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April 12, 2009

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ms

I guess the administration is in search of a new scapegoat once the statute of limitations has expired on the Bush blaming bash. Will people start to see through this transparent dodging of responsibility soon? But for me, these new developments make me like Europe better than I have for awhile. Like Nathan, I have long been disgusted with them for their willingness to benefit from America's military and other powers while despising us. I was disappointed with the G-20 though. I was hoping they would do us some good at last--especially Merkel--by slapping Obama around and trying to talk some sense into him about deficit spending. I was distressed to read that instead she encouraged him in his profligacy by saying that maybe America can afford this spree since we have a relatively high birth rate! It's not that high and likely to fall soon IMO, especially with the current assault on marriage. Anyway, if the article is right and the American left starts to return Europe's animus towards America, I wonder if they will continue with the self-hatred that has characterized them for so many years. Like Michelle Obama, with the advent of socialism and anti-Christian sentiment, they might finally be able to be proud of their country.

Nathan Smith

re: "Like Nathan, I have long been disgusted with them for their willingness to benefit from America's military and other powers while despising us."

Oh, I don't know if I'd say disgusted. It's hard to resist the logic of shrinking your military when American protection has rendered it superfluous. And while despising is, I suppose, not a good attitude to have towards any person-- to adapt St. Augustine, I think acceptably, we should "despise the sin but respect the sinner"-- I am not so free of the vice myself to be in a position to condemn it in others. And if they simply disagree with us I am prepared to regard it as an honest mistake (or, in some cases, as not a mistake, as with "stimulus").

I hadn't heard that line from Merkel. But it sounds to me like a clever way of getting Germany off the hook for more deficit spending. It's true that America has a relatively high birthrate. And I'm not sure that it's like to fall. I think, on the contrary, it's been rising. The current recession might scare some people into having fewer kids, and if it lasts a long time the birthrate probably will fall. But then, immigration reform would boost it again... Actually, here's an interesting question: Does immigration increase birthrates among natives?... Anyway, I wouldn't blame Merkel for defending Germany's interests against US demands in a diplomatic way.

nato

"[The birth rate is]likely to fall soon IMO, especially with the current assault on marriage."

Yeah, and the War on Christmas! Once gay people start getting married and atheists are allowed in the Boy Scouts, the crust of the Earth will probably just turn to magma and then no one will want to have babies.

Nathan Smith

Well, in ms's defense, in the long run there certainly seems to have been a correlation between the decline in traditional notions of marriage and the decline in the birthrate. Which is not surprising: if divorce is easily available, having children begins to seem less advisable.

While I think gay marriage is a metaphysical impossibility, and would be put in an awkward position from a merely verbal point of view if the law came to describe as "marriage" arrangements which I could not refer to as such without being guilty of a lie; and while legal recognition of gay marriage would represent a sinister invasion of language and moral by the state's coercive power; I don't see any direct causal link between gay marriage and a lower birthrate. That's not to say it might not do so as an unintended consequence; activist social policy meddles in mysteries and usually has many unintended consequences.

nato

"...activist social policy meddles in mysteries and usually has many unintended consequences."

Perhaps it's miscegenation that has the unintended consequence of causing the drop in birthrates. Seems about as reasonable.

Tom

There's a pretty strong negative correlation between education/life-expectancy and birth-rate. It's explainable by a simple theory of opportunity cost. If a person is educated, living in a free society, and has an expectation of long life and good health, then his/her opportunities are seemingly limitless. Having children surely decreases such a person's opportunities in aggregate (though, it does provide new opportunities). Conversely, if a person is not educated, lives in an oppressive society, and does not have an expectation of long life or good health, then that person's opportunities in life are severely limited. Having children in that case surely increases a person's opportunities with little downside other than possible pregnancy complications.

The US birthrate is very interesting. Immigrants have a significantly higher birthrate than natives; if it weren't for immigrants, the US would not have replacement level birthrates. See the above paragraph for an explanation why.

