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Weekend reading: We need to see a shrink

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What caught my eye this week.

For some people, news that the population time bomb may be spluttering gives hope we can halt – or even reverse – environmental calamity.

For others, it’s the harbinger of a demographic shift that will hole portfolios below the line and lead to a great deflation.

Given the huge numbers involved – billions of lives, trillions of dollars – there’s naturally some debate about exactly when Facebook will have to start reporting shrinking user numbers.

This graph from Bloomberg plots several schools of thought:

(Click to enlarge the population projection!)

I argue quite often with friends – some whom I’d never expect to have such a debate with – about the desirability of a radical reduction in the human population.

I’m all for it. Presuming it happens slowly, and without plague, nuclear bombs, or grey goo.

But many friends are perturbed by the idea.

Some are parents who tell me their kids will pay my pension, and theirs. A handful are religious. But unexpected friends fear it, too. Determinedly childless singletons, and one who otherwise seems a confirmed misanthrope.

Our two million-year-old family tree was populated by those with genes that willed them to spread far and wide (and trimmed the likes of me) so I shouldn’t be surprised.

I suspect it’s also a cultural thing. The very idea is alien.

I have daydreams of half a billion people living in beautiful megalopolises, serviced by robots, surrounded by wilderness, and connected by Hyperloops and electric helicopters.

They see a lack of consumers. And, I suspect – though it’s unspoken – a lack of Europeans.

Bye bye birdies

Whether a plateauing population can save the planet is as debatable as whether capitalism could withstand it.

From the Bloomberg piece:

Let’s assume that their lowest population projection is correct, and global population will peak in 2045. That’s still a quarter-century from now, and population wouldn’t return to current levels until the 2090s — more than enough time for us to drive hundreds of thousands of plant and animal species extinct and perhaps boost global average temperatures enough to bring polar-ice-cap-melting chaos.

The “rapid development” scenario behind that population forecast also requires that poorer countries, well, develop more rapidly, which in the past has meant rising per-person environmental stress.

If India’s population were to stop growing tomorrow but its per-capita carbon emissions kept rising to current U.S. levels (a nearly tenfold increase), that would lead to a 59 percent rise in global carbon emissions, all else being equal.

Before anyone types it, yes I’ve read stuff by Hans Rosling and Bjorn Lomberg. The former is great but very anthrocentric. The latter was weak on biodiversity, as I recall.

Personally, about the only reason I have for not wishing I was 20 years younger – apart from genuine gratitude at the life I’ve had along the way – is the mess we’re making of the planet.

(Oh I know, I know, you wouldn’t change a thing… but think of the compound interest!)

Related reads this week:

  • A good primer for private investors on global warming – DIY Investor
  • The UK just went a week without using coal. Here’s how it did it – WIRED
  • Scientists test radical ways to ‘fix’ the Earth’s climate – BBC

From Monevator

Why I’m saving and investing for the disaster to come – Monevator

From the archive-ator: Getting an income from investment trusts – Monevator

News

Note: Some links are Google search results – in PC/desktop view you can click to read the piece without being a paid subscriber. Try privacy/incognito mode to avoid cookies. Consider subscribing if you read them a lot!1

UK economy rebounded in the first-quarter – BBC

Philip Hammond may be planning the world’s highest minimum wage – Guardian

Ageing population ‘an opportunity not a problem’ say MPs [Search result]FT

London v England: Where does your area fit in the great divide? [Interactive tool]Guardian

UK house prices for April show biggest jump in two years – Guardian

Graph showing market timing returns versus buy and hold.

