Local Zoning and Hukou – Systems of Mobility Management in the US and China

The writer Michael Hobbes had an excellent thread on housing and homelessness the other day:

As Hobbes continues to say, “Every American city that sees a boom in incomes and employment also sees a spike in homelessness. Our deranged housing policy has made equitable urban growth a thing of the past.”

The relationship is indeed causal. The poster children for the current housing crisis in America are precisely those cities where high amenity construction and an influx of college-educated workers has not been followed by sufficient homebuilding – San Francisco, Boston, New York and Austin; to a lesser extent Los Angeles and Seattle too. With no other alternatives, these new high-income workers bid up the existing housing stock – this is the gentrification process – and research by Zillow has found that future increases in homelessness is well-predicted by what comes next, i.e, increases in average rent. While the natural solution to an increase in the demand for housing in a place is to increase the supply for housing in that place, the issue has instead festered and spawned a kaleidoscope of groups all pushing their own solutions, each with a worse tradeoff than the last.

In a classic case of strange bedfellows, some NIMBYs and pro-homeless activists have pointed out that in fact there is no housing crisis, since the national housing stock is more than capable of housing the unhoused, with there being more vacant homes than homeless people. This is true, but subject to an obvious critique: since extra houses in Detroit can’t be moved to Culver City, the only option remaining is to move some of the people out of the crowded cities into these extra homes. And while there are thoughtful approaches to this (like pursuing geographic redistribution as a tool of federal policy), more often than not proponents of this approach end up advocating for a deep and modern form of segregation.

As it happens, the mismatch of homes and jobs is not a uniquely American problem. China, amid its stomach churning rise to middle-income, has been groaning under the weight of a similar problem for decades. I want to compare the restrictions on mobility imposed by local control of zoning in the US with the top-down system used in China – the hukou, which is a form of census and identification strategy that maps each Chinese citizen to a region and determines their eligibility for legal residence in other regions. Obviously, hukou is a rather more domineering way to control the movement of a population. But the effects of local control of zoning are no less severe; rather remarkably, the natural whims of homeowners in Marin County and the Upper West Side have come to align with the technocrats at the CCP.

“Getting to Denmark”

First some accounting: every population on Earth has become more urban since the Industrial Revolution, but the Americans (beginning in the 1850s) and the Chinese (beginning in the 1970s) were really good at it.

It was only by 1920 that the US would become a majority-urban nation; today about 80% of Americans live in cities. The late 20th C. suburbanization is evident to see in the below chart as a break in trend, as is the great return of the millennials to cities after 2008; to a first approximation, however, it’s easy to see that urbanization followed a linear trend up for several decades before slowing at higher levels.

The Chinese have taken a much more volatile path to urbanization.

In 1949, the Communist Party took power in a country that counted 60 million urban residents, a mere spearhead compared to the 450 million living in the countryside.

Early on, they established the hukou, or “household registration” system, a tool of the command economy designed to help the party manage the vast Chinese population. Hukou were used to designate where residents would receive government benefits, like healthcare, schooling for their kids, and work eligibility. They came in two flavors, rural and urban, and while changes to hukou status were nominally allowed, in practice they were exceedingly rare: maybe something like 1% of all rural holders could have converted to urban status each year.

China Loosens Hukou Residency System to Spur Growth - Bloomberg
These are hukou – they’re physical books, sort of like IDs, with all the requisite data about each individual on them.

Hukou shaped Mao-era policymaking. As the Dear Leader’s focus swung from rural collectivization to leap-frog industrialization and then back to iconoclastic civil struggle in the late 1960s, holding an urban hukou was tantamount to a stay of execution – 19 in 20 deaths during the Great Chinese Famine were of rural hukou holders, as they were expected to feed themselves with the surplus remaining after CCP authorities had collected their grain targets, while urban residents received (meager, but reliable) state rations.

Even after the death of Mao and up through the 80s, modern megalopoli like the Pearl River Delta were agricultural, still covered in “rice paddies and water buffalo,” as one urban studies scholar puts it. Shenzhen changed all that. Amid the raft of economic reforms which opened up special economic zones from 1979 onwards was a crack in the armor of hukou that allowed for rural merchants to legally bring their business to cities distinct from their own.

Further reforms in 1992 would open more benefits and a form of legal residency to migrant laborers in a few cities; yet more reforms in the early aughts would finally tear down the rural-urban distinction, replacing it instead with a “regional” hukou. Those reforms have basically worked:

Statistic: Degree of urbanization in China from 1980 to 2020 | Statista

By the mid-2000s, poor farmers in the Chongqing hinterlands had it well within their rights to cast down their plows and pick up factory tools – but only in Chongqing. They couldn’t leave behind the farm as easily for one of the dynamos like Shenzhen, Shanghai, or Beijing. And therein lay the rub.

