Saturday, May 20, 2006

America the (Over-?) Populated

Amnesty. No amnesty. Temporary guest worker. Earned path to citizenship. In all the swirling debate and heated rhetoric on the problem of immigration, there's an important question that is never asked and never answered: With respect to America's population, how big is big enough? How big is too big?

Does the world really need more Americans?

I say, No.

Consider: With our high standard of living and wasteful ways, Americans consume (in absolute terms and on a per-capita basis) an inordinate amount of the world's resources. For example, with only four percent of the world's population, the U.S. is responsible for 25 percent of the world's energy use. Think about that next time you contemplate high energy prices or global warming. Already we live unsustainably. How much worse do we want things to get?

With close to 300 million Americans, isn't it time we said "enough"? If not, then tell me what you think would be a reasonable upper limit.

Immigration accounts far and away for the biggest part of U.S. population growth. Around a million people immigrate to the United States every year; once here, they reproduce at higher rates than established Americans. Why, then, do we never discuss how big we want to be when immigration is debated?

The immigration debate is characteristically replete with illogical assumptions. One is that we can keep on growing forever. Another is that there is unlimited economic opportunity in America. But like everything else in this world, economic opportunity is finite. An influx of workers willing to work for low wages drives down wages in general, and even more so for the poorest Americans. We simply cannot be Mexico's economic safety valve.

As columnist and economist Paul Krugman points out, "the willingness of Americans to do a job depends on how much that job pays -- and the reason some jobs pay too little to attract native-born Americans is competition from poorly paid immigrants."

If we choose to rely on an influx of unskilled and low paid immigrants to do the "jobs that Americans won't do" (as President Bush always puts it), then as those workers assimilate and move up the economic ladder, they will have to be replaced--in perpetuity. Which gets us back to the question of population growth.

America: How big is big enough?

Copyright (C) 2006 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved


At Sun May 21, 12:24:00 PM, Blogger Mike Brennan said...

I ran across a blog post entitled "Doing the jobs Americans don't want to do". Allow me to quote from it:

This immigration bill is being sold on the premise that "guest workers" will be allowed in to do the jobs Americans don't want to do. What are those jobs? Well, I assume they're things like garbage collector, warehouse worker, Taco Bell employee. But think about the words the jobs Americans don't want to do... Like picking cotton, growing rice, cutting sugar cane...? This bill is advocating having foreigners come into the United States to become the new slave population. Instead of letting the market dictate that if no one wants to be a garbage collector for $6 and hour, maybe you could find someone if you offered him $10. Instead of letting employers and business owners come to the obvious conclusion that there is no longer any such thing in America as cheap labor, they are instead importing people from an impoverished country like Mexico, and expecting that they will never want anything better for themselves and their families. The short-sightedness of this plan is in the fact that sooner or later, these Mexicans will want their own tomato carts, their own pizza shops, their own college educations.

And then who will collect the garbage?

At Fri May 26, 05:45:00 PM, Anonymous bert said...

This blog sounds a little like "blame the messenger" syndrome. This issue is not the number of American citizens but how those Americans live. If you want numbers how about 600,000,000 using 10% of the worlds' resouces?

Perhaps the immigrants will bring a new sensitivity to American society. Or pessimistically, they'll be subverted to our "fat" lifestyle.

I still say that people who through no fault of their own are born into poverty are entitled to try to benefit from their rich neighbors. Let the rich decide to be less of a burden on the world.

And impose on employers the requirement to treat workers better. Health and education benefits for starters.

By the way, forget market forces to set wages. The role of a society is to legislate against "natural" forces (hurricanes or market driven low wages) and help the afflicted.

Instead of excluding immigrants, pass a decent minimum wage (living wage) law. And a tax structure that more properly distributes the wealth of our society.

Okay, so my solutions are pie-in-the-sky. My point is that the immigrants aren't the problem. The issue is NOT over-population, but over-consumption and under-labor-regulation.

Let the immigrants come. Let the rest of us be better stewards. But don't link the two issues.

At Tue May 30, 01:59:00 PM, Blogger Mike Brennan said...

It's hard to imagine any probable scenario where immigrants to America don't become, either by design or by default, just like us. It's naive and unhelpful to pretend otherwise. I don't see how a resonable discussion of immigration can be had without discussing population.

And let's not forget that the majority of illegal immigrants are fleeing from countries that are already grossly over-populated. Mexico is a dismal example, with runaway growth: 1930: 17 million, 1955: 31 million, 1980: 70 million, 2005: 107 million. I'm reminded of the Mucinex commercial where the green glob of sputum gleefully proclaims: "The more the miserable." America taking in the overflow will not provide any kind of sustainable solution to Mexico's population problem.

