The Optimist

More People, Please

Don't worry about the booming global population -- celebrate it.

Acolytes of Thomas Malthus -- the prudish 18th-century parson whose influence has considerably outlasted the accuracy of his predictions -- are generally predisposed toward gloom-and-doom, but their hand-wringing has been especially intense the past several weeks. With its latest population forecasts predicting the world population may surpass 10 billion people by the end of the century, the United Nations has stoked age-old fears that the planet may not be able to sustain all of the human beings trying to live on it. As the number of souls on the planet ticks ever higher, the Malthusians lament, misery will flourish.

But for selfish and altruistic reasons alike, we should be delighted that there are more people on the planet than ever before -- and billions more to come. Yes, there are problems to remedy as the world population continues to rise: Not least, many women still lack freedom to decide how many children to have and the lifestyles of rich people living in places like the United States, Europe, and Japan threaten global sustainability. Yet as we get ready to welcome the birth of the seven billionth person later this year, the mood should be celebratory, not dour.

Why is a growing population a good thing? For a start, most people seem to be pretty happy to be alive. The tragedy of suicide remains a comparatively rare cause of death worldwide, thankfully. And only in a very few countries across the globe do most respondents suggest in polls that they are unhappy: in Bangladesh, despite low incomes and poor health, 85 percent of the population suggests they are happy, and in Nigeria and China that number is nearly three quarters. Simply put, having the opportunity to be alive is a good thing, and the more such opportunity exists, the better. (Another bit of good news from the U.N. projections -- average global life expectancy will rise from around 68 years today to 81 in 2100, so we'll all have a little bit longer to enjoy it.)

So why all the anxiety about a growing population? We all enjoy friends and family, and generally the more, the merrier -- but our friendliness toward humanity can be selfishly local: when it comes to people we don't know, some argue less is more. Fewer teeming masses in Africa (the population of which the U.N. projects will triple by 2100) would be a good for our fragile planet, according to people in the United States. More people today means a worse life for tomorrow, and more people tomorrow means a catastrophe the day after.

Such thinking has persisted despite being fundamentally misguided. Malthus sparked these concerns 200 years ago when the global population was around a billion, and frankly it's easy to see why he was depressed: back then, rising populations really were often associated with declining health and incomes. But the centuries in the interim have seen the global abolition of slavery, advances in communication that render the vast majority of the planet instantaneously interconnected, stunning improvements in global health, the unprecedented spread of education and political and civil rights -- and the most dramatic expansion of global population, to boot. Even at the family level, the evidence for a "quantity-quality tradeoff" -- more kids meaning a worse life for each one of them -- appears weak.

Yes, threats to global sustainability are clear and present dangers. But the 10,760-fold increase in aluminum production reported by environmentalist Clive Ponting, or the 380-fold increase in oil production, or even the 24-fold increase in global GDP over the course of the last century isn't driven by population growth. It is growing consumption per person that is the problem. And that, of course, is not the fault of Africans. The blame lies with wealthy countries that do nearly all of the consuming. The poorest 650 million people on the planet live on about 1 percent of the income of the richest 650 million. Each year, we add 1 percent or more to the incomes of those richest people - GDP per capita growth rates in wealthy countries are at least that high.  And that 1 percent growth has the same impact on global consumption as would doubling the number of people living on the income of that bottom 650 million of the world's population. So, those people sitting in rich countries pontificating on unsustainable global populations might want to start off with the bit of that population they see in the mirror every morning.

Of course, while people are generally a positive addition to the world, women should undoubtedly have a choice about how many children they want. Every year, about 80 million women face an unwanted pregnancy, 20 million risk an unsafe abortion rather than carry their pregnancy to term and 68,000 die as a result, part of a half-million annual toll of maternal mortalities. Safe and confidential access to modern methods of contraception can and should be a right -- it is a cheap enough intervention to be affordable worldwide.

And for those who remain committed misanthropes, if you really want fewer people around, there are ways to reduce population growth while improving the quality of life for everyone. For a start, high mortality and fertility rates are related. Parents have more kids when there's a higher risk of them dying, so one of the most direct routes to reduced fertility is progress in child health. And girls' schooling is related to improvements in both. So support aid programs or increased immigration or pro-poor trade policies that will provide disadvantaged people the resources they need to keep kids alive and educated.

Still, for those who claim to be acting in the interests of future generations, "making them smaller" isn't the answer.  Go out and campaign against urban sprawl, Hummers, coal power plants, and whaling -- but leave people alone.

The Optimist

No Need for Speed

Save your money, United Nations -- the developing world doesn't need broadband Internet to get ahead.

Expanding broadband access is international development's latest cause célèbre, and it's easy enough to see why. The incredibly rapid spread of cell phones has enabled residents of the developing world to text crop prices to market and arrange bank credit; the Arab Spring has been fueled, filmed, and mobilized using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. It's a tempting story line: If basic communications technologies like mobile phones are good, and narrowband Internet has even more uses, surely broadband Internet is the secret to unlocking global progress. If micro-entrepreneurs in rural Africa can access global markets through their flash-enabled websites, and if education and medical care can be imparted through streaming video technology, surely the world's poor can leapfrog into prosperity.

Indeed, that's the conclusion of a high-level U.N. panel that issued a report on the subject during last September's United Nations summit on the Millennium Development Goals. The Broadband Commission for Digital Development, co-chaired by Mexican telecom magnate Carlos Slim -- the richest man in that country's history -- and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, issued a "Declaration of Broadband Inclusion for All." Members of the wide-ranging commission -- including billionaire Richard Branson, the heads of UNESCO and other international organizations, the Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour, and high-profile development types such as Jeffrey Sachs and Muhammad Yunus -- all joined in the chorus for broadband. "In the 21st Century, broadband networks must be regarded as vital national infrastructure -- similar to transport, energy and water networks, but with an impact that is even more powerful and far-reaching," the report states. Many development organizations have jumped on the broadband bandwagon as well, declaring public subsidies for the spread of fiber-optic cable across regions from Africa to Central Asia a potential funding priority.

