The System of the World (Part II)

In part two of this series, I examine global demographic trends and take an initial look at the implications for global GDP growth, and by extension, the outlook for the current world-system of debt-money, as defined in part 1.

The general demographic trend over the last 500 years, and particularly so since the mid 1700s has been one of inexorable, exponential population growth. During this time the world-system of debt-money has evolved to it’s current level from very weak and inauspicious beginnings in the early 1500s. My contention is that population growth has been the trend which has sustained this world system, and that this driving trend is now abating with significant consequences for the world-system.

Many people make the mistake of reviewing total world population growth graphs, and see an ever upward trend, when in fact what really matters to the current world-system is not absolute population numbers, but the growth in population. It is growth in population year on year that provides more grist for the debt mill, and ensures that productivity increases year on year sufficient to replay the interest outstanding on the current money supply.

Another important fact most people miss when looking at demographic trends, is that the only population growth that directly sustains the world-system is growth of population within the monetary economy, or more specifically, those individuals earning a wage and eligible for bank loans. New money is created by the banks when they make new loans. It is imperative that the system always has more outstanding in new loans than loans currently due, since otherwise there will not be enough new money to pay off the original money supply plus the interest owing on it. So economic growth is required to sustain the system – and population growth is the most crucial element of economic growth, followed by productivity improvements via technology and better social organisation.

Therefore, the vast majority of recent world population growth which has been in the least developed nations on earth – mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and in the less developed Asian regions cannot immediately contribute to sustaining the debt-money pyramid since it takes considerable time to integrate the teeming masses in the third world into the monetary economy. Indeed recent progress in this regard has been very slow – certainly far slower than the third world population growth rate, due to a whole host of developmental problems, many of which have been caused indirectly or directly by the actions of developed nations. For this reason the west has found it necessary to appropriate the resources of third world nations to sustain western consumers of debt, rather than focussing on lettnig the third world nations develop in their own time – it would simply take too long to be of any utility in keeping the debt flowing.

So to summarise, the population demographic we are most interested in is the demographics of the world monetary economy, which are shown in the figure below (I had trouble adding the image so please follow the link).

The blue and light red lines represent the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of the ‘developed’ and ‘less developed’ world respectively. Developed in this context can be taken to mean the western nations including the US, Japan and some parts of east Asia. Less Developed includes India, China, Brazil and so forth. The yellow and green lines are the TFR of the two regions respectively, but moved forward in time by 30 years. The dark red line is a weighted average of the developed and less developed TFR advanced by 30 years, with the developed TFR contributing at 400% the rate of the less developed TFR to the monetary economy.

Note the sharp and relatively simultaneous fall in fertility for both the developed and less developed worlds in the 1960-1975 time frame[1]. This is the origin of the ‘baby bust’ generation that followed the boom generation. A TFR below 2.1 (births per woman) will result in a falling population, and a TFR above 2.1 in a rising population. 2.1 births per woman is termed the ‘replacement rate’. The period around 1950-1960 represents the origin of the baby boomers. It should be obvious from the graph firstly that the growth of the population of the monetary economy has crashed since the 1970s, during which time the birth rate in the less developed world (mostly Asia) has also fallen sharply partly but by no means entirely as a result of China’s one-child policy.

Now, from birth it takes on average 30 years for an individual to enter the most productive phase of their working life, during which time they either contribute to labour input, borrowing, savings or both. If we recall that the world system requires an expansion of debt to continue functioning and that the market for new debt is significantly determined by new workers entering the market for housing, personal loans, business loans and so forth (and specifically, a larger number of new workers and debt-victims than existed previously is required, in order to take up the burden of interest on the money supply) , then we can see that a low in the groweth the productive population of the monetary economy represented by a low point the the monetary economy TFR curve shown in dark red, represents a point of maximum danger for the economy. The figure shows two periods of significant decline within the overall downward trend – one from 1995 to 2010, and another from 2015 to 2025. Note also that it takes a period of time equal to the average loan life-span for changes in the input of labour and new loan creation to manifest themselves in their effects on the economy. The recent low point in the monetary economy TFR corresponds roughly with the 2001 downturn and also with the recent credit bust of 2008.The developed economy productive worker TFR actually falls below the replacement rate just about the year 2000.

