Some advice to Bill Gates


As if he doesn't have enough bright people giving him advice....still, there's a report that he and other philanthropists are thinking that overpopulation should be their major concern in the distribution of their charitable efforts:

SOME of America’s leading billionaires have met secretly to consider how their wealth could be used to slow the growth of the world’s population and speed up improvements in health and education...... At a conference in Long Beach, California, last February, he had made similar points. “Official projections say the world’s population will peak at 9.3 billion [up from 6.6 billion today] but with charitable initiatives, such as better reproductive healthcare, we think we can cap that at 8.3 billion," Gates said then.

I'm entirely unconvinced that overpopulation is a problem but will defer on that. Accept that it is and then ask, well, what can we do about it?

What we do know is that fertility rates fall the richer a country is. This is using a wide definition of rich by the way: a proper one. The more choices that women have, the greater their educational possibilities, the fewer children (and women) that die in childbirth, in youth.

Reproductive healthcare can obviously help here. Fewer deaths of children will lead, over time, to fewer being conceived. But if by reproductive health we mean simply the provision of more contraception (and or abortion) then there will be little effect upon fertility rates. For what needs to change first is peoples' desire to have many children before they'll use mechanical aids to make sure that they have fewer children. Indeed, it's been pointed out that 90% of the changes in actual fertility come from changes in desired, with availability of contraception making up only that last 10%.

So what we really want to do is increase that real wealth of the various societies. This will reduce the desired and thus the actual fertility rates, just as they have done in all of the currently wealthy countries. More educational possibilities for women, fewer deaths at young ages, decent vaccination programs and so on. Most importantly, valuing women as something more than simply children producing machines.

Which brings me to a somewhat cynical observation. If it were simple to change a society so that it valued women more, perhaps as economic actors rather than simply familial, wouldn't we see evidence that this has happened many times? Which I don't think we do. I think we see societies which are growing and/or rich valuing women as valuable economic actors. So it isn't that we might invest directly in, say, women's education but rather that we want to get those currently poor and high birthrate countries growing, so that the same factors that kicked in with us kick in there. When, to be very crude about it, women are valued for more than simply their child producing abilities then they will be treated as being more valuable than simply their child producing capabilities. And the way to get to this desired break with the past is to have an economy where women are indeed more valuable as economic actors than they are simply as mothers.

Then they'll be treated just as other valuable economic actors are, educated and trained, and the birth rate will fall.

Worked for us, worked for France, Germany, the US, Japan......everywere rich actually. Why won't it work again?