Sci-Hub users cost ASA journals thousands of downloads, and that’s OK

UPDATED to include Sci-Hub data from six months: September 2015–February 2016, and correcting a coding error that inflated download counts.


Well, they might not have lost the downloads, but they didn’t get them.

Sci-Hub is a pirate operation that uses stolen university login credentials to harvest, store, and distribute for free virtually every academic article published anywhere. It is a simple, if criminal, solution to a very big problem: the lack of access to published research for people who can’t pay for it. When someone goes to the Sci-Hub site and requests an article, by simply pasting in the DOI or URL, the system either serves them the paper, or goes and steals it for them and then keeps a copy for the next user. For us university people who are used to dealing with the maze of logins and forwarding and proxies that come between us and the information we seek, it’s unbelievably fast and almost never fails.

Their most recent claim is an archive of 76 million papers and 400,000 users per day.

Currently available at sci-hub.se or –.tw, it sometimes moves, but this site always lists where you can find it now. Naturally, both civil and criminal authorities are trying to shut it down, preferably by catching its mastermind, Alexandra Elbakyan, the elusive student programmer from Kazakhstan.

elbakyan-paywallthemovie

That picture is from the excellent (free streaming) documentary Paywall: The Business of Scholarship. Chris Bourg, the Director of Libraries at MIT (and a sociologist), also interviewed in the movie, said of Sci-Hub:

Those of us who work in scholarly communications, writ large, really have to look at Sci-Hub as sort of a poke in the side that says, “Do better.” We need to look to Sci-Hub to say, “What is it that we could be doing differently about the infrastructure that we developed to distribute journal articles, to distribute scholarship?” … I think we need to look at what’s happening with Sci-Hub, how it evolved, who’s using it, who’s accessing it, and let it be a lesson to us for what we should be doing differently.

Sociology’s stolen papers

Science magazine writer John Bohannon reached Elbakyan in 2016, and she turned over to him a 6-month cache of Sci-Hub server logs for a piece titled, “Who’s downloading pirated papers? Everyone.” He analyzed 28 million downloads, and Science made the data available for analysis, here. Eight million of those hits were from India and China, and the busiest location was Tehran.

The data archive includes only the time and date, the DOI number of each paper downloaded, and the location of the user. I’m not expert in DOI analysis, but Bohannon included a guide that shows the prefix 10.1177 is associated with Sage Publications, which publishes the American Sociological Association’s journals. Looking at the entire six-month series, September 2015 — February 2016, I found 171,000 Sage items, downloaded 377,000 times. Of those (if I got the DOIs right), 805 titles downloaded 1628 times came from the ASA research journals (my Stata code is here).


ASA / Sage downloads from Sci-Hub, Sept 2015 – Feb 2016
Articles Downloads
American Sociological Review 239 693
Teaching Sociology 221 269
Journal of Health and Social Behavior 94 188
Social Psychology Quarterly 77 152
Sociology of Education 73 157
Sociological Methodology 57 76
Sociological Theory 44 93
Total 805 1628

On an annualized basis, that would be 750,000 Sage downloads, and 3,200 from ASA journals specifically. For comparison, the most popular article in ASR in 2017 was downloaded about 10,000 times from the Sage site, so it’s a small share of the legitimate traffic. So over the life of Sci-Hub it cost (and saved) ASA thousands of downloads, probably a few tens of thousands. [Note in the first version of this post, I had a coding error that multiplied the counts, and this read “hundreds of thousands”. I regret the error.]

The most-downloaded ASR paper for the entire period was:

Mears, Ashley. 2015. “Working for Free in the VIP: Relational Work and the Production of Consent.” American Sociological Review 80 (6): 1099–1122. (downloaded 33 times)

The most-downloaded from a different journal was:

Kanazawa, Satoshi. 2010. “Why Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent:” Social Psychology Quarterly, February. (29 times)

I looked at a couple of them in more detail, and found, for example, that Paula England’s 2015 ASA Presidential Address was downloaded by users in Seoul (South Korea), Durban (South Africa), New Delhi, London, Chicago, Washington, and Virgie (Kentucky).