Looking slightly further back, it is also possible to observe a major down trend bottoming in the late 1970s, the might be partly correlated with the severe recessions of this period.

If we now mentally zoom out such that our time-scale incorporates the full period from 1500 onwards, we see a picture of exponential growth of the population of the world population up until the period some 3 years after the end of WWII. This trend has seen world TFR being strongly positive and quite stable in the 3-5 births per woman range and hence population growth has been exponential due to the compounding effect of growth, until the last 50 odd years during which growth has levelled out drastically. The UN population division predicts that the world population as a whole (this figure now includes the whole world including the least developed regions) will peak in 2050 and afterwards decline, only to level out around 2300. Note that this means that the peak population of the world monetary economy is peaking about now (or may have already peaked), since only a fraction of the population of less developed nations participate in the monetary economy. According to the UN, after the peak we might expect a period of population decline that lasts two centuries.

It is my thesis that it is mainly (but not entirely) the increase in population rather than productivity growth that has sustained the debt-money, never-ending growth world system to date since the green revolution and population explosion of the 18th century, and that the recent significant moderation of the population of the monetary economy is partly responsible for the current problems in the global economy, and that the continuing moderation and eventual decline of this monetary population is going to result in a series of rolling recessions, and possibly destroy this world system altogether over a period of some 50 years from now. Further exacerbating factors can be seen in the form of:

  1. global wage arbitrage, which is accelerating the rate of convergence between the most developed and developing economies[2]. Most people think of convergence as a process of the third world cathing up. The reality is that we shall meet them in the middle – which is what markets are all about!

  2. Ageing societies such as Germany and Japan exhibit huge decreases in domestic consumption due to the increasing need to save for old age. An ageing nation is a global market that is retrenching for good, hurting the exports of other younger nations. Many Asian nations such as Korea, Singapore, China will join the Germans and Japanese in being ageing societies within 25 years.

  3. Relentlessly increasing lifespans, resulting in higher social costs for the elderly.

  4. The contraction in growth rates is superimposed on an increase in actual population of about 3 billion between now and 2050, putting extra pressure on already strained natural resources.

  5. After 2050, a declining world population and therefore a sustained period of economic contraction, or at least stagnant growth – not seen for over half a century – is going to turn many of the accepted economic rules on their head. Remember that the whole of the dismal science has been constructed in the last 300 years of the ‘population bull market’. Few see the coming crash during a bull run.

The next article will look in more detail at the economics of ageing societies and depopulation, along with some further ruminations on other interacting factors such as the information economy. Contrary to what the reader may take from this article my overall conclusion will be one of opportunity for humanity rather than damnation, however I shall attempt to show that a rather different world-system and cultural attitudes will be required to gain a positive outcome from population growth moderation.

Before that I shall leave one more idea for you to ponder. Recall how our developed world TFR curves started downward in the late 1960’s? Looking at the 30-year adjusted developed TFR, we see that boomers born in the 50s are entering their productive phase in the 80’s. Prior to this there is a new-worker bust as the generation born durnig WWII moves into their thirties. Afterwards the generation following the boomers – the baby bust generation born in the 70’s results in another worker-bust around 2000.

Perhaps the incontrovertible fact of the shrinking populatio of the monetary economy is correlated with the birth of fiat money after 1971. Perhaps the chronic inflation that has caused middle class incomes to stagnate for the last 30 years partly a deliberate or accidental response to the suddenly impaired population growth fundamentals of the debt-money system? In fact the debt-money world system can be sustained simply by constantly inflating the money supply sufficiently to account for falling GDP growth.

No-one can deny the huge leaps in technological productivity that have been developed over the last 30 years. So what else is it that is sucking the real growth away?


[1] The reasons for fertility decline are well covered in the literature so I don’t intend to address the reasons why in this article, instead I shall focus on consequences.

[2] I shall take a further look at the effect of labour arbitrage in the next article.

12 comments to The System of the World (Part II)

  • Dirk

    People have less children when their economies move towards modernity featuring specialization, division of labor, and free trade. But specialization requires investment- you can’t be a high productivity farmer until you buy a big tractor and spend money on fertilizer. And investment requires a return- either as debt service or share of profits. As the rest of the world grows in this understanding, they are entering the money economy. The microloans in Bangladesh that women use to buy cell phones that they then rent by the call to their neighbors, the pharmaceutical plants in Africa to produce AIDS medications, the electronics plants in China, customer service centers in India (and judging by my recent customer service phone line waits, more are needed), are pulling them into this economy- you agree with this, true?

