you got over here?
Tim Hughes 17:33
Do not tell the authorities, will you. No, my mom’s Australian. So that is my connection.
Gene Tunny 17:42
Oh, that is right, I am just kidding. We encourage, we encourage migration after the war to try to build up the population, I guess, because we thought there’s a limit to how many you know how many how fast you can grow the population just relying on the fertility of, of the population.
Tim Hughes 17:59
I know there was a big like that there’s been a constant source of people from the UK anyway, like, the Ten Pound Poms and all of those guys who came over.
Gene Tunny 18:08
BJs. Yeah. And it’s so I guess we were relying on immigration quite a bit. And even with immigration, we will still have facing this ageing population challenge. And then Treasury crunched the numbers, and it looked like, Okay, this is going to be bad and 30 or 40 years time, because there are going to be fewer people of working age supporting the people of the elderly people also children in the dependency, like, I can’t recall the figures off the top my head, but you’d often see figures, which would suggest that whereas once there were five working people, for every dependents by, some data, there’d be two and a half or whatever, they’d be those sorts of scary statistics, and the budget deficit would end up being 5% of GDP if we didn’t correct this. And so then they the government of the day developed a strategy to try to boost population, or boost the fertility rate and the baby bonus and there’s a huge debate over whether it was effective, whether it was whether it made sense to spend that money, because a lot of people just got the whatever it was $5,000 baby bonus and went out and bought a plasma TV.
Tim Hughes 19:27
We had a baby at least one baby in that time, maybe two, we had three altogether, but I think two of them had a baby bonus. Yeah. So we’re very happy with that.
Gene Tunny 19:37
Yeah. Totally, but the fertility rate did increase over that period. And which, which meant that there was all this talk about Well, Peter Costello’s being the only minister in the Western world, has ever managed to increase the fertility rate or something like that. So we got a lot of praise over that. And there’s that famous photo of him with all the babies surrounding him. Yeah, so I guess we work tried to address our concerns about ageing about declining population, well, we don’t I mean, we’ve still got a growing population, we’ll end up where 26 million now, I think and we’ll end up at 40 million by 2050. Possibly.
Tim Hughes 20:16
So the reality of that is that that’s going to be mainly from immigration.
Gene Tunny 20:19
Yeah, there’s still they’ll still be some natural increase, but a lot of it will be immigration. That’s correct.
Tim Hughes 20:25
I think it’s a really good. I don’t think it’s widely known by everybody, of the importance of immigration, like it’s it, as far as like feeding that growth and like, supporting the ambitions of a country, immigration is essential to have that growth. You know, it’s a big part of it. I know, certainly, in the UK. I know, people from West Indies and, you know, the Caribbean, India, Pakistan, you know, massive influx at different times to be invited over into work, you know, it. And, of course, then there were thriving communities of generations now of people who are British and add to the whole vibrancy and diversity in the country. And that’s part of I mean, I know, it’s a very controversial subject in many countries. You know, we’re not going to cover here. But the fact is that immigration is needed for that growth. Yeah.
Gene Tunny 21:18
Yeah, there’s one way that you can get around this, this challenge in particularly in the western economies, which are projected to have falling populations, you can take advantage of the fact that, well, the population is not falling in other parts of the world in the emerging economy. So there is that opportunity for migration. And we’ve got to look at better ways of allowing people to, to migrate, including on a temporary basis, a lot of the concerns about migration or about people migrating for work purposes, and then settling there permanently and bringing their families. So there’s a lot of concern that. So countries like Germany, which have had bad experiences with or they do them perceive the perceived that they’ve had bad experiences with guest workers in the past, that they’d want to make sure that any migration is temporary. So I think countries are looking at ways that they can have temporary workers schemes that I mean, we’ve got all sorts of visas for temporary workers now. And we’re getting people over from the Pacific where we were before COVID, to help pick fruit here in Australia. So that’s, that’s, yeah, I think migration, certainly part of the solution. At the same time, you want to make sure that it’s, it has community acceptance, and you’re not putting too much pressure on community services, you want to make sure you’ve got the infrastructure to support the population. Yeah, so a bit of a challenge there. Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.
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Gene Tunny 23:27
Now back to the show. Let me just check that Australian population forecast Tim.
Tim Hughes 23:35
So I was gonna ask you Gene like, with that levelling out, frustrating gets around 40 million.
