Home > Economics - General, Environment, Oz Politics > Population: Numbers and faces

Population: Numbers and faces

August 5th, 2010

The question of Australia’s population is finally a matter of serious debate, after years of being settled by default and deceit[1]. As this surprisingly reasonable piece from Chris Berg of the IPA points out, even the Greens, who have generally been willing to “present clear policy where Labor and the Coalition just waffle”, have found this difficult to handle. Berg observes that the Greens are torn between general sympathy for those wanting to migrate and environmental concerns about the implications of population growth.

For Berg, a Big Australia advocate, the issue is simple. Environmental issues can always be fixed by economic growth and “high immigration … has been the fuel of the Australian economy for two centuries.” Implicitly, Berg asserts that more immigration will make current Australian residents better off. The problem, as Ross Gittins points out is that this generally isn’t true. Increased immigration doesn’t raise average income for those already here, and the need for lots of new infrastructure creates all kinds of economic and social stresses. Of course, the costs are even greater in the case of natural increase – Peter Costello’s fatuous suggestion that couples should have an extra child for the sake of the country was a prime illustration of his lack of any economic understanding, despite a dozen years as Treasurer.

So, there is no getting around the dilemma described by Berg. Considered in terms of aggregate numbers, we would be better off, economically, socially and environmentally, with a slower rate of population growth. But potential immigrants aren’t just numbers. They are people with a variety of good reasons for wanting to come here (to reunite with family members, or to take up a job to escape from persecution or just to get a better life). Refusing them admission hurts them as well as those in Australia (relatives, potential colleagues and employers, those who feel a moral obligation to help refugees) who want to welcome them here. There is no easy answer to this question, and the wishful thinking displayed by advocates of a Big Australia does not help to resolve it.

fn1. The most prominent example being the Howard government’s policy of ramping up immigration while playing on racist fears in relation to boat people. Under Abbott, the conservatives are at least consistently anti-immigrant. That makes them less dishonest, if no less ugly.

  1. August 5th, 2010 at 10:36 | #1

    John, do you have a strong position on this matter? I would think getting rid of the baby bonus would be a good start.

    Also, you might be interested in the overview on population I wrote here http://ckmurray.blogspot.com/2010/04/economic-arguments-against-population.html

    Finally, you may have heard about the Young Economists group starting up in Brisbane. Our webiste is now up http://youngeconomists.org.au/

    Keep up the great blog

  2. Sinclair Davidson
    August 5th, 2010 at 12:44 | #2

    Berg link is broken. Fixed thanks, JQ

  3. paul walter
    August 5th, 2010 at 12:51 | #3

    Cor Sinkers, leave an idea or two as well!

  4. Sinclair Davidson
    August 5th, 2010 at 13:09 | #4

    My views are much the same as Chris Berg’s and I’ll have more to say here.

  5. Sam
    August 5th, 2010 at 13:37 | #5

    Oh no another population argument! It looks like Fran Barlow and I will have to stop being friends again.

  6. TerjeP
    August 5th, 2010 at 13:46 | #6

    Increased immigration doesn’t raise average income for those already here, and the need for lots of new infrastructure creates all kinds of economic and social stresses.

    Which is part of the reason why we in the Liberal Democrats (LDP) have been arguing for a paid migration visa (immigration tariff) which could cover the cost of new infrastructure. I’ve proposed a fee of $30,000 but the correct price would need to moderate demand adequately to satisfy political imperatives as well as cover infrastructure costs. Such a visa would also represent a competitive alternative to leaky boats and the asylum process. Rather than emotive arguments about the right quantity of immigrants we ought to shift the debate to a discussion about the right price for admission.

  7. Michael of Summer Hill
    August 5th, 2010 at 13:56 | #7

    John, I tend to agree with Gittins when he says ‘The nation’s business, economic and political elite has always believed in economic growth and, with it, population growth, meaning it has always believed in high immigration’. And whilst in the past the majority may have resented certain emigrants arriving on our shores, today that is no longer the case for we live in a multicultural society. I would argue that much of the venom today seems to be coming from a minority living in the past.

  8. Sam
    August 5th, 2010 at 13:57 | #8

    John, I’m glad we agree that high immigration imposes an economic, as well as a social cost on the accepting country. I also agree that we should consider the plight of those ess fortunate than us in other countries, but I have three arguments against immigration on this basis.

    1 If accepting migrants is an altruistic thing to do (Australia helps others at it’s own expense) it’s not a very efficient way of helping. we could achieve the same reduction in poverty through increased foreign aid.

    2 There is an overall burden on Australians, but Australian capitalists who own the increasingly scarce resources benefit quite a lot from immigration, at the enormous expense of those who don’t. It’s a funny sort of altruism that demands sacrifice comes from poor people.

    2 When skilled migrants (often educated at the expense of the state) emigrate, they make their home countries poorer. Surely we should consider effects on people in the other country who DON”T come to Australia.

  9. Fran Barlow
    August 5th, 2010 at 14:05 | #9

    For the record, Sam, I am not an advocate of either a big Australia or a small Australia, or even an in-between Australia.

    I’m against the idea of encouraging people to have children, or attempts to actively discourage them. I’m for doing the best job that can be done equitably with the people who are born. I’m for a rational division of labour on a world scale and for choosing the best means of ensuring people have ready access to the resources they need to live in dignity and contribute to the pool of work that needs to be done to ensure everyone else gets what they need. At any given point, questions of sustainability could and should be considered and weighed.

    What implications all of this has for population on a world, regional or local scale is something that I’m not greatly bothered by.

