Fat Steve's Blatherings

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Good article on demographics

      Over at Policy Review there's an excellent book review/article by Stanley Kurds on demographics and what it means for the future of the world, especially the U.S.:
The question of the cultural and economic consequences of declining birthrates has been squarely placed on the table by four new books: The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About It, by Phillip Longman; Fewer: How the New Demography of Depopulation Will Shape Our Future, by Ben Wattenberg; The Coming Generational Storm: What You Need to Know About America’s Economic Future, by Laurence J. Kotlikoff and Scott Burns; and Running On Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It, by Peter G. Peterson. Longman and Wattenberg concentrate on the across-the-board implications of demographic change. Kotlikoff and Burns, along with Peterson, limn the economic crisis that could come in the absence of swift and sweeping entitlement reform.

Taken together, these four books suggest that we are moving toward a period of substantial social change whose tantalizing ideological implications run the gamut from heightened cultural radicalism to the emergence of a new, more conservative cultural era.
(hat tip: Real Clear Politics).

Some comments:

      First, it's surprising to me that anyone should be surprised at this.  Back in 1988, I was in a college class in which the professor was very alarmed about the "population explosion."  As evidence, he showed us a graph of the world's birth and death rates.  By definition, the gap between them, if any, is the rate of population expansion/contraction.  The birth rate had fallen for years, but the death rate had fallen even faster -- especially among non-whites.  In other words, the coming 'population bomb' was largely a way of saying 'Them brown peoples' children ain't dying enuf.'

      It's also worth noting that Peter F. Drucker was writing about the 'baby bust' of the sixties by 1969.  He drew the appropriate conclusion: an aging, slowly growing population in the industrialized countries.

      Now, outside of science fiction novels, it doesn't seem possible for the death rate to fall forever.  But once the death rate stopped falling, it looked like the birth rate would catch up to the death rate, or even fall lower.  In short, the population would level out, then fall.  It's worth remembering this simple fact the next time a bunch of 'experts' tell you to take something on faith.

      As you might surmise from above, the birth rate is lowest in the industrialized countries.  Only in the United States is the birth rate above or near the replacement level, and that's including immigrants.  Without them foreigners coming in, we'd have near stable population.  But in all industrialized societies, the population is getting older.  That leaves a lot of people asking how govt. pension plans will pay off.

      The short answer is, they won't.  The retirement age will rise, and the benefits will be cut.  This seems to panic some people.  It shouldn't.  Nor will the economic collapse feared by several of the authors occur (they confusion the habit of third world govts. borrowing foreign currency with the industrialized countries' borrowing their own currency; can't go broke when you can just run the printing presses).

      What's really interesting is the idea that:
whatever might raise fertility rates above replacement level will almost certainly require fundamental cultural change.

      We already know that parents tend to live and vote differently from childless adults (DUH!).  What will happen as the singles increasingly die out?  Kurtz thinks that a rerise in the birth rate:
would almost certainly involve greater cultural conservatism. Married parents tend to be more conservative, politically and culturally. Predictions of future dominance for the Democratic Party are based on the increasing demographic prominence of single women. Delayed marriage lowers fertility rates and moves the culture leftward. Reverse that trend by stimulating married parenthood, and the country grows more conservative whether in a religious mode or not.

      I doubt it.  The baby boom took place in the fifties, when the Democrats were the majority party, and big govt. was seen as a good thing.  We don't know what will happen on this front.

      Kurtz also has some interesting science-fictional speculations about artificial wombs, and the possibilities of eugenics.  They're probably coming, and like all new technology, there will be "cropdusters," that is, applications and effects that no one saw ahead of time.  The future will be one heck of a ride.

      Meanwhile, go read the article.  It's past time that we thought about these things seriously.



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