Gene Tunny 23:41
That’s what I wanted to check. Yeah. Right, because that’s the number I had in my head. But let me just check with that. That, but go ahead, keep going.
Tim Hughes 23:48
Yeah, I was gonna say, I mean, I guess Western countries are already there, where they’re starting to level out and have a very slow rate of growth, or in decline. And so it’s just with infrastructure, and all those different things like at some point, you can imagine that people will still want to move around the world. So even with 10 billion, 11 billion, it might be a case of people leaving one area on mass to try and get into other areas, which happens all the time. I guess it’s certainly happening now. Yeah. And so a big part of that is just managing the amount of people that are on this planet, but with the sustainability sort of question, you know, it’s that up until now, everything’s been about growth, you know, population growth, and more, more and more, to getting back to the point I was talking about earlier, like, you know, it’s gonna get to the point where it’s like, well, this is we have to manage this the best way we can. And so yeah, it was going back to those areas of D growth or flexible growth, sustainable contraction.
Gene Tunny 24:45
Yeah, sure what you mean by that, Tim. And well.
Tim Hughes 24:47
I guess, I guess it’s the kind of thing because of, with that levelling out of the population, I mean, like I said, I think it’s a good thing, you know, because there are enough of us.
Gene Tunny 24:57
Yeah. If you’re concerned about the ability of the planet to support the population and there are plenty of people who are who are saying, Oh, well, we’re actually exceeding the planet’s carrying capacity at the moment, which I don’t believe because if we were, I mean, we wouldn’t be able to keep growing our population, and obviously, where we’re able to support the current population, just by the fact that we are supporting it, right,
Tim Hughes 25:20
I guess at some point as a planet, they’ll still be moving people moving around, like I mentioned, like, yeah, that’s understandable. But the growth mindset, as far as population goes, will have to change at some point, you know, like, you know, it’s not just going to be more and more, it’s a case of like, doing better with what we have. Does that make sense?
Gene Tunny 25:38
I think we should always be trying to do better with what we have. I mean, as an economist, as an economist, I think, yeah, I totally agree with that. We’ve got to be more efficient and do better and, and make sure we’re not we’re properly pricing our impact on the planet. So we’re talking with, we’re not polluting too much, or we’re managing the environment as best we can. Yeah,
Tim Hughes 26:02
yeah. I mean, I see good things coming from it. Like, I think it’s a good sort of place to be, because everything up until this point, like it’s, you know, from 2 billion in 1900, to a billion now to 10, or 11 billion. This is, I would imagine that things will have to change in the way that the world is looked at, as far as its population goes and said, Well, this is, this is, how many of us are going to be putting, you know, waste into landfill? How many of us are going to be, you know, how we deal with our own sewerage, and all that kind of stuff? You know, what I mean? Like, the stuff that ends up in the oceans, how we treat our soil, all of that, like as a global sort of, like management of, okay, how do we do this to the best of our abilities, so we can keep doing it indefinitely. And if we have if we had an exploding population that was getting forever, and that was going to be a scenario that would be potentially catastrophic. And so that’s, I guess, we’re looking at it’s like a macro sort of like view of the whole planet, it’s okay. Well, you know, what can we expect to do better? Where we’re not just constantly expanding? As far as like the population goes?
Gene Tunny 27:07
Yeah, I think why is this definitely an issue to manage? How do we deal with all of that, and greenhouse gas emissions? We’ve got to, we need to get them under control sometime, and then you can debate how quickly or not in the Greta Thunberg, we’re all going to die in 10 years, or there’s a climate catastrophe. I think we’re gonna I can’t say, well, basically,
Tim Hughes 27:36
I haven’t heard that.
Gene Tunny 27:39
Oh, yeah. I think so, I mean, we’ve had 30 years of blah, blah, blah, not doing anything, which is actually true, right? I mean, the government’s leaders around the world will talk about how they’re doing all of this, all of these great things to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and get climate change under control. And meanwhile, global emissions keep rising. And so this is one of the points that are the conservative critics of Jacinda Ardern pointed out was, she’s very popular. She’s a progressive politician. She’s very popular among progressives worldwide. And yet, before COVID emissions were rising in New Zealand, according to these commentators, I probably should fact check that one. It’s a big challenge, because our whole industry of our industry, and our economies have been reliant on fossil fuels for so long. And it’s like turning the Queen Mary around. Right?
