Reproduction In The Face of Modernity


Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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101 Responses

  1. Avatar dand says:

    Will, I want to clarify that hose charts are for 20-26 olds. The first staked bad chart is of people born in the 1950s the second is for people born after 1985 in both case when asked between the ages of 20 and 26.Report

  2. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    The ultimate limiting factor for population growth, everywhere, will be fresh water and not food or economic opportunity. Water is fundamental to those other two foundational goods, but water itself is necessary for survival in a more immediate sort of way. Those population centers that lack sufficient native supplies of annualy-renewing fresh water create elaborate infrastructure to drain it from elsewhere, but there are limits to this as well, a phenomenon well-illustrated in the southwest of the United States but being replicated, albeit at higher levels of saturation, in the southeast of the United States. Climate change is going to make water less available as time goes forward, overall (although there will certainly be some areas that become wetter while the rest of us become drier). Water is life, and there is only so much of it to go around.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      Possibly. We are seeing a strain in the southwest, but what we’re not seeing is a declining population. We could, at least in theory, tighten our water management of these regions. Lots of people with very brown yards and moving farming and ranching where farming and ranching belong.

      Outside of the Rockies (and other high-elevation places) there are opportunities available for wealthy nations in the form of desalination and recycling. The question here is the power cost. As power costs rise, as would both water-cleansing and water transportation. All of these stand, plus the fact that rising energy costs make everything more expensive and that plays a deflating role in fertility rates, could all play a role in decreasing population.

      They do, at least, point to Earth 1 problems. Even if we can handle an expanding population, if it costs more to do so than they add to the economy, it’s self-defeating from an economic standpoint.

      On the other hand, so long as water is a technology problem, there is reason for optimism.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        Agreed — to a point. Desalinization, for instance, is ridiculously expensive if applied at a scaled level. Theoretical advances in technology could change that, which changes the steepness but not ultimately the shape of that curve in your Earth 1 scenario.

        Eventually, any imaginable technology at any realistically-imaginable level of economic and energy efficiency runs up against hard caps on supply.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Where the hell does farming belong?
        Ogalala is running dry.
        If you’re gonna say it only belongs in Cairo and East, you’d better be prepared to eat a lot less food.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Kim, if you prefer, places that are less hostile to farming and ranching than are Arizona and the High Desert.Report

  3. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    Countries where women get to make their own reproductive choices have lower birthrates. They are also pretty nice places to live in general. (Particularly, I hear, if you’re female.)

    Countries where women don’t get to make their own reproductive choices have higher birthrates. But they also tend strongly toward squalor, disease, illiteracy, and illiberalism. (Again, particularly if you’re female.)

    I’m fine with the lower birthrate. If it means we have to rethink the welfare state — even if it means “divorcing work and self-sufficiency” — okay. Bring on the post-scarcity society, baby. Beats the hell outta squalor.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      I would certainly take living in Germany with a lower birthrate over living in Central Africa with a higher one. No question about that. That only assumes the dichotomy, though. We can have above-replacement here in the US without the squalor of Central Africa or backwards government policies.Report

    • Avatar dand says:

      While that is true global among developed countries the reverse is true; countries that are more flexible about gender roles (English speaking and Nordic as well as France) have higher birth rates than countries that have more traditional general roles (East Asia and Southern Europe).Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      Thing is, low birth rates are a problem with or without the welfare state. Yes, Social Security relies on young workers to pay taxes, but 401(k)s rely on young workers to earn returns on invested capital. Both rely on young workers to provide goods and services for retirees to spend their money on. And innovation is nonrivalrous, so the more the merrier as far as that goes.Report

      • Avatar dand says:

        Interestingly, when Social Security was created the birth rate was below replacement and the consensus among demographers was that it would stay below replacement.Report

    • Avatar KatherineMW says:

      Countries where women get to make their own reproductive choices have lower birthrates.

      Well, there are exceptions, with China being the major example of coercive action to prevent women from reproducing.

      And based on the stats I think income has a larger impact on birthrates than women’s rights, though the latter is probably relevant. Iran’s low birthrate, and the fact that even Saudi Arabia’s is lower than significant portions of sub-Saharan Africa, seems to bear out this thesis. Or else women in Iran have more control over their reproductive decisions than their governmental system would suggest.Report

    • Avatar Barry says:

      It *is* however funny to watch a male group blog with pretty close to 100% male commenters discuss fertility rates.Report

  4. Avatar NewDealer says:

    Interestingly on Lawyers, Guns, and Money there was a thread yesterday about why the world needs less people for the sake of the environment. I got bashed pretty hard for taking a dissenting view from the rest of the commentary about believing in the survival of the human race. The solution on L, G, M seems to be more immigration and less breeding in the West and rest of the world.

    That being said, I am suspicious of arguments that say the “West” or some other group of people is not breeding enough. These usually contain a bit implication or outright statement that the “wrong” kind of people are breeding.

    I think that it is perfectly rational for families to have one or two kids instead of a quiverfull unless they are very wealthy. This is especially true if you want your kids to get an advanced education and believe it is your responsibility to finance it. If I have kids, it is very important for me that they get some kind of advanced degree and show academic mastery in a subject. This is a family belief. Why is it better to have four kids and send none or some of them to grad school? Or make them take out lots of loans?Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      There’s some smart people who write for LG&M and a community of smart commenters. But there’s also a strong echo chamber in effect. Getting a lot of shout-backs is what you get for stepping out of the Boundaries of Harmonic Agreement.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      That being said, I am suspicious of arguments that say the “West” or some other group of people is not breeding enough. These usually contain a bit implication or outright statement that the “wrong” kind of people are breeding.

      Some arguments are indeed that. I do think that there is room, though, to point out that educated and wealthy people are not breeding without the necessary implication that there is a problem with lower-class people who are breeding. Last was pretty clear on the hazards of what happens when you try to control the breeding of the lower classes.

      It is quite rational to have only a couple of kids. One of the big takeaways from Last’s book is that we could actually have solid reproduction rates if we simply helped educated people have the number of kids that they want.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        “It is quite rational to have only a couple of kids. One of the big takeaways from Last’s book is that we could actually have solid reproduction rates if we simply helped educated people have the number of kids that they want.”

        As I have said before this seems to be one of the areas where some people want it both ways (not necessarily you). They want to have higher reproduction rates but not have the kind of government and public policy that would encourage as such.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        the kind of government and public policy that would encourage as such.

        The problem is… we don’t know exactly what kind of government and public policy that is, exactly. In my disagreement with Last on the matter, he has more empirical backing for his view than I do. In theory, the US should have lower fertility rates than European democracies, but that isn’t actually the case. States like New York should have higher fertility rates than states like Texas, but they don’t.