    Specialization also requires education. So as children need more education, and their physical labor is less valuable, people have fewer children. Period. But life expectancy is increasing worldwide (less quickly where populations can’t control their sex drives and violence), which is what is behind the increase in population- it’s not so much more people being born, it’s less dying.

    I’ll be interested to see your proposals. But the bar is pretty high to convince me that supply side economics, and fiat money growth consistent with the growth in supply resulting, isn’t the way to go. Because since 1980, the time a minimum wage earner has to work to purchase a cell phone, rent, milk, clothing, airfare, video player, and gasoline is less than half. That translates to a much better standard of living, which should be obvious- the poor live better today than the middle class did 30 years ago. And all this progress has come while the rest of the world has seen unprecidented improvement in their living conditions. Life expectancy, education, and opportunity have increased as billions unshackle themselves from Communism and isolationism. The greatest percentage of humans live in peace now than at any time in human history. These are all good developments.

    Unless you’re Amish, Taliban, or one of those naked Indian guys who sweep in front of themselves to keep from killing anything- then it perhaps seems the world is going to hell in a handbasket…

  • Hi Dirk,

    The greatest period of economic growth of the 20th century ocurred in the 1950s and 1960s, and that was during a period when the currency was gold backed. If you plot a graph of the 15year moving avergages of GDP growth and population growth rates for western europe and the western offshoots (e.g. US, Canada, NZ, Oz etc) you’ll see that the two track almost perfectly – both showing relentless decline since the end of the reconstuction period after WWII.

    So fiat money has not resulted in greater growth – aggregate year on year growth has declined during the period since 1971. However I don’t blame fiat money for that – it is simply a result of declining populations.

    It is an incontrovertible fact that the populations of both the developed world and developing world (e.g. BRIC) are either declining or about to decline.

    I agree that technology growth has improved living standards however it has not accelerated the rate of economic growth in aggregate terms. In fact aggregate growth has slowed considerably aven as per capita growth is accelerating.

    What I am suggesting is that we are about to have to make a transition from a focus on aggregate GDP growth to a focus on GDP-per-capita growth within an overall picture of declining aggregate GDP growth. Fractional reserve banking will not be a suitable mechanism for this period – since the world economy GDP growth will be zero or negative, it will be effectively in permanent recession even if individuals are getting richer. The current banking system can’t survive in this environment unless the money supply is inflated to make up for aggregate GDP declines.

  • Hi Dan W,

    I think this is going in a significantly different direction than I originally anticipated. I look forward to your next installment. I am not quite sure where it is leading, but it is interesting. I think you are quite right when it comes to population. Overpopulation is not a problem, nor was it ever a problem. Well being in a society has to do with productivity of individuals, no matter how many people there are.

    One important issue that seems to have an important effect on the overall assessment of the problem is the idea that growth in any economy must be accompanied by growth in the money supply. In all cases, growth comes only from accumulation of capital from prior production. Any quantity of money will work for any level of economic activity. The world economy could develop on an extremely small quantity of “money.” As productivity increases, the value of the fixed quantity of money would increase. Ever smaller denominations of ever increasing value could be used to purchase an increasing quantity of goods.

    What matters in money is not the thing which is called a dollar or a pound or a kroner. The only thing that matters is the stuff that that currency can buy, goods and services. Money serves as a means through which people can take advantage of the benefits of division of labor and comparative advantage. If it only takes 1/1000th of a dollar to buy a tomato, that does not, in itself, mean that anyone is better or worse off than if that tomato costs 1 dollar. What matters what everything costs in relation to other goods and services.

    The problem with the current state of affairs is that systematic inflation transfers the value of production from the producers of goods to the producers of currency. That is an important source of the distorted incentives in any modern society.

    I contend that the problems we face are not due to monetary economies, per se. Any economy beyond barter must necessarily have some form of money. The problems are due rather to government monetary regimes that confiscate the property of citizens directly or confiscate it indirectly by inflating away the value of the money, using that value for the benefit of the political and financial elite.

