STAFF NEWS & ANALYSIS
New Meme: Dangers of the Baby Bust
By Staff News & Analysis - February 14, 2013

The birth dearth/empty cradle/baby bust is upon us, threatening consequences just as dire as the overpopulation bomb that Paul Ehrlich predicted would cause mass global starvation in the 1970s. The growing percentage of elderly in the population, the root cause of many of our problems, will soon render the United States economically feeble. This dire prophecy of underpopulation has gradually made its way from the pages of Foreign Policy to The New York Times and, most recently, The Wall Street Journal. The alarmist fear-mongering is no better founded than Paul Ehrlich's earlier panic. Oddly, both sides of the humans-as-bombs debate share certain assumptions. Both seem terrified by the costs of caring for human dependents, whether young or old, describing them as a threat to economic welfare. – Nancy Folbre, New York Times

Dominant Social Theme: Another scarcity crisis to deal with. What happened to the children? How will we care for the old folks?

Free-Market Analysis: Nancy Folbre is an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and she is considerably less alarmist than some about this latest "crisis." But crisis it is nonetheless and Folbre doesn't shy away from calling it that.

In today's world, of course, almost everything is a crisis – and what would this one be without a catchy militarized name? In this case: "the underpopulation bomb." Remember the Population Bomb? It was supposed to leave us swimming in so many people that we would finally decide to eat each other for breakfast, as "Soylent Green" predicted.

We would live stacked in great, grim underground cities and see the sun only occasionally. Our lives would be worthless because there would be so many of us that individuality wouldn't matter.

Now all that's changed. Here's more from the article:

Fertility decline is not some precipitous event. Under way for more than 150 years in the United States and many other parts of the world, it began long before the advent of modern birth-control methods or the so-called welfare state. Potential for young adults to migrate to new areas, along with the growth of wage employment, increased the economic independence of the younger generation and weakened family-based farms and enterprises. The gradual empowerment of women gave them more voice in marriage and family-size decisions.

Recent changes in the average number of births per woman in the United States have been quite modest. As the demographer Philip Cohen points out, the average number of births per woman in the United States declined steeply in the early 1970s, rose in the 1980s and leveled out before heading back down when the 2007 recession hit.

Economic growth, improvements in public health and advances in medical technology, in concert with fertility decline, are increasing the share of elderly in the population. The elderly are more prone to disability than other groups, so this demographic shift will impose costs. But let's not forget that improved life expectancy represents a huge gain in living standards. How much would you be willing to pay for an extra year of life?

Complaints about the graying of the population sometimes imply an inevitable loss of economic dynamism. But I know of no historical evidence that either the productivity or the creativity of a society is determined by the age structure of its population.

The interaction between demographic and economic change is so much more complex than the simplistic doomsday scenario implies. Some interesting – and not always optimistic – efforts to grapple with it can be found in an open-access special issue of Population and Development Review, recently published by the Population Council in honor of its retiring editor, Paul Demeny.

In retrospect, Mr. Demeny stands out as one of the first demographers to consider seriously the problems that below-replacement fertility poses for the sustainability of public and private pension systems. This is a far more specific and, in my view, more realistic concern than the others described above. It calls attention to the need to rethink some fundamental institutional arrangements …

You see how complicated it is? First of all, we were never told that populations have been shrinking on and off since the 1970s – at least in the West. And now, because there are so few births, the aged will suffer from a lack of caregivers. Additionally, the upside-down demographic is going to have a terrible impact on pension schemes and, of course, in the US will doubtless unravel Social Security.

There are endless problems associated with the underpopulation bomb. This article is a good one to study because it is so darn reasonable about the problems. Nonetheless, we are being exposed to the same old memes. As demographic information in the Internet era is not easily suppressed, the Times article makes a fetish of disclosure. We examine every upcoming problem in significant detail. Heck, by the time we're finished we want the other bomb back.

It all amounts to the same thing, in our view – simply more difficulties looking for a globalist solution. This is how the power elite works, by proposing scarcity and then providing internationalist facilities that can deal with difficulties. In this way global governance is gradually constructed.

The New York Times, among other mainstream publications, stands out when it comes to relating and propagating these memes. This article not only analyzes the upcoming demographic disaster, it manages the trick of turning it into an issue of fairness.'

Regardless of its possible impact on family size decisions, the current distribution of the costs of children seems conspicuously unfair to parents, with particularly negative consequences for single mothers, whose access to good jobs and public retirement benefits remains limited.

This is entirely predictable. It is never enough to find a new problem. Whenever possible, divisiveness is to be introduced, as well. In this age, men have been set against women and parents against children. Now the old are to be set against the young.

As this is a somewhat nuanced article, Ms. Folbre ends with a somewhat nuanced conclusion – or plea. She writes that Jonathan Last, in The Wall Street Journal, had written an article simply pleading for more babies. She concludes with a plea "for public policies that could help parents raise healthier, happier children into ever more productive adults."

There. It can't be any neater than that. The problem – suddenly – is that not enough children are being produced. The solution is the creation of public policies that raise healthier, happier children.

After Thoughts

God help us.

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