    PrQ says that there’s no reason for thinking a higher population will leave us better off. It is at least plausible to arge that those services that are publicly pauid for but not realted strongly to population may become cheaper to supply, per capita. After all, defence costs what it does whether Australia’s population is 22 million or 35 million. So do roads and dams and airports and hospitals and schools (the non labour parts). If the ageing pipes carrying water in the major cities need replacement, spreading that cost over 5 million users will be better than 4 million users.

    I should also say that nobody in this discussion that I have come across explains what a non-big Australia would look like, still less how to get there.

  10. TerjeP
    August 5th, 2010 at 14:07 | #10

    Sam – point 2 contains enough truth to make it an important point to further explore. I don’t have any data but I suspect you are right that the owners of land and capital have the most to gain.

  11. Bass
    August 5th, 2010 at 14:16 | #11

    The argument of Big Australia, frustratingly, seems to assume that the economic, social and environmental benefits and costs of immigration should be calculated on current resource consumption levels.

    Even a delittante such as myself feels concerned that we feel comfortable in discussing population, immigration and population constraints when our CO2 per capita from energy use is 18.75 tonnes and the Europe 27 is 7.92 (not even mentioning the world average is 4.38). This measure is, at best, is a second-rate measure and doesn’t touch on our water and arable land resources.

    Australia seems to take comfort in continually doing less with more and then entering into frank, and frankly delusional, population debates based on assumed ‘resource constraints’.

    I do support the rights of people to be reunited and I do think that immigration is an economic and cultural boon but let us take a moment to build a vision of more sustainable Australia and then have an informed debate on population growth and immigration in the face of real resource constraints.

  12. Salient Green
    August 5th, 2010 at 14:28 | #12

    Australia may have been fueled by population growth in the past but it is now addicted to the High of Economic Growth at a time when we are living beyond our natural limits, and population growth is the hard stuff which gives that High while sending the quality of life and environment spiraling downwards in health.

  13. Sam
    August 5th, 2010 at 14:44 | #13

    Thanks TerjeP,

    What do you you think of point 1? I’m sure as a libertarian you’re suspicious of ODA, but surely there would be one charity out there you could get behind. I’ve seen you plug the “population offsets fund” before on this blog.

    Also, apologies for this, but obviously the second point 2 is actually point 3. I had forgotten how to count.

  14. Michael
    August 5th, 2010 at 15:37 | #14

    Good points Fran.
    @TerjeP
    Why is the argument always framed by what Australia loses by having people come here. Migrants bring new ideas, new skills and new culture which the country can benefit from. If a migrant can prove they brought things of value to the country can they get a refund under your scheme?

  15. Salient Green
    August 5th, 2010 at 20:51 | #15

    Article by Quenton Dempster at The Drum, Population Sustainability and the Ponzi demography.
    http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/08/05/2974670.htm?site=thedrum

    The myths of the aging population and skills shortages are debunked, again, for the slow learners. Apparently Dick Smith bulk-purchased the book, Overloading Australia, by Mark O’Connor and mailed it to every state and federal politician, as well as all mayors. This I found quite amusing as well as being impressed.

  16. TerjeP
    August 5th, 2010 at 21:39 | #16

    Sam – I oppose foreign aid in general. However I reject point 1 because coming to an affluent job market is going to assist the poor more than a handout.

    Michael – I don’t think on balance Australia loses by people coming here. However there are two realities you need to consider. Australians don’t want unrestrained immigration. There are infrastructure costs that need to be paid. As such I think an admission fee is a sound responce. And no I wouldn’t offer refunds.

  17. David C
    August 5th, 2010 at 22:09 | #17

    The most prominent example being the Howard government’s policy of ramping up immigration while playing on racist fears in relation to boat people.

    Spot on. Although I don’t read that widely this is the first time I’ve seen a prominent media figure nail the coalition for their duplicity on this issue. Bravo.

  18. Michael of Summer Hill
    August 5th, 2010 at 22:26 | #18

    TerjeP, you mustn’t forget that Australia had a good migration policy after WW2 at a time when politicians weren’t afraid of tackling the big issues. And yes I do believe in a big Australia and of populating the interior. As for the infrastructure problems, State governments have failed to keep pace with the sustained needs of the populace for donkeys years and I’d wish politicians stop blaming asylum seekers for the mistakes of past governments.

  19. TerjeP
    August 5th, 2010 at 22:42 | #19

    Asylum is a side issue in the immigration debate.

  20. Tony G
    August 5th, 2010 at 22:45 | #20

    “State governments have failed to keep pace with the sustained needs of the populace for donkeys years ”

    MOSH your beloved NSW ALP is one of the worst ever offenders.

  21. August 5th, 2010 at 23:10 | #21

    Implicitly, Berg asserts that more immigration will make current Australian residents better off. The problem, as Ross Gittins points out is that this generally isn’t true.

    This surely just reflects flaws in Australia’s tax system, doesn’t it?

    We know that skilled migration raises average GDP per person – but we know that at the moment, all of the rise in GDP per person flows to the migrant and none or negative amounts to existing residents.

    So the most efficient solution, maximising welfare for all concerned, would be to raise transfer payments from skilled migrants to the population at large (whether through Terje’s system or direct taxation).

    At that point, everybody benefits compared to a restricted system…

  22. Michael of Summer Hill
    August 5th, 2010 at 23:55 | #22

    Tony G, you are correct in suggesting Labor is the offender for after WW2, services and basic infrastructure, like sewerage and curb and guttering, were in many respects non-existent within certain areas of the western suburbs of Sydney all due to poor planning.

