The Roots of the Recession

When the U.S. Commission on Population Growth and the American Future—a project of President Richard Nixon and John D. Rockefeller III to tap the bright minds of their generation on a pressing issue—released its report in 1975, its cover letter stated “we have concluded that, in the long run, no substantial benefits will result from further growth of the Nation’s population.” Times have changed. Now, research warns about the social and economic risks of historically low birth rates in the U.S. and below-replacement birth rates in other industrialized countries. Two recent studies reflect those concerns. The first of these is the effort of Edward Crenshaw of Ohio State and Kristopher Robison of Northern Illinois University to reintroduce sociological theories as explanations of economic growth. Using pooled time-series analysis of changes in real gross domestic product per capita of more than 100 nations for the years 1970 and 2000, their study finds that population growth is an independent and necessary driver of economic and social development: “The long-run consequences of population growth for societal advancement have been positive rather than negative. Historical population density clearly exerts a robust, positive effect on contemporary economic growth rates.” Debunking Mathusian fiction that fertility growth leads to “adversity, poor labor absorption, lagging capital formation, and poor macroeconomic performance,” Crenshaw and Robison’s results reveal quite the opposite. “As a form of societal investment, long-run population increase forces adaptive differentiation and interdependency on societies, complexities that lead to higher surpluses and social-spatial characteristics that predispose these societies to accelerated integration into the modern world.” Moreover, their study explains why fertility decline might be beneficial in the short-term but “disastrous” over time: “Rapid growth in the dependent population may retar
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