        Now, I still tend to think that if this is a problem and we’re on Earth 2 then we should try to pursue these policies. But Last is right that there is little reason to think it (or any government policy) will make much of a difference.Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman says:

        It could also be a case where the policy solution would actually be more repression. Women had kids in their twenties because, contraception aside, there just wasn’t all that much for them to do except “be a mother”. Very few women in their twenties would have a job whose time requirements prevented her from raising a child.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:


        I haven’t read Last’s book but America is weird and I will leave it at that.

        I can perfectly see why New York has lower fertility rates than Texas and it is partially or largely a land issue.

        According to wiki, New York State has a population of 19.5 million people. Half or more of those live in the NYC-Metropolitan area (this excludes the New Jersey and Connecticut sections of NYC-Metro). Most of New York’s economic life is still in NYC or very close to it. My college town was two hours north of NYC and was largely a dried up industrial town. IBM still had a campus in the area but the college provided most of the economic life along with some tourism to the Hudson Valley and charming towns like Hyde Park, Rhinebeck, Woodstock, etc.
        Ithaca has Cornell and Ithaca otherwise they would be nothing. Buffalo would be nothing without SUNY-Buffalo and some other colleges. Rochester still has Xerox but Kodak is gone but they still have the University of Rochester and RIT.

        New York is a city of definite size. They can only go up and cannot expand. Most of the inner-ring suburbs are as developed as they can be. It is very hard (but not impossible) to have a large family in NYC. Generally NYC living encourages one or two kids at most unless you are really wealthy.

        As I said before, I generally think universal pre-K and more spending on public schools and transport will help encourage larger families.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        As Dand mentioned, regressive attitudes towards gender in the developed world don’t actually assist reproductions. Some of the highest rates are among the most gender-progressive nations.

        If we did have to go back to regressive gender norms, then screw it. We’ll figure out a way to live with fewer people. In any event, that option is not only among the most problematic, but among the most unrealistic. It’s simply not going to happen.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        ND, it’s not just New York, though. Vermont has space, but the lowest fertility rates in the entire country. Urban vs Rural seems to matter less than Republican vs Democrat. With a few exceptions. I would assume that the Democratic states would have more social support.

        Now, you do touch on something important, which is that cost of living is a significant factor. As is a lack of density. Arguably, more could be accomplished by trying to reduce costs than by trying to help people afford higher costs, if that makes sense.

        Again, though, I think day care subsidies might help. But “think” is the operative word here. The strongest factors, by far, are cultural. To the extent that government policy is a driver, it’s hard to really demonstrate that it’s in the intuitive way one might expect (more support, more children).Report

      • Avatar dand says:

        ND, it’s not just New York, though. Vermont has space, but the lowest fertility rates in the entire country. Urban vs Rural seems to matter less than Republican vs Democrat. With a few exceptions. I would assume that the Democratic states would have more social support.

        This is in part due to the fact that postponement has been greater in Blue than in Red states leading to a more noticeable tempo effect.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:


        Right. I was raised (and I suspect the same is true of my peers) to finish education first and get somewhat established in your career before marrying and having children. We were told this would lead to healthier marriages and being better parents.

        I think this is largely right. I’d be stressed out now if I were parent considering my job is now very well paid temp work.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Dand, Their child population is markedly low, however, as a percentage of the overall population. It’s not just their TFR. Do you happen to have cohort statistics for each of the states?Report

      • Avatar dand says:

        Dand, Their child population is markedly low, however, as a percentage of the overall population. It’s not just their TFR. Do you happen to have cohort statistics for each of the states?

        The CDC doesn’t track it by state (and it would be next to impossible to track) the best thing I could come up with was this report based on the 2000 census on the number of children per family. At least among families that have children there doesn’t seem to be that much difference between states (Utah has more Appalachian states have less).

        I suspect people who wish to remain childless tend to move to urban areas regardless of where they came from.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        So then by that metric, Vermont is still below average, though not by a whole lot. Maine would be another rural state that is blue and below average. On the other hand, Alabama is quite low and Mississippi is right there with Vermont. California is high-ish. A touch higher than Texas for all families, though fewer children per family.

        Looking at various states and their age distribution, the same largely holds true. Texas beats California beats Vermont, though Mississippi is higher on that one.

        These metrics (both yours and particularly mine) are a bit off due to retirees, though.Report

  5. Avatar zic says:

    Fertility rates decline as economic conditions improve and women are given control of their lives.

    This is a good thing.

    9 billion people, on the other hand, is not a good thing. Resources on this planet are not exclusively for human use and I actually think it evil not to consider the rights of other species to have habitat to maintain stable populations. Otherwise, we are an invasive species.Report

    • Avatar Jim Heffman says:

      “9 billion people, on the other hand, is not a good thing”


      And why stop at 9? Surely 8 billion would be less worse than 9 billion. And 7 billion less worse yet. In fact, why allow humans to exist at all?

      Or maybe it’s proportionality you’re worried about, number of living beings or percentage of total biomass, in which case I imagine you spraying penicillin from a hose as you walk around because there are a lot of bacteria out there, and we’ve got to do something about those little buggers taking more than their fair share. (And when you get done with that you better start in on the ants.)Report

      • Avatar Dan Miller says:

        Come on. Think of it this way–I’ve managed to fit 30 people into my group house for a house party, but I’d be pretty unhappy if 30 people lived there all the time–and that doesn’t make me antisocial. Just because zic acknowledges that there is an upper limit on the number of human beings the earth can reasonably and happily sustain, doesn’t mean she’s out to eliminate the human race.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      Zic, I think its important to remember that about a little over a third of all people in the world live in India or China. If you add Pakistan and Bangledish than you have 40% of all humans living two humongous countries, one large country, and one small country. That means a lot of room is left for 60% of us. Its why I’m a bit skpetical of the over-crowding arguments. The densest parts of China are about the same density as New Jersey.Report

  6. Avatar Stillwater says:

    Will, You wrote:

    But then there is Earth 2. In Earth 2, economic progress and stability is dependent on an expanding – or at least non-contracting – population. History, by and large, has not been particularly kind of nations that have had contracting populations over any significant period of time.

    Could you flesh out this idea a bit? It seems to me that in a hypothetical scenario in which total population was fixed over time, we’d still see material progress over time.Report

    • Avatar zic says:

      Good question.

      The assumption that constant growth is good sounds like a cancer.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      Still, we don’t have a perfect lab case of a zero population growth with which to work. There are correllations, though, between entrepreneurship and age distribution. Younger societies generally have more entrepreneurs than older societies do. Countries with population growth tend to be younger than those with population decline. Entrepreneurship is a component of innovation and progress.

      I have to think it is possible, at least in theory, to have a stable population and a steady stream of innovation. Arguably, a steady population might not be the worst thing in the world. The concern is what happens when you fall below that line and stay there.

      There is a reason that countries with lower population rates tend to desire and attract immigrants, though. And why higher stakeholders tend to favor it.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        I would imagine there would be calls on people to have more babies.