    The idea of GDP per person is very important, but it is important now, even if usually ignored. The very idea of GDP needs to be drastically reworked if it is to have any relevance, whether it is in the present economy or the future one that you envision. The current statistics are quite meaningless from the standpoint of true productivity and wealth of individuals within a society.

    By the way, the United States dollar was not backed by gold for anything but international transactions between nations, since the 1930’s. 1971 marked the “closing of the gold window”, the euphemism for repudiation of the oligations of the United States governennt to foreign governments. US government had already repudiated its obligations to mere citizens nearly 40 years before that.

  • Hi Dan M,

    Glad to hear that I have surprised you!

    Regarding money supply issues, if one has a fractional reserve banking system, then the money supply must increase over time, otherwise the system will go bust.

    In the case of an economy which is shrinking in terms of people, goods and services, then a fixed money supply would result in persistent inflation of pretty much all prices. Whether this is bad or not is open to question. Imagine a fixed, gold back currency in such a situation. Would it be acceptable or desirable for the government to sell its gold abroad in order to reduce the money supply to prevent inflation?

    There are also many issues with property rights in shrinking populations. In general long lived assets like housing and personal transport are going to lose value as the population shrinks but the asset base does not. Similar to the money supply, it might make sense to deliberately reduce the asset base as the population shrinks (for example by destroying unwanted housing in underpopulated areas and starting to return built up areas to nature). I shall touch on these and other similar issues in future articles.

    I agree with you on GDP. Crucial to making the transition to shrinknig populations is to derive a more useful measure than GDP, or even GDP-per-capita.

  • Dirk

    I do not propose that the money supply expand forever. I only propose that it increase consistent with productive capacity. I see this as independent of gold, or population- although something like energy (total of oil, coal, nuclear, solar, capacity) could make a good proxy. In the absenced of expanded money supply when productive capacity is increasing, I see a lack of inflation that creates a cooling effect on business (perhaps due to the difficulty of paying back loans as you state). As I’ve said before, if money has time value, why shouldn’t it also have half life?

    Anyway, an additional factor to consider in your analysis is the greater ease of migration and the trend towards urbanization. While the excess of residential real estate right now has supressed home prices, the trends in information and transportation technology portend that a much larger share of work can be done from home in the future. No longer must people go into an office for most tasks, and no longer must distrubtion be built around rivers or trains. Thus, it seems to me that commercial real estate may be on the verge of a much more significant collapse.

    That said, it is also possible for another scenario to emerge: Commerical real estate is converted to residential real estate (we’ve already seen this with many downtown lofts). Some of the billions of people around the world without adequate shelter move into the US, where this new residential space moderates rental prices (as we’ve already seen). Meanwhile, the cost of education drops as specialization continues to obviate the need/value of a broad liberal education in favor of specialized technical education, much of it on the job. The cost to have children, and their life expectancies trend such that population continues to grow in spite of reducing birth rates. The US swells to the 600 million currently predicted- but perhaps much sooner.

    It would seem, then, that the value of a mud hut in Zambia may be much more likely to drop than perhaps real estate in the US- as a function of hourly wage (real purchasing power). But this makes lots of sense, doesn’t it? Someone no longer has to spend all their time building and maintaining their hut as modern tools make it much easier to outsource.

    As I’ve stated before, the key question is this- are we going to run out of natural resources? It’s clear land will not be the issue. Solar looks increasingly capable of eliminating the constraint on energy. Perhaps iron ore? Carbon polymers and other biomaterials (that could be synthesized from corn) might have something to say about that.

    I’m increasingly convinced that it’s reticence to embrace change that keeps our economy from doing what it’s capable of doing- namely, providing prosperity for all. Getting past this would certainly require a new view, and execution, of the system of the world.

  • Hi Dan W.

    Fractional reserve banking only serves to amplify what the central bank does. The monetary expansion comes from the central bank infusing more reserves into the system. If there were no new reserves entering the system, there would be nothing for the fractional reserve system to multiply. It would have already leveraged the reserves that it had. It couldn’t go further unless the percent reserve requirement was reduced even further, which would be a different issue.

