KCFB Executive Director’s Report
By Romeo Agbalog, Executive Director, Kern County Farm Bureau
In the 18th century, economist Thomas Robert Malthus proposed a theory that suggested improvements in technology would inescapably lead to increased population growth, placing added strain on resources and ultimately a decrease in quality of life for society. Malthus argued that social improvements in the terms of increased income and standard of living was impossible since any steps taken in furtherance of this direction would simply add to the population and amplify social pressures.
Malthus’ theory, the “Malthusian Trap” was introduced during a period of rapid change for society. In fact, the Industrial Revolution was right around the corner and was about to prove Malthus’ theory wrong. See, Malthus believed that increased population would create an excess of labor driving wages down, and that an increase in the masses would create competition for food, supplies, and other resources driving costs up.
Also, Malthus lived and wrote during a time when production was accomplished by highly individualized manual labor, for example farming in Malthus’ time was done by hand and with the use of animals. Later, the introduction of mechanized equipment like tractors allowed for more abundant, cheaper, and faster food production that subsequently rose living standards for people around the world.
Fast forward to modern times. Mechanized farm equipment is used much more expansively and the equipment more sophisticated than the equipment and tools used in the 18th century, and manual labor, though scarce, is still used today. Automation is now here and being implemented in agriculture and other industries rapidly. Automation requires a higher skilled workforce yet requires a smaller number of workers at the same time. A loss of a job, I think Malthus would agree, is a social pressure and indeed a decrease in quality of life.
Like the Industrial Revolution, automation stands to revolutionize agriculture and other industries alike, though an unintended consequence could be the loss of an entry level ag job that represents the first rung on the ladder towards the climb towards economic prosperity.
Social pressures that I am not sure Malthus considered then, but certainly considerations now stem from government. Increases to minimum wage, ag overtime regulations, increases in workers compensation, disability, unemployment, health insurance, and other costly rules, laws, or regulations result in skyrocketing labor costs. Have we entered a Malthusian Trap where technology improved, but few people benefitted? Scholars can debate this question, though it’s clear we are in sort of a government style bureaucratic trap, whose theories I hope someday soon will be proven wrong.