Tim Hughes 28:34
Yeah, because I know, we’ve talked about that with the energy sector changing massively, yeah, at the moment, and there are good things that potentially can come from it, it seems to be heading in the right direction, but it’s, you know, obviously, in a transition period, at the moment. And I wonder how much of that, you know, is down to having short term governments, who, you know, we’re expecting too much from governments, with a limited term of three or four years to be able to make these changes, you know, like, because obviously, this is a long term view that we need to take, I don’t know, 2050. Net Zero, are these sort of like goals that get put in? But sometimes I think with the longer goals, it’s easier for people to say, Yeah, we’re gonna do that. And then the action is less than what it needs to be.
Gene Tunny 29:15
Hmm. I think you’re right. I mean, the system we have the democratic system, the three or four year electoral cycle, yeah, I think that makes it harder. But I think it’s better than the alternative. I mean, we wouldn’t want to have a dictatorship was I mean, they could end up imposing, you know, a very rapid decarbonisation or that is incredibly costly on us if they thought that that was the right policy, like look what China was doing with the lock downs with the COVID zero until I realised that okay, we’re going to have a revolution on our hands if we don’t relax this policy. I think you’re right I mean, I think the democratic system we have this short term focus. Yeah, the fact that it is easy to always point to the cost the short term costs of any action. Yeah.
Tim Hughes 30:09
I mean, because I have to say like, you know, at times it seems that with governments, it’s hard to know how much difference they do make, or they can make, you know, even with the best intentions in a term, which goes very quickly.
Gene Tunny 30:21
Well, I think they can make a lot of difference. Look at problems we have solved, look at the Montreal Protocol, which meant that we eliminated the use of Chlorofluorocarbons. The ozone hole.
Tim Hughes 30:36
I saw that that was that had improved that that was a Yeah, a good improvement from what it had been.
Gene Tunny 30:42
So 1987. I think that was the Montreal Protocol. Where all the governments, particularly all the governments of the world agreed that yet we’ll phase these things out. Now. That’s different from the climate change challenge, because there were easy substitutes or substitutes, which weren’t too expensive for CFCs. Yeah, that we could replace them in the aerosols. But I think, yeah, I think governments can make a huge difference. The problem with the current mean, there are all sorts of problems is the issue of, well, for Australia. I mean, the view I’ve always had is there’s no point us doing, doing much of if China and India are still going to keep increasing their emissions, and also the states. I mean, we need ultimately, you need the major economies to be leading this. Otherwise, it’s not, it’s not really going to happen.
Tim Hughes 31:37
Well, it seems clear that innovation is going to drive it, you know, because and I get that, yeah, because it’s hard to put yourself at a disadvantage when everyone else is able to take advantage of that, you know, so that argument, for instance, here in Australia, where we’re smack fairly small country, but not necessarily been supporting too many of the netzero sort of ambitions around the world, you know, because of what you’re saying, like, let the big guys lead the way. But innovation, I think we’ll do that as soon as it gets to the point where the energy is cheaper than digging coal out of the ground. If there’s a clean way of producing that energy, then everyone will follow.
Gene Tunny 32:16
Oh, exactly. And that’s what we need. We need that technological innovation.
Tim Hughes 32:21
And the market, like from our discussions before with people in the energy sector, has been that the market is driving this. So we don’t have to, I mean, governments can help by making it easier and sort of greasing the path towards encouraging those changes to happen. But certainly the market is driving it and innovation is providing the opportunity for the market to take up those options with renewable energy.
Gene Tunny 32:42
Yeah, you’re thinking about that conversation we have with Josh. Yeah, yeah, that was interesting. Or he’s talking about the fact that the nature of this transition of any transition really is it’s going to be disorderly, it’s hard to get these things done in an orderly fashion.
Tim Hughes 32:58
I always manage to steer it back to this, don’t I Gene. It doesn’t matter what we talk about.
Gene Tunny 33:01
It’s important. If I’m thinking about, well, what’s the big potentially the big risk to I mean, other than nuclear war, I mean, it’s always a threat, particularly with what’s happening in Ukraine. Now I’m in the risk of that elevated, but the other big, potentially existential risk. I mean, you’ve got to put some probability on it. I’m not as concerned about it as some other people. I’ve got the Steve Koonin view of it, he used to work for Barack Obama, he was in the administration, I think it was in science, one of the I don’t know if he was in cabinet, or he had a, he had a senior position in the Obama administration is a scientist, he was at Cal Tech. And his view is that Yep, this is something we’re going to deal with. But we’ve got decades to deal with it. So what we’ve got to do is to start putting in place agree on some policies globally that are going to get us on this smooth transition path and, and also fund innovation trying, you know, it’d be great if we could find the cost effective solution, perhaps nuclear fusion, that there’s, there’s a lot of excitement about that. But then you got to deal with the nuclear waste. And what was that? What was actually, maybe there isn’t waste with nuclear fusion? Maybe that’s one of the advantages of it. Well, there’s less waste.