  23. Salient Green
    August 6th, 2010 at 08:47 | #23

    MOSH, you say you are in favour of a big Australia and of populating the interior.

    How do you propose to deal with the increasing environmental damage of a larger population especially given that it is far from being addressed ATM?
    Is the current level of environmental damage OK with you?
    Given that energy and other resources will take an increasing slice of our cost of living from here on, how is spreading these dwindling commodities between more people going to help our standard of living?
    What are all those people going to do in the ‘interior’?

  24. Paul Norton
    August 6th, 2010 at 09:46 | #24

    Here’s a brief argument from analogy. Back when I was 186 cm tall and weighed 70 kilograms, there was a good argument that gaining an extra 15 kilograms would provide considerable benefits with little downside. Now that I’m 186cm and 100+ kg, is it still in my interests to gain an extra 15 kg ?

  25. Fran Barlow
    August 6th, 2010 at 09:55 | #25

    @Paul Norton

    Now that I’m 186cm and 100+ kg, is it still in my interests to gain an extra 15 kg ?

    There is insufficient data to draw a reliable conclusion. Assumption that the microcosm has the same attributes as the macrocosm is a compositional fallacy.

  26. Fran Barlow
    August 6th, 2010 at 10:02 | #26

    Of course, the argument for accepting a higher population here need not rely on the inference that Australians would be better off, or even defeating the conclusion that Australians might be worse off.

    It might be warranted even if one could show that we would overall be worse off if one could show that humanity as a whole were better off because Australia accepted some of the burden of relieving human misery elsewhere and that overall, this was a more efficient and effective way of relieving human misery elsewhere than any other policy.

    This line of argument would acquire especial force if one could show that the benefits forfeited as a result of humanitarian immigration were illegitimately obtained, or obtained in ways that aggravated the misery abated by accepting higher immigration to Australia.

  27. Sam
    August 6th, 2010 at 10:16 | #27

    It might be warranted even if one could show that we would overall be worse off if one could show that humanity as a whole were better off because Australia accepted some of the burden of relieving human misery elsewhere and that overall, this was a more efficient and effective way of relieving human misery elsewhere than any other policy.

    If it was the best and most efficient way of relieving suffering it would be warranted. Unfortunately though Fran, it is not. Targeted investments in health and education in poorer countries by richer ones deliver far more bang for the buck. Therefore, we should be putting our altruism dollars into that rather than extremely ineffective immigration programs.

  28. Michael of Summer Hill
    August 6th, 2010 at 10:50 | #28

    Salient Green, my understanding is that much of the past environmental damage was due to outdated European farming methods but new technology is slowly changing the way farmers work with the land. And it is only a matter of time before more satellite cities spring up in the interior given by Labor’s plans to link Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne via high-speed rail.

  29. August 6th, 2010 at 10:58 | #29

    Sam,
    If that were true I would be a strong proponent of foreign aid (voluntarily given, of course). Unfortunately it is not. There is more than a grain of truth in the idea that foreign aid is the process of taking wealth from poor people in rich countries and transferring it to rich people in poor countries.
    Education (and particularly primary education) certainly helps, but in practice very little of the money actually spent is spent on educating children. In the end, it is the institutional framework that matters, so allowing immigrants in here is the best way for us to help the individuals concerned. Of course, that means that there is a net brain drain (as it is generally the educated that leave) from their own countries, so really we are in the short run hurting those left there.
    In the long run, with improved communication back to the original country resulting from that immigration it probably helps, though.

  30. Fran Barlow
    August 6th, 2010 at 11:00 | #30

    @Sam

    If it was the best and most efficient way of relieving suffering it would be warranted. Unfortunately though Fran, it is not. Targeted investments in health and education in poorer countries by richer ones deliver far more bang for the buck.

    I dion’t think you can make this general claim. Clearly, in some cases, and perhaps many, this would be so but in others it would not. Issues such as the carrying capacity of the land, quality fo governance, existing relations between communities and so forth are pertinent.

    I seriously doubt that a place such as Afghanistan for example will ever be viable with 30m + people in it. I also doubt that there is anything like the underpinning cultural consensus there to establish a viable regime on any timeline of pertinence to people there. Pouring in resources would not change that, and could aggravate the internecine animus.

  31. August 6th, 2010 at 11:18 | #31

    Fran,
    “[E]ver” is a very, very long time. Try telling anyone two centuries ago that the world would reach and maintain dietary sufficiency (once, obviously, you had explained the concept to someone not versed in modern phraseology) with a population of over 6 billion (or thousand million in the UK at the time) and they would probably have laughed in your face – yet it has happened.
    I would agree with you on the now, though – pouring in resources to any country without a government that is capable of running a system of justice is a recipe for making things even worse.

  32. Fran Barlow
    August 6th, 2010 at 11:53 | #32

    @Andrew Reynolds

    “[E]ver” is a very, very long time. Try telling anyone two centuries ago that the world would reach and maintain dietary sufficiency [...]

    Well I said I doubted it. Ever is a very long time, but even allowing technology in 100 years might be two or three times as good at producing the complex resources humans need to live well, doing it in Afghanistan would be doing it the hard way.

    It’s also reasonbale to ask how far ahead into time we think it relevant to speculate on human welfare and policy. I’m happy to consider ensuring that everyone who could be known by anyone who could be alive before I died ought to be considered. That pusshes the window out to berhaps 200 or maybe 250 years — i.e 2260 CE. After that (and indeed quite a bit before that), there are way too many assumptions to make more than general claims about what would be best policy and how that might play out.

