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Tough Pill to Swallow

The last section of Pete Murphy’s book deals with the tough question of population control. Murphy’s general argument is that while the solution he offers are a tough pill to swallow, the cost of doing nothing is even greater. The pressure to avoid the “population question” is great. In, An Inconvenient Truth, I can’t remember population growth being mentioned once, even though it is a determining factor in global warming.

Murphy outlines two dialectical forces at play with U.S. population growth; birth / death and immigration / emigration. It is important to remember these are not isolated factors, but related. In 2005, for example, there was a net increase of almost 3,000,000 people in the United States.

Although much political capital is placed on the problem of illegal immigration, the majority a population growth is due to the birth / mortality rate and legal immigration. This of course does not mean illegal immigration is not a problem, but if its the sole focus we miss the real problems.

The vast majority of legal immigration is family and employment based. Family sponsored immigration is really employment based, because one of the requirements for sponsorship is financial support and employment. It is also reasonable to assume most of the immediate relatives also come for employment reason.

If one accepts that population growth after an optimal level lowers per capita consumption – standard of living – then our current immigration policies are highly questionable. Also highly questionable are so called immigration compromises that will drastically increase legal immigration. The same economic laws come into play in “outsourcing jobs” as “insourcing labor” . One can’t on one hand object to NAFTA and its effect on worker’s living standards, and then argue our immigration policies have no effect.

The other big source for U.S. population growth is the birth / mortality rate. Even if we got rid of immigration entirely, it would totally solve the problem of population growth. The one thing Murphy takes off the table is abortion. What Murphy directly takes issue with are tax policies, and other economic incentives for high birth rate. For example, currently the federal government offers a tax credit of $1,000 per child. Instead of such a policy, the U.S. could offer a flat credit of $2000 with the credit decreasing with each additional child.

I don’t think that most parents do a cost benefit analysis before deciding to have another child. In poor countries where there is little to no incentive for more children, birth rate is high, and in Europe where family supporting policies are high there is a lower birth rate. I am not convinced such tax credits create an incentive for more children.

Overall, I think Murphy asks some important questions in regards to population growth. This has historically been an issue that has only concerned environmentalists and U.N types. Murphy big contribution is pointing out how this issue relates to both our national and personal economic health. Immigration which tends to be more of an issue for the right, has implications for many issues of concern for liberals and those on the left. How can global warming be addressed if population growth is left of the table? How can Americas falling standard of living be addressed if we ignore our population growth? How can we develop fair trade policies if we continue to ignore the impact of population density? The questions in this book, even if we don’t agree on all the answers, are ones that should be of interest to all Americans.