Tim Hughes 34:18
I still get my fusion and fission mixed up. So
Gene Tunny 34:21
Fusion is more powerful. Fusion is what the sun does.
Tim Hughes 34:26
Yes, right. Yeah. Fission is the separating of fusion is the joining. Yeah. Yeah. But so and with and there was a breakthrough with Fusion then yeah, just the other week, but it was still claimed that that could be decades away from it being useful for an energy source on a commercial scale. However, if it’s decades where that’s significant in the history of humans, however, with that, especially with that conversation with Josh, it was record notion that, you know, having a suite of different options for clean energy makes a lot of sense. You know, we don’t have to put all our eggs in one basket. And, you know, one choice so, and clearly those things are happening as we speak. And quite successfully. I mean, like the, you know, there’s still a lot of clean, renewable energy is getting more and more prolific.
Gene Tunny 35:22
Oh, no doubt about that. I mean, aren’t they turning the North Sea into a wind farm in? Have you seen that in? Because the North Sea is really good for the wind turbines. Well, it’s I mean, it’s not shallow, but it’s it’s not very deep the North Sea? Was there’s bits of the North Sea that are only a few 100 metres deep, I think, isn’t there?
Tim Hughes 35:48
I mean, obviously, it must be, you know, viable. But it seems odd to me that a wind farm in an ocean, you know. But, obviously, there’s, you know, there’s something in it. Yeah, yeah. It’s extraordinary. It’s a really interesting time. So because all of this is coinciding with this levelling out of the population. So it seems to be a, I don’t know, it feels like it’s a good place to take stock and see how we can sort of really manage this planet. Well, you know, and cleaning it up is the first way to do it, you know, so how we can keep the oceans cleaner than they currently are, like, clean them and stop polluting them and how we can manage our waste, you know, 10 billion, it’s a lot of foods.
Gene Tunny 36:30
Well, I guess this is what’s part of this is what’s motivated all of these measures or measures we’ve had in Australia to reduce plastic waste, and then I was growning about it when they initially announced it. But I guess you adapt. I mean, you can’t get the single use plastic bags any more at the supermarket.
Tim Hughes 36:48
You’re still hurt about that one.
Gene Tunny 36:51
You can’t get the single use plastic cutlery Well, anyway, we should get back to this population stuff. It is important. I do recognise the importance of what you’re talking about. The population of Australia is projected by the Treasury, this was last year, or this was 2021, I mean, who knows. But if they updated and they’ve got different migration projections, these numbers could be significantly different. But they were forecasting the population would grow from around 26 million, around 2021, up to 32 million in 2041, 36 million in around 2050-51 and then 39 million by 2060-61. I think I’ve seen previous, I think I hadn’t had in my head the idea that it’d be about 40 million by 2050. And yeah, it’s hard. It’s hard to forecast. It depends on fertility, it depends on migration, and then all of that sort of thing. So and life expectancy. So quite a few moving parts there. Right. The other thing I want to talk about, Tim, if you still got time, yeah, it’s this issue of what does the declining population mean? So what is China’s declining population mean for its economy and therefore the global economy? One thing to keep in mind, of course, is that I think, what were we talking about a reduction of a population of 850,000 people. So that’s under 1 million, the Chinese population is 1.4 billion. So in percentage terms, we’re talking. What’s that less than point one of a percentage point? Yeah. Does that make sense?
Tim Hughes 38:37
Yeah, I mean, it’s. So it’s level that basically.
Gene Tunny 38:42
I guess that’s one way of looking at it is that it’s yeah, it’s hardly you’d have like, really noticed that on a chart, if you drew the population. The thing is, it’s a sign of things to come, because we all know that it’s expected that the Chinese population would, is going to start falling. And there are all sorts of projections as to where it could get to. By 2050-2100, I think I’ve seen an estimate somewhere that their population by 2100, could end up being, I don’t know, 700 million or so. Yeah, it’s a really big reduction because of that one child policy. I’ll put the actual figure in the show notes, but it’s quite dramatic. Just looking at what that impact of that one child policy, ultimately will be on their population in the future, because you’re not replacing your population. Right. So that’s, yeah.
