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Less is More (Really)

Over at the WSJ, Jonathan Last looks a gift mule—America’s declining birth rate—in the mouth–and panics. As an example of smart natalist thinking, the piece is very well worth reading, and some of the ideas Last puts forward (notably a different approach to college education) are worth considering for other reasons.

But there are occasional lapses into magical thinking. Yes, mankind’s response to the challenges posed by overpopulation has been far more successful than was imagined by the Club of Rome back in the 1970s. We’re a more ingenious lot than the doomsayers could bring themselves to imagine. But that does not mean that we can sort out every problem that comes our way.

Incidentally, I’m always at a loss to understand why those who tout the powers of human creativity as an answer to the problems of overpopulation are not equally willing to believe that our species will be able to work out how to manage the transition to smaller numbers of people. Even Japan, the ground less-than-zero for natalists (inevitably the land of setting sons totters onstage in the course of Mr. Last’s piece) is, despite its difficulties (that debt!), finding  ways to start handling this shift; ways which do not, of course, include the mass immigration that has been the explicit—and idiotic— European response to declining birthrates.   

Here’s David Pilling writing in the Financial Times in early 2011:

Japan’s real performance has been masked by deflation and a stagnant population. But look at real per capita income – what people in the country actually care about – and things are far less bleak.

By that measure, according to figures compiled by Paul Sheard, chief economist at Nomura, Japan has grown at an annual 0.3 per cent in the past five years. That may not sound like much. But the US is worse, with real per capita income rising 0.0 per cent over the same period. In the past decade, Japanese and US real per capita growth are evenly pegged, at 0.7 per cent a year. One has to go back 20 years for the US to do better – 1.4 per cent against 0.8 per cent. In Japan’s two decades of misery, American wealth creation has outpaced that of Japan, but not by much.

The Japanese themselves frequently refer to non-GDP measures of welfare, such as Japan’s safety, cleanliness, world-class cuisine and lack of social tension. Lest they (and I) be accused of wishy-washy thinking, here are a few hard facts. The Japanese live longer than citizens of any other large country, boasting a life expectancy at birth of 82.17 years, much higher than the US at 78. Unemployment is 5 per cent, high by Japanese standards, but half the level of many western countries. Japan locks up, proportionately, one-twentieth of those incarcerated in the US, yet enjoys among the lowest crime levels in the world.

And there is something else. There is a value to be put on a less-crowded country. Maybe early years spent in a cramped island (and my life today living on another one) means that I put too much emphasis on this, but I see America’s sense of space—that glorious emptiness—as an asset that is rapidly being squandered.

There’s plenty more to take issue with in Last’s piece, but for now I’ll just note that it appears not to reflect the realities of a world in which mechanization and automation have (or ought to have) transformed our understanding of the ‘right’ rate of population growth. We had a fairly full discussion here a few weeks back on this topic, so I’ll not repeat myself other than to observe that the unemployed will be in no position to pay for the care of the old.

Last concludes:” If we want to continue leading the world, we simply must figure out a way to have more babies.”

That, I would argue, is very far from the case (not least because, as Last himself notes, fertility rates are falling rapidly across the planet), but, tellingly, it also dodges another bigger point.

What is a country for

  1. RushBabe49

    Please do not compare small, homogenous Japan with huge, heterogenous America.  Sure they have low crime, but they also have a national character that recognizes shame, and rewards those who keep their mouths shut and study.  They allow next to no immigration, so their ability to respond to new things has become more and more limited.  Their business community and government are totally interlinked, and their economy has been stagnant for decades.  Their biggest electronics companies (Sony, Sharp, Panasonic), which used to be the world’s innovators, are now moribund, and close to bankruptcy.

    There are not too many people, but too few totally free societies, which encourage risk-taking and innovation.  The “problems” connected to population can be solved by free people and free markets.  This is becoming increasingly rare, to the detriment of all human societies.

  2. oregonjon

    What is a country for? Silly question. Countries exist as the most efficient means to protect large numbers of people from external enemies. Beyond that they are an expression of the people’s culture. Countries almost inanimate, something like an axe which can be used as a murder weapon, as a means to cut wood to keep warm or to devastate entire forests. Do we ask, “What is an axe for? That depends on you, not on the axe. What are you for?

  3. KC Mulville

    If we were starting from scratch, we might have an interesting debate about whether a lower population would be better. But we’re already behind the eight-ball. A declining population, in our current situation, is an impending disaster. The replacement generation pays for the existing generation. That may not have been a wise policy, but it’s the reality we have to deal with. 

    Politicians have been making promises (and the electorate has been endorsing them) that depend on the replacement generation footing the bill. The bill is sixteen trillion and growing. 

    Also, I’m not sure Japan is a useful contrast, because Japan is a relatively homogeneous society. That means that Japanese policy, whatever it might be, doesn’t have the same internal mixed-motives that we have. We have internal conflicts that the Japanese don’t. 

  4. KC Mulville

    OK – I’ll give the obvious American answer to the question of what government (as distinct from a country) is for:

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed

    As we’ve said, a government is not the same thing as a country. All the more reason, then, to limit government so it doesn’t trample the other aspects of “country” that operate beyond politics.