Interestingly, at least one of the popular papers, Lizardo et al.’s introduction to their editorial tenure at ASR, is already ungated on the Sage site, so you don’t need to use Sci-Hub to get it. This suggests, as Bohannon also noted, that some Sci-Hub users are just using the site because it’s convenient, not because they don’t have access to the papers.

Do you Sci-Hub?

I use Sci-Hub a lot, often for things that I also have subscription access to. (I do not, however, contribute anything to the system; I free-ride off their criminality.) Why? I’m not in the paywall game business, I’m in the information business. I am always behind on my work, and adding a few seconds or minutes of hunting for the legitimate way to get each of the many articles I look at every day is not worth it. (And when I find my university doesn’t subscribe? Interlibrary loan is wonderful, but I don’t want to spend more time with it than necessary.) Does my choice cost the American Sociological Association a few cents, by reducing legitimate downloads, which somehow factors into the profits that get kicked back to the association from Sage? I don’t know.

Of course, one of the dumb things about the paywall system is that it’s expensive and time-consuming to manage who has access to what information — it’s not a small task to keep information from reaching millions of determined readers from all around the world. (I assume one of the reasons my university recently introduced two-factor authentication — requiring me to click a pop-up on my phone every time I log in to university resources [even when I’m in my office] — is because of Sci-Hub. Ironic!)

Chris Bourg is right: “let it be a lesson to us for what we should be doing differently.” Elbakyan may have committed the most efficient product theft in history, in terms of list price of stolen goods per unit of effort or expense on her part. Her archive has been copied and distributed to different sites around the world (it fits in a large suitcase). And it was made possible by the irrational, corrupt nature of the scholarly communication infrastructure. Her success is the system’s failure.

For more information, read my report, “Scholarly Communication in Sociology.

 

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The blog’s decade

Blogging is dead. Long live the blog!

At 268,000, visits to this blog are now down 37% from the peak year of 2015. At the same time, this year I had the fewest number of new posts, just 39. On the other hand, this year I had 25 million impressions on Twitter. Whatever that means.

decade-stats

In my case, and probably many others, the role of the blog has changed with the growth of Twitter. A lot of what the blog did was provide an immediate outlet for daily chatter and work in progress thoughts, a way to get feedback, check in with colleagues, learn new things and meet new people. That’s a lot of what I use Twitter for now, more efficiently (if more noisily).

The other squeeze on the blog is the imperative to do open science more systematically, for which I use the Open Science Framework to post data and code — in projects, which may include multiple files, and quick files for single documents. And of course I use SocArXiv for more formal working papers, reviews, and preprints (mine are here).

So what is the role of the blog? It’s the place for official news and announcements about new work — including notifications of stuff I’m publishing elsewhere — longer arguments, and informal work. It’s a way for people to subscribe to my news via email (it also goes on Facebook, which a lot of sociologists use).

In several talks I have tried to illustrate the total information strategy in something like this pentagulation:

pentagulate

For a wider perspective, I also wrote a report on Scholarly Communication in Sociology, which is intended especially for grad students and early career scholars.

I’m happy to hear suggestions (on any platform) for how to handle communication strategy.

Book aside

The tricky relationship between platforms and different media came home to roost in my book, Enduring Bonds: Inequality, Marriage, Parenting, and Everything Else That Makes Families Great and Terrible. That book was inspired by the success of this blog, which is what enticed University of California Press to consider it. Unbeknownst to the vast majority of my readers on other platforms, I worked pretty hard on it, selecting the best blog posts, and then combining, updating, and adding to them to make a collection of essays, with data. I don’t know how successful the book is compared with other academic books generally, but, with almost no marketing beyond my social media platforms, it has generated basically no buzz for me (media, invitations, etc.). That’s in contrast to working papers, tweets, and blog posts, which continue to bring in wider attention. I know other people have done amazing blog-to-book projects, but this experience definitely showed me that the successful translation is far from automatic. Live and learn! Maybe in the long run the book will be what persists from the first decade of this blog.

