In the economics of population, national income per head founders
completely as a measure of welfare. It ignores the satisfaction people
derive from having children or from living longer.
Peter T. Bauer, Population Growth: Disaster or Blessing?
The Independent Review 3, no. 1 (Summer 1998)
Jonathan Last opens What to Expect When No Ones Expecting with a story from his
life in the Old Town neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia. This community is an
oasis for young adults with refined tastes and ample income to indulge their tastes:
high-end kitchen and food shops, gourmet restaurants, and coffee bars. A childrens
clothing shop named Tutto Bambini opened in a new cluster of shops but closed
after only eighteen months. It was replaced by a doggie spa. Pets abound in Old
Town, but there are few children. Residents of Old Town expect to have the next
popular food or clothing fashion, but few of them expect the birth of a child.
The Old Town lifestyle serves as a motif for Lasts prophetic warning that the
good life as it has come to be defined in modern Western culturea life of hard work,
high income, and expensive playis not sustainable across generations. This is
because these three elements of the good life depend on freedom from the ties and
responsibilities of children and family. Thus, the unsustainability Last foresees is
rooted in the shrinking size of the next generations and the resulting inversion of the
demographic age pyramid. If this lifestyle were confined to a few urban centers, there
would be no cause for a prophetic voice. Perhaps if the lifestyle were confined to the
rich West, there would not be. But because Western values have spread throughout
the world, there is indeed an urgent need for the prophets voice.
Last cites demographic evidence of the downward trend in fertility rates for
Americans that has persisted virtually since the nations beginning. In 1800, the
fertility rate for white Americans was 7.04 children per woman. By 1890, it had fallen
to 3.87. For blacks, fertility in the 1850s is estimated to have been 7.90 and at the
centurys end 6.56. But by 1940 fertility among blacks fell to 2.87 and for whites
to 2.22, a little higher than the replacement rate of 2.10. The baby boom increase
in fertility following World War II lasted roughly two decades. But this was a fertility
spike, not a reversal of the downward trend. Overall fertility for American women
is currently 1.93. The demographic breakdown of this figure is 1.79 for whites,
1.96 for blacks, and 2.35 for Hispanics. Though fertility of Hispanic women is still
high relative to that of black and white women, it too is falling.
Demographers explain the declines in fertility with models of demographic
transition. What is referred to as the First Demographic Transition is the population
growth that occurred as mortality rates declined beginning in the nineteenth century.
Fertility rates declined as well, but less so than mortality. Families eventually became
smaller, and adults, with increased wealth, focused on their childrens material needs.
The Second Demographic Transition is the further decline in fertility and displacement
of children and family with childless adults. This is the transition to a
society of no-fault divorce, cohabitation, copulation severed from procreation,
and adults higher-ordered needsthat is, self-actualization. It is this society that
Old Town represents.
Last describes the consequences of Americas low fertility in chapter 5, Very
Bad Things. These very bad things are already happening elsewhere. The picture
of the future is far from the ecologists romantic image of a smaller population living
in harmony with nature. Without a correction to declining fertility, we can look
forward to shrinking cities. Think of Detroits scattered throughout the country.
Demand for government services for the aging population will increase as the tax base
shrinks. Demand for housing, farm and manufactured products, education, and professional
services other than geriatric medicine and eldercare will shrink. Entrepreneurial
activity and innovation will dry up, for they are activities of the young. Last
delivers his warning with humor, as in his account of the German states response
to this situation: a program to train prostitutes as eldercare nurses. But, humor aside,
the picture he paints is bleak.
Human population is one of the more vexing and interesting topics of our time.
Population doomsayersthe prophets of overpopulation, many of whom as scholars
were trained in nonhuman biology and ecologyhave warned nonstop for the past
half-century that an overpopulation crisis is imminent. These warnings became
imbedded in the consciousness of Americans and international agencies such as the
Economists have been ambivalent about whether growth in the number of
humans is a blessing or a curse. On the one hand, their institutional memory includes
Adam Smiths explanation that the Scottish Highlanders were poor because population
was too low to support trade. It includes as well the classical idea of human labor
as the source of valuethe more labor, the more value; the more humans, the more
labor. And economists in the twentieth century developed the theory of human
capital as a complement and a substitute for physical capital and thus a source of value,
income, and wealth.
On the other hand, as George Stigler taught us (Do Economists Matter?
Southern Economic Journal 42 [January 1976]: 34754), when a bandwagon rolls
by, economists are wont to hop on board. As the overpopulation bandwagon got
rolling, many economists hopped on. Thus, for instance, Kenneth Boulding wrote
in the forward to a new edition of T. R. Malthuss 1798 book Population: The First
Essay (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1959) that the whole purport of the
argument is to show that the geometric increase of population will soon outrun any
conceivable increase in the food supply (vi). Boulding wrote this despite acknowledging
that the context from which Malthus wrote the essay was quite different from
that of mid-twentieth-century overpopulation fears. The point of Malthuss essay was
to show that utopian societies stripped of social institutions such as property rights,
marriage, and family would be unsustainable. To Malthus, these institutions that
enthusiasts for the French Revolution wanted to do away with were what in fact
The entomologist turned ecologist who best represents doomsayers is Paul
Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb (1968), The End of Affluence (1975), and
The Population Explosion (1990). Ehrlichs nemesis was economist Julian Simon,
author of The Ultimate Resource (1981) and winner of a famous bet with Ehrlich.
