Will US living standard rise or fall in the next ten years?

Some thoughts stimulated by new US census data…

  • Population is an often overlooked factor in whether living standards improve or decline, and also in political sensibilities, conflict, etc.
  • Recall that the big driver behind the 3rd Reich was “room to grow.”
  • Archaeologists have found inequality only arises in communities with over 8000 population.
  • Britain became a great power by having small families and passing inheritance entirely to one or two heirs.
  • China was basically obliterated by western powers during the colonial era.  Its empire completely fell.  Its democratic government fell.  When I was a kid, it was common for parents to encourage us to eat by talking about the starving children in China.  What turned it around was not communism, nor IQ, nor work ethic.  It was their one child policy.
  • The theory of cycles of civilization developed first among Chinese scholars.  See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dynastic_cycle .  This is a very different view than the European view of “one and done.”  I believe, after a lifetime of studying civilizations, this comes from the agricultural and climate patterns of the Middle East.  Rivers change course and rainfall diminishes and salt accumulates in irrigated areas, and a civilization there does not again arise in the same place due to geographic and climatic changes.  Civilization migrated through Phoenicia and Anatolia to Europe.  Italy/Rome repeated the agricultural cycle as the thin volcanic soil around Rome eroded and individual farms became impractical.
  • This is not to say that greed and corruption do not become entrenched, they do, but by themselves they do not cause the fall.  Geo-climatic factors do that.  The first great city, Uruk, existed for 1500 years until the river changed course.  The largest egalitarian community Catal Hoyuk existed for 1400 years until a river changed course.  Catal Hoyuk population was in equilibrium for most of its existence, varying between 5,000 and 7,000, not exceeding 10,000. 
  • However, standard of living and how people feel about life is not well correlated with the “success” of a civilization.  Citizens of a great civilization may be quite miserable.  The problem here is humans’ own adaptivity.  It has caused the species to fail to develop (or to lose) any population set points (feedback set points).  A recent theory attributes this to prey size decline (aka extinction of megafauna) https://phys.org/news/2021-03-human-brain-grew-result-extinction.html .  BTW, brain size has declined since advent of agriculture.

  • The population of the US is growing at its lowest rate since the 1930s.  https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-56896154  What I find interesting is that it grew at such a low rate in the 30s, and that my mother who lived during this time always felt the quality of life in the country improved, not just relative to the depression lows of the 30s, but also relative to the boom years of the 20s.  BG feels the quality of life has notably declined since the 50s (as do many Americans, especially white Americans).  The lower population growth may portend a different future trend. 

Texas population has been increasing fast.  Therefore, there is no feeling of improvement of quality of life in Texas.  The parks I once enjoyed are too crowded to enter.  It is no longer possible for me to enjoy a day at the beach.  One is shoulder to shoulder with other people and the sand is completely packed.  Areas like Canyon Lake require sitting in traffic for one to two hours just to go down a 30 mile road.

It is generally conceded that populations do have a kind of set point in that population growth does increase as wealth increases.  However, this is vastly different for different cultures.  If we are to preserve any freedom of choice in the world, then we cannot permit economists to suggest that we equalize standard of living across different cultures. 

To do so would mean that everyone except the population with the lowest set point would be miserable.

Further, democratic governance requires a roughly homogeneous set point across the geographic region to which it is applied.  Otherwise the lowest set point reproduces at the highest rate and gains control, removing freedom of choice and eventually extincting cultures with higher set points.

Due to this peculiarity, fully democratic governance and freedom of migration implies a downward evolution in standard of living set point.

Notice that people will immediately disagree over this point. “Standard of living” is a qualitative value. One can always choose metrics that go either up or down. For example, healthcare or transportation range may go up, while free time goes down. Primitive people have about 80% free time. Farmers have less. Modern people have even less than farmers. The argument that civilization arises from free time does not actually fit the facts. https://rewild.com/in-depth/leisure.html . If I choose my free time as the primary metric (I do), then standard of living has been declining for at least 10,000 years and no one can refute that except to cite value differences, i.e. to criticize freedom of choice.

Lithium deposits are projected to run out around 2100 if we all drive EVs.  However, if there were only 750 million of us instead of 7.5 billion, a number I’d be much more comfortable with, a number that represented the world population as recently as 200 years ago, lithium would last until 3100, or perhaps indefinitely with recycling.  No insurmountable industrial waste would accumulate. 

There is an interesting chart by country here https://www.visualcapitalist.com/world-population-2100-country/ which suggests countries like Nigeria, Ethiopia, Pakistan and DRC will have a much larger say in the world by 2100 and their values will greatly influence standards of living and other cultural factors.   

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