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Babies, Again

Writing over at Populyst, Sami Karam looks at America’s birth declining birth rate. Like Jonathan Last, he sees this as a serious problem, rather than (as I would) an inevitable and– managed properly–mainly positive transition. Nevertheless he makes this important point (my emphasis added):

I differ with Last on his recommendation that we need more children now.  Children born now will not contribute to the economy for another twenty years and their numbers will only further exacerbate an already climbing dependency ratio. We cannot rewrite the past but what we need now are more adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s, in other words more children born in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.  Yet, had we had these children back then, the economy would not have been as strong in the 1980s and 1990s because less capital would have been available for saving and investing.  In many ways, we front-loaded demand, saving, investment and prosperity in those two decades and now face some inverse complications.

For my part, I’d argue that the front-loading was well worth it. The disastrous mistake the US (and, for that matter, Europe) made was to fill a (largely) non-existent labor gap by mass immigration.

Sami continues:

All is not lost however. Instead of boosting the birth rate now, a four-point solution would include 1) raising the age of eligibility for Social Security and Medicare, 2) improving labor force participation, 3) continued innovation and 4) more exports.  The first two would slow, delay or neutralize the rise in the dependency ratio.  Innovation is the most important driver of the economy but innovation without a large demographic audience does not achieve its full wealth creating potential.  An iPhone introduced to a market of 3 billion people clearly will create more wealth than an iPhone introduced to a market of 30 million people. Because US demographics are getting weaker and US demand will be less strong than in the past, an obvious solution is to look for new sources of demand outside our borders.

There’s a lot to that, but improving labor force participation is more likely to be evidence of a cure than a cause of it. Even Ross Douthat (a convinced natalist, as you may recall) seems to accept that there’s a problem with the increase in the number of people who appear to have been exiled forever from the workforce:

…The decline of work isn’t actually some wild Marxist scenario. It’s a basic reality of 21st-century American life, one that predates the financial crash and promises to continue apace even as normal economic growth returns. This decline isn’t unemployment in the usual sense, where people look for work and can’t find it. It’s a kind of post-employment, in which people drop out of the work force and find ways to live, more or less permanently, without a steady job. So instead of spreading from the top down, leisure time — wanted or unwanted — is expanding from the bottom up. Long hours are increasingly the province of the rich…

 Of course, nobody is hailing this trend as the sign of civilizational progress. Instead, the decline in blue-collar work is often portrayed in near-apocalyptic terms — on the left as the economy’s failure to supply good-paying jobs, and on the right as a depressing sign that government dependency is killing the American work ethic.

In fact, “near-apocalyptic” is a not entirely unreasonable way of looking at what this trend could mean (and it is not just an issue with blue-collar jobs, either), and the left (as Douthat describes them) are closer to identifying the source of the problem than those who would blame it on “government dependency”.

How to fix this mess is something of a mystery, but, under the circumstances, grumbling about a decline in the birthrate makes no sense at all. 

  1. Frederick Key

    We’re still manufacturing in this country, but we need far fewer people to do it. There seems to be a permanent unemployed class being created, which is the last step before them being a permanent unemployable class. (Beyond that it doesn’t look too good.)

  2. Sumomitch

    The political problems we face as a result of the collapse of productive employment in the short term are the main threat to our successful adaptation to the new world. Consumerism as the capitalist/Keynesian solution to the boom-bust cycle, in all its forms (entitlement programs, steeply sloped income tax rates, the media-saturated society relentlessly marketing consumer items) is fiscally unsustainable. Most informed adults realize that the trillion dollar annual deficits and endless Fed money creation cannot go on.

    A reorientation away from consumerism toward saving and investment, and toward a simpler, more spiritual life would provide a more sustainable future for a population that can meet its own living requirements with less and less labor. Work has supplied structure and discipline to most adult humans; consumerism, hedonism, the compulsive search for entertainment cannot fill that void. I cannot see anything but a deeper connection to spirituality, the direct experience of sacredness in the world, as possibly creating a sustainable way for humans to deal with the new economic reality. 

    Sadly, though, in the short term, America is still pursuing the materialist consumerist dream, politically rewarding the Party that promises to spend and tax us back to prosperity.

  3. Rachel Lu
    C

    You’re still looking at this somewhat myopically. We need to think on a larger scale, and realize some of the larger historical trends that should be worrying us.

    Declining birth rates almost always go along with declining civilizations. They’re a sign that a society has started looking inwards instead of forwards; people are more interested in preserving themselves in a comfortable lifestyle than in innovating or pushing society ahead. 

    Human resources, for their part, can’t easily be replaced. Some things can be done by machines, but the creativity and drive that really keep a civilization going have to come from humans, not robots. Smaller numbers of people, on balance, will mean smaller numbers of geniuses, innovators and great leaders, but more importantly, the social and spiritual condition of a nation that isn’t interested in reproducing just isn’t right for drawing out such talent as we do have, and fostering it.