        But we’re so far from being there that worrying about it now, instead of worrying about the very real threat of too many people, strikes me as some twisted and dark humor at best. Perhaps it’s a waste of time and energy better spent on real problems? Like how to save babies born from very preventable deaths with stuff like clean water, mosquito nets, safe and healthy foods, and vaccinations.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        But we’re so far from being there that worrying about it now

        We’re not, though. We may not have to worry about it at the moment, but we’re hovering pretty close to that replacement line and have been for some time now. Many of our peer nations are below it. And this is one of those things that by the time you notice it, and come to the conclusion that it’s probably here to stay, it may be too late to do something about it. There is no “on” switch here.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        We’re not, though. We may not have to worry about it at the moment, but we’re hovering pretty close to that replacement line and have been for some time now.

        I’m finding your logic of replacement-rate-per nation as the metric here troubling. There is not a replacement rate concern if total population is still growing; though at a lower level there are nationalism rationals that lead to whole hosts of weird things.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Will, consider this scenario which I hope will make my point – or question, really – a little clearer.

        Suppose a GDP of 10 ducats and a population of 10 people. That’s a percapita GDP of 1. If GDP grows to 12 and the population increases to 12, the economy has grown but the per capita GDP hasn’t. So even if economic growth is tightly correlated with population growth, it isn’t necessarily correlated with increased standard of living.

        On the other hand, innovation alone could increase GDP within a stable population and thereby increase standard of living whereas increasing population in a stable GDP decreases standard of living

        This is from Wiki:

        Economic growth has traditionally been attributed to the accumulation of human and physical capital, and increased productivity arising from technological innovation.[2] Economic growth was also the result of developing new products and services, which have been described as “demand creating”.[3]

        The issue I’m wondering about is the assumption that “the accumulation of human capital” as measured by numbers is necessary for economic growth. Is there an argument for that conclusion?Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        While I welcome immigration, I would prefer not to have to rely on it to keep growing (on Earth 2). It arguably depends on an excess of international workers that we can attract, which may not be the case indefinitely.

        If we can keep our population steady through domestic reproduction, and then achieve growth by way of immigration, that would work for me. It’s just dependent on our not going the way of most of Europe.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Or this, which sort establishes the disconnect I’m wondering about:

        According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the economy grew at an annual pace of 3.2 per cent in the 1990s of which 1.5 per cent was contributed by population growth. In the first decade of the new century, the local economy ratcheted up its growth to just under 4 per cent per year of which population growth can be credited with 1.8 per cent.

        Without innovation and increases in productivity, population growth all on it’s own may not have contributed to increases standard of living (even tho it did contribute to increases in GDP).Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Stillwater, population growth (at least arguably) contributes to the innovation. You have more kids, you will have more standouts. The one guy or gal who invents something spectacular. Or the ten guys and gals who contribute to it. That spectacular innovation making things a whole lot better for everybody. The more people you have, the more of such things you’re likely to get.

        That’s the idea, anyway.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        If we can keep our population steady through domestic reproduction, and then achieve growth by way of immigration, that would work for me.

        Ahh, I’m not making myself clear. It’s the assumption that we need to maintain population growth that I’m wondering about. “Need” in what sense? To increase standard of living? To increase our GDP?

        If the latter, why think that population growth is necessary for that?

        Or are you making a more pragmatic argument based on historical evidence that nations which experience negative population growth tend to fail?Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:


        How many young people are moving to Vermont or choose to stay?

        Burlington looks like a nice city and I’ve fantasized teaching at a place like Middlebury but I’m odd.

        If you think something might help solve a problem, it is worth trying in my mind. Democracy needs experimentation.Report

      • Avatar Cascadian says:

        @willtruman “The more people you have, the more of such things you’re likely to get. ” That sounds kind of intuitively right, but is it. Statistically do countries with larger populations have a higher per capita innovation rates? Thinking of China, Russia and India, this doesn’t seem likely.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        ND, on that we agree. Laboratories of democracy!

        Still, you could be right. I am mostly going off track records and what little I know about economics. That plus the fact that almost every country that is facing declining population is responding by fighting it. But as I mention elsewhere, if another country throws in the towel and over time there is not a real and apparent loss in material progress, then we have a template to try to follow.

        Cascadian, it’s worth noting that despite their high populations, both are at the forefront of fighting population decline. (Indeed, one of Russia’s incentives, the Motherhood Medal, is shown in this post.) they have graying populations and youth matters a lot in this context. Anyway, numbers alone won’t do it. You can’t really demonstrate much on the basis of counterfactuals, but arguably there would be less innovation from India, for example, if there were even fewer young people.Report

    • Avatar dand says:

      I posted this in another thread but its relevant here as well. Older workers are doing worse than they were before and I think the changing age structure is part of the problem. Historically people have been able to move in to better paying jobs as they age in part because there have been more younger workers than older workers; that is longer* the case, as a result there are less senior level positions for baby boomer in their 50s than there were for earlier generations and pay has suffered.

      It would be more correct to say it’s not the case right now, it will be true again starting in about 10 years although not to the extent it was before.Report

  7. Avatar Dan Miller says:

    What about Earth 3, where environmental constraints are threatening the ability of the planet to sustain a decent number of people at a decent standard of living? Given that each American causes a lot more environmental damage than the average citizen of the Central African Republic, I’m not convinced that encouraging higher fertility rates should be a policy goal at all. Obviously, people should be free to have as many kids as they want to, but if various cultural factors push them to want fewer kids, that seems like a net win IMHO.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      American concern over the environment and global warming took a plunge when we hit the recession. II think it becomes much more difficult to convince Americans to be more conscientious of the environment if we take the sort of financial hit that many are concerned about. And if we take the innovation hit as well, the environmental consequences will become harder to mitigate.Report

      • Avatar Dan Miller says:

        This seems backwards to me. It’s simply the case that the world couldn’t hold 7 billion people all consuming as much energy as the typical American, or even the typical Dane. We need to come up with some way of decreasing energy usage without decreasing quality of life, or else the environmental future looks pretty grim. Efficiency measures–better insulation, more efficient light bulbs, stuff like that–can do that work, but their job is much easier when we can rely on natural population decline to reduce the amount of resources and energy we can consume. There are problems with a declining population, no doubt, but unless you believe that the Earth can sustain an infinite population, we’ll need to face those problems at some point anyway. We can’t have a growing population forever.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        It’s certainly the case that the world cannot hold an infinite population. But it’s not clear that we’re bumping up against that wall. Or, at least, that the US is. Any more than the Ehrlich predictions that seemed reasonable at the time. Our efforts in the past have been on feeding as many people as possible. Arguably, our efforts going forward will be geared towards water management, energy, and basic livability.

        At some point, we may have to accept a “drawing down” of things. Presumably, the indicator I would want to see before reaching that point – where I would be comfortable with a contracting population – is another nation having done it well. At some point Germany will probably throw in the towel. If they manage it, my views on the subject will change. Right now, most nations are fighting their contraction.

