Monday, December 3

Infantilism

Ross Douthat, "More Babies, Please". December 1

APOLOGIES for treading ground that Roy has already stomped much more efficiently, but yesterday, when my neighbor tossed the Times over the back fence it landed with such a resounding thud I knew I had to check out Douthat first thing.

Reader, is there any question that the whole right-wing "birthrate" thing is the Anti-Fluoridationalism of the 21st century? The most hopelessly bent, the most recursively insane, the signature folly of a parade of fools? They can't keep race out of it, the way their intellectual forebears couldn't keep backwoods theology out of dental hygiene. They can't keep Catholic theology out of it, even though most of 'em aren't Catholic.

They can't quit talking about it. Which, y'know, to each his own kink:
IN the eternally recurring debates about whether some rival great power will knock the United States off its global perch, there has always been one excellent reason to bet on a second American century: We have more babies than the competition.

So right off the bat: 1) Where are these debates occurring, let alone recurring? 2) Assuming they are, who is saying our great reliance is babies? I thought it was the fact that God needs us around to help with Armageddon?  That, and the superiority of Coca-Cola™ to all other beverages.
It’s a near-universal law that modernity reduces fertility. But compared with the swiftly aging nations of East Asia and Western Europe, the American birthrate has proved consistently resilient, hovering around the level required to keep a population stable or growing over the long run.

Okay, so the debate is being held in the sort of circles where Europe is referred to as "swiftly aging." I guess that's why I missed it.
America’s demographic edge has a variety of sources: our famous religiosity, our vast interior and wide-open spaces (and the four-bedroom detached houses they make possible), our willingness to welcome immigrants (who tend to have higher birthrates than the native-born).

Thanks for explaining the non-solution to a problem that doesn't actually exist.
And it clearly is an edge. Today’s babies are tomorrow’s taxpayers and workers and entrepreneurs, and relatively youthful populations speed economic growth and keep spending commitments affordable. Thanks to our relative demographic dynamism, the America of 50 years hence may not only have more workers per retiree than countries like Japan and Germany, but also have more than emerging powers like China and Brazil.

Not that this means Social Security and Medicare aren't doomed, mind you. Ya ever notice how, when the likes of Douthat wants to insist on innate ethical superiority of US Americans, they head right for that abiding human-heartedness which they, politically, fight against tooth and claw?
If, that is, our dynamism persists. But that’s no longer a sure thing. American fertility plunged with the stock market in 2008, and it hasn’t recovered. Last week, the Pew Research Center reported that U.S. birthrates hit the lowest rate ever recorded in 2011, with just 63 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age. (The rate was 71 per 1,000 in 1990.) For the first time in recent memory, Americans are having fewer babies than the French or British.

Pretty impressive for swiftly-aging nations.
The plunge might be temporary. American fertility plummeted during the Great Depression, and more recent downturns have produced modest dips as well. This time, the birthrate has fallen fastest among foreign-born Americans, and particularly among Hispanics, who saw huge amounts of wealth evaporate with the housing bust. Many people may simply be postponing childbearing until better times return, and a few years of swift growth could produce a miniature baby boom.

Well, I think that's summed up the recurring debate nicely. We'll just wait and see.
Among the native-born working class, meanwhile, there was a retreat from child rearing even before the Great Recession hit. For Americans without college degrees, economic instability and a shortage of marriageable men seem to be furthering two trends in tandem: more women are having children out of wedlock, and fewer are raising families at all.

Thank God. For a minute there I thought realization that this was a non-debate over an imaginary issue which could go one way, or the other, was going to remove every opportunity for priggery.
Finally, there’s been a broader cultural shift away from a child-centric understanding of romance and marriage. In 1990, 65 percent of Americans told Pew that children were “very important” to a successful marriage; in 2007, just before the current baby bust, only 41 percent agreed. (That trend goes a long way toward explaining why gay marriage, which formally severs wedlock from sex differences and procreation, has gone from a nonstarter to a no-brainer for so many people.)

