29 June, 2008

The population decline of the West

The New York Times has finally noticed that birthrates in some Western countries have reached the point of collapse. To be fair, this may not be the first time they have discussed the topic, but I remember first talking about it ten years ago this very summer, and people have rolled their eyes every time I've mentioned it since then. I've talked about the same consequences that the Times treats as being quite serious. For example,

“Demographers and economists foresee that 30 million Europeans of working age will ‘disappear’ by 2050. At the same time, retirement will be lasting decades as the number of people in their 80s and 90s increases dramatically.” The crisis, they argue, will come from a “triple whammy of increasing demand on the welfare state and health-care systems, with a decline in tax contributions from an ever-smaller work force.” That is to say, there won’t be enough workers to pay for the pensions of all those long-living retirees. ...he troubles for Europe are magnified by other factors in the existing welfare states of many of its countries. Europeans are used to early retirement — according to the Adecco survey, only 60 percent of men in France between the ages of 50 and 64 are still working.
Now that the Times has seen fit to discuss it, I reckon that many of the people who once rolled their eyes will now discuss it quite seriously amongst themselves, though I'll be no more believable than I've been in the past. What's the difference between a Cassandra and a crank? People write stories about Cassandra; cranks write stories about themselves. So, here I am.

Europe's academics have been paying attention to this problem. I don't agree with all the conclusions given in the article, but I can affirm that many Italians agree completely with this sentiment of the Italian scholar cited:
A policy for families has to be implemented over a long period. In Italy we’re changing our minds all the time.
They're not doing this only in terms of families. According to the Italians I spoke to back in 2002, the switch between left-of-center and right-of-center governments means that everything is in constant upheaval. Being the "candidate of change" may work politically but not when you're constantly repealing the previous administration's changes, thus paralyzing the country by constant "reform". The Italians I know have a visceral hatred of their government, and a cynical attitude regarding their promises.

Something I failed to discern from the article was whether the birthrates cited include immigrants or not. France and the Netherelands, for example, are cited (approvingly) as having a higher birthrate than Italy, but France and the Netherlands also have substantially larger Muslim subcultures than Italy. This is important because Muslims tend to have a higher birthrate, just as Hispanics in the United States tend to have a higher birthrate than people whose families have lived in the snootier parts of New England for generations. The article points out that the descendants of immigrants tend to produce fewer children with each generation, but that isn't helpful enough to discern the difference.

The article cites approvingly the French, Dutch, and Scandinavian models:
So there would seem to be two models for achieving higher fertility: the neosocialist Scandinavian system and the laissez-faire American one. Aassve put it to me this way: “You might say that in order to promote fertility, your society needs to be generous or flexible. The U.S. isn’t very generous, but it is flexible. Italy is not generous in terms of social services and it’s not flexible. There is also a social stigma in countries like Italy, where it is seen as less socially accepted for women with children to work. In the U.S., that is very accepted.” ...The lesson of southern Europe is perhaps operative: embrace the modern only partway and you put your society — women in particular — in a vise. Something has to give, and that turns out to be the future.
Here we find my major problems with the article: seeming to say that the choice is between catastrophic infertility and merely worrisome infertility. Here are the fertility rates of several countries named in the article, from lowest to highest:
CountryFertility rate
The Netherlands1.7
Scandinavian average1.8
United States2.1
A fertility rate of 2.1 barely replaces population, and includes the fertility of immigrants, who tend to be more fertile than native-born citizens. It follows that none of the countries listed in that table are replacing their populations through birthrates except the United States, and we are doing so only because of our higher proportion of immigrants. Not even the Scandinavian countries have solved the problem, despite their generous welfare benefits. Not even the United States has solved the problem, despite its structural flexibility.

I honestly don't know what the answer to this problem is, but I doubt it lies in this kind of government meddling. Maybe it isn't a problem. Paul Ehrlich claims that everyone he knows in the National Academy of Sciences agrees that this population collapse is a good thing, but I side more with gentleman who states,
But you can’t go on forever with a total fertility rate of 1.2. ...You can’t have a country where everybody lives in a nursing home.

The article did not address the following possible cause. (Perhaps with reason.) A number of people assert that the West is engaged in a cultural suicide. They point to the ignorance of college graduates on civics and their national or cultural history. I sympathize with this argument—my dismay over the mistreatment of Cicero in HBO's Rome remains unabated, for example—and besides the claim half-reminds me of an observation that one of Dostoevsky's characters makes, which instantly adds credibility, no? I forget the source (perhaps it was The Idiot), but the character says something to the effect that every nation is born through faith in a god, and lasts as long as that faith lasts. Once it loses faith in its god, it loses its sense of identity and ceases to exist as a nation. The last fifty or sixty years of the West do seem to manifest an increasing loss of faith in its god. (Lest you think I exhibit a Catholic snobbery here, I rebut that I am actually thinking of Rationalism and our admiration and respect of Greco-Roman culture, rather than of religion. The dearth of native-born Americans in science programs and the multiplication of MBAs comes to mind.)

On the other hand, no culture can survive in rigid admiration of its own past and present glories. Every culture, while being self-aware and cherishing the genuinely good aspects of its heritage, must forge a future for itself that applies its particular genius both to the challenges of the present and the foreseeable challenges of the future.

As a culture, we in the United States know that we have certain challenges looming ahead. We've known about the trouble with Social Security since the days of President Clinton; Vice President Al Gore argued unsuccessfully for a lock-box and President Bush argued unsuccessfully for private retirement accounts. (Sadly, the problem didn't exist for many conservatives when Clinton was president, and it disappeared from the sight of many liberals once Bush became president.) It may not have reached the crisis proportions that European nations faces with their own pension systems, but it is a foreseeable challenge nevertheless. Yet we have done nothing, and many people even deny the reality of the challenge we face.

The subprime mortgage crisis, I would argue, was also a foreseeable problem, but many of the actors refused to acknowledge reality. (Remember the woman interviewed on NPR who took a mortgage at $2,000/month even though she earned only $26,000/year. She and her mortgage broker constitute Exhibits A and B in my argument.) We're doing the same thing with our population decline, with health insurance, with Social Security, and with energy: we're refusing to acknowledge the reality that we can't just sit around and ignore our responsibilities.

Does the concept of responsibility even exist anymore? We coast happily from one crisis to the next, expecting the government to bail us out of our own irresponsibility. As more and more people see this and learn that they don't need to be responsible, more and more people engage in irresponsible behavior, making each subsequent crisis worse. If everyone else is doing it, why shouldn't you?

We conclude by returning to the difference between Cassandra and the crank: Cassandra was divinely inspired (and cursed), while the crank is just a jerk with a weblog who reads and writes too much. ;-)


Anonymous said...

That article struck me when it said that the two options to solve the crisis were in being like either the Netherlands or the U.S.

Could you explain the mathematical significance of 2.1? Is it simply on the whole, we will end up with as many in one generation as the last?

jack perry said...

This section of the Wikipedia article on total fertility rate provides the only answer I can think of.