The NYT is Upset that Wages in China Are Rising

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Saturday, 19 January 2013 16:49

Wow this is really getting incredible, yet another piece about how China is going to be suffering because it has a declining labor force. The big problem seems to be that we may not be able to count on cheap tee-shirts from China. The prescription is that Chinese people should have more kids so that we can have more cheap labor. The downside is that it will take 20 years before the kids born today will be able to join the labor force. 

That is only a slight caricature of the blogpost by the usually insightful Vikas Bajaj. The obsession with the declining labor force in China, and the nearly universal conviction that it is bad, displays a seriously confused view of economics.

Let's say that China's labor force declines at the rate of 1 percent annually for the next four decades. So what? This means that the price of labor will rise and the least productive jobs will go unfilled. This is what happened in the United States when people left the farms for better paying jobs in manufacturing. Farmers no doubt felt there was a labor shortage, but that is how market economies work. Less productive businesses go under, do Bajaj and his fellow China worriers want to stop technological progress?

In terms of being able to support a rising population of dependents, it is important to keep productivity growth in this picture. China's economy had been growing at the rate of 10 percent a year. Even if this slows to 7 percent as many predict, it will allow workers to enjoy much higher after tax income even if an increasing portion of their wage is diverted to supporting China's elderly population.

The arithmetic here is simple. If wages rise in step with productivity growth, then after 20 years wages will have risen by 287 percent. Even if the tax burden on workers increased by 20 percentage points over this period they would still have far more after-tax income than they had when the dependency rate was lower and the economy was less productive.

What is especially bizarre is that the obsession with the prospect of a declining population takes no notice of the horrible pollution problem that China faces in Beijing and other major cities and also the problem of global warming. A declining population will help to directly address both problems. The fact that China slowed its population growth was an enormous service to humanity.