Demography Redux

A post at First Thoughts this week links to some recent rumblings over much of the world’s fretting about the global population reaching 7 billion, despite the fact that nobody seems to be worried that most nations now have a falling birth rate.

So which is it? Does the world have too many people, or too few? The most honest answer is probably that the threat of “overpopulation” is alarmist and emotion-based, whereas worries about declining birthrates are underappreciated, even though they are more grounded in hard facts. Indeed, if predictions like Kotkin’s play out, and emerging nations follow the demographic trends of advanced ones, the strange phenomenon of societies breeding themselves out of existence may no longer simply be a first world problem but a global one. It’s entirely conceivable that, 100 years from now, should the ‘birth dearth’ continue to spread, our progeny will look back nostalgically on earlier times when people fretted about “overpopulation.” Indeed, in a growing number of contexts, professional demographers already are.

Quite right.  As a teacher, I often hear people pay lip service to the trope that “children are our future,” but few seem to appreciate just how crucial that human capital is.  In the long run, fewer children must mean less of a future.

This reminded me of an exchange about demography on NPR about a month ago.  Even they’ve had a few stories in recent years about the dangers of falling birth rates, but a comment by the snob interviewer in this one irked me a little.  Philip Longman, the expert researcher being interviewed, noted that:

The first order effect of a decline in the birthrate tends to be positive for the economy. A society finds it has fewer children to raise and educate. That tends to free up a lot of female labor to join the formal economy. But with the next turn of the screw, things change. As fertility rates remain below replacement levels, you still have fewer children but now your workforce is beginning to decline and you’ve got more and more seniors as a percentage of your population. And so around the world today we see many countries struggling with their fiscal situation largely because of the exploding cost of pensions and the relatively slow growth of their labor forces.

Which is the kind of thing that gets called fear-mongering when a conservative like Mark Steyn says it.  (Steyn, I hasten to add, has been beating the drum about this for years, a veritable voice crying in the wilderness; search for “demography” at www.SteynOnline.com and you’ll get pages of results.)

Shortly after that sensible acceptance of reality from a knowledgable scientist, however, the NPR interviewer asked:

So, what is the solution? Certainly it’s not just go back to have large families, is it?

Well, heavens to betsy, perish the thought.  I mean, what are we, stone age savages?  (/sarcasm)  How did she not see that it’s elitist attitudes like that that are fueling this voluntary extinction, if not of the species itself, then at least of its lifestyle and success?  In yet another burst of political irony, while some on the left crow about sustainability in environmental issues, they have failed to track it in the most important arena of all: human life.  The social-democratic tax-and-spend welfare state erected by the left over the last century, without a large base of young people to prop it up, will, as Longman noted, collapse.  The political architects of FDR’s era or even as recently as those of the LBJ days simply couldn’t conceive that the Western world would shortly stop having babies en masse, rendering the economic assumptions behind their plans useless.

But the economic effect of declining birth rates is only a secondary problem.  Far worse is the spiritual dimension: the fact that we are consciously choosing to halt the progress of civilization as we know it.  A world that can’t be bothered to foster a next generation upon which to bestow its legacy is a world that just doesn’t think that much of its legacy, its potential, or itself, period.  As British historian Arnold Toynbee said, civilizations don’t die from murder, they die from suicide.

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9 comments on “Demography Redux

  1. I have heard this right-wing trope about the declining birth rate and it is quite simple to understand once you strip away the B.S. The problem, as some “conservatives” see it, is that the birth rate in the Western industrial countries, particularly among middle and upper class white people is declining, while the birth rate in the developing world, particularly among lower class non-white people, is increasing sharply. The worry isn’t about overpopulation or underpopulation but about the horrifying possibility that poor non-white people will come to form such an overwhelming majority that their demands will have to be met.

    For hundreds of years, when white men of European origin have talked about “progress” and “civilization”, it has always meant subjugation of the poor and non-white populations. Today is no different.

  2. But isn’t your response just a left-wing trope? “We all know what you really mean by that–there just won’t be enough of the RIGHT KIND of people. Wink wink, nudge nudge.”

    Except nothing in my post is about culture or ethnicity. It’s undeniably true that population decline badly hurts the welfare state (which you ignored), and it’s also true (contrary to what you said) that population decline has spread to most of the world. The only area largely growing any more from native births is sub-Saharan Africa.

    It’s unclear why the loss of Western industrialist society wouldn’t be such a big deal, though, as your comment implies. And how does something being a “right-wing trope” automatically debunk its claims, anyway?

    But thanks for the appeal to populist pandering, with the whole “horrifying possibility” thing. Occupy Earth!

  3. Being a left or right wing trope doesn’t necessarily debunk anything, but I just don’t hear very many lefties making this particular argument. How is it that population decline hurts the welfare state? The nations with the lowest birth rates generally have the highest level of social services. It’s more likely that a strong social welfare system reduces population growth (not to mention poverty) over the long term, thus making it possible to reduce the costs of providing those services.

    A quick look at http://www.prb.org/Publications/Datasheets/2011/world-population-data-sheet/world-map.aspx should show that population should give you a better perspective. The rate of population growth in Latin America is double that of Europe and the US, rates in Asia are higher yet, and sub-Saharan Africa tops the charts.

    There simply is no real possibility of the “loss of Western Industrialist society”, at least from population decline. Should there be insufficient native born (white) workers available in any nation, there are plenty of people willing to move to do the work – but maybe that’s the real problem you see. It’s not the growth or decline in population that poses a problem, it is the distribution of wealth that is unsustainable. The richest 1% of the world’s people own 40%+ of the world’s assets and the richest 10% own 85% of the assets. The bottom 50% of the world’s population owns barely 1% of its assets. That is the problem. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_inequality)

  4. Charles, your question was pre-answered if you’d cared to read. The countries with strong welfare states usually adopted those welfare states when they were reaping the demographic dividend (i.e., when birth rates were falling but they still had a full complement of working age adults, plus extra women entering the work force). Those states are now entering difficult territory as their number of pensioners has swung up while the workforce has remained static or declined.

    Sustainability isn’t just for the natural environment.

  5. Well, Mrmandias the nations with strong social welfare programs do have a temporary problem, but it can be solved by revenue increases or by spending cuts. If they had maintained higher birth rates that would not necessarily have resulted in more revenue. It might have resulted in increased unemployment as well.

    However, the US has never had a strong social welfare system and so isn’t really comparable to the European states in that regard. Also the US has spent untold trillions over the last 60 years on military and espionage in order to gain and maintain economic and political hegemony. Were those funds directed elsewhere, we wouldn’t need to worry about our aging population.

  6. Revenue increases can hurt economies that are already ailing (because of the demographic problem, which affects the health of the underlying economy), while spending cuts, make the strong welfare state no longer a provider of strong welfare.

    Populations tend to create their own economic growth. I don’t know of any reputable economist or demographer who thinks that a replacement TFR in West Germany, for instance, would have mainly caused more unemployment.

    Your analysis about the US is static, and in any case has nothing to do with your original accusation that anyone who worries about demography is a racist.

  7. Thanks for the link. Always good to learn new things. According to Demography Matters, “Ageing itself not only is not a problematic phenomenon it is also not a new a particularly new one.”

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