Population Density Disparities Drive Global Trade Imbalances

In recent posts, we looked at lists of America’s best and worst trading partners in terms of the balance of trade in manufactured goods, and found strong evidence of a link to population density.  The lists of our biggest trade deficits, in both absolute and per capita terms, was dominated by densely populated nations like Germany, Japan and China.  The lists of our biggest trade surpluses was dominated by low population density nations, and by net oil exporters (caused by the fact that oil is traded in American dollars).

Now let’s include all nations*, dividing them equally around the global median population density (which is 194 people per square mile).  Look at this chart:  Balance of Trade Above & Below Median Pop Density.  With those half of nations below the median population density, the U.S. enjoyed a small surplus of trade in manufactured goods of $36 billion in 2017.  However, with those half of nations above the median population density, the U.S. suffered an enormous deficit of $761 billion.  Also, note how the disparity has dramatically worsened over the 14-year time period from 2005 to 2018.  The longer the U.S. attempts to engage in free trade indiscriminately, ignoring the role of population density, the worse the effects become.

One may argue that perhaps dividing the nations of the world around the median population density skews the results, since the more densely populated half of nations includes far more people than the less densely populated half.  Fine.  Let’s divide the world in a way that compares the half of people who live in more densely populated conditions vs. the half of people who live in less densely populated conditions.  If we do that, in 2017 the U.S. had a trade deficit in manufactured goods of $510 billion with the half of people living in more densely populated conditions, and a deficit of only $214 billion – less than half – with the half of people living in less densely populated conditions.  Still a strong correlation to population density.

But maybe that’s not the right way to look at it either.  Perhaps we should divide the world in half according to land mass – that is, the half of the world’s surface area that is less densely populated vs. the half that is more densely populated.  (No, Antarctica is not included in this analysis.)  If we do that, the results are even more dramatic.  With the half of the world’s surface that is more densely populated (accounting for 6.6 billion of the world’s 7.1 billion people), we had a trade deficit in manufactured goods in 2017 of $831 billion.  With the less densely populated half of the world, we had a trade surplus of $107 billion.  (It’s worth noting here that the split occurs at a population density of 56 people/square mile.  That is, the less densely populated half of the world has a population density of 56 or less.  The more densely populated half is greater than 56.  The population density of the U.S. is about 90.)

Think about that.  This means that the U.S. economy would fare much better if the population of the more densely populated half of the world were no greater than the less densely populated half – which would yield a world population of about 1 billion people instead of 7.1 billion.  Instead of a net trade deficit in manufactured goods of $724 billion, we’d have a trade surplus of $214 billion (double the trade surplus that we currently have with the less densely populated half of the world).  One can debate what would be an optimum population density in economic terms, but there’s no question that this is a powerful argument for factoring population density into our trade policy.  Beyond that, it also debunks in a strong way the contention of economists that an ever-growing population is essential to sustaining a healthy economy.  It does nothing of the sort.  Instead, the crowded conditions that characterize a dense population stifle consumption – and thus employment – making people dependent on manufacturing for export to escape poverty.

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* Not all nations are included in the study.  Tiny island nations have been omitted since they don’t factor into the trade equation and, while such nations tend to be densely populated, they also enjoy unique economies, based primarily on tourism.

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