    I am by no means convinced that in 2260 human society will be around or that if it is, most humkans will live as well as we do now or in anything like the numbers we have now. It’s entirely conceivable that the biosphere will have been utterly trashed and that massive squabbling over access to resources will have led to catastrophic reversals in human life chances on a scale that would qualify as a near extinction level event. I see little evidence that the boss classes of the world are contemplating the state of the world beyond about 2040-2050 in any serious way — i.e. allocating substantial resources to a project aimed at securing benefit beyond that horizon.

    That’s “ever” enough for me.

  33. Jim Birch
    August 6th, 2010 at 13:15 | #33

    @Sam

    Also, apologies for this, but obviously the second point 2 is actually point 3. I had forgotten how to count.

    Mathematical illiteracy is a common enough affliction but no one ever admits to it in the comments sections of economics blogs. This is possibly a world first.

  34. Sam
    August 6th, 2010 at 13:18 | #34

    @Fran Barlow
    I don’t have to make the general claim. Can you find bad places to invest development dollars? Sure. But you can also find good places. I’m thinking Malawi, Rwanda, Gabon, Bangladesh, Vietnam and lots more where quite small programs can dramatically improve lives. And funding family planning services helps people out of poverty wherever you go. You could help more people in more desperate need, for much less money than through immigration.

  35. Fran Barlow
    August 6th, 2010 at 13:55 | #35

    @Sam

    I don’t have to make the general claim. [...] You could help more people in more desperate need, for much less money than through immigration.

    I think you need to make the general claim to sustain your words below:

    Targeted investments in health and education in poorer countries by richer ones deliver far more bang for the buck. Therefore, we should be putting our altruism dollars into that rather than extremely ineffective immigration programs.

    In some cases, this will prove correct, but you assert it as a general proposition, when the matter needs to be derived from the situation in each particular context.

  36. Sam
    August 6th, 2010 at 14:10 | #36

    This site http://www.givewell.com.au/ evaluates aid effectiveness. It gives estimates as low as $1000 per statistical life saved for some 3rd world charities. Other projects are worse, but we know which ones are good and which ones are bad, so we can go only with the most effective. The cost of immigration is very high, and almost none of the migrants (apart from refugees) are having their lives saved. So by this measure, aid is better than immigration.

  37. Salient Green
    August 6th, 2010 at 14:22 | #37

    MOSH @ 27, Is that the best answer you CAN give or the best answer you’re going to give? I’m inviting answers from any others who have MOSH’s view in supporting population growth.

  38. Michael of Summer Hill
    August 6th, 2010 at 14:50 | #38

    No Salient Green, I could have said something about Labor’s RLCIP programs and WA Government injection of $644million into developing regional Western Australia under the Royalties for Regions program but I’m sure you already know that. But then I might be wrong.

  39. Fran Barlow
    August 6th, 2010 at 15:15 | #39

    @Sam

    It gives estimates as low as $1000 per statistical life saved for some 3rd world charities.

    Assuming that the benchmark is lives saved rather than dignified and secure existence enabled. These are quite different benchmarks. While saving lives is admirable and a necessary condition to what we would surely want, at a minimum, which is dignified and secure existence it is not sufficient. If one can’t have the second, then one might as well not have the first.

    Immigrants tend to remit funds to their extended families and kin groups in their countries of origin, and this is a very effective form of aid, in terms of transaction costs, so you get both the benefits of aid and the enhanced life chances in the host country.

    It is clear that in a locality such as Afghanistan, aid could not be systematically delivered without massive military support, and in any event some of the footprint of aid is making things worse. There is for example, now lethal conflict between those seeking to profit from “protecting” aid operations. Aid is reinforcing criminal networks and causing deaths.

  40. Salient Green
    August 6th, 2010 at 15:40 | #40

    MOSH, I have to assume that you are incapable of addressing my questions because you know the answers would prejudice your Big Australia ideology. I have often posed specific questions such as those (#22) to growth fetishists and never have I been given a straight answer.
    Those who support population growth give tacit support to current, as well as future increasing environmental damage from poisons, sprays, heavy metals, emissions, nutrient overloads, deforestation, erosion and mining for increasingly scarce resources.

    Anyone who is comfortable with damning our descendents to a world much diminished in resources, biodiversity and environmental health because they thought a Big Australia is a good idea, is IMHO, contemptible.

  41. Michael of Summer Hill
    August 6th, 2010 at 15:53 | #41

    Salient Green, I have read some of your other comments and will conclude here.

  42. David Barry
    August 6th, 2010 at 16:10 | #42

    @Sam
    You’ve linked to the wrong GiveWell. The Australian GiveWell appears to have a collection of basic financial details on charities; the one you want is at http://www.givewell.org .

  43. Sam
    August 6th, 2010 at 16:27 | #43

    @Fran Barlow
    So don’t do Afghanistan. You’re picking a country which is very difficult to properly help. You should be thinking of a country where aid is easy to do and has a good track record (the ones I already listed).

    If you want to dignify lives, then put funding into female education. Or family planning. Or eye surgery. Or micronutrients. Or mosquito nets (how much more dignified are people who don’t have to suffer malaria 3 months of every year?). Or infrastructure. The law of diminishing returns in an imperfect world means it is far easier to help people in countries with very bad conditions up to a tolerable standard, than to go from tolerable to first world.

    The benefits from reduced transaction costs by remitting migrants are hugely overstated. You have to look at what the recipients spend their money on. It’s not mosquito nets, it’s Rangerovers. Overall aid efficacy is dozens or hundreds of times higher than that achieved through migration programs, the transaction cost is a rounding error.

