the black death & the renaissance

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    A changed point of view is slowly gaining adherents: growth is not benign; smaller can be better, not just from the environmental standpoint but in terms of wages, the standard of living, and indeed of civilization itself. Europe offers some historical lessons about the advantages of smaller populations and the transitional difficulties in getting there.

    The Specter of the Black Death. For the Western world, the Black Death of the 14th Century is still remembered as the epitome of horrors. What we forget is that the Renaissance followed the Plague, and not by accident. The Plague fell upon a continent with a feudal system that had pretty much reached the end of its rope. The inefficiencies of the system and growing populations had combined to reduce much of the population to paupers. There was little dynamism and no incentive to improve. The Plague generated an extreme labor shortage, which rulers across Europe tried to deny by passing laws attaching laborers more tightly to serfdom. It didn't work. Surviving sons found themselves with doubled or trebled land and inheritances. The ratio of land to people suddenly improved, and farmers had spare money to spend and enough land to produce more and better food for the recovering cities, which were themselves stirred by the new opportunities as the guardians of the old system fell to the Plague. It was a time of immense dislocations, but a smaller and richer Europe produced the cultural flowering of the Renaissance. Though the Plague was a horrific way to do it, the reduction in pressure on the land opened the door to that awakening.50

    The horror of the Black Plague lay in its method, not in its results. Population growth will stop. It will stop humanely through deliberate management of human fertility, or it will be stopped by malnutrition, rising mortality and surprises such as the AIDS plague in Africa. Better living standards may eventually result from either process, but the first process offers the hope of consciously opting for a better life, while the second depends upon the descent into misery to become effective.

    Moreover, it is thoroughly uncertain whether the second scenario will lead to population collapse and then to a more favorable population ratio, as happened during the Plague and at other times in human history, or whether the outcome will simply be continued misery at the margin of survival.

    The population policy advocate says, take your choice: is deliberate policy better than tragedy as the way to achieve a better life?

    The Irish Famine and its Lessons. Something of a repetition of the 14th Century experience happened to Ireland in the potato famine of 1848. Fed by that prolific new food from South America, the potato, the population had risen steadily until the crop failed. Then deaths and emigration suddenly halved the Irish population. But Ireland learned its lesson. The island's population was held down by late marriage and continuing emigration, and it is still only two-thirds what it was before 1848. Ireland has not had another famine, and today it is enjoying something of a boom. Migration is not a general solution in today's crowded world—populations must be regulated by managing fertility—but we can learn from the deliberate decision by the Irish to avoid returning to population growth.

    Europe and the New World. 19th Century Europe provided a more benevolent example of population regulation in general. In that case the engine was emigration. The departure of perhaps 50 million workers for the New World raised the living standards for those left behind, but without the trauma of the Black Death. I have suggested that European labor in coming decades will have great bargaining power because of the present low fertility, if wages are not undercut by third world labor that has yet to enjoy the benefits of smallness.

    Growth and Divergent Interests: Lessons for Moderns. The standard argument for economic growth is that it is necessary to create jobs. For whom? For an expanding population. It is a circular argument. Those proponents should consider the lessons above: the law of supply and demand works with labor, too. A shrinking population may reduce the demand for goods and services (and, incidentally, the attendant environmental problems), but it also increases the competition for the shrinking labor pool, and that translates into higher wages and improved per capita consumption.

    Who benefits from population growth? Different groups within each society have divergent interests, and the self-interest of business and other groups is frequently antithetical. For business, growth is an opportunity for profit. The developer profits from growth, but a considerable body of literature is building up showing that the existing residents near the development bear much of its cost: roads, schools, hospitals, police, the whole infrastructure of growth.51 Perhaps worse, they must live with the crowding that the development introduces.

    Business seeks cheap labor, which is hardly to labor's benefit. Thomas Malthus two centuries ago warned the impoverished classes of England that "the withholding of the supplies of labour is the only way of really raising its price, and that they themselves, being the possessors of this commodity, alone have the power to do this." ("Essay on the Principle of Population") In other words, have fewer children. He was, however, deeply conflicted as to how they should go about it except by practicing sexual abstinence, which has not proven very useful advice.