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11 trends for your New Decade’s holiday party

There’s a lot to do this decade, and only a few days to do it. You need to look smart doing it. The best way to look smart is to be smart, and that means ingesting meaningful bits of data and turning them into useful knowledge. When you display data bits at a holiday party, they merge with those from the other people there, to become the common knowledge we need to get things done in the next decade, which we will do.

So here are a few meaningful bits of demographic data, presented with trend lines and easy-to-memorize fact statements. These aren’t the most important or most interesting demographic trends of the decade, but they’re all meaningful and readily interpretable — plus I was able to gather them on short notice between other last-minute decadal deadlines. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

Notes: We don’t have data through the end of the decade for all of these, so I just present the latest data. And I extend them back toward 1999 as far as I can for context. And I scaled them to show the change as clearly as possible, so watch out for y-axes that are compressed to the active range rather than starting at zero (file complaints here). If I don’t specify the time frame in the text, it refers to the last 10 years of data.

So just memorize the facts that interest you, and remember the associated images. Here goes.


Overdose deaths increased more than 80 percent.

od


Chlamydia cases increased by a third.

chlamydia


One-in-six 25-34 year-olds live with their parents

livhome


The share of college graduates majoring in sociology or history fell by more than a third.

histsoc


The percentage of new mothers who are married has risen back over two-thirds.

marbirth


For the first time in decades women over 40 may soon be more likely to have a baby than teenagers.

fertage


The divorce rate has fallen 20 percent.

divorce


People with college degrees are 19 percent more likely to be married than people without.

margap


International adoptions fell by more than two-thirds.

intadopt


Refugee admissions are at their lowest level since before 1980, and falling fast.

refugee


The newspaper industry was cut in half.

news


Happy New Decade!

 

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ASA’s letter against the public interest and our values

youdidwhat

Update 1: I submitted a resolution to the ASA Committee on Publications, for consideration at our January meeting. You can read and comment on it here.

Update 2: The Committee on Publications on January 23 voted to approve the following statement: “The ASA Committee on Publications expresses our opposition to the decision by the ASA to sign the December 18, 2019 letter.”

The American Sociological Association has signed a letter that profoundly betrays the public interest and goes against the values that many of us in the scholarly community embrace.

The letter to President Trump, signed by dozes of academic societies, voices opposition to a rumored federal policy change that would require federally funded research be made freely available upon publication, rather than according to the currently mandated 12-month embargo — which ASA similarly, bitterly, opposed in 2012. ASA has not said who made the decision to sign this letter. All I know is that, as a member of the Committee on Publications, I wasn’t consulted or notified. I don’t know what the ASA rules are for issuing such statements in our name, but this one is disgraceful.

The argument is that ASA would not be able to make money selling research generated by federal funding if it were required to be distributed for free. And because ASA would suffer, science and the public interest would suffer. Like when Trump says getting Ukraine to help him win re-election is by definition in the American interest — what helps ASA is what’s good for science.

The letter says:

Currently, free distribution of research findings is subject to a 12-month embargo, enabling American publishers to recover the investment made in curating and assuring the quality of scientific research content. … The current 12-month embargo period provides science and engineering society publishers the financial stability that enables us to support peer review that ensures the quality and integrity of the research enterprise.

That is funny, because in 2012 ASA director Sally Hillsman (since retired) said the 12-month embargo policy “could threaten the ability of scholarly societies, including the ASA, to continue publishing journals” and was “likely to seriously erode and eventually jeopardize our financial ability to perform the critical, value added peer review and editorial functions of scientific publishing.”

The current letter, at least with regard to ASA, tell this whopper: “we support open access and have a strong history of advancing open access through a broad array of operational models.” They literally oppose open access, including in this letter, and including the current, weak, open access policy.