        It will be interesting to see what happens in Japan, which is the biggie due to their aversion to immigration.Report

  8. Avatar Cascadian says:

    It seems that elite positions are becoming harder to obtain. It’s no longer the case that if you have a college degree that you will be joining the middle class. I predict that this narrowing will continue. Until we come up with earth 1 where this is addressed, it is imperative (to me at least) that Kid has a realistic shot at a place in the elite. I’m not a good enough parent to do this for more than one.

    Aren’t the historic problems of a falling population counteracted by the increase in automation? Do the old rules still apply in the 21st century?Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      Aren’t the historic problems of a falling population counteracted by the increase in automation?

      Which, other than whether or not our population will indeed decrease, is The Big Question: Earth 1 or Earth 2?Report

    • Avatar dand says:

      Could you explain how automation would reduce the ideal number of people? My initial impression is that you’re falling for the lump of labor fallacy but I could be wrong.Report

      • Avatar Lyle says:

        I suspect the issue might be phrased this way. as automation reduces the number of folks needed to provide the goods and services needed by the population, fewer workers are needed. As a result the population and the output of goods are more and more decoupled. As a longer term example compare the employment in the auto industry today and in 1950 in the US. It is far lower making at least as many autos. Or look at agriculture in 1850 80%+ of the population where in ag today its 3%, and the US has a sufficient food supply to feed itself and a good bit of the rest of the world, Europe also has food surpluses. I have read where soon tractors may be self driving with a monitor in a central location for a number of tractors.Report

  9. Avatar NewDealer says:


    Interestingly I have been kicking around an essay idea for a while on the post-work economy and the problems it will bring.Report

  10. Avatar KatherineMW says:

    I’m quite confident that we’re on Earth 1 (and agree with your support for divorcing work from self-sufficiency). Rising population strikes me as more of a problem than developed-nation declining reproduction – we’re using more energy, creating more greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution, and destroying more of the world’s remaining forests and natural areas to provide for an increasing population. And economic productivity per capita has skyrocketed. Fewer people, not more, would benefit standards of living (more resources to go around, and more ability to preserve natural areas that many people consider valuable in and of themselves). And in the short- to medium-term, developed nations can avoid the “inverted pyramid” demographic structure by opening themselves up to immigration, as there’s absolutely no shortage of people in the developing world who want to immigrate and work here. Cultural attitudes against immigration, not declining reproduction, are what produces a demographic crisis (Japan’s the most common example of demographic issues, because it’s not the most immigrant-positive of places).

    Which isn’t to say I think we need policies to discourage reproduction – actions to increase standards of living in the third world will be sufficient to decrease fertility rates in Africa, if trends in the rest of the world are any indication. Everywhere besides Africa is already undergoing the same trends as the OECD.Report

  11. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    There lots of pros and cons to rising and declining populations. Rising populations are generally good for economic growth as Will noted. Declining populations tend to lead towards an economic crash and worse times for everybody. If the population is going to decline than we need to find away for it to least affect the economy. The problem with a rising population is that it puts a strain on resources and leads to a lot of environmental harm in many cases.

    The main problem with declining populations besides the economic one is that you need young people to take care of old people. Many of the young and middle-aged people aren’t going to be able to take care of themselves when they are older because of the various ailments of old age. Many aren’t even going to have the capacity to make decisions for themselves. If people don’t have kids, who will take care over the physical aspects of elderly care? Who makes decision if a childless couple goes senial?Report

  12. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    The problem isn’t population per-se. It’s the number of people who aren’t prepared for a changing world.

    A child is born in some well-run nation, received decent prenatal care before she was born, is raised in a well-appointed home, is given adequate nutrition — this child’s brain will develop properly where a malnourished child with malaria will not. She goes to school, goes to Kazzy’s classroom, learns to be a decent, kindly person. Goes on through her educational experience, doesn’t encounter many obstacles on her way to a master’s degree — where a girl in Pakistan will have none of these advantages. Might even be murdered by assorted hardline Advocates for Ignorance and Institutionalised Misogyny. Sure, she’ll encounter some sexism, a bit of bullying, her life won’t be all that easy. But it will be better.

    This woman will go on to a productive career, like as not marry a man like herself, possessed of the same advantages. They will have children much like themselves. She will have fewer children than her Pakistani counterpart. She will have those children later in life.

    Educated people have fewer children. It’s just that simple. Modernity demands adapting: by definition. The world is filling up with people who aren’t adapting and we’re in for a huge crash if we can’t get this situation under control. That’s my prediction. Something will change, something seemingly trivial but fundamental. It’s going to be horrible.Report

  13. Avatar Michael Cain says:

    Earth 1 faces a future that is heavily automated. So automated, in fact, that we cannot realistically find enough self-supporting work for everybody. Not that there wouldn’t be things for people to do in exchange for money, but the market wages they get would be insufficient to be able to afford a lifestyle that we would consider to be respectable and reasonable. It is because of this that I sometimes think we need to divorce the notion of work and self-sufficiency.

    Two remarks.

    Absent the last sentence, Papa Marx could have written this paragraph. He was wrong, and I suspect this scenario will be wrong, simply because at some point the capitalists have always been forced to share. Assuming full, or nearly full, automation of the economy’s goods and services, it is difficult to build a scenario that is consistent that has all of the automatons dedicated to taking care of the small minority rather than some having been diverted to producing additional automatons.

    Any attempt to provide everyone in the world with such benefits is going to run into resource limits, and electricity in particular. If I recall the numbers correctly, bringing China and India up to the level of Japan’s per-capita electricity consumption — and among large developed countries, Japan does about as well as anyone on electricity efficiency — requires as much as the world currently produces. Bringing up Africa and the rest of the undeveloped/developing world requires a similar amount. Assume the world’s population goes from 7B to 9B over the next 35 years and you need another big bump. Will we electrify transportation? That would be another bump. I admit to being an unabashed pessimist on the subject, but simply don’t see how it can be done.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      @michael-cain , I can’t quite understand your comment. Your first paragraph seems to suggest that there will be redistribution. The second suggests that there can’t be because it can’t be afforded. Could you clarify? How am I misreading you?Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        My bad. I was in a hurry (granddaughter, dinner with former colleagues, and a bit of mathematics for pay were all demanding my time). The argument goes: (1) Automation without sharing is unstable and will not work. At some point, the unemployed mob will pull down the capitalists’ towers. (2) Global energy resources (electricity in particular) are insufficient to support sharing on a global basis, certainly not with a population headed toward 9B. So (3) (which I hadn’t really thought through yet) widespread automation will have to happen on less than today’s global scale. Either drastically reduced population, or a continuation of the have vs have-not economies we’ve lived with for most of the last century.

