How Population Density Drives Trade Imbalances

Now that an analysis of America’s 2019 trade results has revealed that population density is the biggest factor in driving our trade imbalance – just as we’ve seen in every year previous – it’s time for an explanation of how that happens.  How is it that something that seems so unrelated to the economy and trade can have such a dramatic effect, dwarfing the effect of other parameters that would seem to be more influential – things like wages, currency exchange rates, productivity and so on?

Population density is, by far and away, the single most dominant parameter in the field of economics, but one that goes unrecognized by economists because of their cowardly refusal to give any consideration to the subject.  The reason for that dates back to the mocking of economists by other academics in the wake of the seeming failure of the theories of economist Malthus regarding population growth.

The density of the population in which you live has an enormous impact on your ability to consume products.  That impact varies depending on the product in question.  In the case of food, there’s no impact at all.  Everyone needs to consume a certain amount of calories each day to survive.   At the other end of the spectrum, the impact on the consumption of housing, or dwelling space, is huge.  For example, the average citizen in Japan – a nation ten times more densely populated than the U.S. – lives in a dwelling space that’s less than one third the size of the average American.  When people are packed together so tightly, there’s simply no room for anything else.  So the average Japanese citizen’s consumption of everything used in building, furnishing and maintaining a home is less than one third of the average American’s.  Actually, it’s even worse than that when you realize that a much greater percentage of Japanese families occupy multi-family housing, like apartments.  In those cases, walls and foundations are shared, ceilings become floors for the apartment above, etc.

The effect on every single product you can imagine is to reduce its per capita consumption.  Cars?  There’s no room to drive or park them for most people in Japan.  You’ve all seen news stories of Japanese trains carrying commuters literally packed together so tightly that they can barely breathe.

Boats?  In spite of the fact that Japan is an island nation, their per capita consumption of boats is close to zero.  The same is true for Denmark, a nation consisting of one large peninsula and many islands, but which is also very densely populated.

Lawn care and gardening equipment?  On a per capita basis, lawns and gardens virtually don’t exist in Japan.  Sporting goods?  There’s little room for golf or tennis or anything else that requires much real estate.  Even things like electronics are affected, since such cramped quarters as you find in places like Japan force people to share them.

So you get the idea.  A dense population absolutely strangles per capita consumption.  On the other hand, when someone in Japan (or China, or Germany, or South Korea, or any densely populated nation) goes to work, they are every bit as productive as an American worker.  It takes no more or less labor to manufacture something, like a car, for example, in Japan than it does in America.

People make things and people buy things and that, in a nutshell, is what makes an economy tick.  But what happens if people aren’t able to buy as much as they’re able to make?  Now you have a situation where the supply and demand for labor are out-of-balance.  Less demand for labor translates into higher unemployment.  Higher unemployment means lower wages for everyone, and it necessitates greater government spending to provide a safety net for the unemployed.  It’s a recipe for disaster for any nation’s economy.

However, there’s an escape mechanism for nations that find themselves in this fix.  They can put their excess labor capacity to work making products for export.  Of course, that requires a trading partner who’s willing to share their market.  If that partner has a shortage of labor – perhaps because they are very sparsely populated and lack the labor force needed to manufacture everything they need – then it can be a beneficial situation, one that is likely financed by the sparsely populated nation selling natural resources like food, oil, lumber, minerals, etc. to the densely populated partner.

But what if that trading partner isn’t sparsely populated and has no shortage of labor?  To welcome imports from that densely populated nation will inevitably put its own people out of work and create a big trade deficit.  It’s absolutely inescapable.  The densely populated nation won’t buy products from the less densely populated nation in equal measure because they can’t even consume their own domestic manufacturing capacity, much less take in more from other countries.

Either a densely populated nation sustains its economy by manufacturing for export, or it lapses into abject poverty because of extreme unemployment.  Look around the world and you’ll see that this is true, although I should point out that there are a couple of exceptions.  Many small island nations, though they tend to be densely populated, maintain vibrant economies that are based on tourism.  And some small but densely populated nations have oceans of oil beneath their feet and trade that oil for all the other products its citizens require.  But these are the exceptions.  Any densely populated nation of any size is either dirt poor or is totally dependent on manufacturing for export.   Attempting to trade freely with such nations is economic suicide.  A big trade deficit and a loss of manufacturing jobs is inevitable.

What is the point of trade policy that only serves to erode our economy?  The purpose of trade is to make available products that can’t be obtained domestically.  For a nation like the U.S. – big and rich in resources – there isn’t much we need.  Tropical fruits, out-of-season produce, and a few rare minerals are examples.  But manufactured products?  There are none that we can’t make domestically and more efficiently, especially when you factor in the five billion barrels of oil burned annually by ships bringing in products from half-way around the world.  It makes absolutely no sense.

Tariffs are the only remedy available to maintain a balance of trade.  Trade deals don’t work, because there is no motivation for a nation dependent on manufacturing for export to abide by them.  The reduction in the trade deficit with China is proof that they work.  Those tariffs need to be expanded to include all Chinese imports, not just half of them like we have now.  Beyond that, their implementation needs to be spread to other densely populated nations that prey on the American market to sustain their bloated labor forces – Germany, South Korea, Ireland, Vietnam and other Asian and European nations.

Virtually every problem in America, beyond unemployment and low wages, in which a lack of funding is a factor, can ultimately be traced back to our trade deficit – inadequate funding of schools, neglected infrastructure maintenance and improvements, inner city blight, health care – the list can go on and on.  Ultimately, the federal budget deficit and national debt can be attributed to the federal spending needed to offset the financial drain of the trade deficit.

And still economists keep their heads in the sand and insist that population growth plays no role in economics.

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