Bryan Caplan  

Arnold on Clark

Clark, Malthus, and the Time F... Institutions and American econ...

I think Arnold is mis-stating not only Malthus, but even Clark. Maybe it's just semantic, but I don't think so. Here's Arnold:

A bad year for grass (the bad harvest scenario) starves a lot of the herd, which is bad. But then next year, when grass is back to normal, the survivors eat well because of the thinner herd.

So the time frame is an issue. Yes, bad things are bad in the very short run. But then there is an adjustment process back to the Malthusian subsistence equilibrium. And it is during that adjustment process that the "bad is good" story comes into play.

Even if it's just a one-time famine, it's bizarre to see famines as good. In a Malthusian model, a one-time famine reduces population, which temporarily raises living standards when the harvest returns to normal, which raises population, until you get back to the original population and standard of living. In what sense does the adjustment period undermine the common sense view that, on balance, famines are a bad thing?

Arnold continues:

Interestingly, technological change is not good in either the short run or the long run. It moves so slowly that all it does is allow for more population to live at subsistence. But then we hit the Industrial Revolution, and technology finally starts to out-pace population.
Even Clark wouldn't agree. The reason why technological improvement raises population in the long-run is that is raises living standards in the short-run, pulling birth rates above death rates during the adjustment period.

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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Buzzcut writes:

If the rains return the year after the famine, there is more food per person. The average survivor is better off until such time as population returns to pre-famine levels.

Simon Clark writes:

Food production won't return to pre-drought levels absolutely as there will be fewer people to tend the crops and animals, and many crops and animals will have died also. The best we could hope for is for it to remain proportionally the same i.e. half as much food is made, but the same quantity per person.

However, this would be unlikely. If 10% of the population die then there is less scope for the division of labour so less food will be made per person and everyone will be worse off.

Matt writes:

Technology increase causes a near term increase in birth rates?

A step function increase in productivity moves the income distribution to the right. Eveyone sees a surplus, and the buying dominates the selling.

Information prediction theory tells us that the smaller number of transactions will cause the minority of sellers to lead the market, but the market always seeks the natural amount of vaiance as a percentage of market value.

Hence, the result of sudden wealth increase is partially offset by cyclic phenomena until the economy reorganizes to accomodate a return to stability, where neither buyers nor sellers predominate.

But, step function increases in productivity are almost impossible.

Arnold Kling writes:

I agree that it is odd to say "what a nice famine we had last year. Now the for the next 20 years the rest of us are going to have the whole meadow to ourselves." I would not claim that it is what Malthus would have said, or what I would say. But I think that's what Clark is saying.

As for technological change, it might not produce any short-term gain in the standard of living. You're sort of assuming that change produces a burst of productivity. Maybe it produces very gradual productivity increases (because even a brilliant new farming technique takes a while to diffuse), and so it coincides with gradual population increase. To put it another way, maybe population is steadily increasing, and the technological improvement serves to accomodate the population increase, not to cause it.

General Specific writes:

Arnold Kling: "Maybe it produces very gradual productivity increases (because even a brilliant new farming technique takes a while to diffuse), and so it coincides with gradual population increase. "

Except in the modern world in which technology and the use of modern energy forms--in particular fossil fuels--has extended around the world in almost no time at all.

Jason Malloy writes:

Even if it's just a one-time famine, it's bizarre to see famines as good.

We're reading Clark with a wee too much Asbergers. Clark was describing cause and effect with a normative wink (the "blessing" of war, famine, and plague).

We can argue about the cause and effect, but let's not dwell on morbid values that Clark did not genuinely intend to argue. "Good" and "bad" are immaterial.

Matt McIntosh writes:

Malloy is right. At most Clark would say that the die-off is good *for the survivors* in a material wellbeing sense, not good in any absolute moral sense.

John S Bolton writes:

It sounds like a smear job, in the place of a rational argument, along the lines of x's argument can be made to sound as if he wants to kill the poor, since he advocates per capita production as a standard for evaluating economic success. That's a slippery slope equivocation and all set up for the smear job. There must be no rational argument for allowing population growth to displace per capita standards as measures of economic success.

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