        Hey, I remain unconvinced that the US will be able to meet its electricity needs 50 years from now, and think it’s going to result in substantial political changes. Why would I think that Pakistan or Nigeria would ever be able to produce sufficient electricity to support a broadly middle-class lifestyle?Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        the plans on the books call for genocide.Report

  14. Avatar Pyre says:

    I think this would be a better piece if you defined what the problem is with declining populations and proposed some solutions.

    For the first, there are a lot of upsides to declining populations. For example, the job-killing effects of the internet will be greatly mitigated by a reduced birth rate. Dwindling natural resources? Not a problem with fewer mouths to feed and clothe. Earth’s climate change issues? Fewer people mean fewer pollutants even if it is not an exact 1-1 ratio. Yes, there are some issues such as the old person issue but solutions can be had there. The solutions might not always be palatable to our current consciousness:

    but change tends to be disturbing and people can be convinced to accept a lot of things.

    (For the record, when this popped up in my G+, my reaction was “Y’know, I’m already giving away my salvageable organs after death. I actually wouldn’t have an issue with my body serving as an energy producer.?”)

    For the second, I can see where you wouldn’t want to propose solutions because all of the solutions to this “problem” won’t fly. Noone is going to give up Netflix to start going to Blockbuster in order to shore up jobs. Very few are going to challenge the pro-choice side of the birth control equation. Even when my G+ produces opinion pieces that equate unborn children to parasites and maintain that a woman should have the right to terminate a pregnancy at any point in the pregnancy, very few people will challenge any part of that notion. (I didn’t but I don’t have a horse in that race anyway.)

    And this isn’t even getting into issues that don’t have a social solution. Supposedly, while an increasing number of women WON’T have kids, an increasing number of men CAN’T have kids. If infertility is truly rising, any purely social solutions will be largely moot.

    If it is actually a problem, there are currently no solutions to it except to just go with the flow and trust that it’ll sort itself out down the road.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      Pyre, part of the reason I did the whole Earth 1 vs Earth 2 thing is so that on Earth 2 I could proceed directly to “Yes, this is happening and it is a problem.” I don’t know that it is, which is why I mentioned Earth 1 to begin with. On E-1 it’s not a problem because automation makes less rather than more people necessary.

      Not that there is anything wrong with the conversation you and some others want to have. I was just proceeding directly to the premise of the book.

      To answer your question, the main reason to be pessimistic in the event of lost population is history and economics. There isn’t a good track record of countries that peaceably retract, economically or socially. The economic constraints create problems, among other things. Even environmentally, there are questions about whether it will be beneficial on net. Trying to convince people to switch away from coal depends in part on their ability to afford doing so.

      The good news for the US is that we will likely get to see it work in other countries. Japan has little hope of reversing its fortunes. The same applies to Germany. If they can make the transition, then at that point I stop worrying about it. A lot of decisions have been made under the assumption of economic growth that is going to be much harder with population contraction. I think it’s going to hurt. And economic hurt is not conducive to good things outside of the environment.

      But there is a way for this to be proven wrong. Perhaps, even, in my lifetime.Report

      • Avatar Pyre says:

        That still dances around the question of “WHAT are the problems?” Other than the older generation getting screwed due to systems such as social security which were keyed to birth rate, the problems for Earth 2 are only defined vaguely as History, by and large, has not been particularly kind of nations that have had contracting populations

        Even then, these are either transitory issues or problems of perception.

        Historical precedent really doesn’t apply here. The Earth 2 you’re referring to hasn’t existed for decades. The historical precedents, other than economics, have been wiped out by modern medicine, modern technology, and nuclear weapons. Women don’t need to give birth to a large number of children in order to see some of them hit adulthood. We don’t need as many people to create goods and services. One person with their finger on the button is worth more than 100,000 infantry. All of the old historical precedents have been swept away. Using those precedents now is like using the Ptolemaic model to explain modern astronomic phenomenon.

        As for economics, given that there are fewer jobs to go around, a lower birth rate will mean greater employment, greater social mobility, and reduced power grid, all of which are advantageous in convincing people to switch away from coal. People will actually be doing better because, much like the aftermath of the Black Plague, fewer people means a greater chance for particular skill sets to reap greater rewards.

        In the end, there will be transition issues. Companies may have to start prizing people at a higher level than carbon paper. Whitey may have to adjust to being a minority. Old people may find their lack of future planning getting them shuffled off to cheap nursing homes. But these transition issues are just that: Transitory.

        Until specific issues from a declining population are listed and these issues are backed up with concrete evidence from how Earth-Prime works, then I can’t really see this as an issue.

        And, as I said before, even if it is an issue, what solutions can really be put forth that will remedy this? Much as I’d like to be the one to give this speech at Thanksgiving:

        I don’t see that becoming socially acceptable anytime soonReport

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I am not sure how many economists share your view that contracting population will prove to be an economic benefit. I mean, I think you could be right, but I don’t think you can look at the situation and say “This is what it is. Earth 1.”

        Especially when other nations are acting like we’re on Earth 2 and that the consequences are not going to be good. Countries that are losing population are, by and large, treating it as a problem. Indeed, countries that spent decades trying to suppress fertility are trying to encourage it.

        I’m not prepared to say that they are wrong based on the intuition of Earth 1. Or that historical precedent has ceased to be relevant.

        I think we’ve got a whole lot riding on the sort of future economic growth that is going to be made much harder by contracting populations. Even if contracting population could be managed, I am not sure if we’re actually ready to manage it. Any question about how we’re going to keep our head above water on the national debt usually relies heavily on future economic growth.

        In the event that you are right, though, we need to seriously reconsider our immigration policy. That, too, lies on the notion that more people means more growth, and that such growth is required.Report

      • Avatar Pyre says:

        Fair enough.

        I will say that, speaking as an accountant, a lot of the national debt is a chimera.

        First off, a lot of our national debt is owed to ourselves. One of the reasons that I get pissed off when people talk about the Clinton Surplus is that the so-called surplus was made by shuffling our debt into different T-accounts to make the balance sheet look better. In essence, we moved money from our checking account to our saving account and then said “Look, our savings account is running a surplus!”

        As an example of how much of our national debt is just accounting tricks, China owns about 1.2 trillion of our debt. One would think that makes them the largest holder of U.S. debt. However, their share of the National debt is less than half that of our biggest debt holder:

        The U.S. Social Security Fund.

        Roughly 2.7 trillion of our debt is what America owes America’s Social Security fund. This is not something that you hear on TV because most people don’t understand government economics. People don’t understand that the national debt is largely funded by U.S. institutions, many of them government, buying debt from the U.S. government. This is partly because it makes no sense on a personal “household economics” level but also because saying that scary foreigners are buying up America runs better on cable news networks.