Tim Hughes 39:42
So it’s funny actually, China is like a microcosm of the globe in a way, isn’t it? Because it sort of has fairly tight borders. And so the decline that that would be for China, would be an example of like, how do you manage that sustainably, how do you sustainably contract successfully from 1.4 billion to 700 million. And yeah, the thing is like, you know, China is extreme in many ways. They may manage it very well. Now, I’ve got no idea how but I think that’s a really interesting sort of point. I mean, they’ve had massive change. Was it 1962 to see the great leap forward? You know, I mean, certainly from 1980. They’ve made in the last 20 years, 25 years, they’ve made themselves this sort of, like, workshop of the world, you know, they’ve produced so much stuff. And they’ve become very wealthy in that time.
Gene Tunny 40:36
Well, the wealthier and some people have become very wealthy, their per capita income is still I don’t know, it’s under a third of what it is in the States. It’s gone. It has gone through big changes. I mean, yeah, considering that once but I mean, I don’t know when you were young and when I was young people were saying, well eat your food, because there are people starving in China. Right. I don’t know if maybe that’s an Australian thing. Yeah. I mean, yes. It was probably still true when I was when I was young. Right. But it’s not, I don’t think it’s true now. Or it’s only in small pockets. Right. Whereas famine used to be a huge problem. And you know, people were incredibly poor. And most people lived on the land. But now I’ve had all the shifts of hundreds of millions of people from the agricultural areas in China into the cities. And it’s just, it’s just amazing.
Tim Hughes 41:27
It is fascinating, because made in the 80s, like you couldn’t go to China, like it was closed off to I think it was around the mid 80s, that they sort of opened up or towards the end of the 80s. You know, and it was a new thing, like tourism in China was a new thing. And of course, it’s really well, I mean, COVID aside, you can travel there freely now. But it’s gone through massive change in a very short period of time. It’s really, you know, I don’t know, if they’ve come to a critical point in their sort of growth as, as this powerhouse of production. With a declining population, I guess that’s going to make a big impact.
Gene Tunny 42:07
Yeah. So a lot of the discussion that pundits and commentators and economists having at the moment is around well, what does this mean for their economy? What does it mean for their society? Paul Krugman had a great article. I’m not sure I entirely agree with it, because there’s a really excellent response from another American economist, Dean Baker, which I’ll link to in the show notes. But so Paul Krugman in the, in the New York Times the other day wrote, a declining population creates two major problems for economic management, these problems aren’t insoluble. But will China rise to the challenge? That’s far from clear, the first problem is the declining populations, also an ageing population. And so you’ve got this issue of the dependency ratio, paying for looking after those people. The other thing Krugman is worried about is that a society with a declining working age population tends other things equal to experience persistent economic weakness, Japan illustrates the point. Now there’s a debate about just how badly Japan’s fared relative to other countries, it certainly hasn’t grown as fast as the US or, or the Australia. But it hasn’t collapsed either. I mean, it’s managed to maintain reasonably low unemployment, it’s kept people employed. But at the same time, they’ve been the government’s had to try to prop up the economy, it’s accumulated a huge amounts of debt. So there are certainly challenges with Japan. And partly that is because it’s, it does have that declining population, as Krugman notes. So the point Krugman is making its a Keynesian point, in a way. What he’s saying is that if you’ve got a growing population, then that, from that, for what follows from that is the need for additional capital investment in your economy, additional spending that helps keep people employed. Yeah, so that’s the that’s the point he’s making, and that if you don’t have that growing population, then you’re at risk of what Japan experience with his last decade or so and potentially at risk of deflation. So I’ll put a link in the show notes here, because we’re getting up to near the time we set for ourselves. This might take a while. Yeah. It’s incredible. And so Krugman is concerned because he thinks that what this declining population could mean ultimately is that China has a period it ends up being economically weak. And there’s also some evidence or there’s an argument from this, this economist at Stanford School of Business, Charles Jones, he argues that we’ll get a declining population is problematic because then you’ve got fewer people to solve problems, it’s less likely you’ll get an Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein, etc. So that’s one of the concerns. When who knows if that’s, I don’t know how valid that is. That’s enough. That’s a hypothesis. I mean, we’ve still got billions of people, right?