Between countries, within countries

While overall urbanization stats tell a simple story, they hide the changes in mix between cities which has attained a greater salience today. Put another way, like the UN does in 75-year report on Inequality, “Income inequality between countries has improved, yet income inequality within countries has become worse.”

The below chart illustrates this well – taking the per capita personal income of the top 100 combined statistical areas in the US, we observe that the playing field has become much less equal. In 1969, the median CSA had personal income only 25% lower than the peak, in that year oddly enough represented by Reno, NV. In 2019, the median CSA had a personal income nearly 50% lower than the Bay Area’s.

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis

This development has important implications for individual behavior and the study of urbanization more broadly. If, say, rural productivity in 1969 was equal to an index of 25 on the chart, then even someone moving to the poorest CSA at that time – New Orleans, LA – could have expected to nearly triple their personal income.

By contrast, say rural productivity was again at 25 for 2019, then someone moving to the 100th-richest CSA, Lexington KY, would only expect to double their income. That 2019 mover has to get all the way to Minneapolis to triple their income like the person who moved to the Big Easy in 1969.

Put simply, while the returns to urbanization were rather uniform in the mid-century, the distribution has skewed in our day. All urbanization is no longer created equal and the restrictions which prevent workers from moving to San Jose and Seattle and NYC and Boston are a club to the kneecap of broader American growth.

Two clever economists advanced this argument a few years ago and did the legwork too; they found that the increase in GDP from ending restrictive housing regulations and allowing greater mobility was astronomical – from 1964-2009, the total increase in GDP would’ve been +36% higher than it was in reality, worth an extra $3.4tn in 09 dollars (Hsieh & Moretti, the authors of that study, corrected an error caught by the economist Bryan Caplan, which had actually underestimated the theorized effects by something like $2tn dollars!).

Of course, for all this to work you have to believe that the increase in income inequality between cities has actually come along with a decrease in mobility to those rich cities. But that does seem to be the case – as above, we noted that these richest cities are ground zero for the housing crisis, places where housing costs are so high not only as to deter all the potential newcomers who don’t have FAANG RSUs as part of their compensation, but also to actually evict present residents!

The real economists have weighed in on this for a while too – the impacts of lower mobility are at the core of Tyler Cowen’s Complacent Class. Davis & Haltiwanger (2014) found rates of job relocation fell by a quarter going into the 90s, while Molloy et al. (2011) declared internal migration to be at a 30-year low.

Molloy et al. (2011), p. 174

If that’s not enough for you, Brookings laid it out cleanly in a 2018 note called “Americans aren’t moving to economic opportunity” – more than half of migration out of “low vitality” counties was destined for other “low vitality” counties, and only 13% of migration from lowest vitality counties made it to highest vitality counties.

The Chinese economy has been no less susceptible to this phenomenon. The mid-aughts hukou reforms which got rid of the urban/rural split brought in new dividing lines, this time in the form of regional boundaries. This has caused its own chafing issues as poor rural residents want the gains from income possible in Shenzhen & Beijing and impossible in their local tier 3 urban area. Filmmakers like Jia Zhangke, who have made it out to the coastal superstar cities, pay testament to these inequities – the lives of a group of miners in remote Shanxi province are depicted in A Touch of Sin as being all sound and fury, bitter cold and hard labor for meager wages.

It’s no wonder that, as The Economist found in 2020, the smallest Chinese cities are actually seeing their hukou-compliant populations fall. Rural hukou holders have a certain “reservation” status, similar to job-seekers in a labor market, below which they will prefer to retain their rural status and forgo the social benefits of registration in the city in which they work. Xi Jinping, who wrote as a student about tinkering with hukou, has pushed a new initiative to spruce up these smaller towns and cities, with little word back on success.

Hukou today, as The Economist has it, is a game of three tiers: you’d love to but can’t get into Shanghai and Beijing, you’re ok with and can get into Chengdu and Xi’an, and you don’t even want to get into small cities like Dawan or Wuwei.

NIMBYism on the Pacific Rim

Nowadays the arguments for keeping strong hukou distinctions are weaker than ever. Faced with four years of Trumpian jousting, COVID-19, and a burgeoning demographic crisis, the party under Xi has been more and more active in tinkering with the rules and allowing for more migration, a strategy once referred to as adding a “new engine for the slowing economy”.

Where opponents of liberalization usually stake their claims is in arguments about the cost of providing for all those newcomers. In a very telling discussion, Fei-Ling Wang, a professor at Georgia Tech, describes the modern pressures on the reform camp:

Resistance to any proposed major reform now, ironically, comes from the urban people – not ironically, but expectedly I guess – and not necessarily from government planners. Government planners are hoping to speed up urbanization even in large cities so the economy can get a new driving force. However, urban officials, the local cadres, see this as compromising their current privilege. They see the rural folks as coming in to share their fruits. The urban-rural difference in China is horrendous – living standard, income, education, medical service, you name it. This great gap really makes the urban folks feel they are privileged and wonder why they should share the scarce resources with country folk. The local officials also worry about it [hukou reform], as it may get local people really angry or create a management issue.

