links for 2009-09-29
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Ryan Avent Does the Intellectual Trash Pickup: Contraception, Population, and Innovation Update

In the British Medical Journal, Lord Michael Jay and Professor Michael Marmot pleaded that the girls of sub-Saharan Africa get access to school and the women of sub-Saharan Africa get access to contraception:

Health and climate change: The threat to health is especially evident in poorest countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, as the recent Lancet and University College London report shows. These countries are struggling to meet the Millennium Development Goals. Their poverty and lack of resources, infrastructure, and often governance, greatly increase their vulnerability to the effects of climate change. Warmer climate can lead to drought, pressure on resources (particularly water), migration, and conflict. The conflict in Darfur is as much about pressure on resources as the desert encroaches as about the internal politics of Sudan. And the implications for the health of local populations are acute: on the spread and changing patterns of disease, notably water borne diseases from inadequate and unclean supplies; on maternal and child mortality as basic health services collapse; and on malnutrition where food is scarce. And population stabilisation will not be achieved if, for want of resources, girls are not educated and contraceptives are unavailable...

In the New York Times, Casey Mulligan took aim at Jay and Marmot. He said that the "population control" they advocate would be a bad thing:

The More the Merrier: Population Growth Promotes Innovation: A recent study reiterated the conclusion that population growth ought to be controlled in order to combat global warming, and other world problems. I beg to differ...

Why? Because, Mulligan said, a higher population in sub-Saharan Africa would increase the global rate of technological progress:

The authors... exaggerated the benefits of population control... ignore some of the significant economic benefits of large populations.... [T]echnology itself depends on population. Especially important among the sources of technical progress--discoveries--are trial and error, and incentives. Reasonable people can disagree about the relative importance of these two, but both are stimulated by population...

This seemed to Ryan Avent (and to many others as well) to be one of the silliest arguments against women having options for education and contraception ever made.

And he said so.

Now Casey Mulligan whines:

Supply and Demand (in that order): Say It Enough, and It Becomes Truth: I write "The authors of studies like these have exaggerated the benefits of population control, because they ignore some of the significant economic benefits of large populations."

Within hours it is claimed that I wrote "we shouldn't improve education and access to contraception in developing nations"!

Shortly thereafter, it is repeated that I said that "we shouldn't improve education and access to contraception in developing nations."

Obviously, it is too risky to rebut me directly--ie, take the position that it is OK to ignore some of the significant economic benefits of large populations. But why not just ignore my point rather than fabricating something to discredit?

And Ryan takes out the trash:

The benefits of "population control": LAST week, Casey Mulligan wrote what I considered to be a very strange post. In it, he mentioned people who have lately been arguing that making educational opportunities and contraception available to poor women would do a lot of good, before going on to note that controlling population might slow innovation. To me, this read a lot like Mr Mulligan was saying that we shoudn't be anxious to provide poor women with educational opportunities and contraception. He now says that that's not what he was saying. To which I say: if you say so. I'll let readers make up their own minds.

But Mr Mulligan goes on to write:

Obviously, it is too risky to rebut me directly -- ie, take the position that it is OK to ignore some of the significant economic benefits of large populations. But why not just ignore my point rather than fabricating something to discredit?

He accuses me of ignoring his point (or are you actually saying something else, Mr Mulligan?), when in that same post linked above I wrote:

Mr Mulligan has taken a rather know-nothing view of population growth. In developed countries, the demographic transition (where declines in death rates are ultimately followed by declines in birth rates) was associated with increased investments in human capital for women and children. Family planning allowed women to participate in the workforce and increased household incomes, while smaller families sizes enabled parents to invest more in a child's education, better preparing them for skilled work later in life.

In other words, offering women in developing nations better educational opportunities and access to contraception is the right thing to do, and it contributes to growth in the supply of skilled workers, including those most likely to enter technological fields and contribute to innovation. Mr Mulligan's suggestion, by contrast, seems to be that women should continue to struggle to limit family size, leaving developing nations with large populations of poor, uneducated youths, unable to do much in the way of skilled work, and unable to offer much of a domestic market, such as might act as an incentive to entrepreneurs and innovators.

It would seem that Mr Mulligan ignored my point, which was that giving women the ability to control family planning decisions allows both women and children to increase their levels of human capital, thereby increasing innovation and societal wealth. As evidence for this, I would cite the real world, where countries that have completed the demographic transition tend to generate much, much more innovation than countries which have not. So there you have it—one big reason it is ok to be in favour of giving poor households the ability to choose family size, and one more instance in which Casey Mulligan is dead wrong.

Thank you, Ryan.