        And this isn’t even including China’s debt to us which, if the estimates are correct, totals somewhere around 750 billion. In the event of a population-based meltdown of the system, you can bet that we’d say “We’re cancelling out the same proportion of U.S. debt as you owe us. If you don’t like it, either you can go protest to the UN or you can suck our nuclear wang.” While that would be a highly reckless thing to say to the people who make our Ipods, China is undergoing their own debt crisis and stand to lose just as much if trade broke down between us.

        The biggest problem with our economy in terms of declining population is that we have created such a Gordian Knot that, in the future, we may well have to just cut right through it. That will cause transitory issues and, given how much of the balance sheet is weighted in government debt to retirement accounts (Social Security, Military Pension funds, etc), old people are going to get the shaft but it is not so big a blow that the problems aren’t going to be anything more than the pains of transitioning from one set of economic assumptions to another.

        While I found Stieg Larsson’s speech at the end of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo to be overly simplistic in terms of economic matters (as well as a little self-serving towards Blomkvist’s character), there is a certain truth to it.

        You have to distinguish between two things – the Swedish economy and the Swedish stock market. The Swedish economy is the sum of all the goods and services that are produced in this country every day. There are telephones from Ericsson, cars from Volvo, chickens from Scan, and shipments from Kiruna to Skovde. That’s the Swedish economy, and it’s just as strong or weak today as it was a week ago…

        The Stock Exchange is something very different. There is no economy and no production of goods and services. There are only fantasies in which people from one hour to the next decide that this or that company is worth so many billions, more or less. It doesn’t have a thing to do with the Swedish economy.

        In the end, the threat of the National Debt to future generations is a paper tiger. It is hardly the end of civilization that news organizations and the government pretends that it is. It is certainly not a credible reason for us to sound the fertility alarm.

        Even if I am wrong (and I certainly could be underestimating the difficulties of reindexing our economy to a more modern birth rate), it doesn’t really matter. Whether or not we are ready to manage the issues associated with contracting population is a question that we needed to ask 40 years ago with Roe vs Wade. It’s a little too late now for us to worry about whether we are ready to manage the issues because we’re just going to have to deal with it.

        And we will.

        It hasn’t been the first time during the last 237 years that our country has had to adjust it’s economic policies due to population issues. It won’t be the last time. Perhaps I’m getting old but, even with my work in the field of finance, the whole national debt thing just becomes more abstract and more of an academic issue with every passing year.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        it’s not abortion that gives negative population growth.

        Pollution, mainly, decreases fertility.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Pyre, it’s not actually for-sure that it is something that will have to be contended with. Dand makes a case that the US’s fertility rate is likely to stay at or above replacement for the forseeable future. It’s also the case that if the educated people simply have the children that they intend to “expected fertility” that would have a significant impact. It’s not solely a matter of people being able to reduce the number of kids they have and then reducing them via birth control and abortion. Though Last certainly sees it the way that you do (or seems to).

        Kim, I am curious how you reach that conclusion from the source your provide. Especially using Russia as an example, given Russia’s astronomical abortion rates.Report

      • Avatar Pyre says:

        Kim, I alluded to that in my first post.

        And this isn’t even getting into issues that don’t have a social solution. Supposedly, while an increasing number of women WON’T have kids, an increasing number of men CAN’T have kids. If infertility is truly rising, any purely social solutions will be largely moot.

        However, the thrust of my last post was to respond to the notion that we may not be ready to manage the effects of a declining population and the decisions that we, as a society, have made that directly contribute to the declining birth rate.

        Declining population as a result of legalizing birth control was an easily foreseeable consequence of said decision.

        Declining population as a result of pollution was not.Report

  15. Avatar North says:

    A great post Will but I still can’t find it in me to be moved by population decline concerns.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: as long as the world is divided into the countries that are liberal developed democracies and countries that are not then even in a global declining population scenario the liberal democracy countries have no concerns. They will always be able to be able to lure people to immigrate to their better run and more humane societies. If this occurs then the illiberal and undeveloped countries will have a serious problem but I cannot even muster a small violin to play for them. If a global declining population means countries and companies will be furiously competing to attract and retain human resources then I’d say bring it on.

    As you note in your post the previous response I’ve given is usually responded to with either repugnant eugenics concerns or nativist objections. In essence we’d still have a growing population but it’d be the wrong sort of people. This leaves me entirely cold and unmoved: I have considerable confidence in our society and system of governance’s ability to absorb and convert immigrants from other places. I will allow that in theory we could fail with some kind of especially revanchist fanatical group of people but in history so far I haven’t read about any large population group that’s retained their antediluvian traditions past a generation or two (and it’s usually much less than that).

    A lot of the concerns about population decline seem to be rooted in the accurate observation that a lot of our social and financial systems are based on assumptions of growing population. I have pretty good confidence that they could be revised or adapted to level or declining population.

    I don’t think that I can bring myself to see population decline as a serious concern and, when I factor in that it’s a side effect of some unabashedly moral and virtuous developments (universal suffrage, women’s education and rights, contraception, etc) I find my indifference deepening greatly.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      One of the interesting tensions here is that a whole lot of people who are worried about insufficient breeding on our part are skeptical of bringing large numbers of people in. There’s no inherent contradiction there, except that both arguments are often made on economic grounds that seem to be in conflict between one another. Likewise, a lot of the people who argue that the necessity of more people for economic growth is overrated… also seem to support more robust immigration. Again, both often resting on economic arguments.

      I am personally pro-immigration and pro-natalist (keeping an eye on Earth 1). I’m keeping an eye on Earth 1 and this is subject to change (and my views on both have been shifting a bit). While I generally remain confident in our ability to absorb significant numbers of immigrants, there is an upward bound somewhere. A place can become overwhelmed by newcomers. Ask any boomtown or rapidly growing state. I think there is very, very little chance of us reaching that point… unless we find ourselves with German reproductive rates and needing immigrants to make up the difference.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        On a sidenote, and this is not a retort to North, but something his last paragraph reminded me of something I wanted to say:

        A problem exists, or does not exist, irrespective of its cause. That the birth dearth is the result of many positive social changes doesn’t make the birth dearth any more or less of a problem. It does do two things:

        (a) It points out that this problem, if there is one, is better than the problem that preceded it.

        (b) Tackling the problem, if there is one, is going to involve more than just reversing the changes that caused it.

        These are both somewhat limited. (A) is kind of like arguing that your problems aren’t so big because some other guy or gal has it worse. (B) is limited because, let’s get real, even if we wanted to reverse the changes wholesale, we couldn’t.

        If there is a problem in need of a solution, I think we would have to look forward anyway. If we are to reverse the changes of the past, do so very surgically. In Singapore, for example, this meant not doing away with birth control, but it did mean stop penalizing people for having too many kids.

