Noah Millman on the Birth Dearth

Because I am sympathetic to Ross Douthat’s concerns about fertility decline in the U.S., having spent a fair bit of time writing and thinking about the issue in the 2000s, I was impressed by Noah Millman’s critique, which makes a number of subtle and often neglected observations, e.g., that immigrant fertility reflects (a) the subjective experience of upward mobility and (b) durable “old-country” norms:

Douthat mentions that American overall fertility has been boosted, historically, by immigrants, who exhibit higher fertility than natives. But it would be more accurate to say that immigrants exhibit higher fertility than otherwise-similar individuals who remained in their home countries. And the reason is straightforward: kids are expensive. Immigrants benefit economically, in general, from immigration (otherwise they wouldn’t come). Hence they can afford more kids than they could back home. But if back home in Seoul or London or Tel Aviv they would have had 1-2 kids, they don’t come to America and have 4-5; they come to America and have 2-3. By contrast, if, back in Mexico or Guatemala, they would have had 3 kids, they might very well have 4-5 kids in America, where there is more opportunity to improve one’s economic situation.

But fertility rates are falling rapidly across Latin America. They’re now below replacement in Brazil and Chile, and rapidly falling towards replacement in Mexico and Colombia. It would be very strange indeed if we didn’t see fertility among immigrants from these countries drop proportionately. If we want to maintain high levels of immigrant fertility, we will need not merely high levels of immigration, but high levels of immigration from countries with relatively high fertility – moving from Mexico to Peru, from Vietnam to the Philippines, and from much of the world to sub-Saharan Africa. But the baseline level of fertility is primarily driven by two factors related to development: the level of urbanization and the prevalence of female literacy. Even assuming we want to maintain high levels of fertility, is it optimal to do so by favoring immigration from countries that are significantly more rural and less-well-educated than America? 

Less satisfyingly, Millman writes that, “baseline level of fertility seems to be driven primarily by development factors” before moving on to a discussion of how fertility rates might vary in response to economic factors, e.g., the cost of housing and human capital investment, including (one might add) foregone wages associated with child-rearing, etc. One of the more striking social-scientific findings of recent years has been the relationship between fertility and the diffusion of a particular set of cultural ideas. The following is the abstract of a 2008 paper by Eliana La Ferrara, Alberto Chong, and Suzanne Duryea:

What are the effects of television, and of role models portrayed in TV programs, on individual behavior? We focus on fertility choices in Brazil, a country where soap operas (novelas) portray families that are much smaller than in reality. We exploit differences in the timing of entry into different markets of Rede Globo, the network that has an effective monopoly on novelas production in this country. Using Census data for the period 1970-1991, we find that women living in areas covered by the Globo signal have significantly lower fertility. The effect is strongest for women of lower socioeconomic status and for women in the central and late phases of their fertility cycle, consistent with stopping behavior. The result is robust to placebo treatments and does not appear to be driven by selection in Globo entry. Finally, we provide suggestive evidence that novelas, and not just television, affected individual choices. First, people living in areas covered by the signal were more likely to name their children after novela characters. Second, entry of a network that relied on imported shows did not have a significant impact on fertility. Third, the impact of Globo presence was strongest for women close in age to the main novela characters. [Emphasis added]

That Millman focuses on economic factors is entirely defensible, but it does appear as though the cultural dimension plays an important role in the larger global phenomenon of fertility decline. It should be stressed that the fertility decline in the U.S., and in particular the fertility decline among the native-born, might be an artifact of the recent economic shock and the sluggish growth that has followed, and that fertility levels will increase as the economy, or rather if the economy, improves. But it is not unreasonable to think that secularization, which according to a recent Pew survey has been proceeding at an unusually rapid pace in recent years in the U.S., is playing a significant role, e.g., that it might be reducing desired fertility as well as realized fertility.

Millman offers a sophisticated discussion over how to think about the fiscal implications of an aging population:

Even without eliminating physical cash, the evidence from Japan over the past twenty years is that you can have stagnating fertility, and stagnating overall economic growth,while still experiencing rapidly-rising standards of living. That being the case, we should question the assumption that a society that is relatively static population-wise – as most human societies have been for most of human history – would also become progressively poorer.

The biggest problem Japan has is that they have too many old people. This is partly a function of rapidly-rising longevity, which cannot be solved by increasing fertility. Trying to raise fertility in response to increases in longevity is a formula for accelerating population growth, because those young people will eventually (one hopes) grow old to become an even larger contingent of dependent elderly. Moreover, this isn’t what we observe in any developed country today. The problem of longevity can only be solved either by extending one’s working life beyond historic norms, or by advances in productivity that make it possible to maintain a large dependent population on a smaller workforce, or by reduced overall standards of living. Inasmuch as Japan currently has a transition problem (until longevity stops increasing and/or fertility picks up to closer to replacement and/or it achieves rapid advances in productivity), the most obvious solution is to export its elderly to retirement colonies in countries with a large and substantially under-employed youthful labor force, such as India. [Emphasis added]

In the U.S., longevity at age 65 has been increasing far faster than the Social Security system had anticipated, a development that has significant fiscal implications. Millman’s point is well taken: it is not obvious that a marginal increase in fertility will make a significant difference if longevity continus to increase at its current rate. And I’m intrigued by what I take to be Millman’s implicit suggestion that retirement colonies might represent a more attractive and practicable solution to the challenge of an aging population than pro-natalist policies, which are likely to prove controversial, expensive, and, in light of past experience, ineffective. We’ve discussed a closely related idea in the context of the U.S. and Mexico, i.e., that the U.S. government should allow U.S. retirees to redeem old-age social insurance benefits in Mexico and other neighboring countries, where caring for the elderly is a relatively lucrative labor-intensive service industry.