Tim Hughes 45:21
I mean, you can say those guys came around when there’s a far fewer people on the planet.
Gene Tunny 45:24
Exactly. So who knows if that’s actually a legitimate concern or not. But that’s quite a, that’s a, I should have him on the show just to talk through. It’s no Charles Jones, you know, and get him on the show rather than just say, I don’t agree with it, or maybe I haven’t done the the concept justice. But there’s certainly I can see the logic, but there are concerns that the dynamism of your economy would be at risk. If you have fewer people. There are concerns about well, how does your economy adjust to this in the short term as you’ve got declining population, and you’ve got less need for investment? We’ve got all of these buildings that have been, you know, what we don’t have as much need for new housing or new construction, which does help employ people? How do we how do we manage that? And that on the other hand, there’s this great critique of Paul Krugman by Dean Baker, who’s an economist and co founder of the Centre for Economic Policy Research, which is DC Think Tank, it’s a progressive Think Tank. I really thought this is a clever critique. And Dean Baker, apparently, his Wikipedia entry claims that he was one of the first people to have foreseen the subprime mortgage crisis in the States. So yeah, I think he’s, he’s got a good reputation. He makes the point that well, Japan’s not really as bad as you think. And then it hasn’t collapsed. They seem to manage to muddling through in some way. And then it’s not, obviously they’ve still got problems because of all the debt. But he’s saying look at something you can you can manage, and there are actually benefits from a declining population. He, he notes that Japan cities are less crowded than they would be if its population had continued to grow. This means less congestion and pollution, less time spent getting to and from work and less crowded beaches, parks and museums, these quality of life factors don’t get picked up in GDP. I’m actually not sure. Does Japan have many beaches? I mean, I understand his point.
Tim Hughes 47:25
Yeah, Echo Beach, yes that is in Japan. That’s one beach that I know.
Gene Tunny 47:32
I was just wondering, I don’t know, never haven’t been to Japan on an island. So I guess it’s yeah. Oh, of course, they have beaches. Yeah.
Tim Hughes 47:39
But that’s actually a really good way of putting, I guess one of the things that we’re talking about is like, you know, declining population doesn’t have to be bad news. I mean, I guess, you know, the, the challenge would be how do you keep maintain a growth mindset in a declining population where can you make it work to your advantage? Or, you know, how can you do the best, you know, with, because part of it would be in a declining population. Once that first surge of older people goes, then it should level out with the number of older people as opposed to the number of younger people, I guess, because as you’re peaking towards your peak population, you’d have the most amount of old people is that right? I’m sort of thinking out loud here. But I’m just wondering,
Gene Tunny 48:25
Tim, is a good question mate. I mean, you’re asking does the as if as your population declines, what happens to the age composition of the population? So I’m gonna have to take that on notice. I mean, I think that’s a hard one. I mean, there could be a point, there could be a time when both the dependency ratio gets worse and your population keeps falling? That’s a good question. I don’t know, let me put something in the afterword about that. I don’t know, conceptually, I can’t figure it out right now on the fly. That’s good question.
Tim Hughes 49:00
But it’s that thing of like, I imagine, like the you know, because the challenge is this is to manage that. Well. Yeah. And like, so. I mean, one thought that comes to mind with that is, like, the whole thing of retiring at 65 has been around for a long time and around 65, whatever it is now.
Gene Tunny 49:16
67 in Australia now.
Tim Hughes 49:19
Y eah, this thing of like, it’s not necessary for people to stop doing what they do, you know, there’s so much wisdom and, you know, a good life experience that gets lost with that mindset of like, see you later at 67. You know, and I think opening up the opportunity for people to stay in a lower capacity timewise you know, because I think it’s important for people to wind down or do something different or start a new career, you know, like whatever it may be. So, I think maybe the way that you know, we approach ageing or the way we look at ageing, could be one of the factors that changes that declining population as to no right this could actually be looking at how do we manage a declining population better you know, maybe it’s our attitude towards all the roads that we can start with.
Gene Tunny 50:04
Yeah, I think it has to start changing because all the baby boomers are nearly retired, aren’t they? And then Generation X will start retiring.
