Lots of good stuff in the waves today … I was particularly intrigued to find this March 2003 article by Brad DeLong on population growth, food growth, and the specter of Malthus.
Just thirty years ago, people like Stanford University’s Paul Ehrlich were telling us that the Malthusian Angel of Death was at the door. They assured us that it was too late to stop the famines that would kill hundreds of millions in the Indian subcontinent, and that humanity’s destiny in the 21st century was one of war and struggle for the resources to feed national populations an extra crust of bread.
Today, however, the political flashpoint over food is not that there is too little, but that there is too much. Developing-country politicians and populations complain bitterly that the rich industrial countries are growing too much food.
Brad then goes on to ask, so why is agricultural production still subsidized in so many (dare we say, all?) countries? Free trade benefits all countries, rich and poor, and the political barriers that we erect through farm subsidies, even in such a rich country as our own, can continue to stifle the centuries-long progression out of the grip of Malthusian constraints on standards of living. Moreover, they create substantial disadvantages for countries whose comparative advantage is agricultural production for export, by depressing world prices of agricultural commodities.
Blockages to world trade jeopardize global economic development. Technology transfer is incredibly difficult. It may well turn out that $4 worth of aid are a poor substitute for even $1 worth of exports, because there are few better schools in which to internalize the organizational forms and technologies built since the start of the Industrial Revolution than the school of exporting.
If global development is at risk, then so is the final defeat of Malthus. If the poorest countries stay poor, their rates of population growth might fall much more slowly than the United Nations predicts.