  44. Sam
    August 6th, 2010 at 16:27 | #44

    Thanks Dave

  45. Judith Sloan
    August 6th, 2010 at 16:45 | #45

    JQ is correct in his prediction of the impact of immigration. The Productivity Commission undertook a major empricial piece of work in 2006 (using a GE model). The report was entitled, Economic Impacts of Migration and Population Growth.

    The major findings were:

    The impact of higher population growth induced by higher immigration on per capita income is negligible and, indeed, initially negative.

    If there are any gains from immigration, they are captured by the migrants themselves and the owners of capital. Local workers lose out.

    Certainly, the positive and negative externalities are not well modelled – eg. diaspora, benefits of multicultural society, loss of social amenity, congestion. But at best these probably balance out.

    The ‘big Australia’ economists will often emphasise economies of scale; I’m not convinced – they are likely to be more prevalent in the traded good sector and so having a large domestic market is irrelevant. Service industries requiring contiguity between service providers and recipients will not demonstrate economies of scale.

  46. Peter T
    August 6th, 2010 at 17:02 | #46

    The macro and the micro do not connect at all in this area. If we admit limits to sustainability (ecological, economic, social, political…) then there has to be some limit to immigration. And there is surely some crossover point – varying over time – between benefits and drawbacks. Yet the people on one side of the crossover point or the limit are not become less deserving, or less important to their families, or less skilled. Prospective migrant 100,001 will be as deserving as accepted migrant number 100,000.

    So any number is arbitrary and unjust in terms of the people involved. It has to be decided on the basis what Australia can support long-term, and this has to take into account the issues arising from the people here and what they want. I see little sign, for instance, in the country towns, that the ever-emptier inland is much of a magnet for anyone.

  47. Michael of Summer Hill
    August 6th, 2010 at 17:54 | #47

    Judith Sloan, I tend to agree with Harry Clarke that skilled migrants tend to enrich the community. But in passing it would be interesting to see whether the shape of the butterfly effect was in fact a pear (under the Howard years) encompassing only the lowly skilled workers having little or no transferrable skills and the main reason why Labor since 2007 embarked upon an upskilling program.

  48. Alice
    August 6th, 2010 at 18:26 | #48

    There is a particularly pernicious aspect to icreasing immigration – without investment in public transport – or better road transport particularly in large cities where migrants have shown historically – at least initially they would rather be. Its not immigration levels per se. If governments wont accommodate them with transport and housing plans the whole thing will just cause trouble. It seems to me the NSW Labor Govt has been totally woeful in this regard (planning for the future, planning for an increased poulation). Thats the thing that probably annoys most people about it. If we cant get to work now because of traffic gridlock – what point to allowing more on the roads.

    At some point we have to start thinking about the concrete pylons, freeways – even if those freeways have also rail on them. At some point in time the concrete pylons need to be sunk into people’s backyards, land resumed and the whole grid lifted into the air. If wed ont we are sunk. Its pretty obvious. If we are approaching peak oil and car use in decline – then fine – we can use the transport grid for fast public transport – rail or other.

    But the plans need to be made now. They are wasting our time tinkering around the edges. We need a Hitler autobahn vision and we need it now.

  49. paul of albury
    August 6th, 2010 at 18:58 | #49

    @23,@24,@28 Are there any metrics of environmental damage over Australia’a history? Like MOSH I suspect the rate of environmental degradation was far higher back when our population was very much smaller. But I can’t imagine it being measured in the past when it was seen as ‘improvement’.
    That doesn’t mean that an increase in population won’t put more stress on the environment but if true it would break PN’s analogy (unless he argued the population of 100-200 years ago was too thin to properly maintain the land which would be a very perverse characterisation).
    As important as how many of us there are is how we choose to live. And is it sustainable in the long term to choose to live in a way that isn’t sustainable globally – if we can’t support everyone to Australian standards are we sticking our heads in the sand maintaining fortress Australia?

  50. SJ
    August 6th, 2010 at 19:29 | #50

    @paul of albury

    Like MOSH I suspect the rate of environmental degradation was far higher back when our population was very much smaller.

    Here’s one measure: area under crops. (It’s the second graph, not the first one).

    The rate of land clearing goes both up and down over time.

  51. Salient Green
    August 6th, 2010 at 20:59 | #51

    SJ, excellent link.
    Paul of Albury, environmental degradation is a far wider problem than SJ’s link covers and it matters not one little bit that greater degradation occurred when our population was smaller. This is a red herring. We should and do know better than they did and yet the damage continues.

    Most of the toxins put into our environment by Human civilisation are known but the effects are scarcely monitored. All of Australia’s fisheries are fully or over-exploited while industrial, residential and agricultural runoff, as well as degradation of fish hatcheries by settlement of coastal areas means that our oceans are under threat.

    Environmental degradation includes the rainforest timber coming into Australia which is causing deforestation around the world including the threat to Orangutans.

    Environmental degradation includes the smothering of seagrasses by the out flow of stormwater from cities. These seagrasses are the breeding and feeding grounds of numerous fish species.

    Every environmental problem in this world has to be blamed mostly on cities as that’s where the people are and it’s people that cause environmental degradation.

  52. Donald Oats
    August 6th, 2010 at 21:00 | #52

    @Salient Green
    Indeed.