    When a fractional reserve bank lends money, it creates new money out of thin air to the extent that it uses other peoples’ money for the loan. Generally speaking, when the individual borrower pays back the loan, the interest is paid from the production of the borrower. When that loan is paid back, the money supply is leveraged the other way, contracting the supply.

    With no new reserves in the system to rapidly increase the supply of money and credit, it is easy to imagine the possibility of the system reaching an equilibrium. Interest is paid from borrowers’ production and, so as long as they are productive, the system could be maintained. Money lent out could match the principle being paid back. The incremental production of individuals in the economy over time with a steady money supply would imply gradual price deflation. Deflation causes an increase in the value of the monetary unit, meaning that subsequent loans, payments and interest are disbursed and paid back using fewer monetary units that are incrementally more valuable.

    If bank deposits gradually decreased over time because of declining populations, it is also very plausible to picture the system contracting in a orderly way. Every loan the bank makes is to an individual person or entity, and every entity pays the interest from his, her or its own productivity. While it is likely that there would be some banks going out of business as the market declines, there is no reason to expect a collapse of the economy just because interest has to be paid on the credit. In any declining market, the less competitive participants go out of business, leaving room for the more competitive to maintain at the new, lower level. As long as the changes aren’t abrupt, markets can adjust without much trouble.

    The real problem with the fractional reserve system is that it magnifies the money creation of the central bank. It causes extreme instability in an economy, resulting in bubble markets and the consequent inevitable collapses.

    In my view, when the entire system collapses, it will be the result of the continual expansion of the money supply by central banks and the consequent devaluation of the monetary unit to zero. The current model is Zimbabwe. Fractional reserve banking has a significant effect, but it is not the root cause.

    It is a very interesting point about the likelihood of inflation with a fixed money supply and a declining population. It is something to ponder. My first inclination is to believe that the changes in population will be gradual, over many decades, maybe even centuries. I that case, markets, buyers and sellers are given plenty of time to adjust prices and expectations. In that way, it could proceed in a very orderly fashion.

    Acute problems with inflation or deflation arise when it is rapid. In that case it causes instability and uncertainty. People lose the ability to accurately predict the outcomes of their actions, and incentives become perverted.

  • Hi Dan W.

    One further note – I heartily agree with you that the asset base would have to adjust to the new realities of a declining population. I believe, however, that it would occur quite naturally over time. At this point, in most developed countries, a sizable number of families already have multiple houses, such as vacation homes, and that is not a problem. As the population declines and the demand for those assets declines, the relative prices will also decline, making it easier to acquire assets that are already in place. That goes for productive manufacturing capacity as well as housing.

    The net result will be that it will easier for the typical person to own housing and productive property, increasing the well being of members of the society. There would be no need for any action regarding the asset base, other than the normal market problems of disposing of obsolete, unusable assets over time.

  • Dan Wilkinson

    Dan M,

    THanks for the feedback so far. Regarding FRB, I agree with your points re the central bank. However FRB has another issue for deciling population, even without a central bank in place.

    FRB requires an expansion of the money supply to sustain itself. This can be easily seen since if most all the money supply bears interest, then clearly it must expand to be able to pay back the orginal supply plus the interest. Accordingly, it is not a suitable scheme for shrinking economies/populations – the banks would just keep gonig bust aunless you had a government that colluded with them to just print money to pay their interest – but what’s the point of that.

    So we have the following possible combos for the future shrinking world:

    central bank+FracRB : won’t work
    FracRB only with commodity backed money : won’t work for reasons above
    FullRB only: would work, but has issues
    Central bank only : would work, but has issues.

    The biggest single problem is that as an economy shrinks (and there can be severe demographic shocks than can remove 10,20 or 30% of the population in a single generation – see italy and eastern europe for example), return on capital is negative or so low it doesn’t warrant any risk taking.

    This is the big issue for post-growth economics. How to create and sustain demand, for new goods and new investment?

  • Hi Dan W

    Sorry I didn’t get back to you right away on this. I was a little pre-occupied.

    I think it is an error to think that “someone” has to do “something” to create and sustain demand. Demand arises naturally from the needs and wants of the individuals in a society, and is not something that someone needs to create. The current problems we have now are the result of artificial stimulation, because the intelligentsia and politicians thought they should do something to stimulate demand.

