Stop Worrying and Love the Birth Dearth?

Leaving aside questions of interplanetary or interstellar demography, or demography in an alternate history, topics I’ve blogged about before, there are also interesting aspects to real-life demography. Demography may not be destiny but it does shape the future; what kind of demographic future is in store for us?

Browning a Bust?

The “browning of America” and the West at the hands of Latin Americans, Middle Easterners, and Asians is already looking like a bust. Those populations have followed the developed West into the demographic transition, now to the extent they’re all near or below replacement birth rates. The demographic growth advantage of these nations relative to white European nations is nearly gone. Far from expanding into “Eurabia”, the Middle East will be lucky if it’s not in the same spot Europe is in now in a few decades’ time.

The only major region in the world that is still substantially above replacement is black Africa, and even there fertility rates are declining in tandem with economic development, which mercifully resumed, after a multi-decade post-colonial depression, starting in 2000. Indeed, if anything Africa’s birth rates are crashing faster than they normally would be at its level of development. Already the college-educated in some African countries have birth rates well below replacement, possibly a portent of their future as they converge to first-world living standards.

The High Tide of Color

This poses a major problem not just for the white-nationalist prophets of demographic doom but also for the mainstream, which is depending on an ever-rising tide of color to bolster rich countries’ populations, stem population aging, and shore up their pension systems. Curiously, both groups seem to share an assumption that the Third World will be immune to the demographic transition, providing an ever-growing supply of replacement workers, and that they will all rush into the developed world if they get the chance.

Well, they’ll be fresh out of immigrant hordes someday, and probably sooner than they seem to think. Worse yet, the direction of migration may well reverse in the near future; by 2100 rich countries may resume their 19th century role as nations of emigrants rather than immigrants. The natural flow of capital, human and otherwise, is from rich countries to poor countries (or to rich countries not fully developed like 19th century America), because bringing backward regions to your own level is much easier than innovating something entirely new. Makes sense, right? Economics demonstrates this.

A Reversal in Migration?

Yet in the past several generations it’s been the opposite. This is why Europe is now taking in so many immigrants instead of sending them out. The low quality of institutions in poorer countries, which were formerly integrated into the global economy under colonial rule by rich countries, is thought to be behind this. This won’t be an issue forever; to be competitive in the fullness of time poorer countries will be compelled to either nurture their own institutions or import others’ wholesale. Dubai did the latter in 2004, setting aside a “federal financial free zone” governed by British law.

When this turn takes place will determine how many Africans make for the rich world in the coming century. The population of Africa is already 1.3 billion, and is projected to swell to 4.3 billion by 2100, though it will likely be somewhat less (the UN’s projections have always proven somewhat too high). In any case by 2100 it seems likely the bulk of the wave will have passed, and other sources of new population will be needed. That might be hard to come by.

The End of cheap Labor

Even harder to come by will be cheap labor; already the loss of China as a source of large-scale cheap industrial hard-working labor is being felt. It’s still the workshop of the world but it’s now not any cheaper than the US when adjusted for productivity. China’s own wave of offshoring manufacturing jobs has already begun in earnest. Africa, while not presenting the ideal conditions that Deng-era China did, will likely be the last refuge of the lowest-value industrial work.

Once that’s gone too the goods will become much more expensive, cease to be produced, and/or their production will be automated. David Graeber has commented that it’s striking how in the supposedly high-tech world of 2021 our basic goods are all made using methods that wouldn’t have looked out of place in 1921, just in a part of the world that’s out of sight and out of mind:

What happened, instead, is that the spread of information technologies and new ways of organizing transport—the containerization of shipping, for example—allowed those same industrial jobs to be outsourced to East Asia, Latin America, and other countries where the availability of cheap labor allowed manufacturers to employ much less technologically sophisticated production-line techniques than they would have been obliged to employ at home.

From the perspective of those living in Europe, North America, and Japan, the results did seem to be much as predicted. Smokestack industries did disappear; jobs came to be divided between a lower stratum of service workers and an upper stratum sitting in antiseptic bubbles playing with computers. But below it all lay an uneasy awareness that the postwork civilization was a giant fraud. Our carefully engineered high-tech sneakers were not being produced by intelligent cyborgs or self-replicating molecular nanotechnology; they were being made on the equivalent of old-fashioned Singer sewing machines, by the daughters of Mexican and Indonesian farmers who, as the result of WTO or NAFTA–sponsored trade deals, had been ousted from their ancestral lands. It was a guilty awareness that lay beneath the postmodern sensibility and its celebration of the endless play of images and surfaces.

What happens when the lack of technological progress in these basic industries the richer countries have offshored can no longer be covered up is an interesting question.

Raising Population Growth

Another interesting question is where the population growth will come from, if anywhere. If you’re fresh out of immigrants the obvious alternative is to raise your own country’s birth rate. This is the objective of pro-natalist policies, which have been but a demographic pinprick everywhere they’ve been tried, including in the conservatives’ vaunted Hungary.

