Are demographics going to save the US economy?

Sometimes the simplest things can have wide-ranging effects.

Business Insider's Joe Weisenthal touched upon a very interesting aspect of contemporary economics in a recent interview with Bill McBride, the economics blogger who, at his site Calculated Risk gained fame for his remarkable prescience about the global financial crisis, particularly the US housing bubble.

McBride hasn't stayed with the "doom and gloom" message, though, and has been arguing that there will be a hefty rebound in US GDP for since shortly after the economy bottomed out in 2009. His reasons for thinking that way are an interesting mixture of anecdote – normally verboten for serious economic analysts – carefully chosen statistics, and a few broader macroeconomic indicators.

For example, he argued in January 2009 that the car market (sales were plummeting at the time, and a large part of the collapse in employment and GDP) was bottoming out, and would shortly start to grow again:

So I wrote this article that says look, auto sales are near the bottom – we were at a 9 million annual rate then – I said there’s just no way – we have to be selling 12, 13, 14 million, because people need new cars every 5-7,8 years.

Similarly, the housing market couldn't stay as weak as it had been for very long, because:

After a while, there’s all this excess supply that was built, then people pulled back and lived with their parents – but people don’t want to live with their parents very long. That supply gets absorbed. When I go out into The Inland Empire I can tell you… If it’s not mostly growing, it’s getting there. Where I live, as soon as foreclosures come on the market there’s people lined up.

In other words, houses and (in most of the US) cars are necessities of life. Demand for them can fall, as people put off purchases or attempt to economise on what they do buy, but eventually, those purchases will be made. A car only lasts so long, and a growing population can only shack up in spare bedrooms for a short while.

Obviously, there is still a fair amount of analysis to perform. McBride's call on the auto industry was on the money, not just because he realised it couldn't fall forever, but also because he checked the statistics for average length of car ownership, and pre-crisis sales, and realised that the vehicle lifespan was being pushed to historically long durations.

But the methodology is reminiscent of the (apocryphal) story that some foresight of the 1929 Wall Street Crash was provided by the realisation that the bubble of the "roaring twenties" was driven by the growing adoption of a number of consumer technologies which were nearing saturation point. If economic growth over the last decade has occurred because car ownership rose from 10 to 90 per cent, it is clear that economic growth over the next decade cannot come from the same source.

The problem with these arguments is that there are a lot of specific indicators to choose from, and only some of them will have macroeconomic consequences. McBride was correct about the auto industry, but that doesn't mean that the method will work every time.

Weisenthal, following the interview, tried his hand at a similar form of analysis: proving the US naysayers wrong by looking at the nation's demographics. He writes:

When you've collapsed SO much, then really simple observations like that are germane because the demographic lift on its own to counteract the hard cyclical downturn.

And that's where the Americans should be thankful: Because there is in fact a demographic lift.

Japan is probably the economy whose struggles most resemble ours, and that force is much weaker there.

Here's a comparison of year-over-year population growth rates for Japan and the US going back to 1960. Growth in Japan (red line) has been much slower for decades.

…Japan's demographic tail wind has been non existent.

With some knowledge about demographics and the need to replace cars, you could look at a chart like this one (which divides motor vehicle sales by population) and ascertain that the lows seen in 2008/2009 were WAY out of whack with anything vaguely historical.

…The overall point is simple: A demographic lift combined with the same innovation and investment that's gone on for a long time is why the dreams of the doomsayers, who were riding so high just a few years ago, haven't come to pass.

Japan's demographic squeeze has been predicted and feared for a long time, but Weisenthal goes further by pinning a lot of hopes on America's demographic health. Is he right? Time will tell, but one thing which is worth noting is that this demographic lift isn't something which comes out of nowhere. In fact, it is something which, with the popular consensus around the need to limit immigration, is being actively fought by most US policymakers. We've written here about the unintended consequences of that limitation, but hopefully pushing the idea that demographic lift is the nation's biggest economic hope might do a little to build the coalition on the other side.

A worker builds a car in Michigan. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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