I'm gonna go waaaay out on a limb here, without even Pew to guide me, and suggest that The Childless Trend has convinced exactly zero percent of the population to change its attitude on gay marriage from "nonstarter" to "no-brainer".
Government’s power over fertility rates is limited, but not nonexistent. America has no real family policy to speak of at the moment, and the evidence from countries like Sweden and France suggests that reducing the ever-rising cost of having kids can help fertility rates rebound. Whether this means a more family-friendly tax code, a push for more flexible work hours, or an effort to reduce the cost of college, there’s clearly room for creative policy to make some difference.

So by the tenth paragraph we get around to mentioning that the non-story of a vapor argument having two nonexistent sides really has nothing much to do with political policy, and more to do with Douthat's recollection of the political ploys of his parents' generation, when Republicans sought to convince the white Middle Class it was discriminated against at every turn. A condition for which the solution, if I recall, was to vote Republican, and have Middle Class economic prospects shrink like a bar of soap for forty years.
Beneath these policy debates, though, lie cultural forces that no legislator can really hope to change. The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.

Well, it really is too bad, then, that the Republican party has spent 170 years championing unfettered corporate rapine, exploitative labor practices, and the demise of the family farm to multi-mega agribusiness. In fact, y'know, it's too bad that the standard "conservative" solution to our problems involves correcting what "conservatives" did a half-century previous, now that they've seen the light.
Such decadence need not be permanent, but neither can it be undone by political willpower alone. It can only be reversed by the slow accumulation of individual choices, which is how all social and cultural recoveries are ultimately made.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/DouthatNYT.
And, Ross, I invite you to get a real job for a couple years, and copulate to your heart's content.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

My answer to the decline in fertility due to the economy: "Well then you shouldn't have blown it up." And my black friend's reply to the Republican fear of whites as a minority,"If they wanted so many more whites then they should have had more kids."

Alan Lewis said...

So is Douthat arguing that we should let in more baby-spewing immigrants, or that we should adopt the family-supporting government intervention of countries like France and Sweden? The remarkable thing about this, and many other, Douthat columns, is that if you can pick out any logical thread at all, it proves the opposite of what he thinks.

Li'l Innocent said...

I don't think this column was written at all. I think Ross was having a long lunch with some underling at the local beanery, and was expatiating on Gibbon and Malthus, and waving his sandwich and coffee cup around vaguely, and a spatter of mayo and java fell on some napkins. The Douthatian eye falls upon it, and he observes, "Looks portentous, does it not, Jeeves? Take it back to the office and keyboard it in, will you?"

Weird Dave said...

Tell me again, how many children do Mr. and Mrs. Ross have?

Anonymous said...

Okay, so the debate is being held in the sort of circles where Europe is referred to as "swiftly aging."

When they're not sneeringly referring to it as "Eurabia", overrun by the scary Mooslim hordes.

J Neo Marvin said...

one excellent reason to bet on a second American century: We have more babies than the competition.

This is why Bangladesh is the number one world power.

Monte Davis said...

"...the Republican party has spent 170 years championing unfettered corporate rapine..."

Oh, come now! Next you'll be trying to tell us that St. Abraham Lincoln was a sharp-elbowed railroad lawyer in between the rail-splitting and the Great Emancipation...

Anonymous said...

Stupid me. I thought that people in the past made lots of babies because they didn't know how to stop it without giving up the sexy time. They were favoring the future over the past, and innovation over stagnation. My own sexy time does not involve that much thinking.

Rick Massimo said...

"Beneath these policy debates, though, lie cultural forces that no legislator can really hope to change."

Thank God we have highly paid busybody pundits to step in and tell everyone what we should be doing!

"Tell me again, how many children do Mr. and Mrs. Ross have?"

According to TBogg, they've been married five years and have one child, which seems like a pretty slack pace to me. Of course, if you brought this up to Msgr. Douthat, I'm sure he would glare at you and ask why on earth you thought that was any of your business. And he'd probably mean it sincerely - after all, some people are supposed to lecture; some are to be lectured to.

Anonymous said...

Is this whole column perhaps Ross's idea of foreplay?