You may not have seen this story, since it probably didn’t get much press coverage outside of Michigan and Rhode Island. It’s appropriate that I comment, since the whole basis of my economic theory is that population growth beyond a certain point becomes economically destructive.
The article reports that Michigan’s population declined for the third year in a row in 2008.
Michigan is one of only two states that declined in population in 2008, according to annual population estimates released Monday by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The latest estimates mark the third straight year of declining population for Michigan. But even with the loss of 46,368 people — 0.5% of its population — the state has 10,003,422 residents and has not dipped below the 2000 Census count of 9,938,444.
Why is Michigan’s population declining? It’s clearly the high rate of unemployment.
Michigan and Rhode Island, which lost residents for the fifth year in a row, had the highest unemployment rates in the nation — 9.6% and 9.3% respectively — in November.
People are leaving to look for work elsewhere. 109,257 people moved away from Michigan, more than offsetting the arrival of over 16,000 immigrants and births that exceeded deaths. It’s important to keep this in mind because many economists will get it backwards, insisting that it is the decline in population that is behind the region’s economic problems. Any time an economist is challenged regarding overpopulation, they fall back on pointing to regions such as these, exclaiming “just look at how a declining population ruins the economy.”
Anyone who lives in Michigan understands that its economic problems can be traced to one issue alone – the demise of the domestic auto industry, thanks to trade policy that gives free access to every import brand that wants it, without getting equivalent export markets in return. With the possible exception of realtors, no one in Michigan would tell you that we could fix the economy by bringing in more people. The last thing that our auto workers (including white collar workers in management, engineering, research, sales, marketing and other fields) need is more competition for the jobs that remain.
With a population density of 178 people per square mile, the state of Michigan is more than twice as densely populated as the United States as a whole. But the upper peninsula (the region bordered by Lake Michigan, Lake Superior and the Wisconsin border) and the upper half of the southern peninsula is quite sparsely populated. The view from the Mackinac Bridge, from which you can see both the upper and lower peninsulas as well as Lakes Michigan and Huron, may be one of the most breath-taking vistas in the country. The upper peninsula is still home to wild populations of moose and wolves, while the upper half of the lower peninsula has the only free-roaming wild elk east of the Mississippi. It’s only the lower half of the southern peninsula, especially the region of southeastern Michigan where Detroit is situated, that drives the overall population density of Michigan so high.
So what’s it like to live in a region with a declining population? Actually, at least out here in the ‘burbs, it isn’t much different than anyplace else. Our roads are still choked with traffic. There are still pizza joints, drug stores, bank branches, gas stations, grocery stores, hospitals and shopping malls everwhere you look. But head down into the city of Detroit and it’s a different story. There’s vacant buildings and closed businesses and factories everywhere you look. And plenty of poverty. At least one third of Detroit’s citizens live below the poverty line. People need work, plain and simple.
When we travel to our cabin on the lake in northern Wisconsin, crossing the Mackinac bridge and heading west across the UP (upper peninsula), it’s comforting to see that very little of the natural beauty is being bulldozed for development. That’s the biggest benefit of a stable or declining population. The forests, lakes and streams will still be here for my kids and theirs to enjoy.