    As a population declines in numbers, the demand for specific goods and services will likely change. The mix will probably change considerably. That doesn’t mean that the economy necessarily will fall apart. It means that some of the people employed in certain industries and occupations may need to find other work. All people, however, will still need to eat, will still need clothing, will still need shelter, enjoyment, and so on. Whoever best supplies those needs in a free society are the ones that will prosper the most. Whether a population is growing or declining in numbers, trade maximizes the net benefits to those involved. People in future advanced societies will still want to spend less time working, and will still want to find easier ways to do things. That makes individuals, and thus, society better off.

    As you say, it is possible that a society can decline rapidly. Whenever there is rapid change in a society of any kind, it is destabilizing. Any economy can easily adjust to changes when they occur over time. No economy can escape unscathed from rapid and profound change. The crisis arises from people not knowing what they should do in the face of changes that they never had to worry about. The most rapid recovery from any crisis comes about when free people are allowed to solve their own problems.

    The major issues with a declining population in developed societies will likely come about because politicians will think they need to plan for everyone. That planning will destroy the market order and will be the cause of economic disaster, as it is in growing societies now.

    The fact that there is a tremendous buildup of productive capital should only help, if the markets are allowed to adjust and people are allowed to seek their own best interests. I don’t know how developed societies will react in the long run to significant declines in population in the future, nor does anyone else. If we can rely on history at all, however, the more we rely on people who are free to make decisions about their own economic well being, the better off the civilization will be.

  • Dan W

    Dan M,

    “Demand arises naturally from the needs and wants of the individuals in a society, and is not something that someone needs to create.”

    I agree. Because it arise from individuals, if we can speak of the total demand as the sum of needs and wants of the whole population, then this aggregate demand will go down if there are less people. For example, people want shoes. If there are less people, less shoes are needed. If the population is declining, then we can expect a continuing decline in the demand for shoes in the future. Who then will decide to invest their capital in a shoe factor – they would loose money!

    ” The current problems we have now are the result of artificial stimulation, because the intelligentsia and politicians thought they should do something to stimulate demand.”


    “As a population declines in numbers, the demand for specific goods and services will likely change. The mix will probably change considerably. ”

    Agreed, and also the total demand for goods and services will in aggregate decline.

    “Whoever best supplies those needs in a free society are the ones that will prosper the most. Whether a population is growing or declining in numbers, trade maximizes the net benefits to those involved. People in future advanced societies will still want to spend less time working, and will still want to find easier ways to do things. That makes individuals, and thus, society better off.”

    This is key. Following from my shoes example, it can be seen that the declinnig population deters long term investments. However as you say people will likely determine a system of trade and working that somehow works around the fact that investors are likely to lose money (as it is defined today, during an era of historically rising populations) on long term projects. The question is, how is that system likely to differ from our currently undestood notions of capitalism?

    “… The most rapid recovery from any crisis comes about when free people are allowed to solve their own problems.”

    I agree with this. The thrust of my aricles has been that profound change is coming, but people are kept subservient to a debt-money paradigm based on fractional reserve banking that is going to prevent them optimising for this new change, which could be disasterous.

    “The major issues with a declining population in developed societies will likely come about because politicians will think they need to plan for everyone. ”

    I’m more worried about bankers in this case, than politicians. I’m afraid that bankers have more control of my life than my politicians do.

    “The fact that there is a tremendous buildup of productive capital should only help, if the markets are allowed to adjust and people are allowed to seek their own best interests.”

    I have tried to show how capital stock will be reduced by declining populations. To get an idea of how this can happen, google for ‘boomer asset meltdown’, and see what you find.

    “I don’t know how developed societies will react in the long run to significant declines in population in the future, nor does anyone else. If we can rely on history at all, however, the more we rely on people who are free to make decisions about their own economic well being, the better off the civilization will be”

    We agree on this. However given that we are not, it seems useful to speculate a little on the problems that might arise, and therefore which current constraints on our freedom are likely to be most damagnig in the future.

  • Joan Barbin

    i loved Alex Obermuller comment

  • I just found your site, I actually book marked it and i ‘m looking at the particular discussions. I witout a doubt appreciate it. Interesting subject in any event . you look on this. I come right from the viewpoint which notice feedback as akin of being attentive.

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