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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