The ASA-signed letter is very similar to one sent about the same time by a different (but overlapping) large group of publishers, including Elsevier, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, claiming the rumored policy would hurt ‘merica. But there are subtle differences. The ASA letter refers to “the current proven and successful model for reporting, curating and archiving scientific results and advancing the U.S. research enterprise,” which should not be tampered with. The other letter warns of the danger of “step[ing] into the private marketplace” in which they sell research. Knowledge philosopher Peter Suber offered an excellent critique of the market claims here in this Twitter thread:

ASA and the other money-making societies really want you to believe there is no way to do curation and peer review without them. If we jeopardize their business model, ASA says, the services they provide would not happen. In fact, the current subscription models and paywalls stand in the way of developing the cheaper, more efficient models we could build right now to replace them. All we need to do is take the money we currently devote to journal subscriptions and publisher profits, and redirect it to the tasks of curation and peer review without profits and paywalls — and free distribution (which is a lot cheaper to administer than paywalled distribution).

The sooner we start working on that the better. In this effort — and in the absence of leadership by scholarly societies — the university libraries are our strongest allies. This is explained by UNC Librarian Elaine Westbrooks in this Twitter thread:

Compare this forwarding thinking librarian’s statement with Elsevier. In proudly sharing the publishers’ statement, Elsevier vice president Ann Gabriel said, “Imagine a world without scientific, medical societies and publishers who support scholarship, discovery and infrastructures for peer review, data archiving and networks.” Notice two things in this statement. First, she does not mention libraries, which are the academy-owned institutions that do literally all this as well. And second, see how she bundles publishers and societies. This is the sad reality. If instead of “societies and publishers” we had “societies and libraries” maybe we’d be getting somewhere. Instead, our societies, including the American Sociological Association, are effectively captured by publishers, and represent their interests instead of the public interest, and the values of our community.

I remain very pessimistic about ASA, which is run by a professional group with allegiance to the paywall industry, along with mostly transient, naive, and/or ineffectual academics (of which I am certainly one). But I’m torn, because I want to see a model of scholarly societies that works, which is why I agreed to serve of the ASA Committee on Publications — which mostly does busy work for the association while providing the cover of legitimacy for the professional staff.

Letter of opposition

So I posted a letter expressing opposition to the ASA letter. If you are a sociologist, I hope you will consider sharing and signing it. We got 100 signatures on the first day, but it will probably take more for ASA to care. To share the letter, you can use this link: https://forms.gle/ecvYk3hUmEh2jrETA.

It reads:

In light of a rumored new White House Open Access Policy, the American Sociological Association (ASA), and other scholarly societies, signed a letter to President Trump in support of continued embargoes for federally-funded research.

We are sociologists who join with libraries and other advocates in the research community in support of federal policy to make the results of taxpayer-funded research immediately available to the public for free. We endorse a policy that would eliminate the current 12-month waiting period for open access to the outputs of taxpayer-funded scientific research. Ensuring full open access to publicly-funded research contributes to the public good by improving scientific productivity and equalizing access — including international access — to valuable knowledge that the public has already paid for. The U.S. should join the many other countries that already have strong open access policies.

We oppose the decision by ASA to sign this letter, which goes against our values as members of the research community, and urge the association to rescind its endorsement, to join the growing consensus in favor of open access to to scholarship, including our own.

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The arriving divorce decline

In “The Coming Divorce Decline” I showed the U.S. divorce rate falling from 2008 to 2017, and predicted that, because the married population was being stocked with increasingly non-divorce-prone marriages, the rate would continue to fall. After the first draft (based on 2016 data), divorce fell in 2017, providing the first support for my prediction before the paper was even “published” (accepted for Socius). Now the 2018 data is out, and divorce has become less common still.

Here’s a quick update.

Based on the number of divorces reported in the survey each year, by sex, and the number of married people, I calculate the refined divorce rate, or the number of divorces per 1,000 married people. That fell another 3% for both women and men in 2018, to 15.9 and 14.3 respectively (the rates differ because these are self reports and women report more).

2018update

When I run the model from the paper again on the new data (on women only), I can show the drop in the adjusted odds of divorce, updating Figure 1 of the paper (the 2018 change in an unadjusted model is significant at p=.06; adjusted is p=.14, the adjusted change from 2016 is significant at p=.002).