The reason for this in my view is very simple: if it costs $250,000 to raise a child, then even a $10,000 baby bonus, the most generous offered anywhere, isn’t going to change your cost-benefit calculation much. $100,000 would at least move the needle, but to really pep up the birth rates you’d need to pay $1 million per birth. As one blogger put it, that takes it from the realm of “maybe someone somewhere would take this offer” to “this would work on people I know”.

Of course this would itself me a massive new entitlement program, so it defeats the point of shoring up the pensions, which is why no country does it. Still, in the United States, for example, the annual cost of such a program given 2019 birth rates is $3.7 trillion, less than what the government spends in total now, so even $1 million per child is theoretically doable! Yikes.

Down with Schools, Down with Cities!

A better and infinitely cheaper policy would be to simply not stuff people in schools for large chunks of their youths; to complete their education and start them out in the workforce around or (ideally) somewhat before puberty. The more years spent in school, the later people marry and the fewer children they have, and the more they become habituated to office work instead of the more natural drives toward family; this is one of the primary causes of lower birth rates and marriage rates, and this very effect is why feminists are obsessed with subjecting women and girls to as much school as possible (er, “educating girls”). When Egypt shrunk the school curriculum by one year it led to a significant increase in birth and marriage rates.

And this is a viable policy. Most jobs require only an eighth-grade education plus some training, and the attainment of this level even for middling students can be accelerated by a few years, perhaps to age 11 (from 14 now). Even if a bachelor’s degree is still needed these graduates could go straight to college and graduate from there in 3 years, still starting out at 14, almost a decade ahead of today. Brighter and especially gifted students could progress even faster. All it would take is actually caring about learning as fast as possible instead of warehousing kids and going through the motions.

Another correlate of low birth rates is urbanization, the crowding reducing one’s desire to bring more people into the world. A more rural population is also a more fertile population; thus upgrading transportation infrastructure so people can spread out over radii of hundreds of miles from cities while still easily commuting into downtown every day should be a pro-natalist priority. Already many street-legal cars can cruise at 200 mph all day, quadruple prevailing commuter speeds; all that’s needed is better pavement, wider curve geometry, and (to eliminate congestion and improve rural access) a lot more lane-miles of freeway, and people can enjoy their full capabilities. By 2100, however, personal aircraft might be available, thus obviating roads and opening up even more lands.

Not a Baby Boom, but maybe a Baby Fizzle?

Will these two measures alone bring back a Baby Boom? No, but they would likely vault the fertility rate back above 2 per woman in most developed countries. Large parts of the world might rise to Israel’s level, 3 per woman or so, which is also similar to 19th century America adjusted for child mortality. Pockets might achieve 4 per woman, as the rural areas outside Arkhangelsk have already boomed to, a real outlier considering it’s an overwhelmingly ethnic Russian and very secular region in a more-developed country.

Even with that, though, it would seem like the days of rapid population growth are over everywhere by 2100, the choices being between moderate shrinkage and slow growth, right? Maybe not. Looming in the background is another source of new population: people who want more children becoming a greater and greater share of the population.

Malthusian Industrialism?

This is the cornerstone of Anatoly Karlin’s “Age of Malthusian Industrialism” scenario. The basic idea is that wanting to have children is heritable, presumably genetic, and these genes are selected for strongly now that those who don’t have them don’t reproduce nearly as much. Over time these “breeders” become a larger and larger share of the population, eventually trending birth rates upward in an epochal baby boom after 2100, until after a few centuries Earth (or the solar system, or the galaxy; exponential growth overwhelms any finite-speed expansion into space due if nothing else to not having enough physical space to fit the people) hits its carrying capacity, perhaps 100 billion, though it could be much higher, running down the median standard of living back to subsistence.

A grim scenario, but perhaps an inevitable one? Not so fast. First of all, as Spandrell points out at his blog:

Does it work like that, though? Are there any genes that “make you want children”? Does the brain work like that? The human brain is complicated, you see, but it is also an evolution of the more basic mammal brain, and its circuitry must follow roughly the same pathways. And last time I checked all mammals reproduce exactly the same way. […] The idea that humans are going to single-handedly evolve, over single-digit generations, a completely different pattern of reproduction to replace one which has been functional for 60 million years strikes me as pretty wild wishful thinking.

Second of all, the idea rests upon complete global homogenization of culture, because otherwise the large number of natalist sects like the Amish and the Haredi Jews would, through their highly pro-natal environment, ensure the multiplication of people who don’t have the “breeder” genes at the expense of the mainstream people who do. Karlin predicts just this will happen, but fragmentation has been a trend along with assimilation, and I see no reason why the eventual result wouldn’t be far less than complete homogenization.