When does market timing work? – Of Dollars and Data

Products and services

Equity release: How to squeeze money out of your home [Search result]FT

All the big grocers’ online delivery services compared – ThisIsMoney

The best Monzo hacks and hidden features – WIRED

RBS chief admits that free bank accounts won’t be around much longer – AOL

Banking app Yolt pulls in Monzo and Marcus savings – ThisIsMoney

Ratesetter will pay you £100 [and me a cash bonus] if you invest £1,000 for a year – Ratesetter

One in five new Barratt homes to be built in factories – ThisIsMoney

Apple launches Warren Buffett Paper Wizard iPhone game – Mac Rumours

Marmalade Lane, Cambridge: The car-free, triple-glazed, 42-house oasis – Guardian

Comment and opinion

Are index funds really a cause for concern? – The Financial Bodyguard

Rick Ferri on life after Bogle [Podcast]The Evidence-based Investor

Calling the shots – Humble Dollar

Stay rich and maybe get a bit richer without dying: The Permanent Portfolio – Demonitized

Financial superpowers – A Wealth of Common Sense

Coming to a cubicle near you: Human work – Vanguard Blog

Merryn on pension allowances: The truly punitive, and the reasonable [Search result]FT

Should you ever pay off your mortgage? – Engineering Peace of Mind

More: Why we disagree on paying off the mortgage – [Mrs] Young FI Guy

Social Security is an asset, but it’s not a bond – Oblivious Investor

Live a rewarding retirement on auto-pilot – Mutual Fund Observer

Coping with FIRE gone wrong – case studies [Month old, but only just read it!]MarketWatch

Our shared ongoing battle not to buy a Tesla – Mr Money Mustache

What makes a great investor? – Enterprising Investor

Down 30%, is Reckitt Benckiser now good value? [PDF]UK Value Investor

Reminiscences on human nature – Novel Investor

Looking for the next great ROIC machine – Intrinsic Investing

When you can’t wait for tomorrow – Albert Bridge Capital

Brexit

Conditions are ripe for the biggest populist backlash imaginable – Sky

The Brexit Party is a post-politics entity – Politics.co.uk

Gina Miller launches Remain United to coordinate tactical voting in Euro elections – Guardian

Brexit: Not in my name, thanks – Simple Living in Somerset

Book bargains

So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport – £0.99 on Kindle

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard Thaler – £1.99 on Kindle

Zero to One: Notes on Startups by Blake Masters and Peter Thiel – £1.99 on Kindle

The Personal MBA: A World Class Business Education in a Single Volume by Josh Kaufman – £1.99 on Kindle

Get a bunch of financial technology books cheap – Humble Financial Technology Bundle

Off our beat

A one-off injection may dramatically reduce heart attack risk – Guardian

Why you should start binge reading right now – The New York Times

How economic theory can explain the competition between Uber and Lyft – TechCrunch

And finally…

“I’d tell men and women in their mid-twenties not to settle for a job or a profession or even a career. Seek a calling. Even if you don’t know what that means, seek it. If you’re following your calling, the fatigue will be easier to bear, the disappointments will be fuel, the highs will be like nothing you’ve ever felt.”
– Phil Knight, Shoe Dog: A memoir by the creator of Nike

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{ 25 comments… add one }
  • 1 Ben May 11, 2019, 8:14 am

    The wired link talks about going a week without burning coal, not 6 days.

    One element not touched on in the article, is denationalisation by Mrs T. That made it a lot easier to close the power stations, as there weren’t British jobs on the line.

    Website showing current energy mix for those interested
    https://electricityproduction.uk/

  • 2 The Investor May 11, 2019, 8:53 am

    @Ben — Indeed, that was an odd slip. Fixed now, cheers!

  • 3 Gentleman's Family Finances May 11, 2019, 9:11 am

    I have two kids. My parents had six.
    Arguably you don’t need 2 but you certainly don’t need six in this day and age.
    The problem of rapid and uncontrolled population growth is a taboo and it will be very hard to solve.
    In rich societies children are prohibitive to raise but the benefits system in the UK at least means that more is better – if you are eligible.
    In poor societies it makes sense to have as many as possible.
    Until that changes or women are given more control over their lives and bodies you’ll see rapid pop. Growth and subsequent problems like famine later.

  • 4 MrOptimistic May 11, 2019, 9:14 am

    Yep, too many people consuming too much stuff. Accelerating away as India and China evolve globalised middle classes. Capitalism is probably one big Ponzi scheme. Let’s hope it lasts. Incidentally, I think the real danger from global warming is war not pollution; people aren’t going to go quietly into that good night.