Where I disagree with Millman is on his sanguine interpretation of the cultural implications of this demographic transition. Basically, I agree with Ross that the experience of child-rearing has important consequences for how adults view the world, and for how they are inclined to think about larger civic obligations. This is obviously subjective terrain, and there are plenty of arguments against this line of thinking. Southern Europe has low fertility levels, but “amoral familism” had a grip on the region even in an era of high birthrates. Northern European civic culture is at no risk of collapse, despite the fact that much of the region has quite low birthrates as well, with the Scandinavian countries standing as a notable exception.  

Millman seems relatively untroubled by the sharp increase in the number of never-married and childless adults, and perhaps my concern is ultimately aesthetic rather than substantive. One aspect of this phenomenon that I find interesting, and potentially troubling, is that adult children tend to provide a great deal of care for aging parents, while older childless individuals might prove to be more susceptible to extreme social isolation. It is also possible, however, that these individuals will be more inclined to maintain robust social networks of peers, thus cutting against that tendency. One can outsource much of the work of caring for the elderly to (expensive) U.S.-based caregivers or (relatively inexpensive) caregivers in retirement colonies. Yet there is also a “high-touch,” intimate component that children are well placed to provide. This is a “selfish” reason why people on the margin might consider having children, and I can see why it doesn’t constitute a public reason for pro-natalist policies.   

I am particularly interested in the implications of population aging and declining fertility levels on the economic geography of the United States. It is widely understood that the most productive regions of the U.S. are its densest regions, and in particular its regions with high concentrations of skilled professionals. These regions also feature a high concentration of never-married and childless adults, presumably due to a number of interrelated factors that include the high cost of housing and a cultural focus on (satisfying, engaging) market work. Perhaps we will see a scenario in which the U.S. population will further concentrate in these regions as rural regions slowly depopulate. This will tend to mitigate any less of productive potential, and it might even accelerate growth in GDP on a per capita basis. Density will tend to facilitate the delivery of care to elderly, and it will also make it easier for older individuals to form supportive peer networks. In short, this isn’t necessarily a nightmare scenario.

So why do I continue to think that a larger population is generally better than a small population, and that population growth that flows from a mix of fertility and immigration is preferable to population growth that flows primarily from immigration? In light of the demographic decline of Europe, the U.S. may well be the only western society among the world’s great powers a few decades from now. Demographic heft contributes to power, and though technology has tended to mitigate the impact of absolute numbers, the diffusion of technology might eventually bring us back to an era in which raw numbers confer an advantage. Moreover, the assimilation process is a challenging one, and it will only become more challenging as educational attainment levels in the U.S. increase. Global fertility decline and global growth is changing the profile of source countries. The workers most eager to migrate will be those from societies that are markedly different from the U.S. That had been true in the first half of the century as well, but the gap in educational attainment was not quite as large. The case for high-skilled immigration in this environment is very strong, yet the competition for skilled migrants who will likely prove to be net fiscal contributors over the lifecourse will intensify. East Asia’s demographic structure will make the region particularly eager to attract skilled migrants. 

Regardless, Noah Millman has given us much to think about, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many readers find his arguments more convincing than my conjectures. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Broward’s Cowards

It is impossible to imagine circumstances under which Broward County sheriff Scott Israel could attempt to perform his duties with the confidence of the public. He should resign immediately, and if, as he promises, he refuses to go quietly, then he should be shown the door by the people he professes to ... Read More

Courage: The Greatest of Virtues

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays. Dear Reader (Or Listener), As the reporter assigned the job of writing the article about all of Sidney Blumenthal’s friends and supporters told his ... Read More

My American Dream

This morning, at 8 a.m., I did something I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember: I became an American. I first applied for a visa in early 2011, and since then I have slowly worked my way through the system — first as a visa-holder, then as a permanent resident (green card), and, finally, as a ... Read More
Politics & Policy

CNN’s Shameful Town Hall

CNN recently hosted an anti-gun town hall featuring a number of grieving children and parents from Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., who aimed their ire at the National Rifle Association, politicians peripherally associated with the NRA, and anyone who didn’t say exactly what they wanted to hear. ... Read More

The Gun-Control Debate Could Break America

Last night, the nation witnessed what looked a lot like an extended version of the famous “two minutes hate” from George Orwell’s novel 1984. During a CNN town hall on gun control, a furious crowd of Americans jeered at two conservatives, Marco Rubio and Dana Loesch, who stood in defense of the Second ... Read More