2018update-adjusted

For other takes on the latest data, see this report on the marriage-divorce ratio from Valerie Schweizer, and this on geographic variation from Colette Allred, both at the National Center for Family and Marriage Research.


  • The data and code for the paper are available here. This update uses the same code with one new year of data.
  • If you like my new Stata figure scheme (modified from Gray Kimbrough’s Uncluttered) you’re welcome to it: here.
  • Slides from my presentation this fall at the European Divorce Conference are here.
  • Divorce posts are gathered under this tag.

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Family diversity, new normal

Family diversity is not just a buzzword (although it is that), and it’s not just the recognition of diversity that always existed (although it is that). There really is more actually-existing diversity than there used to be.

In The Family, I use a figure with five simple household types to show family conformity increasing from 1900 to a peak in 1960 — and then increasing diversity after that. I’ve updated that now for the upcoming third edition of the book.

ch 2 household diversity.xlsx

In 2014, I wrote a report for the Council on Contemporary Families called “Family Diversity is the New Normal for America’s Children,” which generated some news coverage and a ridiculous appearance with Tucker Carlson on Fox & Friends. A key point was to demonstrate that the declining dominant family arrangement after 1960 — the male-breadwinner-homemaker family — was replaced by a diversity of arrangements rather than a new dominant form. Here I’ve updated one the main figures from that report, which shows that “fanning out from a dominant category to a veritable peacock’s tail of work-family arrangements.”

peacock family diversity update.xlsx

For this update, I take advantage of the great new IPUMS mother and father pointers to identify children’s (likely) parents, including same-sex couple parents who are cohabiting as well as those who are married. Census doesn’t collect multiple parent identifiers in the Decennial Census or American Community Survey, and IPUMS has tackled the issue of how to best presume or guess about these with a consistent and well-documented standard. In this figure, 0.42% of children ages 0-14 (about 250,000) are living in the households of their same-sex couple parents. I also rejiggered the other categories a little, but the basic story is the same.

I published a version of this figure for K-12 educators in Educational Leadership magazine in 2017. I wrote:

Today, teachers need to have a more inclusive mindset that recognizes the diversity of family structures. Although there are reasons for concern about some of the changes shown in the data, the driving factors have often been positive. For example, changes in family roles reflect increased educational and occupational opportunities for women and greater gender equality within families. Fathers are expected to play an active role in parenting—and usually do—to a much greater degree than they did half a century ago.

My advice to teachers is:

The key points of diversity in family experiences that teachers should watch for are family structure (such as who the student lives with), family trajectories (the transitions and changes in family structure), and family roles (who cares and provides for the student). Using principles from universal design, teachers can promote language and concepts that work for all students. Done right, this is an opportunity to broaden the learning experience for everyone—to teach that care, intimate relationships, and family structures can include people of different ages, genders, and familial connections.

So that’s my update.

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The continuation of babies

There is no guarantee that a happy, healthy, equal, and harmonious population wants to produce enough children to maintain or grow its total size.

Anna Louie Sussman wrote an essay in the New York Times, given the unfortunate title “The End of Babies” (about which more below). I like a lot of it, and I have substantial disagreements with the framing.

It’s about falling fertility and capitalism. This is a great summary, though I would replace “not necessarily a bad thing” with “usually a very good thing”:

Declining fertility typically accompanies the spread of economic development, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. At its best, it reflects better educational and career opportunities for women, increasing acceptance of the choice to be child-free, and rising standards of living.

At its worst, though, it reflects a profound failure: of employers and governments to make parenting and work compatible; of our collective ability to solve the climate crisis so that children seem a rational prospect; of our increasingly unequal global economy. In these instances, having fewer children is less a choice than the poignant consequence of a set of unsavory circumstances.

Sussman sees the “bigger picture” as this:

Our current version of global capitalism … has generated shocking wealth for some, and precarity for many more. These economic conditions generate social conditions inimical to starting families: Our workweeks are longer and our wages lower, leaving us less time and money to meet, court and fall in love. Our increasingly winner-take-all economies require that children get intensive parenting and costly educations, creating rising anxiety around what sort of life a would-be parent might provide. A lifetime of messaging directs us toward other pursuits instead: education, work, travel.