    Personally, I wonder what people’s reaction would be if the population growth debate is framed along the lines of:
    “We are making an implicit choice for every extra billion (or 100 million, or whatever) of people we add to the Earth, namely which species should be extinguished next. We are clearly displacing species and/or intruding upon their domains. The extinction rate is expected to rise further as we add more billions of people. At some point the drop in diversity of species will make itself felt, even as anthropogenic global warming continues unabated. While technology will continue to advance, it is unlikely that humans will be able to resurrect the anthropogenic extinguished mid-size animals and for that matter plants, any time soon.”

  53. paul of albury
    August 6th, 2010 at 21:11 | #53

    Interesting info in that link on clearing – around 910000 km2 since 1788 and around 4000 km2 each year in the 90s which suggests in the 90s clearing was pretty close to the mean rate since 1788. Maybe it’s completely independent of population?
    Under crops is around 240000 km2 – about 1/3 of the total.
    It says ‘since 1788, over 700,000 km2 (about 20%) of woodland and forest have been cleared or thinned’ which implies around 80% of woodland and forest still exists unchanged since 1788 – this seems surprisingly optimistic?

  54. SJ
    August 6th, 2010 at 21:49 | #54

    @paul of albury

    this seems surprisingly optimistic?

    The ABS rarely gets things wrong. Bear in mind that most of Australia is desert. Of the bits that aren’t desert, northern WA, northern NT and most of north QLD are still uncleared.

  55. paul of albury
    August 6th, 2010 at 22:06 | #55

    Yes but that 20% is specifically for forest and woodland – there’s other figures for other types. I don’t buy that 80% of 1788 forest and woodland has not been cleared or even thinned

  56. SJ
    August 6th, 2010 at 22:28 | #56

    Take it up with the ABS :)

  57. Rich C
    August 7th, 2010 at 04:52 | #57

    I’m very surprised to see John’s endorsement of Gittin’s argument on the narrowly economic consequences of immigration. Gittin’s seems to only site one study (from the Productivity Commission, which (I’m from the US) I assume is regarded as authoritative). I’m not expert in this field, but there has been quite a lot of academic research on the growth and distributive effects of immigration in the US, which uniformly show that immigration increases income on average for all groups of non-immigrant workers except (perhaps, there’s a division among the sources on this) for the least educated (w/o a high school diploma). Moreover, I don’t understand why immigration would necessarily trigger infrastructure expenditures in excess of the tax revenues generated by the immigrants coming to and working in Australia. I mean, its possible that the increased demand for services (as opposed to infrastructure) from immigrant families could be greater than their tax burden; for instance, if immigrants typically have many school aged children, or are especially likely to fall ill, and if they earn low wages while Australia has a very progressive tax system. But at least in the US, essentially all credible studies show that immigrants pay taxes in excess of the value of the services immigrants receive. Maybe its all different in Australia, but it would be interesting to know why.

  58. jquiggin
    August 7th, 2010 at 08:02 | #58

    The PC conclusion is consistent with the Australian research I’ve seen, though I have never studied this really closely. Can you point to a good US summary?

    The obvious point with infrastructure is the accelerator principle, which was set out pretty well by Mark O’Connor on ABC the other day. If the capital-output ratio is 4 and migration is adding 1 per cent to the population every year, that’s 4 per cent of national income that has to be allocated to new investment just to keep the capital stock in line with the labor force.

  59. paul walter
    August 7th, 2010 at 08:24 | #59

    Yes Paul of Albury You DO have a point, because what’s gone the last century or two, is the best of it. Huon Pine, Red Cedar, all the BEST stuff, in the best catchments, has been got at systematically. Nor is ABS measuring environmental degradation, that I can see and how much of Australia under timber is now actually just forestry of exotics, alien to local ecosystems .
    The effect on entire ecostystems when just a couple of links in the chain are broken, are not considered, until the water dries up or the topsoils are blown away.

  60. billie
    August 7th, 2010 at 11:08 | #60

    Not sure I see the value of US research into the value of immigration into that economy. Generally Australians use American figures when there is insufficient local data. Katharine Bett at Swinburne University has been studying immigration and its effect on Australian society for many years

  61. Tony Abbott for PM
    August 7th, 2010 at 11:18 | #61

    I would consider myself to be on the far right on a conventional political spectrum. However, on the issue of immigration I would be more than happy to vote greens if they advocated for a 0 immigration policy. Of course my underlying rationale for 0 immigration would be different to that of the greens. This is why i see the political spectrum as not being a horizontal linje, but a circle. Often the far left and far right ultimately want similar things but for entirely different reasons.

  62. Fran Barlow
    August 7th, 2010 at 11:50 | #62

    @Tony Abbott for PM

    Often the far left and far right ultimately want similar things but for entirely different reasons.

    The Greens are not the far left. They are the liberal humanitarian left. Speaking as a fully paid up member of the far left, with one possible policy exception*, there is nothing that you and I could want that would be similar.

    Moreover, having different reasons to want the same outcome is not irrelevant because it goes to how the things you want are implemented. Means are important, because they are part of the character of policy.

  63. Jim Rose
    August 7th, 2010 at 14:14 | #63

    @Fran Barlow
    There is a lot of common ground between the Australian Greens, Hanson’s One Nation, and the Australian Democrats. They are economic nationalists. They all seek:
    • Reductions in foreign ownership
    • Tariffs, quotas, import taxes and other import controls
    • A reduction in Australia’s involvement in multinational agreements designed to liberalise trade and promote investment
    • Re-regulation of the financial sector.
    • Selective other industry assistance targeted at exporters, import-competing businesses, rural businesses, small businesses, high-tech businesses, manufacturers, ‘environmentally-sustainable’ businesses, and ‘growth industries’.
    • antipathy to elements of competition policy,
    • Antipathy to privatization, at least of some industries.
    • The reduction of immigration or a policy of zero net immigration.

