Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Falling birth rate is not a problem if we embrace immigration and income redistribution

By Marc Jampole

The recent study by the Pew Research Center that found the U.S. birthrate is falling has transformed a lot of economists and economic writers into Chicken Littles, running around the barnyard waving their wings furiously and shouting that “the sky is falling.” Most of the news coverage, e.g., in U.S. News and World Report and Bloomberg Businessweek concluded that a falling birth rate is a negative, or made unstated and unsubstantiated assumptions that it is negative.

Having fewer people in the world will mean we use fewer resources and push less CO2 into the environment.  What could be bad about that?

What the economists and pundits fear is that the economy will shrink with fewer people to feed, educate, keep well, herd from place to place and entertain. Fewer children mean a need for fewer pediatricians and toy makers and elementary school teachers. The children become teens and there is suddenly less demand for cars, video games, cosmetics and fashion clothes. And as the new generation ages, more and eventually all industries contract.

Continual increases in productivity and energy efficiency make the problem worse, because when productivity and energy efficiency improve, fewer jobs are required to produce the same amount of products and services.  More people don’t have jobs, which leads to an even smaller economy and enormous social problems.

In other words, the common view is that without population growth the economy and society will decline.

This old time thinking may have worked before we realized we were both polluting the Earth and depleting its resources.  But no more.

To address global warming, we have to reduce our output. Fewer people is a far better way to do it than famine, war or pestilence. True enough, we must slowly move to renewable sources of energy and materials, but even as we do, reducing our population remains one of the best ways to address global warming.

But what to do about the economy that will shrink if the population decreases?

The answer is two-fold: immigration from poorer, less developed nations and income redistribution.  If we accept immigrants from poorer, less developed countries they will fill the gap between our current population and the smaller population that would result from no immigration. The population of the world will get smaller, even as ours will stabilize. And while the immigrants will use more energy and resources in the United States than they would have back home, there will still be a net decrease in energy/resource use in the world.

Income redistribution comes into play as we address the growing number of unemployed that results when productivity increases but the population doesn’t. There are several ways to address the social problems inherent in fewer hours of work needed to produce the same amount of goods and services:  working fewer hours to afford the same or a slightly lower standard of living; raising the education level needed for jobs (extending adolescence); reducing the retirement age; free services and goods to the unemployed.  All of these actions take money from those who own the means of production in the form of higher wages and benefits or more use of tax policy to distribute income down the ladder.  The only way for a humane and decent society to address a falling population is to distribute wealth in a more equitable fashion.

Two of the most fundamental principles of the study of economics are 1) that an economy must always be growing to be healthy and 2) a greater population is the most effective way to achieve that growth.  Economists accept these principles as absolute truth, but they are only starting premises—foundation stones upon which the whole of economic theory is currently constructed.

But just as Einsteinian physics replaced the Newtonian version, so must an economic theory that does not depend upon growth develop.  As long as economists and mass media journalists continue to believe and promulgate that growth is always good we will not come close to learning how to create a world in which our energy and materials footprint is small enough to sustain the human race.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The case against smartphones: To get one benefit you make a lot of trade-offs

By Marc Jampole

Virtually everyone I know has or is getting a smartphone. I keep resisting the Siren call, however, because as far as I can discern, the smartphone provides only one benefit and in return, the user has to give up a lot that I prefer to keep.
The benefit is to have it all here and now, and by all, I mean the Internet, email, games, text-messaging, movies, music, directions and documentation such as airline or event tickets. In short, everything that the user is accustomed to getting on her/his computer, DVD player, landline telephone, stereo system, Gameboy, paper newspaper and MP3 player.
The only additional benefit that the smartphone provides over any of these devices is to be able to have it here and now, at this instant, immediately, right now. No matter what the app, you can find an equivalent on at least one and sometimes several other pieces of equipment that do the same thing. The only additional benefit you get from the smartphone is the instantaneous nowness.
And here is what you give up to get the smartphone’s immediacy:

·        Civility: Smartphone use spoils interactions with other people, which tends to fill the time people are not at home and in the vicinity of other devices. Checking a batting average, playing a smartphone game in the restaurant or text-messaging while you’re talking all offend the commonly held conventions of etiquette. The scene of a table full of young people, each on his or her own cell phone, replays daily and nightly in every city across America.
·        Size of screen: The smartphone screen is too small to be of any real use, if you ask me. The miniaturization of the smartphone experience offsets the value of immediacy—I would rather see a larger screen for a movie or TV show, to play a game or even to surf the web.  Scrolling, and especially horizontal scrolling, slows down the search for information. The eyes can quickly review a lot of detail at one time, but there is only so much detail that can fit on a small screen.  Whatever you’re doing thus takes longer on the smartphone than when using a computer or reading a book or Kindle. It’s funny, though, whenever I raise the size issue with smartphone owners, they brag about how much bigger their screen is than those of other smartphone brands.
·        Sound quality: The sound on a smartphone is terrible—and it’s always breaking up. I understand that with headphones, you get a pretty good sound from the MP3s and movies you play, but the sound is only as good as the headphone, and the best headphone never compares to the warmth that the room environment provides to sound that comes from speakers.  Call me an effete audiophile, and why not: there’s nothing I like more than putting my e-width feet up and listening to some Beethoven or Kate Bush from a beautiful sound system.

At this point, I imagine that smartphone defenders are eager to point out that there is another benefit of the smartphone—having everything in one place. And by everything,  I don’t mean all the experiences that devices with larger screens or better sound systems give us better, but stuff for which size (and sound) doesn’t matter, like tickets and other documentation  I travel a lot by Megabus and last time amazed me: half the passengers showed their smartphones to the ticket-taker. I see more and more people presenting the smartphone at concerts, plays, airports, restaurants and sporting events.
But having all your documents in one small place has its drawbacks: What if you lose your phone? Or if some super freaky hacker steals it or buys it hot? For anyone using the smartphone to manage all documents, when you lose it, you lose everything.
Paper tickets are also so easy to deal with: You show it and then you throw it in a shoebox or file or wherever you keep your receipts for reconciliation, tax or expense account purposes.  When you’re done, you throw it out. If you need to have an electronic copy, you just scan it.
Occasionally when I’m with a smartphoner, it’s helpful that she/he can punch out the directions to someplace we’re headed (obviously none of my friends and family are “Applers”).  Other information, e.g., where is the closest Chinese restaurant, can also be useful. 
But these small conveniences aren’t worth the cost.  Smartphones are expensive to buy and expensive to operate, especially if you go app-shit crazy. There’s no such thing as unlimited use on smartphones, which is why Internet service providers love them so much. The more you use the smartphone instead of a computer, the more money the corporate leviathans make.
Many tech writers and social critics believe that we have entered the age of the portable device, and that pretty soon all of us will be managing our lives on that little square of plastic and wires in pocket or purse.  If that’s so, I’ll be the last person that still prints his ticket on the computer or waits for them to come in the mail. I’ll be the last one to present the paper to the ticket-taker. And I’ll be the last one to ask complete strangers coming out of the subway at Union Square where Irving Place is instead of accidentally ramming into a wheelchaired individual because I was looking it up on my smartphone while hurtling up the subway steps.