  • 5 Norfolk May 11, 2019, 9:59 am

    In our lifetimes, there will still be a lag period even if the growth rate stabilises, because the demographic ‘bulge’ of elders like with the boomer generation today still live (out the rest of) their lives while the new one is adding to the total. So we won’t see a fall in demand for accommodation or anything else really, it’ll be the cohorts after that which will see real change entering the system, like schools closing due to lack of pupils. Our investments will probably be fine then if there’s no wide economic collapse before that. My guess is that it will be decided by the available energy we can access to power every aspect of modern life, because once that falls below a certain level, the current total infrastructure of our lives could crumble.

    Look at rural decline in Europe, countries like Bulgaria whose population has reduced from 9 – 7 million in a generation, or the collapse of the Roman empire on the fringes at the beginning, like in the UK and what happened here following that. As for ‘undeveloped’ places, largely out of the cash economy, in places still with little infrastructure or input by modernity, little family subsistance farms, they’ll probably barely notice. (Unless overpopulated too or impacted by wars from adjacent neighbouring urban areas newly unable to feed themselves) Ironically they may do best.

  • 6 Steve21020 May 11, 2019, 10:23 am

    I’m always amazed at how little overpopulation is discussed these days, seeing that it was such a hot topic when I was a student. I certainly don’t think it’s considered it a taboo subject.
    What makes me feel uncomfortable is the sudden emphasis of ‘consumerism’ being so vital for our economy. I still remember before Sunday trading when we talked of ‘consumerism-gone-mad’ and there were even attempts to have consumer-free days when we were supposed not to buy a single thing. We’ve gone from one visit to shops a week for necessary items to a habit of walking aimlessly around shopping centres looking for more junk that we don’t really need, but convince ourselves we do.

  • 7 xeny May 11, 2019, 10:56 am

    >We’ve gone from one visit to shops a week for necessary items to a habit of walking aimlessly around shopping centres looking for more junk that we don’t really need, but convince ourselves we do.

    what else would we have people do with “surplus” money? If they don’t spend themselves down to zero at the end of the month, they might realise they don’t need to work as much.

    Less cynically, I suspect there’s a lack of anything obvious to do with “spare” cash at the end of the budget cycle, so you might as well spend it.

    The bit I find hardest to understand is the idea of recreationally spending time in shopping centres.

  • 8 Fremantle May 11, 2019, 11:19 am

    Rich countries have birth rates below replacement. The answer to overpopulation is economic growth.

    As for the effect on economic growth of lower population, we associate population growth with economic growth, whereby it is really brought about by productivity growth. Growth is always growth in supply.

    When we’re all rich as Croesus, we’ll be undertaking massive investment in super projects, be it colonisation of the solar system to geo engineering the earth.

    Your megalopolises surrounded by Eden aren’t so unrealistic, but they are a long way off.

  • 9 Matthew May 11, 2019, 12:15 pm

    All species reach an equilibrium maximum population eventually, eventually there won’t be the resources to raise more kids – limited housing, expensive childcare, cost of food, its already happening in the developed world, also epidemics and war and climate change will all put a limit. We have raised the limit a long way with technology (including agriculture) and medicine, and we can push it higher with space colonisation and control of climate change. Overgrowth is self limiting, although it’ll be unpleasant, much like how animals live in hunger and limited space

    If population fell in the long term eventually, in theory there could be more resources to go around, deflation may decrease supply but is self limiting, and its not as if existing houses would get demolished because of it. Governments could give extra support if it was needed.

  • 10 Ben May 11, 2019, 12:47 pm

    @Freemantle

    “The answer to overpopulation is economic growth”

    I’m not sure that’s /quite/ right.

    I suspect its more to do with how growth/wealth is spread out.

    If say 99.999% of the wealth were held by 1 person, and everyone else were living like it was still the Victorian age, I’m not sure the birth rate would be different from Victorian times.

  • 11 Eugene May 11, 2019, 2:12 pm

    Every environmental problem you can think of is made harder to solve with an increasing human population. Human population really is the elephant in the room….