Nathan Smith

To Nato: I don't see how interracial marriage (we don't use the word 'miscegenation' much anymore, it's frowned upon because it has connotations of disapproval which we do not share) could lower birthrates. Unless it's because people of different races sometimes love each other and want to marry, but are reluctant to impose the complexities of being mixed-race on their kids. But I don't think there's a big stigma attached to being mixed-race. I'd want to see statistics. Anyway, there hasn't been such a huge rise in interracial marriage as to effect birthrates, I think. Whites marry whites and blacks marry blacks are rates far higher than random selection would imply.

One reason that gay marriage might *not* reduce birthrates is if gay people wouldn't/couldn't marry and have kids with people of the opposite sex. I'm not sure if this is true; anecdotally, I've certainly heard stories about some of them doing it. Still, that would be a marginal phenomenon. It seems that there's a widespread intuition that gay marriage would weaken heterosexual marriage. I can only suggest why this might be the case in a sketchy fashion and perhaps I don't understand. The idea, as far as I can understand, is that marriage has a powerful symbolism and moral force which can induce people to be faithful to commitments they might at times be inclined to neglect or abandon. For the state to legally recognize gay marriages would destroy its credibility as a sanctifier and supporter of marriage-- not for everyone perhaps, but for what seems to be the large majority of people who do not believe that the marriage state is applicable to gay couples-- and cause people to feel less bound by marital obligations. If it did that, that would probably lower the birthrate, because people need to feel that a marriage is pretty secure before they contemplate having kids. (That I can vouch for from personal experience.)

As an analogy, let's suppose that, as a means of raising money, the government allowed very rich people to purchase, for, say, $10bn, mock Inaugural ceremonies, where they had parades through DC and took oaths administered by the Supreme Court Chief Justice, gave a speech, and so on, without of course becoming president thereby, just so they would know what it would feel like to become president. It doesn't seem to me silly to worry that ceremonies of this kind might undermine the solemnity of the presidential oath and make presidents feel a little less bound by it.

To Tom: But religious people have more children than non-religious people, I believe, for a given level of income. Yes, income increases opportunities, and children often appear to be what economists call "an inferior good," one that people enjoy (the usual word is "consume" but it doesn't fit in this case) less of with income. But since religion seems to alter people's preferences in favor of childrearing, there seems to be more to it than that.

ms

As Tom points out, birth rates are very fragile, especially in highly developed, industrialized countries. The unintended and perhaps intended consequences of SSM could easily decrease the birth rate, especially since schools will have to then teach that any two adults can marry and that this is fine and dandy. Such teaching will almost certainly mean that the rate of homosexuality will increase, which equals lower birth rates. I know, I know, liberals scoff at this assertion, but I think it is a certainty. People can be socialized to do almost anything. Since marriage itself is a fragile institution as the past 40 years have tragically shown, I don't think it is far fetched at all to imagine that the institution will suffer from misguided contemporary social engineering.

Nathan Smith

Catholic schools wouldn't have to teach that. Maybe SSM could have the positive effect of encouraging demand for private education and for vouchers.

Nathan Smith

Or, even if people can't afford Catholic schools, it might encourage critical thinking. For example: "Teacher says that any two adults can marry, but it's obvious that a marriage between a man and a woman, which leads to the birth of children, can't be the same thing as two men or women living together, necessarily infertile. So I guess what teacher tells me isn't always true. Maybe I should think twice about this evolution stuff they're teaching, too. And maybe the fact that the school curriculum is silent about God does not imply that making sense of the world without God is actually possible. And maybe FDR didn't get us out of the Great Depression, either..."

nato

"Such teaching will almost certainly mean that the rate of homosexuality will increase, which equals lower birth rates. I know, I know, liberals scoff at this assertion, but I think it is a certainty. People can be socialized to do almost anything."

Count me as a liberal scoffer. The scientific literature would also appear to be a liberal scoffer, somewhat to the surprise of early (liberal) blank-slate sexologists who assumed that gender would be mutable until much later in a child's life than they found. Though not straightforwardly genetic, the vast majority of evidence points to sexual orientation* being pretty close to set in stone for most people prior to memory. Perhaps this science is just wrong and many more people will turn out gay, but at this point that strikes me as of highly dubious plausibility.

