Too many customers?
Steve Mosher writes about the overpopulation myth, still popular in some circles . . .
Warren Buffet apparently thinks you can have too many customers. Several years ago, I went toe-to-toe with Buffet — and won. The occasion was the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. I had introduced a resolution designed to stop company funds from being spent on population control and abortion campaigns.
Buffet, you see, was convinced that there were too many people on the planet and, as the company’s majority shareholder, he was using company money to try and reduce their number. Buffet is not a religious man, so I made the argument in economic terms that any businessman could understand. The Omaha Civic Auditorium was packed with over 10,000 shareholders when I arrived, many of whom Buffet had made wealthy over the years. I was a little nervous about how they would respond to my suggestion to end their chairman’s private war on people. I needn’t have worried.
I told them how the Population Research Institute is a nonprofit organization dedicated to making the case for people as the ultimate resource. “The population bomb was one of the myths of the 20th century,” I said. “Our long-term problem is not going to be too many people but too few people.
“It should be self-evident that Berkshire-Hathaway, like the economy as a whole, is dependent upon people,” I explained. “It’s people who produce the products and services of the various companies we own, and it’s people who buy them. Now you may think that there is a superabundance of people and that we’ll never run short, but this is not true. Europe and Japan are literally dying, filling more coffins than cradles each year.
“Charitable contributions to simple-minded population control programs are not ‘investing in humanity’s future.’ They are compromising humanity’s future, and putting a roadblock in the way of future economic growth. There is no ‘global share buyback’ in store for those who fund population control programs, because such programs will rob the world of future consumers and producers and threaten to shrink the economic pie.”
I had won over the crowd, which erupted in sustained applause. But Buffet cast the deciding vote, and my resolution went down to defeat. Still, I count it a victory because not long afterward Berkshire Hathaway announced that the chairman would henceforth be donating his own money, rather than the company’s, to his favorite causes in the future. Buffet, along with other true believers in the overpopulation myth, remains convinced that population growth is the root of all our problems. Is there overcrowding and air pollution? Blame it on too many people. Are there food shortages and urban poverty? Again, blame it on too many people. In their dismal calculus, more people equal less prosperity. The world, in their view, is simply too crowded; their solution to its real and imaginary woes never varies: reduce the birth rate.
In fact, population growth has been the primary driver of progress throughout human history. While it’s true that a growing population leads to shortages of certain raw materials, goods and services, these will always prove temporary in a free market economy. Innovators will come forward to extract more raw materials or find cheaper substitutes, while entrepreneurs will find ways to produce more goods at lower costs and to distribute them more efficiently to the public. At the end of this creative process — if it’s not interrupted — you will have more goods available at lower prices precisely because you have more people.
Dying populations have the opposite effect. Japan has been languishing under a demographic recession since the 1990s and the government has run up the national debt to 200% of GDP, while deflation is eroding the value of real estate, stocks and other forms of property. There are simply too few customers for all of the goods and services that Japan is producing.
Europe, too, is looking less attractive to investors because populations are dying there as well. Greece is on the verge of bankruptcy because it has fallen over a demographic cliff.
There is an old book, written in the 1920s by an American businessman, called 400 Million Customers. The author saw China then, as many people still do today, as a huge, untapped market. Ironically, the Beijing regime was bragging recently about having reduced China’s population growth by 400 million over the last 30 years. Let’s leave aside the fact that these numbers were achieved by forced abortions, sterilizations and a massive contraceptive campaign.
Think about China’s astonishing economic performance (its annual GDP growth over the past three decades is close to 10%) once the Communist Party stopped trying to control all economic activity. Think of the tremendous work ethic of the Chinese people and their dedication to educating their children. Think of the labor shortages that are now cropping up across the country because of the cruel knives that have taken the lives several hundred million unborn children in recent decades.
Think on these things, and then ask yourself: Is China really better off because it has eliminated 400 million of the most intelligent, hard working, and entrepreneurially minded peoples the world has ever seen? Has China’s Communist leadership lost its collective mind? They have eliminated 400 million customers.
Steven W. Mosher is the President of the Population Research Institute and the author of “Population Control: Real Costs and Illusory Benefits.”