Fei-Ling Wang, quoted in The Diplomat

There we have it – Chinese NIMBYism made flesh. What in the end distinguishes the ideas of those who were there first, either in China or the US, from those who would like only the chance to share in the fruits of high-productivity economies? Very little, except for a commitment to keeping the rest of us all a little poorer.

Misreading Malthus – The Life and Death of Family Planning Policy in China

An era has ended – the Chinese government has capitulated on its near-half-century-long attempt to restrict the growth of its population. Following the release of results from the most recent decennial census, the CCP has told families that having as many as three children is permissible – this from the same organization that promoted in 1978 the slogan “one is best, two at most”. Hand-wringing has already begun as to whether this relaxation will end up having any positive effects. I find it more curious why China’s government embarked on this quixotic errand in the first place.

The writer Sui-Lee Wee has been the New York Times‘ reporter of choice in covering this topic. In a recent series of stories covering the census and its policy impacts, she has updated and typified the discourse around Chinese family planning – focused on the mothers of today either stymied in their desire for more kids or completely overwhelmed by the cost of rearing their single child, Wee’s writing offers the perspective that the Party’s fretful back-pedaling on population planning will end up too little, too late.

That the Party should be worried at all is noteworthy – their fear validates at least in part a sort of pat wisdom now commonly shared about the hegemonic prospects of modern-day China, namely that China as a country got too old before it became rich.

Western countries are not unconcerned about similar matters. South Korea & Japan are quite a ways ahead of the Americans and Europeans in terms of staring down the barrel of the developed country demographic transition, worrying about plunging birth rates among alienated city dwellers. But at least the OECD countries are rich; China, as The Economist notes, still only has per-capita income about one-quarter of the US’.

This is a tension not totally explored in Wee’s stories – in centering the individual women whose lives were and are altered by the policy, this approach paints a valuable picture of daily life in modern China. Yet at the same time, this close portraiture understates the larger dimensions of the one-child policy, its logic, its implementation, and its effects. In fact, I can’t find any more useful way to conceptualize the 1CP other than as the one of the most tremendous acts undertaken by a totalitarian state upon its own citizens in the whole brutal 20th century.

The basic chronology of family planning is worth noting here: Mao is dead in September 1976. Following a short period of intramural combat, the reformists under Deng Xiaoping take power at the December 1978 party plenum.

Moving in parallel to the power politics in the Politburo, a group of scientists and doctors concentrated in Tianjin began to circulate writings through 1978 which asked the state to embark upon a formal policy of population control. A short CCP document advocated “one is best, two is most” the same year, and though it remained merely a party suggestion, some provinces began then to implement 1CP.

In 1980 it became law at the highest levels of policymaking, with a September Open Letter from the Secretariat of the Central Committee announcing “one-child per couple” to its people. Loopholes opened rather quickly – in 1984, the CCP allowed local governments some leeway in administration of the 1CP, mostly to relax requirements for the most rural localities.

And yet in this basic form it endured for more than thirty years. Xi Jinping took the premiership in 2013 and moved as part of his reform plan to loosen family planning policy, declaring in 2014 that couples in which one party was an only child should feel free to have two. In 2015, a two-children policy became the law of the land.

That the one-child policy arrived so late in the difficult history of the People’s Republic is jarring; the whole point of Deng’s regime was to remove the heavy yoke of Maoism from the administration of the country. It was in the fall of 1978 that the pioneering reforms in Xiaogang began, and early in 1979 that the Special Economic Zone in Shenzhen was opened.

Deng pledged “reform and opening-up” at his ascension at the December plenum. His plenipotentiary in Shenzhen, Yuan Geng, became famous for the phrase “time is money, efficiency is life” (时间就是金钱,效率就是生命). The new socialism with Chinese characteristics was a tremendous success, with real gross output rising twelve-fold and extreme poverty being eradicated.

All the while, however, Deng’s lieutenants in the provinces were enforcing 1CP with zeal. This dynamic is typical of Chinese political economy, where the key to a successful political career is leading a provincial government to outperform its targets and peers. The human toll was terrible: official party estimates claim some 400 million births were prevented by the policy.

This is a shocking acknowledgement in its own right, and yet it loses its vigor upon recognition of the crimes committed along the way. Reports abounded of infanticide after unexpected pregnancies, most victims girls. Preferences for boys among Chinese families led to a black market where girls commanded low prices. One NGO claims that the average Chinese woman could expect to have several abortions through her child-bearing years, many of which forced on them by the state.

The tragedies of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were spurred by one of the 20th C.’s worst madmen trying to enforce rule by personal cult over the planet’s longest-lived and largest civilization. And yet in 2020, the number of births actually matched the nadir of the great famine in 1961. What possibly could have driven the CCP to implement such a policy?

