America's Birth Dearth

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Worth your attention: Jonathan V. Last, writing in the Wall Street Journal explains the dire consequences of America's declining fertility rate, which is likely to decline even more steeply in years to come:

The nation's falling fertility rate underlies many of our most difficult problems. Once a country's fertility rate falls consistently below replacement, its age profile begins to shift. You get more old people than young people. And eventually, as the bloated cohort of old people dies off, population begins to contract. This dual problem--a population that is disproportionately old and shrinking overall--has enormous economic, political and cultural consequences....

Low-fertility societies don't innovate because their incentives for consumption tilt overwhelmingly toward health care. They don't invest aggressively because, with the average age skewing higher, capital shifts to preserving and extending life and then begins drawing down. They cannot sustain social-security programs because they don't have enough workers to pay for the retirees. They cannot project power because they lack the money to pay for defense and the military-age manpower to serve in their armed forces.

Last points to Japan as a warning:

If you want to see what happens to a country once it hurls itself off the demographic cliff, look at Japan, with a fertility rate of 1.3. In the 1980s, everyone assumed the Japanese were on a path to owning the world. But the country's robust economic facade concealed a crumbling demographic structure....

By the 1980s, it was already clear that the country would eventually undergo a population contraction. In 1984, demographer Naohiro Ogawa warned that, "Owing to a decrease in the growth rate of the labor force...Japan's economy is likely to slow down." He predicted annual growth rates of 1% or even 0% in the first quarter of the 2000s....

Because of its dismal fertility rate, Japan's population peaked in 2008; it has already shrunk by a million since then. Last year, for the first time, the Japanese bought more adult diapers than diapers for babies, and more than half the country was categorized as "depopulated marginal land." At the current fertility rate, by 2100 Japan's population will be less than half what it is now.

And America can't count on immigration to make up for our decline. Fertility rates in source countries are declining, reducing the pressure for emigration, and the fertility rate among immigrants in the US declines as they become acculturated.

As a solution, Last says it won't be enough to offer tax incentives for childbearing, although those are needed. (I like his idea for cutting social security tax for parents during child-rearing years, with bigger cuts for more kids.) There's a basic cultural attitude that needs adjustment.

There have been lots of changes in American life over the last 40 years that have nudged our fertility rate downward. High on the list is the idea that "happiness" is the lodestar of a life well-lived. If we're going to reverse this decline, we'll need to reintroduce into American culture the notion that human flourishing ranges wider and deeper than calculations of mere happiness.

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1 Comments

Graychin said:

The cynic in me suspects that this WSJ columnist has his eye on the demographic problem facing the Republican Party. White people in America just aren't keeping up with other demographic groups in the baby-making department. Surely his concerns are larger than that - aren't they?

Aren't there also "dire consequences" to HIGH fertility rates into the indefinite future? I'm sure that Planet Earth can support a few more billion souls than live here now - but how many MORE billion can it support before we enter a Malthusian catastrophe? Does Mr. Last know? Or care?

As a counter-example to the "disaster" of low fertility, China has had a low fertility rate (for ugly reasons) for a long time now, yet manages to worry Americans to death with its seemingly infinite productivity. How come?

I seriously doubt that very many potential parents take tax benefits into consideration when beginning a pregnancy. Tax benefits? Really? :-D

It would surprise many tax-obsessed conservative commenters to learn just how little attention the vast majority of Americans pay to planning their taxes, beyond the annual "how big is my refund?" each February.

The most disturbing sentence quoted from Mr. Last says that low-fertility nations "cannot project power because they lack the money to pay for defense and the military-age manpower to serve in their armed forces." It's another way of saying that we need those young workers to continue to pay for an American military equal in cost to that of the rest of the world combined. Oh - and to proved cannon fodder. That too.

I suppose that there is some way to convince the population that they need to stop trying to be happy and get busy instead making more babies - because conservative economists say that it's the right thing to do. Good luck with that.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on February 4, 2013 12:35 PM.

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