Ehrlichs partners in the bet were physicist John Harte and John Holdren (currently
President Obamas chief scientific adviser and head of the Office of Science and
Technology Policy). Simon won the bet when the prices of five natural-resource
commodities selected by Ehrlich, Harte, and Holdren fell rather than rose between
1980 and 1990. Though the doomsayers lost the bet, they did not cease their
pronouncements of population doom. This particular pessimism about the future
of humanity is quite hardy.
Alexandrias Old Town is more for Last than a symbol of a way of life that is
bringing forth a demographic crisis. It also marks out his target audience. Last is
writing to those who see the Second Demographic Transition as social progress and
is trying to persuade these young urban materialists that they should have babies. He
does so in a nonjudgmental way, accepting their presumptions about the good life.
This includes the presumption that life in Old Town is better than life in the suburbs
and that it is better precisely because the urbanites are not burdened by children. Last
highlights the cost of raising a child in chapter 2: It is commonly said that buying
a house is the biggest purchase most Americans will ever make. Well, having a baby
is like buying six houses, all at once. Except you cant sell your children, they never
appreciate in value, and theres a good chance that, somewhere around age 16, theyll
announce: I hate you (p. 43). The message here is that the medicine of having
a family is bitter, but youre better off taking it than not.
Last emphasizes that in pointing out the bad effects of the lifestyle his presumed
readers choose, he is not judging their choices. Without passing judgment
(you heathen, fornicatin sinners!) the rise of cohabitation was objectively bad for the
institution of marriage (p. 64). His attempt to engage affluent materialists on their
own terms without offending their sensibilities influences his explanation of how we
arrived at the point where no ones expecting. Our predicament is the unintended
result of a confluence of historical and cultural contingencies, each of which is arguably
good in itself. These contingencies can be grouped under the umbrella of modernization.
They include the rise of capitalism with its expanded opportunity and mobility,
womens liberation from the home to the workplace and from teaching jobs to business
and the professions, and sexual liberation through birth control and abortion. Last
admits to a belief that abortion is wrong but avoids inquiry into the morality
of abortion or connections between the birth control mentality and abortion.
He keeps a distance from unseemly elements of the history of sexuality over the
past century, merely portraying Margaret Sangerbirth control pioneer, eugenicist,
and sexual libertineas a weird old bat. This description marginalizes Sanger with
respect to the creation of contemporary mainstream culture. Yet among progressives
of her own time, Sanger was not treated as a weird old bat. She was representative
of progressivism, and she very much intended to create the kind of society we have
today. Along the same line, Last claims (in a footnote) that the authors of Roe did
not believe they were creating a national abortion mill. The inventors of the Pill
thought they were making a tool to suppress the fertility of poor undesirables,
not the middle class. The lawyers in California who created the modern divorce
regime thought they were merely tidying up some clunky statutes. The list goes
on and on (pp. 17172). Everyone who brought us to where we are today apparently
had only the best intentions.
Despite Lasts attempt to appeal to young sophisticates without stepping
on their toes, the starkness of his message cannot be overlooked. The chapter
The Bright Side follows Very Bad Things. But the bright side is hardly bright.
Immigrants higher fertility boosts American fertility, but immigrants soon converge to
the lower American norm. Even in terms of successful family planning, the news is not
all good. Fifty years on from approval of the pill as a pharmaceutical solution to the
problem of family planning and forty years after Roe v. Wade, American women do
not attain their expected fertility. Women with less education tend to have more
children than they expect, and women with more education have fewer.
Last is not optimistic about using financial incentives to increase fertility,
although there is an asymmetry here, for he blames financial incentives for contributing
to the fertility decline. His solution, if we can call it that, is a return to religious
faith and practice. He does not explicitly recommend this return, and religion cannot
be turned on and off the way a tax incentive can, but this message is implicit in his
account of the direct relationship between religious practice and fertility. After all,
there are many perfectly good reasons to have a baby. (Curiosity, vanity, and naı¨vete´
all come to mind.) But at the end of the day, theres only one good reason to go
through the trouble a second time: Because you believe, in some sense, that God
wants you to (p. 170).
Here again, Last refuses to challenge the Old Town presumptions about the
requisites of a good life, that children are burdens rather than blessings for their
parents. My guess is that this refusal is a strategic choice that Last made to get his
target readers attention. But I think the argument would be stronger if Last had
explained that God wants us to have children because he knows better than we do
what makes us happy; human love trumps material goods.
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Volume 18 Number 3
Independent Review Articles on Related Subjects