The Foundations of the One-Child Policy in Midcentury Catastrophism

The Chinese government’s goal since liberalization has been to become rich and powerful – less than a year into his reign, Deng was already referring to this as the goal of becoming a “moderately prosperous society” (小康社会), a slogan which has endured through Xi’s massive reworking of CCP ideology.

Keeping this goal in mind makes the 1CP even less sensical than it might seem prima facie. To make your society richer, you can increase the amount of workers or you can make more valuable the work they do. This is mere mechanical accounting: keeping per-capita incomes equal, levels of gross domestic product increase with population, as do rates of economic growth increase with rates of increase in population.

We have to conclude that China’s leadership in the late 1970s was convinced of a more radical idea: that unchecked population growth would actually block them from the successful completion of their goals. This is indeed what happened, and stranger still, most of the intellectual force of this notion came from the advocacy of one scientist, Song Jian.

Song, who yet lives, was trained as a missile scientist in the early 1960s. He survived the Cultural Revolution only through the personal intervention of Zhou Enlai, who named him to a list of fifty indispensable scientists. At the dawn of the Deng era, Song was part of a small cohort of scientists asked to convert from the study of military science (principally missile technology) to the study of economic growth.

Key to the history of the 1CP is a trip to Helsinki taken by Song in 1978, where at a conference of the International Foundation of Automatic Control, he was introduced to the ideas of a book called The Limits to Growth. The book, which first appeared in 1972, was the result of a collaboration between an NGO called the Club of Rome and a group of MIT scientists they commissioned to develop a model for long-term resource use. The basic conclusions of the book were alarming:

If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime in the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.

The Limits to Growth, pg. 23-24

Underpinning these conclusions were a set of models which displayed the exponential rate of increase of human population and consumption, and in contrast, the linear rate of increase of resource availability, namely food and industrial metals. Acknowledging the imprecision in their forecasts, the team responsible wrote, “precise numerical assumptions about the limits of the earth are unimportant when viewed against the inexorable progress of exponential growth.” (p. 51)

In order to forestall the worst consequences of this dynamic, Limits to Growth recommends “a nongrowing state for human society,” one in which “the birth rate equals the death rate”. The book even goes so far as to warn its readers against waiting for natural phenomena which might ease population pressures to occur, writing, “we cannot say with certainty how much longer mankind can postpone initiating deliberate control…Deliberately limiting growth would be difficult, but not impossible.”

Song Jian returned to China equipped with Limits to Growth and began working on population control diligently. “In the West, the Club of Rome work had provoked an outcry from social scientists concerned about the application of cybernetics’ mechanistic models to the solution of human problems. Song apparently did not encounter such critiques,” writes Greenhalgh in her 2005 article on Song.

Moreover, population control was a topic ripe for the picking by an ambitious and brilliant scientist – “throughout the 1970s population was a weakly institutionalized sector, with few institutions or standard operating procedures for processing policy issues. In this context, policy entrepreneurs [like Song] would have room to exert appreciable influence over the policy outcome.”

Song was able to use his privileged place as an “indispensable” defense scientist to access Western science like in Limits to Growth and also to become a leading voice in a narrow field. His approach worked – after about a year of workshopping, he presented his paper to a leading journal in January 1980, equipped with the recommendation that adopting a one-child policy was an “extremely urgent strategic duty”. By February 1980, the Central Committee was talking population targets, and in March they allowed Song to go wide with his research in the People’s Daily. From there, there was no looking back.

Misreading Malthus and the Errors of Degrowth

But let us return for a moment to the work that undergirded Song’s push – in Limits to Growth‘s contrast between exponential human growth and linear resource growth, readers should be reminded of the work of one man: Thomas Malthus. Indeed, the Club of Rome does that work for us, counting him among their antecedents, as well as such notables as Plato, Aristotle, and John Stuart Mill.

Malthus was the author of a remarkable work which appeared in 1798 called An Essay on the Principle of Population. In it, he discussed his thoughts on exactly that, why population rose and fell and what it meant for national wealth. Early on, he explains his thesis in terms of differing growth rates:

Taking the population of the world at any number, a thousand millions, for instance, the human species would increase in the ratio of—1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, &c. and subsistence as—1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, &c. In two centuries and a quarter, the population would be to the means of subsistence as 512 to 10: in three centuries as 4096 to 13; and in two thousand years the difference would be almost incalculable, though the produce in that time would have increased to an immense extent.

Malthus, Chapter II

Sound familiar? The rest of it remains a strikingly modern read – keep in mind that Adam Smith had only published Wealth of Nations about twenty-five years prior – and full of great discussions. Today, however, Malthus’ name is deployed almost exclusively in the service of discussing the above dynamic. This phenomenon sometimes is called the Malthusian Trap, one where poor societies are unable to become rich, as rising incomes lead to higher populations, which then necessarily lead to lower incomes in the future.

