From the Vault: My 1983 Memo on Population Growth
By David Henderson
I came across the following memo that I wrote while a senior economist with President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers. My main duty in that job was to fight off bad ideas, mainly from within the Administration. If I had any time left, I got to fight off bad ideas from Congress.
TO: P.H. Gatje, NOAA
FROM: David Henderson, CEA (395-6982)
SUBJECT: Comments on Population Growth Issue Paper
This paper is premissed on the idea that reducing population growth hastens economic progress. However, the author simply asserts the premise rather than documenting it. In fact, it can’t be documented because it’s not true. Hong Kong has had a seven-fold increase in population since World War II along with substantial increases in standards of living. The United States population has increased dramatically in the last two centuries as has our standard of living. The attached table shows the non-relationship between population growth and the growth of living standards. [I attached a table from Julian Simon’s 1981 edition of The Ultimate Resource; the table showed the lack of a relationship between population growth and economic growth.]
Moreover, the one piece of evidence the author gives on the relationship between population growth and economic progress refutes his premise. The author states on page 6 that:
During the 1960-1980 period, the world experienced the highest rate of population growth in recorded human history, the largest numerical increase in population–and also the highest rate of global economic growth.
Why does the author ignore this evidence throughout the rest of the paper?
. The author states (p. 6) that the crucial factor in the widening per capita income gap between North and South throughout the 1960-1980 period was the greater population growth in the South. The clear implication that the author draws is that greater population growth harmed the South relative to the North. But to draw this implication, the author would have to establish that the growth of per capita income in the South was less than that of the North. In fact, the opposite is true, witness the fact that the proportionate gap is shrinking. We would expect the absolute gap to widen even if the South grows faster than the North, simply because the North started from a much higher level.
. The author states that it is generally agreed that:
The formulation of specific population policies is a sovereign right of national governments.
Does the author seriously mean this? Has the U.S. government reversed the position it took during the Nuremberg trials that government officials who try to decimate whole races of people are guilty of crimes?