I was replaced on the guest list for KCRW’s To the Point discussion about Jonathan Last’s book, What To Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster. But before I was cut I did some preparation — read some of the book and made some notes.
Last is a writer for the Weekly Standard (in which capacity he recently suggested that, rather than try to reach out to single people, the GOP should instead work on convincing more people to get married), who also wrote for First Things, a Christian conservative website. His essay in the Wall Street Journal sparked my initial post, but the book is more extreme than that column was.
Last doesn’t add substantively to the general concern that below-replacement fertility causes problems, except to exaggerate it cartoonishly for the U.S. (“The root cause of most of our problems is our declining fertility rate”). The historical perspective is so weak here I feel the need to remind him that caring for aging Baby Boomers is a problem not of low fertility but high fertility. Were it not for the high fertility of the Baby Boomers’ parents, we would have had gradually declining long-run fertility levels and a working-age population much more up for the task of funding Medicare and Social Security.
In the book he relies heavily on Phillip Longman, the author of “The Empty Cradle,” whom I’ve written about before, but also summons (without mentioning it) Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, which bemoans the divergent family structures of middle- and working-class White America and chastises the rich for being too self-absorbed and pleasure-driven to keep up their responsibilities as moral compasses. Thus, he tuts:
The bearing and raising of children has largely become the province of the lower classes.
Last and Longman are helping the American patriarchal right get its desire for “traditional” family structures in sync with corporate America’s amoral economic growth obsession, and it turns out boosting fertility is a message they can all get behind (plus it pleases both evangelical Protestant and conservative Catholic culture warriors).
My adaptation of the book cover art.
Of course, fertility rates in the U.S. fell after the Baby Boom as women’s employment rates and educational attainment increased. And those women with better opportunities have fewer children, on average. (However, this relationship is not universal or inevitable — see developments in Norway, for example.) But Last doesn’t want to create the impression that his wish for higher fertility implies opposition to women’s progress.
I’d also like to offer a preemptive defense against readers who may take this book to be a criticism of the modern American woman. Nothing could be further from my intent. … The more educated a woman is, on average, the fewer children she will have. To observe this is not to argue that women should be barefoot, pregnant, and waiting at home for their husbands every night with a cocktail and a smile.
But that he suggests we have more children — without taking steps to reconcile our endemic work-family conflicts and persistent gender imbalances (he’s not advocating universal childcare or healthcare, better welfare, paid family leave or a shorter workweek) — means that even if he’s not arguing for a return to barefoot-and-pregnant status, he’s at least willing to live with it.
His passing nod to Esther Boserup was interesting to me. Writing in the 1960s and 1970s (which Last carelessly calls “a century ago,” after apparently skimming her Wikipedia entry), Boserup argued that population pressure spurred agricultural innovation. That is, farmers figured out how to rotate land more efficiently, for example, when there was more demand for farmland (and food). I don’t know how well this theory is holding up in the historical scholarship (I don’t think it explains European divergence from China, for example) but it is interesting — and we’ve now spent as much time thinking about it as Last did).
From this Last declares that the reverse is also true, that postindustrial societies suffer a lack of innovation when populations shrink. That is a question Boserup was unlikely to have troubled herself with (but let me know if I’m missing something she wrote on it). However, I could conjure the opposite hypothesis – that a rapidly shrinking population would spur a different kind of innovation in postindustrial society. For example, we may face pressure for old people to be more productive, as they delay retirement; and to invest more wisely (and heavily) in the smaller cohorts of children’s education and skill development.
Last goes out of his way to say (perhaps too much) that he’s not against immigration, without which American fertility rates would be much lower. He is just against the immigration of people who don’t assimilate into America’s Christian majority. He writes:
A reasonably liberal program of immigration is necessary for the longterm health of our country. Yet at the same time, this liberal approach to immigration should be coupled with a staunchly traditionalist view of integration. America has been lucky in the way it has assimilated most of its immigrants. Europe—and France in particular—has not. “Europe” as we have known it for 15 centuries is almost certain to fade away in the next 50 years, replaced by a semi-hostile Islamic ummah. All that will remain of what we traditionally know as “Europe” is the name [It's not clear why the hostile Islamic majority of 2063 would retain the name "Europe" -pnc]. This change was not inevitable; it is the result of a policy choice made by adherents of a truly radical faith: multiculturalism. … Tolerance need not be surrender and a certain amount of cultural chauvinism is necessary for societal coherence.” (p. 169)
“Racism” is the wrong term for this attitude. I guess his term “cultural chauvinism” is accurate because it assumes a cultural superiority. But that doesn’t quite capture the animus. Anyway: If the problem is falling fertility, why worry about the culture that the fertile immigrants bring? It’s just possible that Last’s problem is not just with fertility.
Like Longman, Last is sad about the demise of religion in the “public square,” which reduces fertility. In this he reveals his apocalyptic Christian moorings:
Of all of the evolutions in twentieth-century America, the most consequential might be the exodus of religion from the public square.
Really. More consequential than civil rights, women’s rights, science, public health, militarism and Wall Street? And isn’t exodus a strong word for what’s happened? There’s only one reason to believe a moderate decline in religiosity is more important than anything else: Because God said so. Anyway, besides ending the War on Christmas, Last also wants us to give credit for births where it is due (to God).
America is the most demographically healthy industrialized nation; it is also the most religiously devout. This is not a coincidence. … There is no reason for wishing the United States to be a theocracy. That said, it is important we preserve the role of religion in our public square, resisting those critics who see theocracy lurking behind every corner. Our government should be welcoming of, not hostile to, believers—if for no other reason than they’re the ones who create most of the future taxpayers. After all, there are many perfectly good reasons to have a baby. (Curiosity, vanity, and naïveté all come to mind.) But at the end of the day, there’s only one good reason to go through the trouble a second time: Because you believe, in some sense, that God wants you to.
I guess that means atheists don’t have a good reason to have more than one child. (Are there multiple-child atheists out there to respond to this?) Anyway, it’s usually not a good sign when an author follows “There is no reason for wishing the United States to be a theocracy,” with, “That said…”
We can see the depth of Last’s commitment to the long term in his discussion of transportation. One reason New Englanders and other liberals don’t have enough children, he believes, is because land is too expensive where they live. So they have small houses and long commutes, which aren’t conducive to child-rearing.
The answer is not more public transportation. Light rail might work for the child-free. (Or it might not; there is a stark divide in the literature on mass transit.) But parents trying to balance work and children need the flexibility automobiles provide; they cannot easily drop a child at a babysitter or school, then take a train to work, then train home, and then fetch the child. (If you don’t believe me, you try it.) The solution is building more roads.
That’s our destiny? A more efficient suburban sprawl to nurture our larger families? Doesn’t he care about climate change? Maybe, maybe not. He writes in a footnote:
The only environmentalist concern that population [growth] might legitimately affect is climate change, a subject so fraught with theological division that I’ll leave it be.
What courage, refusing to genuflect the climate-change authorities like that. And yet what cowardice to refuse to take a position in the face of “theological division.” That’s some combination.