Tim Hughes 50:13
But it’s that thing of like, you know, as we live longer, we can expect to have more good years, you know? Yeah, hopefully, yeah. And they can be, they can be good years to contribute back towards society as well. It doesn’t have to be just a retirement where you don’t pay any tax at all, because that’s part of the problem isn’t like we’re fewer people paying tax to support an ageing population. You know, so I guess and it’s not just making people work later unwillingly. You know, to give people the opportunity to have different options, different levels of engagement, you know, so they don’t have to do 40 hours a week, of course, but yeah, doing something different stimulating that, you know, people could enjoy doing for longer.
Gene Tunny 50:57
Tim Hughes 50:58
Podcasting. Exactly. Everybody wants it to be a DJ, everyone was a DJ in the previous life.
Gene Tunny 51:05
Yeah, exactly. I don’t have the turntable, give it time, give it time and we can bring that into the show. Cable
Tim Hughes 51:13
Maybe that’s the way we merge the two.
Gene Tunny 51:17
See how we go. Okay, so I’ll put a link in the show notes to this, these articles by Paul Krugman and Dean Baker. I mean, I don’t know. I mean, some hours of the day I think Krugman is right, then I think I actually Dean Baker is making some great points. I’m still processing it all myself. So Dean Baker, I’ll put a link to this article. It’s on the Centre for Economic Policy Research website. One final point, I thought that well, I thought I should make that Dean Baker may not that was a good one is that? Well, actually, I mean, see it as an opportunity. I mean, China’s got a, it’s got an ageing population, still, while its population is starting to decline, you can put people to well, you’ve built all of that’s right. He’s saying one of the issues that Krugman identifies is that they were building all of this, all of these buildings that, that they may not need these ghost cities. Well, you could use them for aged care accommodation. Or, you know, I don’t know how feasible that is. But that was one of the points that he made. So I thought that was that’s potentially interesting. I mean, there will always be things people can do that the challenge is, can your economy adjust to employ them? So do you have a flexible economy? Gotta make sure you’ve got you’re not regulating business, there’s not the burden on businesses and to hire so that there can be that that adjustment, you don’t have rigid wages or rigid, rigid IR policies that prevent people moving into to new occupations? Yeah, so Dean Baker’s quite positive about what could happen in China. And I’ll encourage, if you’re listening, please read his article. I probably haven’t done it, done it justice. With that, that quick summary there. So yeah, I’d recommend reading that I thought that was really good. And Oh, one other thing we should talk about is that there’s one other concern with the declining population. And the issues with ageing population in China lack of dynamism and what it could mean for their economy, the stability of the whole country, right, the political issues. So Peter Zeihan, I think that’s how you pronounce it. He’s a academic over in the States, he’s come out with his controversial view that the Chinese system as it exists now, that Communist Party regime can only last another 10 years out.
Tim Hughes 53:44
And I mean, it’s been speculation, but it could be true.
Gene Tunny 53:47
If it turns out to be right, he would be held as a genius, the genius.So who knows.
Tim Hughes 53:52
Someone, somewhere will be making those calls.
Gene Tunny 53:54
I mean, my feelings is what I was talking about with Alan Morrison in this chat about enterprise China toward the end of last year. And I think ultimately, that there has to be a regime change in China. I think as economies get wealthier, then there’s naturally more support for democracy.
Tim Hughes 54:14
There seems to be a bit of a paradox with ideology in China at the moment. I mean, we’ve communism is the main ideology, of course, but they’ve embraced capitalism, to the point where individuals are getting mega wealthy, but then they’re sort of getting called into the headmaster’s office and sort of like, you know, put in detention for a bit to sort of keep them in line Jack Ma, from Alibaba, and different people who sort of like disappear off the, you know, public space or forums. And so there seems to be a bit of a tussle there going on, and you wonder how long that can go for. But yeah, there certainly, I think it’s fair to say that there would be an expectation of change coming sometime in the next 10 years. I mean, it’s really everywhere. I mean.
Gene Tunny 54:57
I guess change of some sort. I mean, let’s hope it’s a peaceful change. And there is, uh, you know, maybe the I mean, I don’t know whether they’re going to relinquish power will Xi Jinping I mean what what are the chances of him relinquishing power? I mean, given he set himself up as Emperor for life or whatever it was, I mean.
Tim Hughes 55:15
There’s only Jacinda Arden that I can think of this relinquish power. Yeah, it’s it’s pretty rare thing.
Gene Tunny 55:22
It is very rare because power is seductive, isn’t it?
Tim Hughes 55:27
So they say?
Gene Tunny 55:31
Tim, that’s been an amazing discussion. That’s been fun. Yeah, it’s been good. I’ve really enjoyed that. As always, we managed to go much longer than we expect to or prepared for. Any final thoughts?