  5. Andrew Stuttaford
    C
    oregonjon: What is a country for? Silly question. …· 21 minutes ago

    I’m afraid that it’s a very necessary question given Jonathan Last’s closing comment that “if we want to continue leading the world, we simply must figure out a way to have more babies.” 

    As it happens, I don’t think “more babies” is the way to preserve America’s global leadership, but that’s a secondary point.

    Do we  really want to use “leading the world” as the way we define our country’s defining national objective? I’d prefer something else. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness would do very nicely, as I am not the first to suggest…

  6. Andrew Stuttaford
    C
    KC Mulville: OK – I’ll give the obvious American answer to the question of what government (as distinct from a country) is for:

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed

    As we’ve said, a government is not the same thing as a country. All the more reason, then, to limit government so it doesn’t trample the other aspects of “country” that operate beyond politics. · 27 minutes ago

    Yes!  And “a government is not the same thing as a country”. Indeed it is not. Nicely put. 

  7. Andrew Stuttaford
    C
    Merina Smith: Good try, but I’m not convinced.  I think it is pretty stupid that the Obama administration is doing all  it can to discourage women from having children…What?  We have a low birth rate?  How did this happen?  · 1 hour ago

    From Jonathan Last’s piece: 

    America’s fertility rate began falling almost as soon as the nation was founded. In 1800, the average white American woman had seven children. (The first reliable data on black fertility begin in the 1850s.) Since then, our fertility rate has floated consistently downward, with only one major moment of increase—the baby boom…

  8. Merina Smith

    I’m an historian.  I know that. But Obama’s policies ARE making things worse, and IMO, it is pretty stupid.  I agree that we are a completely different culture than Japan.  I appreciate their achievements, but did you see the thread about not having children?  Some elderly people without progeny in Japan are buying dolls that speak to them as a way of mitigating the loneliness.  I’m sorry, but like P.D. James’ book Children of Men, I am deeply repelled by the type of culture you describe.  I think Jonathan Last is right–we need to get rid of the policies that discourage childbearing.  Countries with more old people that children are sad places.

  9. Freesmith

    A couple of impolite questions:

    How many children do Mr and Mrs Last have?

    If birthrates are falling everywhere, and especially in those countries which are more technically advanced, why isn’t that assumed to be a good thing, a rational response to reality?

    Some on this thread would argue that it spells doom, because our social welfare programs were predicated on rising pools of workers. But that argument is not conservative.

    Conservatives disdain social welfare programs because they are Ponzi schemes inevitably doomed to failure. Now that their failure is imminent, why should conservatives be upset? I’m not bothered to be right; why is KC Mulville? The collapse of SSI may be a disaster, but so was the Financial Crisis of 2008 – Does that mean that conservatives shouldn’t have been critical of  ”no doc” loans and “Action ARMs?”

    Let the New Deal and Great Society programs begin their death spirals. Let the Democrats, not us, offer the prescriptions to save them and bear the brunt of voter rage.

    Let the population decline. Let the Democrats offer their solutions of legalizing intruders and open immigration to an America with no growth and 8% unemployment. 

    Then just say no.

  10. Joseph Eagar
    Freesmith: Joseph and KC:

    You are both defeatist, fatalistic and totally cowed by the ways things have gone for the last several years. And yet all you counsel is keep doing what we’ve been doing.

    Wha????

    Saying no is what we have been doing, and it hasn’t worked.  Our power and influence has decreased, not increased, for taking that approach.

  11. Palaeologus

    Andrew, if you’re looking for more elbow room there are plenty of vacancies in Detroit. Cheap, too. Underpopulation in built-up areas comes with its own problems.

    Also, while I take your point that America’s purpose is not to lead the world, what are the consequences if it does not? Hegemonies aren’t necessarily equal.

  12. Duane Oyen

    We have no problems of the type posited by Erlich and the Club of Rome.  And to the extent that declining population forces us to stop playing Ponzi games with entitlements, the required recko0ning, while discomfiting now, will be an essential adjustment.  We should be transitioning to defined contribution, pay-as-you-go programs.

    But I have a hard time taking the angst on the Right about declining birthrates seriously, when Ricochet’s most prominent leaders average 2 less than offspring per, even that only because Peter has 5 kids to make up for a bunch.

    I don’t want to see a word from Rich Lowry about population.  NRO should require all staff to get married at 22 and have 4 kids each.

  13. Joseph Eagar

    Andrew, how do we pay for the Boomer’s retirement promises without more workers?  The Japanese have a great deal of national savings (and foreign exchange reserves) to draw upon; we don’t.

    From a production perspective, America can manufacture most of its consumable goods with very little labor.  The problem is that our economy is increasingly service-driven, a trend exacerbated by the Baby Boomers’ aging, and greater reliance on healthcare and other service industries.

    Think of it this way.  If productivity gains are captured entirely by retirees (because such gains are necessary to pay for retirement promises) , wages will necessarily stagnate (or even fall) for workers.  And more likely than not, those workers will pay much higher taxes.

