Mercatus Center pro-growth spin sign and Walter Williams portrait

Overpopulation is No Hoax (duh)

The long reach of the mega-capitalist Koch brothers makes the Wall of Shame today. One of their mouthpieces, Walter E. Williams, shares the shame with his May 31 column:

Overpopulation Hoax

This is a syndicated column. I’ve linked here to its appearance in The Daily Signal, a conservative publication. Note the headline chosen by that publication:

Overpopulation’ Fears Are a Hoax. Here’s Why Higher Populations Are Actually a Good Thing

Fortunately, you can’t fool all the people all the time, and this pitiful effort fails to make a good case. Still, for the enlightenment of those who might be fooled, and the entertainment of the rest of us, I offer a little analysis of its failings.

First, how does Williams’ syndicated column carry water for the Kochs? Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. But he’s also a “distinguished affiliated scholar” at the Mercatus Center, a “free-market” university-related “think tank” (at George Mason University). Mercatus Center was established with Koch brothers money and continues to be funded by the Kochs (along with Exxon Mobil and others). This means the economics department at George Mason is cranking out an endless supply of growth worshipping economists to keep the prosperity from growth myth alive.

Interestingly, Williams’ website makes no mention of the Mercatus Center. The brief bio that accompanies his column also omits that. His bio at Creators Syndicate makes no mention of it, though it does indicate Williams is a fellow at Heritage Foundation, which played a major role in shaping the Trump transition team. Heritage and the Kochs are probably connected via Donors Trust, a donor-advised fund that keeps donor names private. I’m not sure why his connection with Mercatus is kept quiet. Draw your own conclusions.

Second, let’s run the piece through the propaganda and spin detector.

1. He characterizes Thomas Malthus’ concern that “mankind’s birthrate would outstrip our ability to grow food and would lead to mass starvation,” as “wrong predictions.”

I think the jury is still out on that one.

2. He calls Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich’s warnings in The Population Bomb a “hoax” that “resulted in billions of dollars being spent to fight overpopulation.”

Oh my, isn’t that terrible? Billions spent to try to avoid the mass starvation predicted by Malthus and Ehrlich. Gee, maybe that’s why it hasn’t been a bigger disaster, so far.

3. Amusingly, Williams uses a list of regions with both “population density” and high gross domestic product, comparing that with regions that have low population density and low GDP. There are a number of problems with this. GDP is not a measure of well-being, and doesn’t guarantee there will be no starvation. In fact high GDP could result from massive expenditures to keep increasingly expensive energy, water and food flowing. That is no guarantee that supplies won’t be effectively exhausted. In fact it is accelerating the depletion of numerous resources.

4. “The overpopulation hoax has led to horrible population control programs.”

The horrible programs have been weeded out, fortunately. And there remain some excellent programs, though too few and underfunded. Williams presents this alternate fact:

“The United Nations Population Fund has helped governments deny women the right to choose the number and spacing of their children.”

That is patently false. The UNFPA actually works to make it possible for women to have the freedom to choose the number and spacing of their children. Williams seems to be trying out the Trumpspin method of just throwing out false statements and hoping there are plenty of low-information readers who’ll buy it. Our job is to make sure lies like this do NOT travel around the world in the time it takes for the truth to put its boots on. Jonathan Swift had this figured out long before the internet when he wrote (in 1710):

“…it often happens, that if a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect….”

Let’s do our best to speed and spread the truth.

5. Williams goes on to make the tired case that humans are innovators, so we need more of them if we want continued progress. Apparently 7.5 billion is not enough, even though we were far fewer than a billion when we harnessed fire, invented the wheel, and began domestic agriculture. We were, however, over 6 billion before we invented the phony “think tank” to spread propaganda for growth profiteers. They probably consider that highly innovative!

6. I always appreciate a good joke. So here’s one from Williams’ column:

“The greatest threat to mankind’s prosperity is government, not population growth.”

Just a quick reminder that “government” is US! None of us want it to be bigger than necessary or wasteful, but: It’s how we organize ourselves and keep a little bit of order – something that’s necessary when there are many of us. I’m reminded of  the bathroom story science fiction writer Isaac Asimov told interviewer Bill Moyers:

Bill Moyers: “What do you see happening to the idea of dignity to human species if this population growth continues at its present rate?”

Isaac Asimov: “It’s going to destroy it all. I use what I call my bathroom metaphor. If two people live in an apartment, and there are two bathrooms, then both have what I call freedom of the bathroom, go to the bathroom any time you want, and stay as long as you want to for whatever you need. And this to my way is ideal. And everyone believes in the freedom of the bathroom. It should be right there in the Constitution. But if you have 20 people in the apartment and two bathrooms, no matter how much every person believes in freedom of the bathroom, there is no such thing. You have to set up, you have to set up times for each person, you have to bang at the door, aren’t you through yet, and so on.”

The growth profiteers and spinmeisters pushing the Koch brand of “freedom” are shooting that liberty in the foot as they implore us to ignore the perils of overpopulation and get busy breeding more innovators (in truth, cheap labor for their production lines and consumers hungry for their products). It’s pretty damn obvious, but let me put it very simply. The more crowded the planet, the more regulation we’re going to need.

In case you were wondering, yes, I felt innovative, so I took some creative “freedom” with the photo of the front door to the Mercatus Center.

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Dave Gardner

Producer of the documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth. Dave writes and speaks regularly on the subject of growth addiction, including the pro-growth media bias that perpetuates prosperity-from-growth mythology.

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