    In France, that vile Fascist Le Pen had a solid base in the working class suburbs and the communist heartlands. Le Pen used populist rhetoric against globalisation and profited politically and ideologically from the abandonment of the working class and its interests by the parties that claimed to represent it.

  64. Alice
    August 7th, 2010 at 14:19 | #64

    @Jim Rose
    JR – your para two doesnt extend from para one by any logical reasoning. Vile leaders can emerge from any regime…..most vile (evil too) leaders emerge through coups and ceding too much power to the military.

  65. Jim Rose
    August 7th, 2010 at 14:35 | #65

    @Alice
    On Le Pen, the fascists and communists hated each other in Europe in the 1920s and 193Os and still do for practical reasons. They were both competing for working class support.

    Both those further to the left and to the right have anti-capitalist tendencies and play on in-group fears of outsiders and all things foreign.

    I see that you have nothing to say on the common economic nationalism of the greens and one nation.

  66. paul of albury
    August 7th, 2010 at 15:30 | #66

    JR @63. Globalisation as currently implemented is about globalising capital only. Personally I take an internationalist perspective and think we need free movement of people as well (subject to appropriate monitoring for quarantine, apprehension of criminals etc). At the moment the global economy privileges capital over people and partly depends on having populations stuck in what are sweatshop countries to provide cheap labour.
    Until we allow free movement of people we should not allow totally free movement of capital.
    I’m sure there are many nationalist green supporters who would prefer to stop globalisation but from my perspective globalisations purported supporters are fakes who only want the limited globalisation that suits their interests.
    I’m kind of surprised the right don’t support people’s right to choose what political body they want to live under – we don’t have a vote every 3 years to decide on Coles or Woolies, we vote with our feet. At the moment the wealthy can do this but the poor are prevented.

  67. Alice
    August 7th, 2010 at 15:54 | #67

    @Jim Rose
    Come to think of it JR I bet you never thought evil leaders (or vile leaders) would emerge from private sector ownership and property rights either??
    Then try Leopold 2 of Bavaria

    “Leopold II was King of Belgium from 1865-1909. With financial support from the government, Leopold created the Congo Free State, a private project undertaken to extract rubber and ivory in the Congo region of central Africa, which relied on forced labour and resulted in the deaths of approximately 3 million Congolese. The regime of the Congo Free State became one of the more infamous international scandals of the turn of the century. The area of land privately owned by the King was an area 76 times larger than Belgium, which he was free to rule as a personal domain through his private army, the Force Publique. Leopold’s rubber gatherers tortured, maimed and slaughtered until at the turn of the century, the conscience of the Western world forced Brussels to call a halt.”

  68. Alice
    August 7th, 2010 at 15:55 | #68

    Sorry thats “Leopold 2 of Belgium” above. I must be getting Leopold mixed up with Vlad the Impaler!

  69. Alice
    August 7th, 2010 at 16:00 | #69

    @Jim Rose
    I actually think a little less pof the globalisation charade and a little more attention to what is going on in the domestic economy wouldnt go astray JR. If you call it nationalisation – then nationalisation is what is needed (especially when the unemployment rate facing our kids between 15 and 19 looking for jobs is now 16 percent!)

    Thats hardly a good start to their lives trying to build wealth is it. Its also not a good start for innovation in this country if close to one in five kids looking is facing trouble getting work.
    There is no comparative advantage for the majority of the domestic residents if you put all your eggs in one or two baskets (mining and coal).

  70. August 7th, 2010 at 16:03 | #70

    @Jim Rose

    The problem Jim is your assumption that the Greens/Democrats on one side and Hanson on the other represent far left and right. Both are committed unconditionally to the health of Australian capitalism, though they have different approaches to conceiving of how its health might be buttressed. The Greens and to some extent the Democrats are liberal communitarian populists, whereas One Nation were reactionary, moralistic and xenophobic communitarian populists. So it is not surprising that they share some policy despite visceral animus in some fields. It is telling that the Greens are blocking with the Nationals over foreign ownership of farmland.

    Far leftists are indifferent to the fate of Australian capitalism.

    The fact that fascists and ostensible communists are competing for a plebeian base does not mean that they share ideas, though in France it was and is the case that the PCF has acquired some of the poisonous xenophobia that marks the ruling elite. It has been a very long time since the “C” in PCF referred to anything one could fairly call “communist”.

    They are essentially a social-democratic party these days, and not a particularly left-of-centre one either.

  71. Alice
    August 7th, 2010 at 16:04 | #71

    @paul of albury
    I agree – isnt it amazing how globalisation proponents cant get their head around the fact that labour represents about 70% of the cost of a product (hence price) yet labour is not free at all to go where it wants. In fact many globalisation proponents on the right also want to turn the boat people back and have a zero immigration policy.

    Work that one out??

  72. Jim Rose
    August 7th, 2010 at 16:30 | #72

    @Alice
    From 1885 until 1908 Leopold II was not only the King of Belgium but also the personal owner of the Congo Free State. Whereas in Belgium he improved living conditions, in the Congo he established a brutal tyranny.

    Policy outcomes are a function of governance institutions.

    Under Belgium’s governmental institutions Leopold II required broad support from the general public but in the Congo he only needed a very small group of supporters.

    Congolese leader Mobutu Sese Seko was also vicious because he too needed a very small group of supporters.