    Finally: once birth rates fall, it’s extremely hard to get them back up. This is one of Last’s points: practically everything has been tried, but once people decide they prefer the plush carpet to the baby, it’s game over, demographically speaking.

  4. Rachel Lu
    C

    Now, myself, I think that the situation here in America isn’t hopeless. Our birth rate has only just dipped below replacement these past few years; there are still many people who want more children. And even the stereotypical “yuppie vision” tends to include two children, whereas in Japan or Korea, it’s more often one. That helps.

    But we can’t afford to dismiss falling birth rates as a trivial concern. It would be arrogant in the extreme to think that the same scourge that accompanied (and almost certainly furthered) the downfall of Greece and Rome will somehow be just a bump in the road for us. When people start thinking of kids as a massive burden instead of a normal and positive part of human life, that constitutes a pretty massive “malfunction” in the setup of your society. If we wait until our demographic picture looks more like Japan’s, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to turn things around.

  5. Devereaux

    Rachel – spot on!

  6. TeamAmerica

    AS: ” Of course, nobody is hailing this trend as the sign of civilizational progress. Instead, the decline in blue-collar work is often portrayed in near-apocalyptic terms — on the left as the economy’s failure to supply good-paying jobs”

    If the left’s explanation of declining work force participation is correct, a major reason isn’t a lack of good paying jobs, but a failure of our secondary schools to provide useful skills. There are, after all, many unfilled, good-paying skilled jobs. Part of the problem is the gov’t near-monopoly in primary and secondary education. Another is the snobbish attitude that my kids should go to college, skilled blue-collar work being perceived as beneath contempt.

  7. Rachel Lu
    C

    “Beneath contempt” seems a little strong. I think it’s more that people in more “white collar” demographics just don’t know or think much about blue collar work. They don’t know any electricians (say) and they have no idea what would be involved in becoming one. But some people might be sold on it, if the picture were presented more clearly. Heck, I’d be willing to be trained in some such practical skill, once my kids were old enough that I could realistically commit to serious retraining and longish work hours. My husband (a philosophy professor) loves doing things with his hands. I could absolutely imagine him pursuing a second career in something like that, if the breakdown of the university system left him in need of a new career.

    But, as Walter Russell Mead likes to point out, there is virtually no end to human desire. If machines can do our heavy lifting for us, there seems no reason in principle why we can’t develop markets for other things that some people want and other people have the skills to provide. We just need to get more creative.

  8. TeamAmerica

    @Rachel Lu- Many people simply seem to feel that their kids must attend a college or university, and consequently put little pressure on schools to offer marketable skills.

  9. Chris Campion

    We’re having fewer babies because people want families less, or at least families in the traditional sense.  If we wanted families more, we’d be having more babies.

    So:  We’re less interested in having families these days.  We are interested, apparently, if election results mean anything, in having gov’t do more for us that families used to do.  Such as help feed, clothe, and shelter us.

    In other words, we’ve traded our own choices, a significant part of our own lives, and probably the most enriching part of our lives, for a substitute family – one crafted entirely in legislative fora, in bureaucracy, about as far away from us personally as you can get.

    Forward!

  10. Nick Stuart
    Rachel Lu: They don’t know any electricians (say) and they have no idea what would be involved in becoming one. But some people might be sold on it, if the picture were presented more clearly. Heck, I’d be willing to be trained in some such practical skill, once my kids were old enough that I could realistically commit to serious retraining and longish work hours.

    Just keep in mind that there are only two kinds of electricians:  good ones and dead ones.

  11. Devereaux
    Rachel Lu: “Beneath contempt” seems a little strong. I think it’s more that people in more “white collar” demographics just don’t know or think much about blue collar work. They don’t know any electricians (say) 

    But it’s more than that, Rachel. We have developed a class system, wherein the “upper” crust doesn’t allow itself to mingle with the blue collar types, they being “beneath them”. Yet if you spend time with these people you will find an amazing number of seriously intelligent people.

    Toqueville noted and was amazed by the fact that American society of the time was singularly devoid of class. People were universally held to be of same value regardless of their “profession”. It may have been from better education of the populace, but it was never-the-less true. 

    I think that’s more the gist of the comment “beneath contempt”.

  12. Larry3435
    Rachel Lu:  Declining birth rates almost always go along with declining civilizations. · 18 hours ago

    Really?  Can you give an example?  Greece?  Rome?  Carthage?  Florence?  British Empire?  Ming Dynasty?  Any example?

  13. Rocket City Dave

    If we continue to shift to a low-employment, highly automated economy then I don’t see democracy surviving.

