Thursday, February 10, 2005

More gloomy demographics

As a follow-up to "The Global Baby Bust," I recommend Stanley Kurtz's "Demographics and the Culture War," a review of four books on future demographics, appearing in the latest issue of Policy Review. Kurtz picks up where "Baby Bust" left off, speculating on the cultural effects of the global decline in fertility. (The human fertility rate is 2.7 children per woman and falling - yes, even in the developing world.) He foresees three options for societies.

1) A Exponential decrease in population. This is also known as extinction - enough said.

2) A resurgence of traditional mores that produces a stable or increasing population level. One theory is this will happen simply as a result of religious traditionalists outbreeding everyone else. However such a resurgence came about, it would have to overcome the powerful anti-natal forces including birth control, abortion, and increased female education and labor force participation.

3) The Brave New World option. People still have too few children, but technology will let societies have children without families.

First of all, how feasible is option #3? Once children are born, rearing them seems without families seems possible though detestable: just scale up what we now call orphanages. An artificial womb is needed, because it's extremely unlikely that there could be an adequate supply of surrogate mothers but not an adequate supply of real mothers. Given the biochemical complexity of designing a human womb "from scratch," I think the only kind of artificial human womb that could appear in this century is a genetic engineered kind, most likely transgenic, such as a human womb inside a cow. The whole idea creeps me out, but as a future technological capability, it might be only a few decades away.

I'd bet on option #2. The interesting question is how option #2 will come into effect in various societies. A strong increase in individual preference for a family with children due to resurgent traditionalism is possible (and, I think, preferable), but is it the only possibility? Perhaps a society could come to value children greatly on a collective level (if only out of self-preservation), but still not enough on the individual level to prevent population decline. In this case, the societal value of children could be manifested in massive pro-natal subsidies. Even in places like Scandinavia with generous family-leave benefits and the like, the opportunity cost of having a child is nowhere near compensated. Could bigger subsidies work, or would they be too inefficient to be both affordable and effective?

Another possibility which Kurtz touches on is fewer, not more, subsidies. Specifically, if the government no longer supported the elderly, then might children become a good financial investment? I'm not sure. After all, there's always the risk that a child will be unable or unwilling to support his parents' retirement. So is the financially prudent move to have more kids to reduce this risk, or to have no kids and work more, allowing one to save more? Or maybe a mix: have just one or two children, but also save plenty for retirement? In the worst case, only the poor might find children economically advantageous. Ending government dependency of the elderly is a noble goal, but it's not clear to me that it would solve our demographic problems.

When some future generation achieves sustainable fertility levels, however they accomplish this, they will face the economic burden of a ratio of dependents - young and elderly - greater than the ratio the previous generation of workers supported. Nevertheless, I've found a small way to make lemonade from the lemons of our demoographic trends. To quote Stein's Law, "Things that can't go on forever, don't." I believe a society that can't reproduce itself has something seriously out of whack, and not just in the Darwinian sense. That such a state of affairs can't continue is a good thing in my book. Admittedly, what comes next could be worse, but my expectation is that a least a few countries will find a better way.

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