Why Do Steven Spielberg and Matt Damon Still Exploit Malthusian Fears?

Dear Reader,

You might not be interested in economic theories, but economic theories are interested in you. False economic theories have made life hell for many millions of people, and some of our biggest celebrities seem committed to spreading these falsehoods to future generations.

I’m not talking about the obvious monsters—the fascists and communists who convinced nations that their policies would create utopian levels of prosperity and happiness, ending instead in mass murder. I’m thinking of well-intentioned people like Thomas Malthus, a genteel English clergyman and economics professor born in 1766.

By all accounts, Malthus was a kind and compassionate man who never sought personal political power. In 1798, his book, An Essay on the Principle of Population, set forth his theory that human populations, because they can increase exponentially, will inevitably outstrip resources.

Malthus wrote the book partly to counter the ideas of Nicolas de Condorcet, the French Enlightenment philosopher and mathematician who championed free markets, constitutionalism, and equal rights for women and all races.

Malthus apparently believed that Condorcet’s ideas, unconstrained by an intellectual class capable of controlling population and resources, would lead to catastrophic famine and conflict. Among those influenced by his views were people who interpreted Darwin’s work to mean that only the fittest cultures would survive the inevitable overpopulation.

The most proactive Malthusians, including Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, decided not to wait for overpopulation to arrive. Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University and senior scholar at the Mercatus Center, shows how Hitler’s tome, Mein Kampf, explicitly cites overpopulation as a justification for his genocidal policies:

Malthusianism was Hitler's official argument for his greatest crimes. Germany's problem, in Hitler's own words:

The annual increase of population in Germany amounts to almost 900,000 souls. The difficulties of providing for this army of new citizens must grow from year to year and must finally lead to a catastrophe, unless ways and means are found which will forestall the danger of misery and hunger.

Given the historical record, you might think Malthusianism would have been repudiated long ago. Resource production has always outpaced population growth, thanks to scientific innovators and entrepreneurs. There have been famines in modern times, but their root cause has almost always been political conflict or corruption, not a shortage of food production capacity.

In the last few decades, exponential improvements in human conditions have become so obvious, it’s impossible to deny. Freedom-enabled innovation is lifting the world out of poverty into a new era while levels of pollutants are falling across the board. Birthrates are sub-replacement globally, and total world population is due to drop within a generation.

In fact, all net population growth now happens because improved healthcare is keeping people alive much longer. 

Academic demographers have known what’s going on for decades, but their data remains mostly unread. Slowly, however, word is getting out.

Swedish sociologist Hans Rosling was probably the most effective anti-Malthusian champion. Unfortunately, he is gone, but his videos on global progress and the end of overpopulation fears are still available.

More recently, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, HumanProgress.org, and others have taken up the baton.  

Right now, transformational technologies are emerging that will improve health and increase prosperity even further. El jefe John Mauldin is working on a book that attempts to describe this dawning era of abundance. 

Does that mean we have no problems? Obviously not. In fact, we still have one major Malthusian problem. This is not a problem that Malthus predicted, though. It’s a problem he helped cause.

For whatever reason, a lot of people, including influential artists and filmmakers, are drawn to the Malthusian vision of doom. This is a pity, because the biggest threat to the developed world today is the demographic deficit.

The aged population is larger than it has ever been and still growing. And since many Baby Boomers aren’t financially secure, the burden has fallen on an ever-shrinking population of younger people.

We’ve known this would happen since the 1930s, but Malthusians controlled the media bullhorn, so the average person never learned that the demographic pyramid was flipping. Though US fertility has been below the replacement birthrate since 1971, the establishment elite has never stopped sounding the overpopulation alarm and advocating lower birthrates.

Europe’s birthrates fell ahead of North America’s, so the problem is more obvious there.
Watch Germany to See What’s in Store for the United States

Germany’s Berlin Institute for Population and Development, an independent non-partisan research group and think tank, recently published a remarkable diagnosis of Europe’s future. Titled, “Is economic growth over?”, the report suggests that European policymakers should accept that the many decades of post-war economic growth are over, to be replaced by permanent secular stagnation.

The following paragraphs are from the press release announcing the study:

“In order to boost economic growth, governments and central banks are resorting to classic economic policy instruments, such as publicly-funded investment programs or low interest rates”, [Dr. Reiner Klingholz, Director of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development] explains. “Tackling structural problems using cyclical economic instruments is futile. Debt will only grow further as a result.”

The problem is that state, business and society rely on steady growth. Klingholz: “In our current organisational form, the state is dependent on economic growth to service its debts or to maintain efficient social systems for an aging society.” The economy likewise depends on growth. Without growth, businesses need to lower their profit expectations and investment needs and anticipate that technological progress will continue to slow down. This threatens jobs. Increasing unemployment, coupled with a weak economy, may undermine people’s trust in the promise that they are going to be better off than preceding generations. What helped democracies emerge and survive in the past is the broad distribution of wealth. A stagnating economy poses hitherto unknown challenges.

What an understatement. We are at a turning point in history. A demographic transformation unlike any seen in history is happening right now, and we need to understand what it means for investors and the public in general.

Low birthrates and a rapidly aging population are suffocating economic growth and creating enormous political schisms. This is obvious in Europe but just dawning on North Americans. The policy and investment models that worked during the post-war growth era are already failing, and the problem will get worse.

How ironic that the West, which created the innovations responsible for raising the world’s standard of living, has embraced Malthusian pessimism. The solution, as I’ve said before, is not more centralized control. It is more innovation, especially in healthcare.

We can solve the financial problems that are killing economic growth by shifting older people out of the dependency column and into the productive column. We can revitalize the West by making the old more youthful and delaying aging for everybody.

We can, and we will. Unfortunately, media and popular culture are not helping.

Two recent big-budget movies, Matt Damon’s Downsizing and Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, both depend on the tired, discredited boogeyman of overpopulation to drive their plotlines. A few years ago, Damon starred in a similar dystopian movie named Elysium.

It’s impossible for me to watch any of them. Once I am asked to accept the premise that the world is facing catastrophic overpopulation and wealth inequality, my ability to suspend disbelief fails. Malthus has done enough mischief already, I can’t watch hectoring entertainers continue his work.

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