How would life change if the world's population shrank? That question is no longer hypothetical. Germany is shrinking, and the working-age population of Italy...
How would life change if the world’s population shrank? That question is no longer hypothetical. Germany is shrinking, and the working-age population of Italy is expected to fall 41 percent by 2050. Japan is shrinking. America is not, but our birthrate is down to a level that implies eventual shrinkage. Even Mexico’s birthrate may now be below the replacement level of 2.1 per woman.
Birthrates are falling worldwide. Countries with births below replacement have found no way to stop a fall in population, and even the poorer countries are sliding toward a zero-growth rate.
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Three years ago nationalist conservative Patrick Buchanan raised the alarm with “The Death of the West,” a book that predicted that Europe would be swamped by Muslims because its feminist and de-Christianized women were unwilling to have enough babies. Ben Wattenberg and Phillip Longman look at the data differently, though they don’t rule out Buchanan’s prediction.
Wattenberg is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and is a neoconservative. Wattenberg likes immigration; he believes in the melting pot, and he argues that new arrivals, who average 28 years old, will partly shore up Medicare and Social Security. Wattenberg makes much of a fact Buchanan ignored: that America now has the highest fertility rate — 2.01 babies per woman — among advanced industrial nations.
By 2050, Wattenberg writes in “Fewer: How the New Demography of Depopulation Will Shape Our Future,” Europe will be down 100 million people, and America will be up by 100 million. That is fine with him; it just means that “America must shoulder more of the load in defending and promoting the values of Western civilization,” a project he approves of. “I think it will work out pretty well,” he says.
Longman, who is a fellow of the centrist New America Foundation, is younger and less reassuring about the future. At the end of his book, “The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity (And What to Do About It),” he offers some nutty ideas, such as banning Ronald McDonald and having the government give every American free fruits and vegetables, but he mostly keeps his head.
Though both writers assume the marketplace will adjust to a shrinking population, Longman worries more about what those adjustments will be. “What sustains the value of your house, or your retirement portfolio, when there are ever fewer younger people to whom you might sell your accumulated assets?” he writes.
Maybe we will all have more money. But Longman says, “Money is just a claim on other people’s labor — a way to persuade them to do things like serve you food.” Money may be an incentive to work, but it does not create a worker.
To Longman, the problem is that children are an economic investment to society as a whole but not to parents. In the old days, parents could expect support in old age, a job now done by the corporation and the state. Longman suggests that Social Security payments be increased for people who bear children.
Would subsidies for parents raise the birth rate? In Europe they have not raised it much. (Buchanan suggested re-banning abortion, but neither Wattenberg nor Longman touch that.)
Longman says commercialism is part of the problem, because it encourages couples to work and buy instead of making babies. Religion also matters. Belief has declined more in Europe than here, and so have births. Red-state Utah has resisted the decline in religion and has the highest birthrate in the nation. Blue-state Vermont has the lowest birthrate.
This is good news for fundamentalists of all faiths, whose fertility is significantly higher than their secular neighbors. Longman quotes a Christian who says families like hers are making more babies than urban yuppies (who are probably watching reruns of “Sex and the City.”) To take back American culture, she says, “All we’d have to do would be to have children and raise them for Christ.”
That is one possible future.
The end of the population explosion would seem to be good news for resource conservation and wildlife habitat, but good news is not the focus of these books. Longman hardly mentions it. Wattenberg has seven pages on it, but he never thought an expanding population was a problem. From environmentalists, the collapse in human fertility ought to bring an unaccustomed dose of cheer, but for that, readers will have to look elsewhere.
Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.