        In the US, I think most of the solutions – to the extent that solutions exist and to the extent that there is a problem that needs them and we do not live on Earth 1 – are forward-looking rather than looking to the past. Specifically, trying to help people who want kids have and manage the kids they want to have. Look for ways to do that. Some of these ideas are liberal! Some are conservative or libertarian (down with car seat requirements!).Report

      • Avatar North says:

        I think that’s pretty reasonable myself. My only quibble: if a country with a population the size of the US existed in a declining global population Earth 2 universe. In that scenario even if they had German or Japanese levels of population growth (or decrease) I would submit that there would be very little actual valid nativist concerns. While there is theoretically an upper bound to the amount of immigrants a country could absorb that upper bound strikes me a reachable only if the vast majority of the immigrants share a single common culture. In a declining global population Earth 2 universe the US would be sucking their immigrants in from the entire developing world (and raiding the developed world a bit too). The immigrant population would be culturally fragmented which would further improve the ability of the host culture to absorb them. I just don’t see any serious nativist danger.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        To your side note I think that’s also pretty solidly reasoned but fortuitously we don’t have to worry about crossing that bridge any time soon. As you noted in your comments and post; there are other developed economies/countries far below us on the demographic slide. Watching their experiences should illuminate our own situation pretty well.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        Likewise, a lot of the people who argue that the necessity of more people for economic growth is overrated… also seem to support more robust immigration.

        Here, I think an element is missing, namely diversity. People who argue for immigration on economic grounds (from the economic interests of the people in the destination) mostly (I believe) don;t do it out of pure concern for lack of population per se (though they may address that concern via their advocacy for immigraiton). Immigration has other benefits besides simple numerical support of population in economic terms. Cultural diversity, for one. Cultural diversity is an economic asset for any country in a globalized economy (at least up to a point perhaps, as you suggest in your ‘overrun’ comment) that immigration provides that natality doesn’t provide, or that immigration provides in a way that natality alone wouldn’t. More directly, skills diversity. Even at the low-skill end, with immigration comes an influx of skills that a country doesn’t gain by having kids and teaching them what they already know. Quite literally, it is an economic benefit of immigration that immigrants come here and do things we can’t anticipate them doing, at least not exactly. Beyond that, simple willingness to do work people already here would rather not so is a net benefit to the country, as long as we make sure that the people who would otherwise do those things have better opportunities (which we can do). It’s a skill in its own way.

        The key to retaining these values is to eliminate any special downward pressure that immigrants place on wages simply by virtue of being immigrants, whether that means a willingness to work for far less than the work they do here generally pays, or a feeling of inability to ask for what they are worth die to uncertain legal status. We want the value of diversity that immigration offers; we just need to be sure to inculcate immigrants with the key American virtues of personal greed and hard bargaining as soon as they get here, preferably before they even seriously start to look for work. We need immigrant labor to be seen as no cheaper for the unity of productivity than native labor, then we’ll maximize the benefit from the inevitable influxes that we’ll always experience during booms. Unionize them!Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Michael, there are multiple reasons given for and against abortion, but economics plays a role in both. The arguments in favor of immigration are economics, humanitarianism, and diversity (the arguments against being economics and culture). The economics argument depends on the notion that increasing population – even uneducated, unskilled population in the case of much of the immigration we find ourselves talking about – is a general good. If that is good, then their absence is a negative. I have yet to see any prolonged debate about immigration where the economic benefit of more people didn’t come up.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        North, to be honest, if our reproduction rate is 1.4 or so, and we’re having to bridge the gap of the remaining 0.7 through immigration, I find that to be quite daunting. That’s above the point where I feel comfortable with our ability to absorb immigrants. While there would be a fair amount of fragmentation, because we couldn’t get all of those immigrants from any single place, I think we would be getting enough from particular places that they’d be forming pockets and, unlike the pockets of the past, I am not sure there would be the cultural gravity to remain cohesive. That would be my concern, anyway.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        I don’t share your concern Will, primarily based only on the fact that the US has absorbed absolutely enormous numbers of immigrants in the past without much long term (past a generation or so) fragmentation. That said I would concede that the historical argument is a weak one (primarily because the number of people absorbed in the past isn’t as large as the proposed number being absorbed in the future) so it’s possible that your concerns could plausibly come true.

        I still don’t think that the highly fragmented cultures of various immigrants (and remember that in a declining global population world they’d be coming from all over the place) would likely supplant or debase the dominant American culture but I have no way of proving my gut reaction. Japan and Europe may be illustrative going forward.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:


        I don’t think my argument (or yours) at all depends on people who argue for immigration from an economic perspective denying that the increase in population is a good thing. But they can acknowledge that, and the corollary that the lack of population increase denied by denying immigration is a good denied and therefore a negative, without ever having to concede that population trends in any particular circumstances are a problem that necessitates a consistent support of other measures that would also increase population. I.e., you can say that immigration does provide the benefit of population increase but that the primary benefit and reason to want it is diversity, and not then have to abandon being much more than indifferent about domestic birth rates just because you’ve said that on balance the increased population associated with immigration is a good thing to some degree. Increases in native birthrates may have their own positives and negatives that differ (and fall short?) from those immigration offers that on balance leave a person in a different place on them than on immigration, despite acknowledging in each case that the population increase is to be desired to X extent.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        The economics argument depends on the notion that increasing population – even uneducated, unskilled population in the case of much of the immigration we find ourselves talking about – is a general good.

        Relatedly, I don’t think this is actually true about economics arguments for immigration generally. Some arguments would rely on this claim, but as I have made clear, other arguments needn’t; they can say that the pure population increase is merely salutary, but not material to the economic argument from, eg., diversity of culture or skill or outlook, or they can even say that the population increase per se is neutral as to the argument. They can EVEN say that the population increase is in fact a acknowledged cost of the argument that the benefits from increased diversity actually offset.

        I’m obviously not saying that any or all of these would be correct to argue, but these are all completely viable arguments on immigration from economics pending evidence to support them.

        I think what you’re actually saying is that you are arguing that population growth is a paramount variable in ensuring economic growth, and that, as such, people who make arguments for any given policy that would increase the population on the basis of a claim that it would spur economic growth (for some reason, not necessarily due to the population growth) ought to therefore support any other policy that increases the population, at least certeris paribus barring unnamed major drawbacks of those policies. But they only need to do that if they do in fact agree with you about the imperative for economic growth of population growth, AND they agree that there are reasons to believe that, barring changes in projections, as it stands now a lack of population growth actually does look to be a constraint on gorwth going forward.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        You are correct that there is a fair amount of wiggle room here for each side of the debate. Depending on which arguments you are using at any given time. If you’re relying on the economic arguments – that we need to have more kids because our economy depends on it, but that we need to cut down on the number of immigrants because they will hurt people’s employment prospects, at the very least you have some explaining to do. And the same being true in the other direction. If your views are perfectly nuanced, then there may indeed be no conflict. That is, to be perfectly honest, not how I find such conversations to go, which is that the economics are important insofar as they support what I believe for non-economic reasons, and otherwise aren’t really all that important.

