Monday, July 10, 2006

On population decline in First World countries

Robert J Samuelson posted an op-ed column in the Washington Post called "Behind the Birth Derth."
It is an intersting commentary on Putin's incentives to get Russian women to have more babies, as well as addressing the larger issue of plummeting birth rates in First World countries. This is not an issue I have given a lot of thought to, but as I read the article, a few thoughts percolated up.

That this is not a new issue. A hundred years ago, Teddy Roosevelt urged native-born Americans, especially those in New England, to make the sacrifices necessary to raise larger families, because (if I recall correctly) 'eugenics' was on the rise and there was a perception that the "superior" Northern European race would eventually die out as a result of low birthrates. And this, long before the widespread availablilty of birth-control devices and pharmaceuticals.

That, while he posited various possible reasons as to why the birthrates are so low in industrialized countries, Samuleson missed a few things, either becasue he did not think of them, or because they are too 'hot.' They are as follows:

One, education, particularly a socially liberal education, suppresses the desire to reproduce. In grade school we are educated on the causes of so much poverty and disease and infant death in Third World countries, the primary culprit being over-population. The same thing with envrionmental degradation: over-population--too many people and too few resources. People who are aware of the world and their responisiblities toward their fellow man are not going to go on a breeding binge. It is perceived as a very selfish thing to do. Additionally, the availability of education and career paths to women created options they did not have before. Women, particularly those who choose not to reproduce, are no longer economically dependent upon men, and are no longer pitied as 'spinsters' and 'bluestockings'.

Two, those religions which stress abstinence from sex until marriage, consider birth control a sin, and relegate women to child-bearing, child-rearing drudgery have been falling out of fashion the last couple of centuries, again, partly as a consequence of the growing liberalization of society and the increasing availablity of information across socio-economic levels. Religion, supersition, poverty and ignorance would appear to go hand-in-hand with a brood of runny-nosed kids who themselves are having children while their mothers are still pumping out their younger siblings.

Three, the rise of the "nuclear family" in Western culture has destroyed the incentive to reproduce which one would think that a higher standard of living might give. Really. Lets face it, It takes two people working full-time++ in order to support a First World household, with or without children. We like our high standard of living and want to maintain it, and we don't have the internal or external resources to earn our bacon, fry it, and serve it up to our children without feeling overwhelmed.

By this, I mean that raising children responsibly is time-intensive and financially expensive--health care, child care, the necessity to take time off work to care for them when they are ill, the cost of keeping them educated and participating in supervised and "age-appropriate" activities, the cost of keeping up with compulsive consumerism of the pop culture which is driven by children and teens who lack purpose and meaning in their lives... Until relatively recently, children were raised in a more communal/community environment--they lived in the same house, neighborhood, or town as their extended families, of whom grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles were the primary caretakers of young children. But with industrialisation and increased mobility, it is much more common for adults to live separated by hundreds of miles from their families--and raise their children themselves in a small, nuclear, family. This creates a lot of financial and emotional stress, and the observation of this stress by others who have not gone the 'child' route tends to raise doubts. I know this from personal experience: I am known to say that "I like other people's children" or that "I like being an auntie" far more than I would enjoy being a parent, myself.

Fourthly, there are social and environmental ills in the world that provoke people to refrain from reproducing, if they have a choice. The world is so full of murder and rape and molestation and extinction and pollution and scarcity and neglect--why pass that on to children? Many feel that we should first make the world a better place to live in, before bringing more people into it. Why add to the epidemic of suffering?

Lastly, those who do not examine history are doomed to repeat it. It is obvious to me why Europe's birth rate is much lower than that of the US. Sure, the US has a far more religious population, in general, than European countries, and thus more children (heck, religious states like Utah have birth rate that is something like triple that of states such as New Hampshire), but that's only part of it.

Europe is more crowded, it has fewer resources, and its people are still living with the consequences of World War I and II in ways that the US is not. Much of Germany's aggressiveness in the early 20th century was attributed to a growing population that was feeling crowded and resource hungry, a population that, having purged its country of most of the immigrant and non-Arian resource competitors, began looking at expanding their territory to give themselves more room to grow.

To quote Samuelson quoting Wattenberg:
"The forthcoming and dramatic depopulation of Europe and Japan will cause many problems," writes Ben Wattenberg in "Fewer," his excellent book on the subject. "Populations will age, the customer base (for businesses) will shrink, there will be labor shortages, the tax base will decline, pensions will be cut, retirement ages will increase." All plausible. In 2000, one in six people in Germany and Japan were 65 or older; by 2050 the projections are for one in three.

Is opening borders and allowing immigration from countries that cannot support their populations a solution to the above-mentioned consequences of de-population? Probably. But immigration is a real sore point in most First World countries, as illustrated by immigrant riots and demonstration in France and the US. And the reason (I think) is because we socially-enlightened First Worlders do not feel it is right to maintain a second-class of laborers supporing a social and cultural elite---and yet, as a whole, we do not want to comprise on our standards of living in order to help raise others up...

There. I'm done babbling. Really. Now that I've emptied my mind of such dark thoughts, I'm going to wash my hands, brush my teeth, and retire to my delicious bed with a yummy fantasy involving me, a man who knows how to use his mouth and fingers, and restraints. Mmm.... yes.... I feel much better already.

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