Until the Industrial Revolution, Malthusian dynamics like these did retard the ability of societies to achieve launch velocity and become what we think of today as developed nations. What’s important to note here is that even in his work, Malthus recognized this as a natural dynamic, an ebb and flow of society. Malthus has been received in modern times by the Club of Rome and others as an advocate for population control, but this seems drastically, unbelievably wrong to me. He was not pushing in a normative sense for policymakers to intervene and stop the cycle before it took its natural path; he was instead documenting a general phenomenon about human life in a descriptive way.

He says as much a little later:

The constant effort towards population, which is found to act even in the most vicious societies, increases the number of people before the means of subsistence are increased…The poor consequently must live much worse, and many of them be reduced to severe distress. The number of labourers also being above the proportion of the work in the market, the price of labour must tend toward a decrease; while the price of provisions would at the same time tend to rise. The labourer therefore must work harder to earn the same as he did before. During this season of distress, the discouragements to marriage, and the difficulty of rearing a family are so great, that population is at a stand. In the mean time the cheapness of labour, the plenty of labourers, and the necessity of an increased industry amongst them, encourage cultivators to employ more labour upon their land; to turn up fresh soil, and to manure and improve more completely what is already in tillage; till ultimately the means of subsistence become in the same proportion to the population as at the period from which we set out. The situation of the labourer being then again tolerably comfortable, the restraints to population are in some degree loosened; and the same retrograde and progressive movements with respect to happiness are repeated.

This sort of oscillation will not be remarked by superficial observers; and it may be difficult even for the most penetrating mind to calculate its periods. Yet that in all old states some such vibration does exist; though from various transverse causes, in a much less marked, and in a much more irregular manner than I have described it, no reflecting man who considers the subject deeply can well doubt.

Malthus, Chapter II

The “periods” of Malthus’ “oscillation” represent the key to his whole theory – increases in population don’t lead to some Mad Max style disaster zone; they lead to rising food prices, which induces a rational response by the next generation of parents to wait a little longer before having kids. This is a far cry from Limits to Growth‘s urgency. The only rub for Malthus is that he thinks the length of these cycles is too hard to discern – “difficult even for the most penetrating mind,” as he puts it.

Luckily, modern economists and their analyses turn out to have rather penetrating minds themselves, and a recent paper from Bouscasse, Nakamura, and Steinsson updates the literature on pre-industrial growth cycles. “Our estimates imply that Malthusian population dynamics were very slow,” the authors write. “[A] doubling of real incomes led to a 6 percentage point per decade increase in population growth.” This dynamic held from the Black Death through to 1650, after which things changed – the economy transitioned “from Malthus to Solow,” and increases in productivity couldn’t possibly be swallowed by increases in population: England was getting more productive too quickly.

The Club of Rome read Malthus to say that unless populations were reduced, poverty would result. They had it all backwards. What’s worse, this belief was based in the worst intellectual error one can ever commit: confidence in predictions about the future. Yes, they were right to be concerned about climate change, although it appears Exxon was not too far behind them, on much better evidence. Other parts of the book stress about chromium consumption, which does not rank very highly in a recent study’s concerns about resource usage. They worried also about the potential for the Mexican population to reach 130 million by 2060. Mexico contains 127 million people today, and I am willing to bet that the addition of 3 million more will not suffice to bring on civilizational collapse.

Song Jian and his colleagues bet the farm on a policy motivated by the errant reasoning of doomsayers like the Club of Rome. The strength of modern society is in its ability to constantly transform, to always seek a new answer to an old problem. Growth is an inescapable good – this is the crux of industrialization, and just as there was no reason to doubt this dynamic had changed in 1978, there is still no reason to think so now, though saying so raises the hackles of a minor debate about sustainability and population control now ongoing in the US.

One side of this debate calls itself degrowth, and exhorts us for the good of the planet to abandon economic growth, arguing that the current model of perpetual increases in GDP is merely unsustainable. “Huge chunks of our economy are totally irrelevant to human wellbeing. We must ask ourselves; do we really want to pursue aggregate growth if it’s going to put our planet — and our civilization — at such extraordinary risk?” asked Jason Hickel, its foremost prophet, to CNBC.

My reaction is that all this has been tried before and found to fail. As above, economic growth requires either more people or richer lives. Degrowth, therefore, can really only come from one of two things: fewer people, or poorer lives. I find this degrowtherism to be cowardly, uninventive, a pearl-clutching sky-is-falling fatalism about what we can expect from future technology.

Instead we need to take a different tack, and recognize the limitlessness of human ingenuity. Andrew McAfee wrote admirably about how we’re already solving the problems degrowthers say we’ll never solve. Elsewhere, writers like Matt Yglesias, Lyman Stone, Elizabeth Bruenig, and Noah Smith, among others, have taken up the pen, advocating not for fewer children or smaller economies, but larger nations full of revitalized population centers, bursting with new ideas and an entrepreneurial spirit to take down the challenges of climate change in a positive way.