    Labor does not necessarily benefit when business is booming. Indeed, one study of English economic history over the past three centuries concludes that "there was an inverse relationship between social progress and growth... with ordinary people gaining most when growth was checked or slowed."52 In the go-go United States economy since 1978, labor has been left behind, and the gains have gone to the rich. Real hourly earnings (the best measure of the earning power of the poor) actually declined from 1978 until 1995 and subsequently rebounded part way.53 United States official income figures show the lowest 20 percent of households' real income substantially unchanged in that period, while income of the top 5 percent rose 60 percent—and that is without including capital gains, a mainstay in the earnings of the rich. The mean income of the rich thus rose to 24 times that of the poorest 20 percent, a ratio unparalleled in the industrial world.54

    The growing disparity reflects something of a feeding frenzy among the rich. Massive immigration and the export of jobs have also driven it. With this combination, the largest businesses (the "multinational corporations" or MNCs) can go to where the labor is cheapest, or alternatively import cheap labor to displace expensive local labor and drive the price down, as businesses are presently doing in the United States, most dramatically with computer technicians and farm labor. In effect, the MNCs have been able to internationalize the labor market, to operate where it is cheapest, and thus to hold all wages down. Business and its followers herald the movement toward free trade embodied in NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Area) and WTO (the World Trade Organization). The purpose is to permit the free movement of capital, goods, technology and marketing techniques. Thus armed, the MNCs can produce in the cheapest labor market and sell anywhere. They can drive out local competition—businesses and farmers—by their combination of scale, operating efficiencies and deep pockets. They are not interested in population growth, one way or the other, but only in cheap and docile labor, but they profit from a world with too much labor because it keeps the labor cheap and docile. When local labor prices rise, or the docility erodes, they can move on. They leave a trail of wreckage as jobs blossom and then suddenly disappear in one country or another, but that is not their affair. They can evade environmental laws by lobbying against them or, when they lose, move on to more lenient countries. With the WTO, they have even established a judicial process to override national environmental laws that the WTO finds in conflict with international trade obligations.

    This is a world in which all sense of moral obligation is overruled by greed and the pursuit of profit. Growth is immediately profitable, and ideas such as sustainability are simply beyond the time horizon of those with power. Our business and governmental leaders professed surprise when the popular opposition to their gigantic machine exploded at the WTO meeting in Seattle in December 1999. I will leave it to futurists to guess whether the opposition can crystallize sufficiently and for long enough to deflect the enormous political power provided by money and greed, abetted by the popular illusion that growth means prosperity. Business has plenty of followers. About half of American families are now invested in the stock market, and most of them presumably are eager to believe in the myth of perpetual growth—so long as the market keeps going up.

    There should be a way for business and labor interests to be more harmonious—business does after all provide jobs, and business needs labor—but we have yet to find it. For the majority who do not profit but must live with the consequences of growth, perhaps the very inconvenience of growth will lead them eventually to recognize that smaller is indeed better.

    Growth and the LDCs. The people of the LDCs would certainly benefit from a reversal of their population growth, and it is essential if we are to bring together the two worlds that are so rapidly moving apart. If somehow the LDCs could stop and reverse population growth, the misery in which so many of them live would be ameliorated—not just because they could stop destroying their habitat, as I described earlier—but because, like the survivors of the Black Death, each farmer would have more land and each worker more bargaining power.

    That change would benefit, not just the LDCs, but the relationship shared with the industrial world. With the subsidence of the pressures to migrate, the rising tensions between migrant sending and recipient societies would lessen. If LDC wages could eventually rise to something like the average in the industrial world, multinational corporations would find it harder to play one against the other to drive wages down. Freer movement would be possible because it would not be a threat to workers in the industrial world, and the sense of a world in competition might subside.

    But how do their wages rise? As Malthus pointed out so long ago, they have the power in their hands. We can now see more clearly than he did that it must be done through contraception.

    If experience is any guide, family planning would reinforce itself, because it leads to prosperity, and the prosperous tend to have fewer children. The two worlds would not face each other in a zero-sum confrontation. Perhaps (to return to the case of Europe) both sides could welcome a moderate and managed migration to provide the bridge to Europe's future if European fertility does not rise.

    The first and critical step in the process of untying this knot of problems is to jump-start the family planning that would bring the other consequences in train.

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