    Because Leopold and Mobutu both governed the Congo with a small coalition, they should have produced similarly corrupt and kleptocratic regimes with little attentiveness to the general welfare of their respective subjects.

    Bueno de Mesquita’s The Logic of Political Survival (2003) uses Leopold II as a case study.

    See also Leopold II and the Selectorate: An Account in Contrast to a Racial Explanation by the same author in Historical Social Research, Vol. 32 — 2007 — No. 4, 203-221. It is online

  73. Alice
    August 7th, 2010 at 18:19 | #73

    @Fran Barlow
    yr comment “It has been a very long time since the “C” in PCF referred to anything one could fairly call “communist”.

    Meaning in short Jim Rose’s ideas are tres passe.

  74. Tony Abbott for PM
    August 8th, 2010 at 10:23 | #74

    @Fran Barlow

    And what exactly do you want?

  75. August 8th, 2010 at 15:11 | #75

    @Tony Abbott for PM

    And what exactly do you want?

    Short-medium term: inclusive governance covering all public goods on a local/national scale; sustainability in resource acquisition and management
    Medium-long term: as above on a global scale; equitable collaboration across national frontiers; an end to poverty manifest in equitable burden and benefit sharing
    Longterm: socialism on a world scale; general social freedom and equality; progressive dissolution of state power

    It’s not much to want, and yet it is everything.

  76. Socrates
    August 8th, 2010 at 21:41 | #76

    I don’t think this need be a serious dilema from an ethical POV. Migration places for genuine refugees are a small part of our quota. We can still keep taking them without so much environmental impact. We can also do a lot more to help improve the conditions for dispalced persons in the countries most refugees come from through foreign aid. In the end we can’t take them all and we have to be honest about that.

    The real issue is family resettlement and skilled immigration. Those are the largest groups, and would be unpopular to cut, but they are where the problem lies. Reducing “skilled” migration would lead to higher wages here and force government and employers to train more people. Business would hate it, but that is what needs to happen. “Skilled” migration is basically an admission of training and educational failure. Reducing family resettlement numbers would be unpopular with various ethnic lobby groups, but having such quotas is clearly double counting when there are already quotas for refugees. Ethically, I don’t see that there is a case for a person to have a stronger claim to settle here because they already have a relative here, than an equally deserving person who does not.

    Of course, if we are going to be serious about population policy, then there is no case for giving baby bonuses to people for having children beyond replacement rate. So after two children, we should cut the bonus.

  77. August 9th, 2010 at 16:42 | #77

    Tony Abbott for PM @ #11 said:

    I would consider myself to be on the far right on a conventional political spectrum. However, on the issue of immigration I would be more than happy to vote greens if they advocated for a 0 immigration policy. Of course my underlying rationale for 0 immigration would be different to that of the greens. This is why i see the political spectrum as not being a horizontal linje, but a circle. Often the far left and far right ultimately want similar things but for entirely different reasons.

    TAFPM you are correct that “the political spectrum is not a horizontal line”. However, neither is it a “circle”. The “circle” metaphor best describes the mid-20thC phenomenon of totalitarianism, where nationalists, like Hitler, gradually became more socialistic. And socialists, like Stalin, gradually became more nationalistic.

    In conventional politics the best depictor of political alignments is a four-quadrant matrix, as shown in the Political Compass. In this format, roughly speaking, there are two main axes, displayed orthogonally, which show the polarities of the given spectrum:


    Economic: Progressive Left -> “Regressive” Right
    Civic: Liberal individualism -> “Authoritarian” institutionalism.

    One could, of course, introduce more axes, but most ideological disputes seem to boil down to choice of ideological ends (Left-Right) and institutional means (liberal-authoritarian ).

    As you can see by my use of the “scare quotation” marks, I have some problems with the tendentious nomenclature used by standard social scientists. But the general structure of belief systems is clear enough and roughly fits common usage

    Moving in a clock-wise direction:


    – NW: New Left Left-liberal eg Fran Barlow;
    – NE: New Right: Right-liberal eg Chris Berg;
    – SE: Old Right: Right-”Authoritarian”eg Joe Bjelke Petersen;
    – SW: Old Left: Left-”Authoritarian” eg Arthur Calwell.

    FWIW, I have sympathies with all four quadrants in this matrix. I strongly adhere to evolutionary relativism in ideological and institutional matters, whatever works, shameless opportunism, followed up by crisis-management.

    Some people call this old-fashioned “social democracy”, and I am happy enough with that term.

    Of course, this quadrant matrix does not exhaust the modes of human action, it simply focuses on ideological goals and institutional teams. My own belief is that instrumental tools are the most facilitator of human progress.

    Your point about the blatant contradiction in Green program between its Leftist desire to curb industrial pollution and its liberal desire to maximise diverse immigration is, of course, true. I never miss an opportunity to drive a wedge into that rather yawning gap.

  78. Rich C
    August 10th, 2010 at 05:08 | #78

    @jquiggin
    This paper from EPI sums up evidence from the US, at least as a far as the impact on market wages goes http://www.epi.org/publications/entry/bp255/

    And this blog has lots of analysis and links on the whole impact of immigration debate: http://www.ambrosini.us/wordpress/

  79. August 10th, 2010 at 17:03 | #79

    Fran Barlow @ #25 said:

    Longterm: socialism on a world scale; general social freedom and equality; progressive dissolution of state power.

    I suppose its possible to wish for “socialism on a global scale; general freedom and equality” as an ideological end whilst expecting the “progressive dissolution of state power” in institutional means. But its a bit like popping some dairy products into a hot oven and hoping that the appliance cooks ice cream.

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