But with such a wide spectrum of the world's thought leaders backing the cause, it might be a surprise that the broadband report is rather thin on specifics and evidence. Its 69 pages have space for 58 photographs of commission members, but not one footnote to an academic article. In fact, the distance between the report's optimism and the existing literature on broadband's impact on development could be measured in astronomical units. To suggest the commission's conclusions were half-baked would be an insult to the frozen dinner roll.

It's true that information and communication technologies are having a big impact in the developing world. Ten African markets alone generate over $1 billion in mobile-service revenues each year, and the total for the continent is about $45 billion. Already, more than half of Internet users and nearly half of all broadband subscribers live in low- and middle-income countries. Information technology and business process offshoring (things like operating call centers and records management overseas), was close to a $100 billion industry in 2009, according to the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) -- and much of those revenues were captured by developing countries. India's share of the industry alone has grown from $1 billion in 1990 to almost $60 billion in 2009.

But just because information and communication technologies in general are having a big development impact, and broadband in particular is spreading rapidly, doesn't mean that digging trenches and laying fiber-optic cables are the fastest way to a world free of poverty. For a start, there is little evidence that ubiquitous speed and nationwide broadband networks is necessary for firms to benefit from the opportunities offered by offshoring through the Internet. India's booming IT industry claims by far the largest share of the global business process offshoring market: 35 percent, according to UNCTAD. But India also ranks 114 in the world in terms of average connection speed, according to a survey by global consultancy Akamai.

Second, there is precious little evidence linking broadband rollout to economic growth. Sadly, in the commission's report one of the few brief nods to actual studies of the impact of broadband notes that "estimates suggest that for every 10 per cent increase in broadband penetration we can expect an average of 1.3 per cent additional growth in national gross domestic product." That is indeed what one unpublished study claims, but the analysis supporting it is tenuous. The estimate is based on economic growth rates and broadband penetration from 1980 to 2006. Countries with more broadband also grew more rapidly on average, reports the study. But for most of that period, broadband didn't even exist. So, the considerably more plausible interpretation of the analysis is that countries that grew faster between 1980 and 2006 could afford more rapid rollout of broadband as it became available in the new millennium.

Most of the more robust studies of broadband's economic impact have taken place in the United States. In 2006, broadband accounted for about $28 billion in U.S. Internet service-provider revenue. Economists Shane Greenstein and Ryan McDevitt estimate that consumers would have been willing to pay $5 billion to $7 billion more than they did for the benefit of access. This "consumer surplus" and Internet service provider revenues together were equivalent to just over 0.1 percent of U.S. GDP -- this at a time when nearly half of American households had broadband. With regard to broadband subsidies in particular, Ivan Kandilov and Mitch Renkow at North Carolina State measure the impact of a U.S. government loan program that provided subsidized capital to telecom companies to roll out broadband in rural areas. They can find no evidence that the program had an impact on employment, payrolls, or business establishment.

The U.N. report suggests potential impacts far beyond economic growth, however. For example, it suggests that "given that there are rarely enough health practitioners to serve everyone in need of healthcare … broadband is needed to enable doctors to share images and diagnose patients hundreds of miles away using technologies such as video-conferencing." One might question the relative importance of "advanced e-health" when fully one-third of the 10 million child deaths in low-income countries that occur each year could be prevented with technologies as simple as oral rehydration therapy, breast-feeding, and insecticide-treated bed nets. 

Again, broadband "offers a potential solution in the ability to deliver education in developing and developed countries alike," according to the report. But you have to wonder whether paying for fiber optics and computer labs is worth it in countries where, for 50 cents per child per year, deworming pills could reduce the incidence of illness-causing parasites and improve school absence by 25 percent. And you have to wonder even more when existing studies actually suggest that more widespread broadband use in schools may correlate with lower test scores. It's not much of a surprise, given that the studies found that the most popular activities for boys online were email, chat, Myspace, YouTube, music, and games. Broadband rollout to households is also associated with lower test scores -- almost certainly for the same reason.

Don't expect governance to get much better with broadband either. Jed Kolko at the Public Policy Institute of California analyzed U.S. survey responses in 2006 and found that while broadband users were more than twice as likely than dial-up users to say they had downloaded music, gone to a social networking site, or visited an adult entertainment site, the chance that they reported visiting a government website was only 6 percentage points higher (at 26 percent). We don't have good survey evidence on broadband usage in poor countries, but University of California, Berkeley's Kentaro Toyama suggests that the dominant use of the Internet in cybercafes and public Internet facilities in the developing world "is by young men playing games, watching movies, or consuming adult content." That's great for the entertainment industry, but it is hard to see how it's going to improve health, education, or the quality of developing-country institutions.

Undaunted, the U.N.'s broadband commission calls for public investments and subsidies in the technology to help reach the Millennium Development Goals. But there are a number of reforms that developing countries can introduce to extend access to broadband networks more cheaply: McKinsey estimates that a combination of adding to available spectrum, encouraging infrastructure- and spectrum-sharing, and reducing regulatory burdens could collectively cut broadband costs by as much as 50 percent. Meanwhile, the public money that the commission calls for would be much better spent on the simpler, cheaper, proven, and effective ways to meet global targets for health and education -- many of which today go unfunded. Diverting already scarce resources to ensure universal access to high-definition Colbert Report repeats on YouTube is not a solution to global poverty.