Tim Hughes 55:45
No, I mean, it’s funny because it does crossover. I mean, I guess that’s why other things come into it, you know, because they’re all connected. And they, it’s a really fascinating time to be going through this. I mean, like, you know, we’re at a really interesting time, for anywhere in humanity’s history in our like, we’re at these sort of peaks that haven’t been reached before. So yeah, I’m really, and I personally enjoy the direction that things are going in for, you know, the environmental future of the planet, you know, like, I think it’s the right way to go. And I think that’s the overriding direction that it has to get when because otherwise, potentially, yeah, we’re gonna end up in a situation that’s going to be very difficult to reverse. And so seems to be heading that way, which I think is a really good thing. And hopefully, we’ll get there as quickly as we can. Safely.
Gene Tunny 56:39
Yeah, yeah. I mean, I’m optimistic. I think the biggest threat we’ve got is nuclear annihilation. So see how that goes.
Tim Hughes 56:49
It’s still it’s funny, isn’t it? Because that was those threats come and go. But I think our capacity to have our attention on it sort of comes and goes, I mean, it’s sorry, the threats always been there. But our focus on it sort of comes and goes with different things. It’s hard to live under that existential threat constantly.
Gene Tunny 57:09
Yeah, very true. Very true. Okay, Tim Hughes. Thanks so much for your time. I really enjoyed that conversation. I thought that was really he really enjoyed it. We got through a lot, and it was a good discussion to kick off the new year. So thanks so much. Yeah.
Tim Hughes 57:22
Thanks, Gene. You’re welcome.
Gene Tunny 57:25
Okay, I hope you found that informative and enjoyable. In my view, the main takeaway is that China’s declining population is a big challenge to the Chinese economy. And by implication, the global economy, it will be difficult for the Chinese regime to manage this declining population. And indeed, it could even contribute to the end of Communist Party rule, if the declining population actually does lead to a weaker economy and hence an erosion of support for the party. Arguably, one thing that Chinese administration could do to help partly offset the problem of a falling population is to have a more liberal immigration policy. Of course, the administration may worry that bringing in too many foreigners may create political instability which could cost at power. I’d note that for countries which are more open to immigration, and also which didn’t have as bigger collapse in the fertility rate as China did, I’m talking about countries such as the US and Australia, those countries are much better able to cope with demographic challenges. And indeed, they’re actually projected to grow over the future decades. For example, the UN projects that the US will have a population of 375 million in 2050. And between 390 and 400 million in 2100. That’s up from 335 million or so today. Before I go, I better respond to a question that Tim had in the episode. Paraphrasing, Tim asked a question about what happens to China’s old age dependency ratio as the population peaks and starts falling? To answer this question in the shownotes. I’ll put a link to a chart from the UN showing the projected old age dependency ratio for China. That is the ratio of the number of people aged 65. And over to the number aged 15 to 64. The chart shows the old age dependency ratio in China will keep rising for several decades, probably into the 2080s. So in China, we’ve got a falling population, and we’ve got rising old age dependency. So that ratio will increase from around 20 People age 65 and over per 100 working age people. So that’s today it will increase from 20 to 90 people aged 65 and over per 100 working age people in the 2080s. It’s expected China will eventually have almost as many old age people as working age people. That’s the median projection from the UN and everything depends on how closely reality complies with the UN’s assumptions of course, that said there’s no doubt The dependency ratio is increasing and China has a big problem. China’s one child policy has meant that too few people have been born in the last few decades, nowhere near enough to keep the population growing and to look after an increasingly elderly population. Many of the Chinese born are the big cohorts after the 1949 revolution, and before the one child policy was introduced in 1980. They’re still alive and they’re ageing. Right? Oh, I must confess that population dynamics are complicated. And I might try to get a demographer under the show and a future episode for a deep dive. If that’s something you’d be interested in, please let me know and I’ll see what I can do. Okay, thanks for listening. rato thanks for listening to this episode of Economics Explored. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you. You can send me an email via firstname.lastname@example.org Or a voicemail via SpeakPipe. You can find the link in the show notes. If you’ve enjoyed the show, I’d be grateful if you could tell anyone you think would be interested about it. Word of mouth is one of the main ways that people learn about the show. Finally, if you’re podcasting outlets, you then place router review and later writing. Thanks for listening. I hope you can join me again next week.
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