        It’s actually in this vein that I was really interested to hear what Last would have to say when we got to immigration. He had spent enough time explaining why population contraction is so disastrous that he was going to lose a lot of credibility if he then turned around and said “But it’s still worse to just keep bringing in immigrants.” Which he didn’t do.

        There is wiggle room here, but it should at least suggest nuance when bringing up the economic benefits of an increasing population in one context, if you’re going to just deny it in the other. If you’re not going to do that, then no problem.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Perhaps when I said “There’s no inherent contradiction there, except that both arguments are often made on economic grounds that seem to be in conflict between one another.”

        I should have said “There’s no inherent contradiction there, except when both arguments are made on economic grounds that seem to be in conflict between one another.”

        Because when I said that there’s no inherent contradiction, I did mean that.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        Just to be very clear about my point, it’s that bringing up the economic benefits of immigration is not necessarily

        bringing up the economic benefits of an increasing population in one context[.]

        It depends what things about immigration the person is saying benefit the economy.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Just to be very clear about my point, it’s that bringing up the economic benefits of immigration is not necessarily…

        That’s true, I suppose. Next time we have an immigration debate here, I will keep an eye out for how it is being presented, and how it would or would not apply to the natalism debate.

        I guess what I tend to see, or what I think I am seeing, is lump labor arguments being applied in one context but not in another. That we won’t need more people because of automation and the new economy and all that in this argument, but not applying it to that other discussion over there. Or likewise, the economic benefits of labor pool expansion. Maybe that’s not actually what I am seeing.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        I’m sure you are seeing it, just not necessarily in every economic argument for immigration – even “low-skill” immigration.

        FTR, I do see population growth as a benefit to the economy, but, as I’ve suggested, not as the primary economic benefit of immigration (which I see as diversity, used in an inclusive way). So I would welcome the benefits of a faster-growing population due to increasing domestic birthrates. But I’m not sure population growth per se presents a threat or even constraint on our growth potential or ability to sustain our welfare state. Sufficiently lacking, or course it would, but I’m just not sure we’re looking at that. I’m not sure: that’s why I want to do the relevant homework before deciding, which includes reading your post here as well as other sources. Not being sure there is a population growth problem in our future (even if that’s because of our potential and likelihood of importing people if a real birthrate challenge were to arise), I don’t feel compelled to take a strong pro-natality stand, given the extent to which that prejudges people’s reproductive decisions. And my immigration stand continues to stem primarily from the benefits of diversity. If it became clear that we were facing a population problem that we were really addressing with immigration to an unbalanced extent, then I would certainly start to look more seriously at the costs and benefits of pro-natality policies. But I’m not there yet.Report

  16. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    A particular question that was going through my head last night as I contemplated your subject, Will (I want to say contemplated your piece, but I actually want to get my own thoughts, such as they are, in order before I jump into this. I have very jumbled thoughts on the topic right now, and that makes processing your piece difficult. But I will do it, and soon):

    What is the reproductivity rate among reproducing couples that is necessary for bare population replacement over the medium term? If every single person in a country coupled with exactly one other person in their lives and had two children with them, and all those children did the same, then, while there would be short-term fluctuations in population due to the ages at which people were having the kids, over the medium and long-term there would, as an ideal matter, be essentially perfect population stability as long as those conditions persisted? Is that logic mistaken? If not, then it seems to me that, if a population is in a medium-or long-term growth pattern, then fertility rates among everyone who’s having children meets and exceeds all the forms of attrition that prevent the two-people-produce-two-children-each-of-whom-has-two-children-with-exactly-one other-member-of-his/her-generation model of stability (i.e. of course elective childlessness, but also early death, infertility, etc., etc.). If that model of stability would actually produce stability in ideal circumstances, then it follows that in the real world, given childlessness in its various forms, if there is stability or growth, the average number of children being born to couples who do have children has to be greater than two. So, given current projections for rates of childlessness in the U.S., what is the number of children that couples (or, women?) who do have children will have to average per couple in order to just have stable population over the medium term? Is this a well-studies question, or is it too hard to specify?Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      Michael, the numbers are approached slightly different than how you are approaching them. Not that their way is better or worse than yours, but it’s different. Basically, the replacement rate is somewhere above 2 children for every woman due to infant mortality and the like. So the world’s replacement rate is 2.33, while in the US it’s 2.1. So a static population is one where women have 2 children a piece, except that a very few would have to have an extra one to make up for the fact that some kids are going to die before they reach reproductive age. (The numbers also focus on child-per-woman, rather than child-per-woman-and-man.)

      To account for women that go childless, you obviously have to know what the rate of such women is. It’s a fluid number. It generally hovers between 10% and 20%. Right now it’s closer to the latter, but still within the range that it has always been. The key variable is not women that don’t choose to have children, but women who do have children ultimately having fewer of them.

      If we look at the US’s 2.1 replacement requirement, and we assume 20% of women don’t have children, then those who do have children will need, on average, between 2.6 and 2.7. At the bottom of that range (10%) it’s roughly 2.3. As far as I know, it is not predicted that childlessness will increase beyond 20%. If it got to 25%, then 2.8 children would be needed.

      Does this help?Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        Yep, absolutely. That’s what I was figuring – maybe more than 2.5 but not 3. Just out of curiosity, does that number result from the simple proportion you’re suggesting, i.e. something like 2.1/100 = x/80, or is that number something that comes from more specific research you know about?

        One other question, though: what about women who have only one child? Does the 2.3-2.7 requirement account for that?Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I calculated the number myself. Mathematically, if you need 2.1 from each woman, and 20% of women don’t have children, the rest need to average 2.1/.8.

        The numbers do account for women with one child. So for every woman that has one child, you need another one with three for a reproduction rate of 2.0. It would need to be more than three, or more than one woman with three, to bring that number up to 2.1, 2.3, and 2.7.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        Gotcha. Thanks, Will – questions fully answered.Report

  17. Avatar dand says:

    will here’s a chart showing the average ideal number of children among 20-26 year olds the average is up about .2 since the late 70sReport

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      Thanks. What’s really remarkable about it is the consistency.Report

      • Avatar dand says:

        true although is would look less consistent if the graph were scaled differently.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        There’s that, but I was thinking of the lack of general pattern. It’s up now, at roughly the same place it was thirty years ago. It’s gone down, it’s gone up. Down, up, rarely for more than five years before a course change within the same (admittedly broad) .5 perimeter. We seem to be at a high point at the moment, which is encouraging if there is a potential problem here.Report

      • Avatar dand says:

        I don’t see why electricity would be a problem; nuclear power is currently underutilized fuel for transportation strikes me as much more of a potential problem.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Did you mean for this reply to go here?

        It seems to me that one way or another, electricity (both stationary and something we can use for transportation) will be available. The question is primarily about cost. Whether we will be able to afford it.Report

      • Avatar dand says:

        no this was a response to Michael Cain, i have no idea how it ended up down hereReport