    In places like Africa an increasing human population puts pressure on the environment as Africans cut down trees for firewood and farm land etc. The next time you see a third world charity asking for more money for yet more water wells ask yourself if Africa’s wildlife really needs more Africans?

    As it is the Western world is quite responsible by having small families etc. The third world is irresponsible by having huge families. We then have politicians telling us we need third world immigrants because of the “demographic time bomb”.

    If an increasing population is good for the economy why do countries with vastly increasing populations remain so poor?

  • 12 Ben May 11, 2019, 2:35 pm

    @Eugene

    It isn’t a case of Africans being irresponsible. Its a case of being a subsistence farmer, wanting children to help work on the farm, look after you in your old age, also an assumption that some proportion of your children won’t survive to adulthood.

    African may not be good for Africa, but the fact remains there are still Elephants, Rhinos, Giraffes, Hippos. Most big mammals were hunted to extinction in Europe long ago, and then we had a good go at Africa’s fauna for good measure.

    Look at any measure of resource use for Europeans and Africans. Europeans aren’t the responsible ones.

  • 13 Eugene May 11, 2019, 3:46 pm

    @ Ben

    You make some good points. However how can it be responsible for Africans to have kids that they can’t feed? A farm can produce so much food and if the farmer keeps on banging out kids there is a stage where there is not enough food. The West should really stop interfering with Africa by endlessly giving out food when there is a famine. We’ve tried that method for decades and it just means that there is a bigger problem at the next famine as the African population increase exponentially.

    I’m not saying the West is perfect. However we are investing in renewables and bringing back animals like beavers and wolfs.

    Morally do you think it right if we sit back and watch animals like elephants become extinct in the wild?

  • 14 Ben May 11, 2019, 4:34 pm

    @Eugene

    The list of priorities for an African subsistence farmer is different to yours or mine.

    They probably aren’t saving for a pension, is that irresponsible? They aren’t sending their kids to university, is that irresponsible?

    Should they be learning from our experience and avoiding our mistakes? Yes. I don’t think judging them is justified though.

  • 15 diy investor (uk) May 11, 2019, 6:39 pm

    Interesting article
    https://ourworldindata.org/world-population-growth#the-future-of-global-population-growth
    Suggests the rate of growth is slowing dramatically and will peak at around 11 billion by the end of this century.

  • 16 E&G May 12, 2019, 9:03 am

    A difficult balance to ensure the replacement rate (which is key to our future quality of life, tax base and all) holds up at the same time as the planet. We might not be talking about it now but far enough sighted politicians will be in the next decade and I’d imagine plenty of western governments will follow the lead of your Hungarys and invest far more in supporting families to have children.

  • 17 Kraggash May 12, 2019, 6:58 pm

    I too have been surprised about the lack of debate about over population in the last couple of decades. There is so much discussion on Climate Change, extinctions and pollution, but hardly anybody seems to say the reason for it all – there are too many of us.

    I imagine it is a forbidden topic now (although it was talked about all the time in the 1960’s-70’s) but it should not be. OK, the more extreme ‘solutions’ are not palatable, but when commentators suggest incentivising having more children in countries with falling birthrates (like Japan) I do get annoyed. (More contentiously, spending scare NHS money on expensive IVF treatments is not ideal to my mind…)

    BTW, I often hear two arguments (“AI/Robots will take all our jobs!” and “Birthrates are falling, who will pay for our pensions!”) without the two being connected. Surely, with e.g. 5 people being need to build a car whereas 100 were needed not long ago, doesn’t increased productivity allow fewer people to pay for the previous generations’ pension etc?

  • 18 John B May 12, 2019, 11:32 pm

    I urge people to watch Hans Rosling’s TED talks (https://www.ted.com/speakers/hans_rosling) or visit GapMinder to show that most of your opinions of the developing world and population growth are probably wrong.

  • 19 The Borderer May 13, 2019, 1:40 am

    @Kragash.
    ” with e.g. 5 people being need to build a car whereas 100 were needed not long ago, doesn’t increased productivity allow fewer people to pay for the previous generations’ pension etc?”