Even if the world is completely homogenized, then unless fertility is genetic (which it seems like it isn’t) that dooms humanity to permanent population shrinkage, an apocalyptic underpopulation that leads to extinction sometime in the 4th millennium.

Of course that’s only if the current environment doesn’t change; shoring up the pension system never motivated anybody to have a baby, but I bet averting literal human extinction would. So at some point the human population in such a future would stabilize, albeit at a level far below 1 billion most likely.

Third of all, the genes lead to the most breeding, assuming they exist, likely also depend on the particular environment, which is subject to change; the breeding may well taper itself off long before Malthusian conditions return.

The Futility of Natalism?

Indeed, that seems even more likely considering that living standards, while having only risen to remotely modern levels relatively recently, have been substantially above subsistence in the richest countries for many centuries by now, implying that people willing to sacrifice living standards for more children should have had the advantage. Why haven’t we seen “breeders” selected for already in any noticeable fashion? The equations Alexander Turok, one of the proponents of the Malthindustrial scenario, used to predict it by his own admission don’t predict the past very well, so I don’t think that’s going to happen.

Nevertheless the natalist sects are growing fast enough to demographically dominate whole regions of the world by 2200, so does that mean we’re in for Malthindustrialism by other means? I suspect not. Demographics don’t normally remain unchanged for two centuries at a stretch.

The Hutterites, who as late as the 1950s had the highest fertility rate on record at over 10 per woman, have by now settled down to around 4 per woman. The Mormons, hyped up for a while as a top “revenge of the cradle” candidate, have seen their birth rates converge substantially toward the national average in just a few years.

The historical norm is that for some reason these groups attrit: their friskiness simmers down, their defection rates rise, and the prospect of their takeover quietly dies, implying that over the very long term their share of the population will stabilize at far below 100%, with our current time perhaps being one of transition between a lower past equilibrium and a higher future equilibrium, or perhaps a normal upsurge in a perennial cycle around the same equilibrium, but stopping far short of world domination.

So the last option for population growth is rather speculative, and even if it works out it might not provide enough growth to move the needle. Although I like speculating about the topic, the truth is population growth doesn’t do much to grow the economy on a per-capita basis, much less productivity, the basis of living standards. All it really does is burnish governments’ positions in the game between great powers, which has in the final analysis little impact upon ordinary people’s quality of life.

Stop Worrying and love the Birth Dearth

In the end we may have no choice but to stop worrying and love the underpopulation bomb. Given population aging the only way to keep the pensions in balance is, failing an epochal boom in productivity that beings in more revenue (which by no means can be ruled out) or bringing young people into the workforce at an earlier age (I wonder why nobody ever proposes that?), to either punish young people with even more taxes (just guess what that’ll do to the birth rate…) or cut the pensions.

Perhaps the most pernicious effect of population aging, however, is an incipient gerontocracy. In the institutions and electorates of developed countries old people, who are more set in their ways, more behind the times, less aggressive, less innovative, more concerned about preserving what they already have than creating anything new, caring less about the future because they’ll be dead soon in any case, are much more dominant than they used to be, and becoming more so.

Another issue is young people being much less likely to receive their inheritances at a young age, instead having to wait until they’re older, in some cases too old to enjoy it or do much with it. An extreme example of this, albeit with a title more so than money, is Prince Charles, 72 and still waiting for the throne because the incumbent will not die and refuses to pass the torch to anyone else.

Gerontocracy can be solved, though. Strong norms can be developed that ensure the young hold political power and make the decisions, that they come into a good share of the resources early, before the incumbents literally die. Yes, it is the norm historically that the old are more respected, but that was before the demographic pyramid turned upside-down; circumstances change, solutions need to be altered. If we exert some social and political will it can be done.

In the future societies that defer to youthful dynamism will outcompete those that are content to stagnate, so if you want your society to succeed you might as well get started with this.

Conclusion

Well, that’s about all the thoughts I wanted to cover. One could tease out endless threads about which nation, race, or country will have what exact advantage in what future over what scenario, but the fundamentals of demographic modernity remain the same. The fundamentals of economic development remain the same.

Some of the blogs I linked to, alas, subscribe to the idea that low IQ test scores prove black Africans have inferior intellects (which upon close inspection can’t be true), and the additional hypothesis that quality of institutions and level of economic development is determined by IQ. The latter is a curious notion, considering that Botswana, depending on the measure, has comparable living standards to Vietnam and Mongolia, is wealthier than places like Albania and Ukraine, and by any measure is far better off than North Korea, all of whom outscore Botswana by over 30 points on IQ tests! The Bahamas and Bermuda, both black-majority, are first-world countries, the latter being wealthier than the United States!

The potential for mass prosperity and good institutions lies within every race, every people, every country; it takes only the will to build it. For friends of civilization, cultivating that will within other races, not fearing and shunning them, is what will guarantee the continuity of everything Western and world civilization has hitherto built and its advancement far into the future, no matter what demographics come our way.

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