    Democracy depends more than anything on the concept of the dignity of the ordinary person. If the ordinary person is viewed as a worthless user of resources then the elites who guide society will curtail and reduce democratic input. I think we’ve seen this to some degree already.

    The environmentalist belief system is common among American elites. They largely view ordinary people as threats to the Earth that need to managed and restrained. That’s a fairly easy frame of mind when you don’t have interactions with ordinary Americans. How far is it from that mindset to assuming those sorts of Americans need to be gradually eliminated?

    America has a lot going for it, but I’m worried about our culture becoming too sick and twisted to sustain a highly advanced society. I worry we’ll become savages with advanced technology.

  14. FloppyDisk90

    “Like Jonathan Last, he sees this as a serious problem, rather than (as I would) an inevitable and– managed properly–mainly positive transition.”

    Managed by whom or what to what end?

  15. Rachel Lu
    C
    Nick Stuart

    Rachel Lu: They don’t know any electricians (say) and they have no idea what would be involved in becoming one. But some people might be sold on it, if the picture were presented more clearly. Heck, I’d be willing to be trained in some such practical skill, once my kids were old enough that I could realistically commit to serious retraining and longish work hours.

    Just keep in mind that there are only two kinds of electricians:  good ones and dead ones. · 3 hours ago

    I’ll plan to be a good one, then. ;)

  16. Rachel Lu
    C

    Greece and Rome definitely both exhibit the pattern. The Spartans drove themselves nearly to extinction with abortion and infanticide; Aristotle comments on the fact, and blames (or credits?) Sparta’s fall on their lack of sufficient men to keep the civilization going. Noble families in the declining years of Greek civilization practiced infanticide on a large scale. They didn’t want to split the family estates, and they didn’t want violent and resentful division among their children. So, their solution was just to kill the younger ones. As the Greek cities hollowed out, they became increasingly vulnerable to conquest from the more-robust Romans.

    But the Romans, a few centuries later, found themselves with the exact same problem. They tried strenuous measures, including a tax on childlessness and the banning of adultery, contraception, abortion and infanticide. It was too little, too late. Their numbers dwindled and the barbarians overwhelmed them.

  17. Rachel Lu
    C
    Devereaux

    But it’s more than that, Rachel. We have developed a class system, wherein the “upper” crust doesn’t allow itself to mingle with the blue collar types, they being “beneath them”. 

    I didn’t live in Toqueville’s America, so I can’t really compare. But I think it’s normal for people’s choices and expectations to be bounded by the circles in which they move and are raised, and I don’t think that’s a sign of snobbery per se, nor is it limited to a particular class of Americans.

    My husband’s family is largely working class, so I have connections by marriage to subsets of society in which skilled blue-collar work would be seen as a very normal and indeed promising professional option. As academics, our local friends are mostly very well educated, but it would never occur to us to be embarrassed about our working class relations, nor has anyone ever made us feel that we should. On their side, I’ve never felt that they were wildly impressed by our fancy degrees, and I’ve never expected them to be. It’s not that kind of “class division.”

  18. Devereaux
    Larry3435

    Rachel Lu:  Declining birth rates almost always go along with declining civilizations. · 18 hours ago

    Really?  Can you give an example?  Greece?  Rome?  Carthage?  Florence?  British Empire?  Ming Dynasty?  Any example? · 1 hour ago

    Civilizations that decline from decadence do so with declining birth rates. So Greece and Rome both had that problem. Britain probably. Sparta certainly. One aspect of declining birth rate is that it is a means for a family to try to protect wealth by not diluting it across large numbers of offspring.

    Rachel – you apparently beat  me to the  comment. But I fully agree with you.

    ed for comment to Rachel

  19. Rachel Lu
    C

    This in itself makes me think that the kind of “class division” we have in America is quite different from, say, an Indian caste system or the sort of thing Jane Austen describes wherein the Bennetts are “materially less likely” to make a good marriage because their uncle lives in Cheapside.

    I’m the daughter of a law professor; my husband was raised by a man who ran a farm equipment rental business. One is blue collar and the other quintessentially “information class”, but so far as I know, none of our friends or family saw any special reason to comment on this. I have a lot of admiration for my father-in-law as someone who was hard-working and resourceful and who built something from the ground up. Very intelligent too, by the way. As is my own father.

    Certainly, people within a certain demographic assume that their kids will go to college. They see that as the ticket to a good middle-class life. But then, for the past several decades, it mostly has been. The operative principle here is that people do what they know, not that blue collar work is “beneath contempt” to educated folk.

  20. TeamAmerica

    @Devereaux- Yes. We’ve created an educational apartheid, where only those with a degree are deemed worthy of being hired for management positions, or being promoted to positions of responsibility.

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