How large a human population can the earth sustain? Is population growth essential for sustained economic prosperity? Last month, an Ethical Musings' reader inquired whether the US has enough people to support healthcare and other benefit programs for its aging population. Since then, I've given those questions some thought. This is the second installment of my reflections on those issues; the first installment is available here and some background material here.
Sixth, the real issue is not whether the US can afford to provide the current level of benefits to the elderly (this includes Medicare, Social Security, and other programs) as the US population ages, but what type of economic system and what level of consumption are sustainable, given earth's finite carrying capacity. In Ethical Musings' posts such as Expand Social Security? and The U.S. Social Safety Net I've argued that fixing Social Security for the next century is clearly affordable. Healthcare financing poses more of a problem, but is also manageable. However, addressing those problems is to focus on symptoms and not the underlying problems of ecological sustainability and inherently flawed economic theories. That the symptoms of the problems in the US are actually more easily fixed than in some other countries (e.g., Japan has a much more severe population decline and both India and China have huge pent-up pressure for higher levels of economic prosperity), may unfortunately make it easier for the US to ignore the underlying problems, foreclosing possible longer-term remedies.
Seventh, some economists have actually begun to wonder in public whether we are reaching the point in developed nations where full employment is possible, or even desirable. (The term full employment has never connoted 100% of those wanting work having a paid position because some number, usually thought to be 3-5% of people who want to work, are at any moment transitioning from one job to another. Without some level of unemployment, full employment would trigger unstoppable, wage driven inflation as employers competed with one another for employees.) Some economists are beginning to ponder the limits of earth's carrying capacity, the limits to consumer demand, and the consequences of automation on the demand for labor. Household appliances now do chores in minutes that formerly required hours; robots are replacing workers on assembly lines; etc. If these economists are correct, and I think they are, then people must develop new economic systems to generate and distribute income and wealth.
Eighth, generally, a well-regulated capitalist system outperforms other economic systems because capitalism encourages individual initiative and responsibility while avoiding the impossibility of centrally allocating resources, production, etc. Of course, some enterprises are natural monopolies (e.g., providing emergency healthcare) or oligopolies (e.g., some utilities). Other enterprises function best as communal enterprises, jointly owned and operated, but these tend to be small-scale enterprises in which the owners know, respect, and trust one another. Is yet another alternative economic system better suited to the future than capitalism, communism, monopoly, or socialism? If so, what is that system? If not, what form of capitalism will afford everyone an approximately equal opportunity and incentive to work? Past efforts to limit the number of hours per week that employees can work in order to create more jobs by spreading work equitably among a larger number of people (e.g., in France) have not proven particularly effective or productive. In the next fifty years, I wonder if developed nations will reach a point where they can satisfy economic demand if only a third, or perhaps only a quarter, of their working age population are employed forty or more hours per week. How can we best regulate capitalism so as not to create one class of winners (people who work) and another of losers (those unable to find employment or those who work at menial, minimum wage jobs with no hope of ever joining the winners)?
Ninth: God loves all creation. Rethinking economics should also encourage us to choose an economic system that promotes the well-being of earth and of all its inhabitants. Plant and animal species are becoming extinct at unprecedented rates. The interconnected of all life, if not a conviction that God cares for all of God's creation, should motivate our ecological concern. Choosing to live better with less consumption, treasuring relationships and the life of the mind more than possessions, is consonant with abundant living as understood by both Jesus and Aristotle.