Malthus’ Last Trick: The Demographic Transition

Ultimately, the voices of those authors are needed because even without encouragement, the growth of the human population is slowing down. Sure, in developing countries, we expect a boom in population to continue until well into mid-century. But demographic transition has occurred in rich countries without fail, leaving large populations of retirees supported by smaller bases of prime-age workers.

This is the great doom of population control efforts, one the Chinese government unwittingly walked into. Their population growth was going to slow down anyway as the country got richer. 1CP only hastened the transition and made the increase in dependency ratio much more rapid – whereas in 1980, one prime-age Chinese worker had to support the income of 1.47 retirees, today that figure stands at 2.5 retirees to every worker. In the US, the same figure is 1.8 retirees to every worker.

At its core, the Malthusian dynamic describes the response of families to the cost of child rearing. In pre-industrial societies, that was easy to understand – kids were mouths to feed, and so Malthus could ask of the desirous but penniless family man, “May he not see his offspring in rags and misery, and clamouring for bread that he cannot give them?”

Today, the pressures on parents are much different, but no less potent. The continued decline in the US birth rate, for example, is sometimes explained as a free and equal choice by women to live childlessly. “There turn out to be a large number of surveys asking about fertility preferences,” Lyman Stone wrote in rebuttal of that idea, “and no matter how creatively it is sliced and diced, no matter what data source is used, women have fewer kids than they say they want, desire, intend, expect, or consider ideal—for themselves or for society on the whole.”

Eric Levitz, writing for NYMag, continues the line of reasoning: “in meritocratic, capitalist societies, middle-class expectations for the amount of time and financial investment a child requires have grown so high, only a radical economic reordering can make larger families feel broadly attainable.”

This same attitude turns up in Sui-Lee Wee’s articles about the changes to family planning. She quotes a 26-year-old Beijinger as saying, “No matter how many babies they open it up to, I’m not going to have any because children are too troublesome and expensive…I’m impatient and worried that I won’t be able to educate the child well.”

Wee phrased it more strongly in another article – ending family planning policies “could also founder amid broad cultural changes. Anxiety over the rising cost of education, housing and health care is now deeply ingrained in society. Many Chinese simply prefer smaller families”.

In seeking to head off a mostly imagined civilizational collapse, the side effects of the one-child policy proved to have the greatest staying power of all. For their latest trick, the Chinese government will have to find another way out.

Review: Peter Zeihan, “Disunited Nations”

If geopolitics ever found itself in need of a fabulist, it could do worse than to give Peter Zeihan a call. To be fair, geopolitics today does need a fabulist – one of the wittier passages in Zeihan’s recent book, Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World, concerns the moment in 1990 or so when all notions of narrative were left by the wayside:

With the Soviet fall, American president George HW Bush sensed history calling. He used his unprecedented popularity in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall and victory in the First Iraq War to launch a national conversation on what’s next. What do the American people want out of this new world? He openly discussed a New World Order, his personal goal being a ‘thousand points of light,’ a community of free nations striving to better the human condition in ways heretofore unimaginable. Bush’s background – he had previously served as vice president, budget chief, party chief, ambassador, House representative, and intelligence guru – made him the right person with the right skill set and the right connections and the right disposition in the right place in the right job at the right time.
So of course the Americans voted him out of office, and all serious talk of moving the Order onto newer footing for the new age, more relevant for the challenges and opportunities of the post-Cold War era, ceased.

Peter Zeihan, Disunited Nations, p. 14

Since that magical moment when the Wall fell, Zeihan argues, geopolitical thinking has cast about fruitlessly for a new framework to latch onto, foisting Thucydidean notions of rise and decline onto China and America, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Germany and Turkey. This, he holds, is foolish. “The Americans have changed their mind about their alliance and have turned sharply more insular,” he notes [emphasis original], contrasting the post-Soviet era to the period of hyperpower competition. The impact this disengagement will have is scarcely visible, yet of the utmost importance: “Without the global security the Americans guaranteed, global trade and global energy flows cannot continue.”

From this launching point Zeihan develops a global theory of novel national competition, assessing and assigning winners and losers country-by-country. His analysis is anchored in a startlingly broad reading of history and geography. Among his most admirable guiding notions is the one given above, namely that freedom of the seas eliminated the previously insuperable problems of food and energy security. Relieving these pressures enabled population growth in the Hejaz, economic integration in southeastern Brazil, and industrialization on the Pearl River Delta. Once the American guarantee is withdrawn, however, the fight for basic provisions will drive great powers to the brink.

