Monday, August 13

:: I Smell Old Man

I have forgotten everything I was planning to write about. My mind has been wiped clean by the head rush I just got from reading a recent editorial in The Economist.

I should clarify that this was not a good head rush (i.e. the thrill I get when Doctor Boyfriend, Scientist-at-Large, gives me that doe-eyed look), or even a head rush that is acceptable under the circumstances (i.e. a milkshake-induced brain freeze). No, this was a “could anyone be so bizarre and actually have gainful employment, and at an internationally respected news magazine, no less, and, given that that does in fact appear to be the case, does said magazine not have some structure in place to curtail what must surely be that person’s strangest shit from escaping the confines of the office and making it into print?” kind of head rush.

But on with the show. The unsigned editorial, “How to deal with a falling population,” starts off explaining a basic principle (population grows steeply until it reaches an inflection point and then levels off). It notes that in some countries it appears the inflection point has been reached, and that this has become a matter of concern to some people. In other words, population growth is out; population decline is in.

And then the stupid sets in. The writer claims that this reversal is not good news, because the fears of an overpopulated planet were exaggerated.

“Mankind appropriates about a quarter of what is known as the net primary production of the Earth (this is the plant tissue created by photosynthesis) – a lot, but hardly near the point of exhaustion.”
This is great news because, as we can all agree, direct human consumption is the only thing we should really care about. Other species, the resources ecosystems need to replenish themselves, the general quality of life – sorry, I nodded off. Besides, we know natural resources are plentiful, because
“the price of raw materials reflects their scarcity and, despite recent rises, commodity prices have fallen sharply in real terms during the past century. By that measure, raw materials have become more abundant, not scarcer.”
In other words, I know its true because the market tells me so.

The author then goes on to discuss the economic complications of a leveling or slightly declining population with regard to the ratio of young workers to retirees. But hold it right there, Ceau┼čescu, this does not mean governments should find ways to make women have more babies. Whaaa? you may be asking – surely the editorial was on track to say just that. No way, they explain:
“States should not be in the business of pushing people to have babies. If women decide to spend their 20s clubbing rather than child-rearing, and their cash on handbags rather than nappies, that’s up to them.”
Now, if the Economist wishes to make an ass of itself, that’s its own business. I will look on in cool derision, my estimation of the magazine’s seriousness substantially diminished. Maybe I should not begrudge them the frisson they get from trivializing the life choices of an entire class of women – after all, I imagine things are rather grim over there, what with the balding and the dentures and the vultures circling overhead.

What strategy should governments pursue to adjust to a leveling population? First, get old people to stay at work longer by holding back their pensions and raising the retirement age (read: you’ll have plenty of time to rest when you’re dead, geezer!)

What about increasing immigration? Not so fast, the Economist says, “the numbers required would be too vast” (read: when we said we need more 'young people,' we thought you understood we meant 'young white people'). Kicking (their shrivelled old man stick-legs) and screaming (to the best of their feeble ability), I imagine, they have reached the conclusion that the answer lies in raising the legal and social status of women.

I know, I know.
“America and north-western Europe once also faced demographic decline, but are growing again, and not just because of immigration. All sorts of factors may be involved; but one obvious candidate is the efforts those countries have made to ease the business of being a working parent. Most the changes had nothing to do with population policy: they were carried out to make labour markets efficient or advance sexual equality. But they had the effect of increasing fertility.”
Now, lets leave aside the question of what the author believes population policy to be about if it categorically doesn’t include advancing sexual equality, and the question of what labour market efficiency has to do with fertility (though really, the mind boggles). The piece ends on a bit of high note:
“As traditional societies modernize, fertility falls. In traditional societies with modern economies – Japan and Italy, for instance – fertility falls the most. And in societies which make breeding and working compatible, by contrast, women tend to do both.”
Oh my. Um, okay. The last bit isn’t so bad, except, you know, for the gross oversimplification, the unusual choice of the term “breeding,” and the creepy sense one gets that the author is a raging misanthrope. But all’s well that ends well. I mean, at least they are on our side, right? Right?



ladybec said...

Yeah, someone over there really needed a better editor. I thought I couldn't understand the article because of the way you were cutting it up, but when I read the whole thing, it really was just poorly written/constructed. Nor is anything he is saying really all that revolutionary to anyone who's been studying fertility patterns in industrialized countries, though he's dramatically oversimplifying.

But in the end, I think there is a difference about whether you are trying to institute equality for equality's sake or to get more women into the workforce for economic reasons or to encourage more women to have children because the policies you design do have subtle differences, and the motivations do actually matter. Of course, one could argue that in the U.S., we probably have the worst of all worlds since I'm not sure we have agreement that we're trying to do any of those things so we have a labor market that doesn't really meet any of those needs particularly well. And yet, our fertility remains relatively high comparatively to many of the other industrialized nations in spite of labor policies that would seem to suggest that it shouldn't. Hmmm...

Who wants to be a demographer in their next life?

zippy said...

I do! I do! Really, I do. I'm just fascinated about how millions of very individual choices can have an impact on a macro level, and this is an excellent example. In some ways it's so simple: "Gosh looking at my Italian mama, I (well-educated modern Italian gal) have no interest in getting up early and ironing my 25-year old son's jockey shorts, and then making breakfast for everyone before I go off to work myself. So maybe not so much with the childbearing..." And this very personal decision is being replicated again and again by thousands of Italian women in their 20s.

The Economist is the Economist. They are always going to look to the market first, so I'll forgive them that. Ladybec does make an interesting point. What are the subtle policy differences and what are their impacts? I would postulate that countries that want to encourage childbearing would be more successful if they a) have no objection to manipulating social behaviors through policy, and b) have had a history of liberal social policy already (e.g., Sweden, the Netherlands).

I think women can see through temporary incentive-based policies ("we'll give you $500 and a new toaster if you squeeze a couple out!"), but COUPLES respond well to broader social policies ("Hey, we can BOTH stay home for several months at a time, so we don't have to send little Sven to day care until he's 18 months old!"). Oh, and little Sven doesn't expect mommy to iron his briefs. Yuck.

zippy said...

One more comment on this thread: Fight Crime Invest in Kids just released a study showing that many women delay childbearing because of the overwhelming cost of childcare and preschool:,+12:42+PM

They are calling for additional money for Head Start and Child Care and Development block grants.

I completely support this, of course, but it's unclear from the poll whether the women delaying childbirth are the same women who use these federally-supported programs. The larger point remains, however: if you want women to have babies, you have to make it feasible at the most basic levels.