  14. KC Mulville
    Freesmith: 

    Conservatives disdain social welfare programs because they are Ponzi schemes inevitably doomed to failure. Now that their failure is imminent, why should conservatives be upset? I’m not bothered to be right; why is KC Mulville?

    Well, speaking for the KC Mulvilles of the world …

    When you’ve been complaining that the ship is about to go over the falls, you may be right when it starts to go over, but that’s no time to feel smug. 

    At that point, it won’t be enough to tell the American Public “I told you so.”  We need more than that. We need an alternative. It has to be able to address the public’s concerns. 

  15. Joseph Eagar

    What about the national debt, by the way?  Not government debt, but the liabilities we’ve built up over decades of running trade deficits.  People like to say America’s net investment position isn’t bad, but I’ve always been suspicious of that (no one really knows what the quality of the “asset” side of America’s international investment ledger is).

    We may end up devoting a significant portion of our GDP to servicing foreign debt.  In practical terms, this means interest rates will go up at a time when increasing national savings isn’t possible due to a growing retirement population.  That means the trend line for national investment will fall, which will make productivity gains more difficult to actuate, wages stagnate, lower our competitiveness, make it more difficult to finance public infrastructure, and probably a whole host of other problems.

  16. Rocket City Dave

    Japan has quite a few social problems associated with its low birth rate.

    But there’s a more fundamental problem. Japan only maintains its standard of living by growing its massive government debt (235% of GDP). Most of Japan’s GDP is not based on productivity in the private sector but on government spending on the elderly financed with debt.

    No nation with such high debts can honor its debts with a workforce projected to shrink 20% in 15-20 years.

    If Japan’s government bond rates were to rise even to 4% the nation would have to default almost immediately. Japan is the picture of country that has decided it has no future and hence can borrow absurd amounts of money it never intends to repay.

    If we Americans intend to keep low birthrates, we implicitly also agree to national default and poverty when our debts come due. Further no nation with a shrinking workforce can maintain its standard of living absent large amounts of debt.

  17. Freesmith

    KC

    We have the alternative. It’s called limited government and maximum personal freedom and responsibility.

    The trouble is we don’t stand for it; instead out of fear we succumb to the “mend it, don’t end it” approach to social welfare-ism, which morphs seamlessly into our becoming Tax Collector for the Welfare State.

    The Democrats created SSI, Medicaid and Medicare. They are proud of that. They take full credit if you ask them. And by creating them they garnered hundreds of millions of votes and decades of political power.

    Now the bill is coming due. I say to the Democrats, “Pay it.”

    You propose the cutbacks, benefit reductions and tax increases the Ponzi schemes need to survive – I won’t.

    You take the electoral defeats and the loss of political power that will come when the voters see the tab for what they thought was free or paid for – I won’t.

    I will simply call the Democrats thieves, liars and hypocrites and urge opposition to all their plans. And then be ready to pick up the pieces, because…

    A crisis is an opportunity to do things you could not have done before. 

  18. Palaeologus

    I don’t know why anyone thinks the most likely short-medium term (say 50 years) result from an unsustainable welfare state is the end of welfare in America.

    The declining birthrates are almost exclusively amongst groups most likely to be “makers” (i.e. those that live and would/could have passed on bourgeois virtues). Just because this dynamic hasn’t been a problem doesn’t mean it won’t become one. Multiple generations of a growing population raised on the dole is a newish variable. It seems entirely likely to me that we are becoming ever more vulnerable to populist demagogues.

    Good luck running fiscally responsible candidates 20 years from now. SS will have the cap raised, then removed, with no corresponding bennies long before it goes away. Medicaid/Medicare/Barrycare will lead to slower & inferior  service and its costs will be used an excuse to control our lives to an increasing degree through denial of care. Because every darn thing you do or don’t affects your health in a positive or negative way depending on the weekly wisdom.

  19. Amy Schley
    Andrew Stuttaford

    The Japanese live longer than citizens of any other large country, boasting a life expectancy at birth of 82.17 years, much higher than the US at 78. 

    Note: Japan is finding cases where those amazingly long-lived folks actually died thirty years ago, but the family never reported it to continue to collect the needed government paychecks.  Just something to keep in mind about the reported life expectancy … 

  20. Joseph Eagar
    Freesmith: KC

    We have the alternative. It’s called limited government and maximum personal freedom and responsibility.

    You propose the cutbacks, benefit reductions and tax increases the Ponzi schemes need to survive – I won’t.

    You take the electoral defeats and the loss of political power that will come when the voters see the tab for what they thought was free or paid for – I won’t.

    I will simply call the Democrats thieves, liars and hypocrites and urge opposition to all their plans. And then be ready to pick up the pieces, because…

    This isn’t helpful.  Pushing America into a deeper crisis won’t work out well for our side; in times of crisis, people tend to demand more government, not less.  What you are describing is basically a parliamentary view of politics, where the job of the opposition party is to withdraw from public policy, simply saying no to everything in the hopes of hastening its own return to power.

    Our political system is specifically designed not to work when that tactic is used.  There’s a reason America is sometimes called a vetocracy.  Different factions are forced to compromise.