Among the best determinants of success in a newly competitive world will be demographics, and Zeihan deftly weaves throughout an analysis of age and sex distributions to explain who will rise and who will fall. Another major factor is the degree of industrialization. The most industrialized countries with the healthiest demographic balances (lowest dependency ratio), Zeihan forecasts, will be the best equipped to handle the return of national competition. The final components of the success function are concerned with resource endowment and geography: proven reserves of oil and gas, fertile soil and navigable inland waterways all propel nations up his list. Most dramatically, a full reckoning of these factors leads Zeihan to anticipate a total breakdown of China as we know it.

Even as things stand today, Zeihan begins, China is militarily constrained by the First Island Chain, the set of landmasses including the Sakhalin Peninsula, the Japanese home islands, Okinawa, Taiwan, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and the Philippines. In the early modern period, following the pioneering missions of Zheng He, this geography was hostile enough to turn imperial China entirely inward, forestalling the development of a major ocean-going naval tradition.

China's Vision of Its Seascape: The First Island Chain and Chinese Seapower  - Yoshihara - 2012 - Asian Politics & Policy - Wiley Online Library
From Yoshihara, T. (2012), China’s Vision of Its Seascape: The First Island Chain and Chinese Seapower. Asian Politics & Policy, 4: 293-314.

Many of those conditions prevail today, preventing the Chinese from projecting force away from their eastern seaboard. Their contemporary attempts at the development of a large navy are mostly laughable, Zeihan assesses:

China is utterly incapable of shooting its way to resource security or export markets or a diversified domestic economy. Just as important, the country on the receiving end would not be the United States. The Americans are out of reach, and even a mild American counteraction against Chinese interests would utterly wreck everything that makes contemporary China functional.

Zeihan, p. 126

This is an old argument which holds up well – I myself was first taught it by Arthur Waldron at Penn. John Foster Dulles advanced it in the fifties.

Turn the clock forward past the end of the American guarantee, however, and Zeihan figures we’ll bear witness to the emergence of a new Warring States Period. He writes,

If the almost magical confluence of factors that enabled China’s rise shifts out of alignment, China will suffer a cataclysmic flameout every bit as impressive as its rise to power. And since those factors were always and still remain beyond China’s control, the question isn’t if, but when.

Zeihan, p. 103

China, he finds, simply got too old before it became sufficiently rich. “Demographically, China is in a state of not-so-slow-motion collapse,” he says. This, too, is an old and well-studied fear. What’s more, its riches are predicated on freedom of the seas and hyperglobalized capitalism, which will be the first casualties of the removal of the American guarantee. He even finds the potential for breakaway regionalism in Sichuan, in Tibet, in Xinjiang, and in Guangdong, leveraging arguments I found novel about the hushed-up discovery of oil in the Sichuan Basin.

BP, China's Top Producer to Develop Unconventional NatGas in Sichuan Basin  - Natural Gas Intelligence
Oil and gas in mainland China. Some attention is devoted to those deposits south of the Yangtze.

None of this is totally objectionable, even if it is sensationalistic. His bear China case counters some of the more pearl-clutching fussiness which has come out of intelligentsia publications like the London Review of Books of late. Zeihan’s other predictions, however, may beggar belief.

Sclerotic old Japan, he thinks, will prosper as the new East Asian hegemon. The Middle East from Tabriz to Kuwait is merely Turkey’s for the taking. Germany and Russia will enter a new period of intense and potentially hot conflict, leaving France to rule the rest of the continent, the Mediterranean, and West Africa. Brazil has peaked, as has Saudi. The real cheap buy is Argentina, which he bizarrely claims has “had a couple of decades to re-consolidate internally”.

Notably absent from this analysis are the minor states of India, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia. The utter blindness with respect to South and Southeast Asia is the book’s most obvious flaw. The reader is left to conjecture that, under Zeihan’s hypothetical assumptions, these countries devolve into mere poverty and irrelevancy, but it would be nice to see a mention thereof.

The next most obvious flaw comes out in Zeihan’s style, which I can only at the best of times describe as colorful. He is callous in reference to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, writing, “There is good reason Japan had to be nuked to be forced into surrender.”

He seems to delight in what will become of the Persian Gulf once the Saudis are left to fend for themselves against the Iranians and others, an arrangement which he holds as “the geopolitics of arson”: “In a straight-up land war, a coalition of the kids from Stranger Things and It would rip [the Saudis] apart…”

Discussing relations across the English Channel in the era to come, he writes, “Yet Britain is an experienced sea power that can apply diplomatic, economic, financial, and military pressure nearly anywhere it wants without fear of reprisal—and it has centuries of experience applying that pressure to Europe. Payback’s a bitch.”

He compares the governance of the Chinese Communist Party to “watching a game of drunken giant jenga,” and offers in this manner an assessment of China as a whole: “China fails on all counts. Allow me to detail the full unfurling fucking disaster.”

