According to an opinion piece written by Jonathan Last in the Review section of the February 2, 2013 Wall Street Journal, “The nation’s falling fertility rate is the root of many of our problems. And it’s only getting worse.”
This theory raises its head every few months lately. We have decided to take it on once again. Since the article is rather long, please indulge us while we make our response a two-parter.
Let us begin by pointing out that today’s US population is almost 316 million. According to the US Census Bureau, in 2010 that number stood at less than 309 million. Furthermore, the Census Bureau estimates that in 47 years the total US population will pass 420 million. Gee, we’re so sorry we won’t be around to celebrate. These statistics are, of course, just the foundation for what we are about to present. According to Last’s article, American women have a fertility rate of just below 2 children per woman (1.93 to be exact). In order to maintain our current population, we need a fertility rate of 2.1 (a small percentage of kids die early – hence the need for the extra 0.1).
Jonathan Last, we should point out, is the author of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, from which the essay is adapted.
Right now the size of the US population is more than we can handle. The world’s population is more than it can handle. But Last worries about demographics that show the number of senior citizens growing, while the number of children is shrinking. He worries that later generations won’t have enough young adults to support those who retire. We believe that this conundrum does not necessarily require a population solution. It can be resolved with a series of political solutions.
“If our fertility rate were higher—say 2.5, or even 2.2—many of our problems would be a lot more manageable,” asserts Last. “But our fertility rate isn’t going up any time soon. In fact, it’s probably heading lower. Much lower.”
We see this as a good thing. As we point out in our book Enough of Us, the idea that we must persist in growing our population—that is, let’s create more generations of people to pay for previous generations’ needs—is the world’s biggest Ponzi scheme. Demographers estimate that global human population will level off at about 10.1 billion early in the twenty-second century. That’s an increase of more than 40 percent in less than a hundred years.
Right now, we are consuming renewable resources, such as trees, fish, freshwater, and endangered species, at a rate much higher than they are being replaced. With a 40 percent increase in population, and vast numbers of people moving into the gluttonous middle class, the environmental outlook does not bode well.
Sooner or later (and why should we wait until 2113 or so?) we will have to accept that human population has reached its limit. And there’s no reason to believe that the pitfalls of todays “baby shortage” will abate by then. In fact, they could be a whole lot worse, especially considering the environmental fallout of 10-plus billion.
What we need in this country is more creative thinking … and taxing. As things stand, every baby comes with two advantages for their families: The kids get a free, 13-year public school scholarship and their parents get hefty tax deductions. And if mom and dad luck out with a mentally healthy child who is bright enough to get into college, there is more government largesse, including grants, scholarships, and tax credits, waiting to help those who need it.
With fewer kids, we don’t have to spend as much on basic education and on public colleges. Those with fewer kids, or none at all, have more money to spend on themselves and to save. It costs upward of a quarter of a million dollars to raise a kid to age 18. Those without kids, or with fewer of them, they will pay more in taxes, ideally to help society in general.
Jonathan Last makes the case that countries with below-replacement-rate fertility—like Japan and France—are suffering through tough economic times. But low-fertility Scandinavian countries are doing relatively well in light of the current European recession. Despite a real estate bubble crash, the Danes are rated among the happiest people on the planet. Our point is that it’s easy to cherry-pick countries to make points on both sides. But comparing such diverse economies and cultures is like comparing crabapples to blood oranges to prickly pears.
The point is that sooner or later we have to pull the plug on procreation proclivities.
In next week’s part two of this column, we’ll discuss why what may be an economic negative in the short term could be environmental and economic boons in the long run.
Suffice it to say for now that there are more than Enough of Us. Way more. And if we don’t bite the bullet now, we’ll just be passing the consequences on to future generations.