This paragraph uses a sort of 1% versus 99% framing with is exaggerated but not unreasonable. This, however, is just exaggerated:

It seems clear that what we have come to think of as “late capitalism” — that is, not just the economic system, but all its attendant inequalities, indignities, opportunities and absurdities — has become hostile to reproduction. Around the world, economic, social and environmental conditions function as a diffuse, barely perceptible contraceptive.

Lost in this, by now, is all the good parts about falling fertility mentioned previously. Remember, contraceptives are good, and most people use them deliberately to help control their lives, and they do it because social and environmental conditions have made it possible to have more control over one’s life than ever before, while offering unprecedented opportunities for women beyond child-rearing.

In short, I agree with Sussman’s description of how some people in rich societies would like to have more children than they do, I just don’t think it’s anything like a universal or even general experience in our era. And there is a puzzle confounding the premise: within rich countries, or at least the USA, privileged people, who presumably have more control over their lives and destinies, still have fewer children than those who are more powerless. I once wrote:

There is an argument that Americans are having fewer children than they want to because of our stone age work-family policies, especially poor family leave support and the high costs of good childcare. I’m sure that’s happening to some degree, but it’s still the case that more privileged people, who should be able to overcome those things more readily — people with college degrees and Whites — have lower fertility rates than people who are getting squeezed more.

Like a lot of work in this area, Sussman’s assessment that people want more children — which generates the image of the “reproductive malaise [that] has settled over,” in this case, Denmark — is based on surveys showing people’s “ideal” family size is larger than the average number of children actually born per family. But the interpretation of this gap is not so straightforward. Maybe people think three is the ideal number of children, but they also think a PhD is the ideal amount of education, and so they compromise, with some having one kid and a PhD, and some having three kids and a no college degree. This is an empirical question. What’s historically unprecedented and still so new that we don’t know what to make of it socially is the fact that this is a choice at all for so many people.

As I previously reported, the proportion of US women whose “ideal” number of children is higher than they number they had by age 40 has risen, from less than 15% among women born in the 1930s to almost a quarter for women born in the early 1970s. If you break that trend down by BA/no-BA education level, you can see that women with BA degrees are pushing it upward:

ideal fam size gss ba

So maybe college graduate women are having fewer than their ideal number of children like I’m earning less than the ideal amount of money — I think I could be making more money, but then I wouldn’t be able to sit around in my pajamas blogging with my dog, so I compromise. Of course, like some of the people in Sussman’s piece, a lot of people are justifiably unhappy about this, feeling they can’t compromise between forces pulling them in opposite directions. And so the result is dissatisfaction, maybe even malaise. I just don’t think we know how many people feel that way, or even whether the feeling is much more prevalent than it used to be.

Denmark

Sussman uses Denmark as one case study. This is her summary:

If any country should be stocked with babies, it is Denmark. The country is one of the wealthiest in Europe. New parents enjoy 12 months’ paid family leave and highly subsidized day care. Women under 40 can get state-funded in vitro fertilization. But Denmark’s fertility rate, at 1.7 births per woman, is roughly on par with that of the United States. A reproductive malaise has settled over this otherwise happy land.

But where is the evidence for this malaise? Denmark’s fertility rate has been low and relatively stable, while it is the USA’s that has plummeted since 2007, which is why the countries are now at the same level. The malaise that is settling is here — Denmark’s has already settled.

To elaborate on Denmark: There was a rapid drop in fertility from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s, followed by a rebound, and then relative stability for about 25 years. During that time, as the population continued to grow slowly, women were reaching age 40 with between 1.8 and 1.9 children on average. Rather than slipping into a chasm, it looks more like the affluent people of Denmark have settled into a moderately low-fertility regime.

denmark.xlsx

“Replacement” fertility, of about 2.1 births per woman, doesn’t mean a society is healthy or happy. Maybe late capitalism with a decent welfare state is not “hostile to reproduction,” maybe it just doesn’t quite get to 2.1.

