LOPEZ: I thought you were a conservative, why does capitalism deserve only two cheers?
LAST: Did I say two cheers? I meant one cheer. Take that, Mitt Romney. We are the 47 percent!
Look, capitalism is the least bad system of economic organization and it has been responsible — over the long haul — for an amazing array of good outcomes. It has lifted masses of people out of poverty and into freedom and made their lives better in ways that are, literally, innumerable.
But the fact that capitalism has, on balance, good outcomes in the very long term shouldn’t blind us to capitalism’s short-term failures — which are often quite spectacular.
Take parenting, for instance. We have a system right now in which children could reasonably be construed as a marker of social failure. On average, people with higher levels of education and higher incomes have fewer children. And the costs of children — it’ll run you about $1.1 million to raise a middle-class kid through college — are such that to some degree, people become more economically successful by not having them.
If we were all Homo economicus, rational capitalism would never be able to suffice as an argument for having children. Yet, as we said up top, children remain both private and public goods. Here, then, I would suggest, capitalism fails us when it comes to providing right reason for pursuing the particular good of children. To cross that bridge, you need something else. Something I would suggest supersedes even capitalism as a guiding precept.
But then I already told you I was a good Catholic boy, and I don’t want to belabor the point. I’ll just say that there are greater things in heaven and earth than the free market.
: You note that religion helps demography. Further, you write: “Religion helps marriage and marriage helps fertility — the end result being that religiosity winds up being an even better predictor of fertility than either education or income. And as Americans have become more secular, they’ve cut back on having children. The good news is that while each of these three worlds — marriage, church, and fertility — is incredibly complicated, the interplay among them is somewhat straightforward. The bad news is that these realms are so foundational that it’s difficult to see how society might consciously nudge them in a positive direction.” You then go on to say that “something like the balance we had in the 1950s would be dandy.” So you just want to turn back the clock?
LAST: Yup. But let’s be modest. How about we turn it back just to a time when the federal government wasn’t forcing religious institutions to violate their consciences by providing contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients? I’d be happy to settle for there not being overt hostility on the part of government.
LOPEZ: Do you really need a “How to Make Babies”? We know how to do that, don’t we? Maybe if we didn’t consider medicating fertility the norm?
LAST: Look, I was as surprised as anyone else. I had always thought that it happened only when you took a date to see The Dark Knight.
LOPEZ: How does the “Social Security regime” distort “the ‘market value’ of children” and force the fertility rate down?
LAST: For a long time, one of the functions of children was to take care of parents in their dotage. Uncle Sam does that now. Moral hazard. Game. Set. Match.
The research on this suggests that Social Security and Medicare depress the American fertility rate by about 0.5 kids.
And as everyone knows, half-kids are the best kids.
LOPEZ: What’s been the most interesting feedback thus far? The most challenging?
LAST: A writer at the Huffington Post claimed that I’m part of “The Baby Matrix.” Or something. I couldn’t tell if I was Neo or Agent Smith. From her tone, probably Agent Smith. Still, that’s not nothing.
There hasn’t been much challenging feedback, but that’s because at bottom, What to Expect isn’t a particularly controversial book. It’s heavily based on data and research, and these data and research come not from me, but from the demography establishment. Most of those guys and gals — whom I love, by the way — are pretty liberal in their politics. It’s just that among the people who do this stuff for a living, there isn’t a whole lot of daylight between “conservative” demographers and “liberal” demographers.
The only people who seem shocked by this stuff are what I think of as lay liberals, who don’t follow the research closely.
LOPEZ: What do you find most dire?
LAST: The abortion rate in Russia. It’s the most depressing thing I’ve ever seen. So depressing, that I won’t even write it down here.
LOPEZ: What do you find most encouraging?
LAST: In Germany, they have a state-run program to take prostitutes and train them to become elder-care nurses — because their fertility rate is so low that they’re running out of young people to take care of all the old folks.
So even in the midst of social tragedy, there is hope. At least for old, German men.
LOPEZ: You have a sense of humor in the book. Was that hard given the topic?
LAST: One of the joys of being a grown-up is that no one assigns you book reports — so people don’t have to read books that aren’t fun. But it is important to read books that teach you things, kind of intellectual spinach. My writing mantra for What to Expect was “deep-fried spinach, wrapped in cotton candy.”
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.