    Only if you assume those 5 people will earn 20x what the previous employees earned, and contributed NI accordingly.

    As this is unlikely to happen, and the savings from disposing of 95 out of 100 employess will simply be profit to the company (less capital expenditure on the robots/AI systems), then is there not a case for increasing taxation on those companies to pay for pensions, (and social security for the 95 redundant staff)?

  • 20 John B May 13, 2019, 7:16 am

    Every tax has its own Laffer curve, which determines the take at different levels. And companies are particularly nimble at moving profits to other countries, so we’ve seen a race to the bottom for corporation tax. Companies don’t exist independent of people, if they pay less tax, they pay more dividends, and you just tax that, and people en masse are much less nimble at avoiding tax.

    Private and public sector borrowing helps economies because you borrow against the future revenues where GDP will be higher. Which is fine for institutions, but its less clear if GDP per capita or GDP per resource used will be higher.

    If you borrow to build a motorway, the cost is spread over the larger number of future people who will use it, but it consumes resources, as does its use, and is of much less utility if always congested.

    What I find interesting is that of the 3 pillars of classical economics, Land, Labour and Capital, Labour is becoming less appreciated (by the measure of money spent by companies on each). I suspect this is not merely due to automation, but that technology allows a few bright people to come up with ides that propagate across the world very quickly, whether they are singers or programmers. It depends whether you think you need more inventors for more inventions, or that each invention has its time window to appear, and someone will think of it.

  • 21 The Weasel May 13, 2019, 8:36 am

    @Kraggash

    “I too have been surprised about the lack of debate about over population.”

    I suspect it’s because it goes against the overriding dogma of our times, that of eternal growth. You can solve the supply-side problem with robots, that’s great. But robots can’t play the demand-side.

    Who’s going to consume all the useless tat that robots will keep producing?

    And we haven’t talked about the environment yet. That same dogma seems to assume or at least not care about resource depletion, environmental damage.

    I doubt that just because the last 100 or so years have seen seen an incredible increase in our collective quality of life, this will continue to be the case for the next 100 years.

    But I’m a pessimist by nature. So I’m sure I’m missing something. 😉

  • 22 Ben May 13, 2019, 9:16 am

    “Who’s going to consume all the useless tat that robots will keep producing?”

    This for me, us why FIRE is ‘the future’. Up until now our increasing productivity has gone towards buying ever more doodads. FIRE redirects that productivity to leisure time.

  • 23 Kraggash May 13, 2019, 12:47 pm

    @ The Bordered
    “Only if you assume those 5 people will earn 20x what the previous employees earned, and contributed NI accordingly”

    I understand what you say, and with the current model, it is true. However, the wealth of a society is based on converting low value stuff into higher value stuff (be it metal ore into cars, seeds into crops or intelligence into services). If you can do the conversion more efficiently, then more wealth is generated. This can manifest as cheaper products (So more people can afford them, and e.g. pensions need not be so high), or higher profits, which could be used to pay the pensions. (In the limit, we have the Star Trek scenario, where production is effectively free, and anybody can have what they want, so pensions are no longer required!)

  • 24 The Investor May 13, 2019, 2:12 pm

    I hate to say it with ‘Corbynageddon’ potentially waiting in the wings, but related to the ‘too many trinkets’ issue is clearly wealth distribution. It’s quite possible for a Londoner like me to have an earnest conversation about over-consumption of irrelevant tittle-tattle in the West, followed by an Uber-ride back through some of the most deprived economically wards in Europe. Visiting plenty of once-thriving market/industrial towns in the provinces similarly makes you think there’s still a *lot* of work for the robots to do. But of course, if nobody there can actually pay for it… It’s complicated.

  • 25 Adrian Judd May 13, 2019, 3:18 pm

    If over population results in war, famine and water shortage. What EFT do I buy for that?

    “War, what’s it good for?” Well, it can be pretty environmentally friendly and it could also boost my savings ….

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