The Corner

Economists Needed: Productivity & Fertility

It seems that the issue I spent so much time boning up on at the begining of my “career” in Washington is moving back on the radar: Population trends. I used to work for Ben Wattenberg, author of the Birth Dearth and other controversial demographic polemics, and he would make me read about Total Fertility Rates in the Third World and everywhere else all day. Anyway, the other night I saw a scare-mongering documentary on Nova about population trends around the world and then yesterday I listened on NPR to an author from the New America Foundation talking about his book on the problems of declining birthrates here in the US. Plus the issue comes up more and more in the immigration and Social Security debates.

To sum it up, Americans — like everyone else in the industrialized world — are having too few babies. If, by “too few” you mean not enough babies to replenish the workforce going into entitlement-rich retirement. Not enough workers at the bottom of the system means not enough taxpayers to generate Social Security checks. In America we offset this problem to a certain extent with immigration. We import young workers to make up for the ones we don’t manufacture at home.

Anyway, suddenly, some liberals are becoming pronatalists (i.e. someone who favors policy supporting higher birthrates) when a little more than a decade ago they were saying folks like Wattenberg were right out of the Handmaid’s Tale. That’s cool.

But here’s my question and it is entirely theoretical (for I am still very much a pronatalist): Don’t the unprecedented increases in productivity mitigate the pronatalist argument somewhat? In theory couldn’t we make a comparatively small handfull of workers (or, heh, nanobot androids) so productive that we wouldn’t need that many more workers? Is there anything in the realm of pure economic theory which says that a very large society couldn’t simply exploit the highly productive (and therefore highly compensated) labor of a relatively small few? Or am I missing something having been absent from this issue for so long?

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