To put it in stark terms, nature has a way of dealing with populations that get unsustainably out of control, and it involves catastrophic dieoff. Humanity sometimes seems to be an exception to nature's rules, but that's only because we're clever enough to delay the day of reckoning: Our dieoff won't properly begin until we've exterminated most of the terrestrial life support systems we depend on.

Wouldn't it be great if the world consisted of a smorgasbord of stable countries with small sustainable populations, with open borders, and happy enlightened people migrating to and fro based on their tastes, interests, and whims? I like the idea of tea time and late suppers; I think I'll go live in England. You like the tropical mountain rainforest; so you head for Costa Rica. Something for everybody. That's the idealistic vision of open borders and free migration. It's also an impossible fantasy.

But your vision seems a nightmare to me. Open borders swarmed by tens of millions of economic refugees. They will come and come and come, until conditions here have deteriorated to where it isn't worth coming anymore. That's not justice. It's insanity.

And how about 600 million? It sounds horrific to me, regardless of whether or not we can find our way to some reasonable use of the world's resources. Way too much of a good thing.

At Thu Jun 01, 02:04:00 PM, Anonymous bert said...

I concede that overpopulation needs to be part of the immigration debate. But it's been established that overpopulation is a consequence of poverty. (Read: economic inequity.)

No one chooses to be born into an overpopulated poor country. We rich choose to overconsume. It still seems to me that "we" are the ones with the obligation to change before blaming the immigrant who simply wants some of what we have.

It's not that I want open borders (except in a perfect world). But how do we do something to reduce the pressure to emmigrate? Especially when historically we have "encouraged" immigration as a source of cheap labor.

Overpopulation is an issue, but it pales next to the problem of economic injustice or overconsumption.

It seems that what you have said is that since we have more than enough "fat" Americans we should just stop letting anyone else in because they'll turn into "us".

I don't know how to accomplish it, but the burden is on "us" to change (simplify) not on the immigrant who just wants to eat.

Given the current situation, they are going to come, as illegals or "guests". At least we can be realistic and try to make the process more orderly.

As for 600,000,000 being horrific - did you miss the part where I said "using 10% of the worlds resources"? Or are you just opposed to more people in general? I suspect the latter and you will probably have to concede that you want to keep the empty spaces in this country empty for selfish reasons.

Not that I am without sympathy. I would prefer to know that my favorite camping sites are unknown to everyone else. But it remains the fact that there is nothing fair or ethical about keeping the best for myself.

So as I said. Overpopulation is a problem. But the place to start is to increase justice and opportunity for all. Only then will people stop pumping out excess babies whose only escape from starvation is emmigration.

At Thu Jun 01, 03:02:00 PM, Blogger Mike Brennan said...

I can't deny that there are selfish reasons for wanting to draw the line on population growth, but it's a lot more complicated than just being a matter of my selfish personal aesthetics.

I reject the notion--whether advanced from a humanistic or a religious or economic viewpoint--that it's "good" to pack as many human bodies onto this planet as we can.

I view overpopulated nations and an overpopulated world as being sick, unbalanced, unhealthy, unnatural. The metaphor--you've heard it, of course--is that humanity is a "cancer" on the planet.

Not only are we expropriating more of the planet than we have a right to (and thereby are denying other life forms what they need), but we are fouling it with our excreta.

I make a stand here because it's where I live. And because I don't think it's helpful for America to be a safety valve to accomodate the lid blowing off of the Mexican pressure cooker. That's just--what do the psychologists call it?--being an enabler.

Not that I stand unwilling to help or change. But 600 million? Horrific.

At Fri Jun 09, 05:28:00 PM, Anonymous bert said...

I'm reading the book "Collapse: Why societies choose to fail or succeed" by Jared Diamond. In almost every case, from Easter Island to the Anasazi to the Vikings to the Mayans and so on, overpopulation and the consequent environmental degradation leads to the failure of a society.

Even the genocide in Rwanda had roots in overpopulation. Too many farmers not enough land for farms. In one area Hutu have-nots slaughtered Hutu haves at a rate of more than 5%. (Total slaughter was about 11%) A quote: "It is not rare, even today, to hear Rwandans argue that a war is necessary to wipe out an excess of population and to bring numbers into line with the available land resources."

So the question is not whether overpopulation is a problem for human survival. In one sense it it THE problem. The question is whether immigration policy is the mechanism to address overpopulation.

If (big if) successful, immigration control could keep the United States' own numbers down, but we too are already overtaxing our natural resources (and taking from others).

So I take your point: "overpopulation must be taken into account when we talk about immigration reform."

What I am objecting to is the attitude that goes with most anti-immigrant policy that it is immigrant (who didn't ask to be born) who is to blame for the problem so we'll punish him by throwing him back into the fire.

I think the overpopulation problem has to be attacked head on. I'll keep reading and see what Diamond proposes.


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