How bad is that? Like the USA (see my last projections), Denmark will have population decline if they keep on this path, discounting immigration. Because they have been at low fertility for a while, the country is close to seeing actual decline based on birth rates alone. Here is what would happen over the next hundred years if current trends persist and there are no immigrants: The population would eventually contract 31%.

denmark.xlsx

A 31% population drop a century from now would make for a pretty different Denmark (as will another few feet of sea-level rise). But there is time to get there — the drop would only be 6% in the next three decades. And of course if they don’t want this, they could easily cushion the fall with immigration. In any event, there is nothing here that suggests the “end of babies” or the abandonment of reproduction — families would continue having an average of 1.8 children each, as they have for the last several decades.

A population below replacement fertility might seem diseased, but it might also just be the aggregation of a lot of people exercising their newfound freedoms in newly discovered ways, including having fewer or no children. I agree with Sussman when she writes:

The problem, to be clear, is not really one of “population” …. Hundreds of thousands of babies are born on this planet every day; people all over the world have shown they are willing to migrate to wealthier countries for jobs. Rather, the problem is the quiet human tragedies, born of preventable constraints — an employer’s indifference, a belated realization, a poisoned body — that make the wanted child impossible.

To the extent those tragedies occur, we should prevent or ameliorate them. And to the extent they are concentrated among people or groups who already experience marginalization, isolation, or exploitation, it’s a social problem that’s part of our burgeoning inequality suite. Healthcare, housing, education, and family leave all come to mind as helpful, even if they can’t solve the existential crisis of late capitalism. But two cautions. First, I’m not convinced such tragedies are more common than they used to be, just because people are having fewer children than they used to. Remember, we also have fewer people trapped into having large families they don’t want (forced-birther policies notwithstanding).

And second, crucially, even if we address these issues of self-determination, there is no guarantee that a happy, healthy, equal, and harmonious population wants to produce enough children to maintain or grow its total size. We may eventually have to learn to live with fewer people, locally and globally, even if we’re all happy with the number of children we have.

What comes around

In the meantime, I think it’s confusing and ultimately unhelpful to confound what are essentially orthogonal issues. We should care about the problems Sussman raises regardless of population trends.

And that brings me to an aside on New York Times coverage. It was just 11 years ago, in 2008, that a different New York Times story about the existential threat of falling fertility, this one in the Magazine and titled “No Babies?”, singled out Scandinavian countries — with total fertility rates of 1.8 — as positive examples, bucking the trend toward “lowest-low” fertility demonstrated by Southern European countries, due to their “vigorous social-welfare systems.” That’s the same social welfare system, and the same total fertility rate, that Sussman characterizes as a “reproductive malaise” in Denmark today.

And there are illustrations of children playing alone in both cases. Because “the end of babies” and a world with “no babies” is best illustrated with a picture of the last child on earth alone in a playground. Great illustrations — just not of our societies.

nytchildrenalone

That said…

You can’t really pin sudden fertility swings on things like “late capitalism,” which are decades in the making. It was just February of 2009 that I was writing one of my first blog posts, “Why Are American Women Having More Children?” as U.S. total fertility rose to 2.1 for the first time since 1971. I think it was late capitalism, too, but the U.S. TFR was 13% higher than Denmark’s (they are now the same), and everyone was talking about American mothers “opting out” of the labor force to stay home with their four children. On the other hand is socialist Finland — a country with a lot of what I want from social policy, including low inequality and poverty, and lots of family leave — which has seen a fertility decline since 2010 that could reasonably be called a crash. The government estimates the TFR in 2019 is 1.32-1.34, down from 1.86 a decade ago!

Here are the trends in select countries:

country fertilitiy trends.xlsx

Does this mean the people in Finland are suddenly much less happy  relative to those in Denmark, which has seen a recent uptick in fertility rates? I have no idea. I can make population projections if you tell me the fertility rate, but I can’t tell you what the fertility rate will be in the future (and neither can you). A tiny bit humbling, honestly.

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