There’s no problem with a good dose of levity in world affairs: comparing the spending habits of the Greek economy pre-crisis to those of “a Saudi prince on Instagram” is well put. But prudence dictates restraint when discussing the Fat Boy and Little Man, and after 400 pages, his juvenile style grates even on the ears of your Twitter-obsessed reviewer.

Zeihan’s editors are also guilty of missing errors, both typographical and historical in nature. The most offending comes in one of Zeihan’s assertions regarding Turkish strength, which he explains through a kind of geographical impregnability. Couching this in the history of navigation, he writes,

Well-positioned locations that could also offer some semblance of security and shelter became crossroads. And Istanbul was the ultimate example of a secure crossroads…The city has fallen to hostile forces only twice in the past thousand years – once when the Crusaders sacked it in 1204, practically burning it to the ground, and again when the Turks conquered it somewhat more gently in 1453.

Zeihan, p. 267-9

This is incorrect: from 1918 to 1923, amid the end of the First World War and the raging of the Greco-Turkish War, the Entente held Constantinople. The Greeks, aided by the British, captured substantially all of eastern Anatolia, pushing the Turks to Ankara, which is where their capital remains today.

British forces at Karaköy port in 1919.

Other errors seem borne less of inaccuracy and more of an inadequately deep interpretation. About Germany, Zeihan writes, “For a point of reference, the whole Karl Marx and world wars thing was part and parcel of the German industrialization experience.” This is a minor beef, but Karl Marx did not live in Germany after 1849, when he was only about 30, and much of his writing was done in London.

About continuity, he writes, “The French have arguably the longest tradition of operating as a cohesive culture vis-à-vis their location of any people on Earth,” a statement I imagine would go unappreciated by the people of Tamil Nadu or the Yangtze River basin.

Zeihan commits a more lacunary error in discussing the Turks of the early modern period when he writes,

The sprawling [Turkish] empire became the largest on Earth of its time, and if a European coalition had not stopped the Turks at the gates of Vienna during the Ottoman siege of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one power would have dominated all of Europe and all of the Middle East.

Zeihan, p. 269

I am as big a fan of Eugene of Savoy as the next guy, but especially given Zeihan’s focus on seapower, it’s surprising that the spotlight is given to Vienna and not Lepanto here, where in 1571 the Venetians at the height of their power began the rollback of Turkish Mediterranean gains.

The Battle of Lepanto by Paolo Veronese.jpeg
Veronese’s The Battle of Lepanto. Clearly he thought it was a big deal.

The typographical error I noticed is also minor, but funny to report: the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul is referred to as Mato Grosso do Sol, which I suppose should cheer the sunny dispositions of all two and a half million Sul-mato-grossenses.

A number of books I’ve read recently have engaged with many of the same issues. The human cost of the failure of marginal lands was a thrilling study in Geoff Parker’s Global Crisis. The national world tour made Gaston Dorren’s lively and lovely Babel a great read. The notion of the American guarantee as critical to geopolitical harmony is a core undercurrent of Adam Tooze’s magisterial The Deluge, while cool-headed reckoning with the fortunes and vagaries of demography was among the many strengths of Doug Saunders’ Maximum Canada. And lastly, the place of pride given to an analysis of international shipping was a powerful component of Pettis and Klein’s argument in Trade Wars Are Class Wars. That one book should fold all these elements in together is worthy of praise. More praise ought be given for the stance taken against the literature of the Thucydides Trap, exemplified by Graham Allison’s recent blockbuster Destined for War, to which Disunited Nations is most directly responding. Zeihan’s efforts help put those rather antiquated notions to bed.

And sometimes Zeihan can poignantly hit the nail on the head. He fits the word “thalassocracy” into a discussion of resurgent Japanese militarism. Reading contemporary French race relations against the American system, he writes,

In many ways, the French system takes the two types of racism most prevalent in the United States and applies the worst of both. In the American South, racism takes the form of, ‘We will mingle, but we are not equal.’ In the American North, it is in the vein of, ‘We are equal, but we will not mingle.’ In France, the targets of racism are out of sight and out of mind, consigned to ghettos and at the back of the line as regards government services.

Zeihan, p. 217

But in the end, this book is a mess. Zeihan is a writer who privileges animation at the cost of sober study, whose search after contrarianism yields unsupportable conclusions. I found it revealing that the first person named in his acknowledgements is a hedge fund manager. (I won’t mention just how silly it is to write “…there are very few direct [footnotes] in this book…if I cited every obliquely contributing thought, each page would have a book’s worth of citations.”)

While I’m sure the people of NMS Capital are smart as they come, hedge funders are structurally contrarian – there’d be no reason for their clients to pay them fees otherwise. This kind of thinking is well applied to small-scale medium-term subjects, like looking for mispricings in sovereign debt curves, but less so in the evolution of literally planetwide systems. I’ll applaud Peter Zeihan for attempting to handicap a future radically different from the boring fare on usual offer at Foreign Affairs and The Economist, but bold attempts do not great books automatically make.