In any case, marriage isn't proving as fragile as all that. Though there was a very large rise in divorce rates in the mid 20th century, all the recent figures I've seen have generally been showing per-capita divorce rates as steady or dropping. Further, studies would seem to indicate that those with the least commitment to "traditional" marriage (atheists and agnostics) actually have the lowest divorce rate:
http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_dira.htm
This isn't some sort of superiority thing; it just shows that marriage as an institution endures quite well in the face of the subversion of the classic justifications for it. My guess is that the only thing the government has done that has really significantly influenced the divorce rate is passing laws against sex discrimination. As men and women continue to renegotiate and reconstruct marital tradition and culture in view of women no longer being economic chattel, I expect divorce rates will continue to drop.

To get back to something a little closer to the topic of the post, I think that birth rates might go back up somewhat if people start to see children as a gift to the world rather than a self-indulgence. The planet isn't overpopulated; we just just price it badly so far. If we correct the market failures, then there's no reason to believe that more children won't enrich everyone's lives, literally and figuratively. Even until then, it seems that population pressure is a much smaller contribution to tragedies of the commons than than commons mismanagement, so having more children doesn't really seem that likely to be an important form of economic or environmental selfishness.

I'm not sure if that paragraph was at all clear, but hopefully everyone can at least make out the gist.

*Granted, those whose orientation lays outside the standard gay-straight binary might take a lot longer to work out where they stand.

Nathan Smith

"women no longer being economic chattel"

An absurd characterization. It's not hyperbole because it's not an exaggeration of a reality, but a complete distortion. Chattel refers not to someone with limited career options but to someone whose sole purpose, from the perspective of the powers that be, was to labor for someone else's benefit. Women have historically had less access to many professions, but social norms have usually secured them a living standard similar to, and arguably in many cases better than, their husbands.

When the South's slaves were liberated, not many of them wanted to remain slaves. Many women obviously do want to remain in their traditional roles in the household.

Tom

"But religious people have more children than non-religious people, I believe, for a given level of income."

I'm not sure about this claim. It is true that religious people have more children than non-religious people, but religious people are also less educated on average, have lower life-expectancies, and are less economically well off. Just looking at the vast difference between religious peoples in different parts of the world leads me to believe that religion has a minor secondary effect on birthrates, if any at all. Assuming there are non-religious people in very poor countries, I imagine they have just as many children as the religious people in very poor countries, but that claim is somewhat speculative given the relative scarcity of people reporting no religious affiliation.

Nathan Smith

"religious people are also less educated on average, have lower life-expectancies, and are less economically well off"

I don't think any of that's true, or at most the effect is slight. I'm pretty sure the religion/birthrate effect shows up controlling for income and the rest of it.

nato

"Assuming there are non-religious people in very poor countries, I imagine they have just as many children as the religious people in very poor countries, but that claim is somewhat speculative given the relative scarcity of people reporting no religious affiliation"

Check out Indian atheists coming from the Untouchable class. I didn't immediately find anything about their birth rate, but that would be one datapoint.

nato

"social norms have usually secured them a living standard similar to, and arguably in many cases better than, their husbands."

Assuming their husbands were generous, fair-minded people. If not, well, oops, there's little recourse. I guess one was protected from starving to death or other similarly dire physical threats, but I think a review of actual historical sociology would reveal that social norms didn't *secure* very much to wives after all.

Nathan Smith

Consider the fact that in many societies of the past, military service was expected of men of the middle and upper classes. Military service inevitably involves the risk of severe privations as well as bodily mutilation, pain, and death. This was a risk women did not face. Taking into account this as well as the impact of social norms, I would hazard the guess that both the mean and the variance of women's material living standards in the upper classes were if anything more favorable than their husbands for, say, most of the history of Europe from the High Middle Ages to the 20th century. That's not the only factor that matters of course. If you want adventure, or renown, you'd be better off as a man. But it's a safe bet that women's living standards have consistently resembled those of men of the same rank than those of people of lower ranks, such as serfs or slaves.

nato

"Military service inevitably involves the risk of severe privations as well as bodily mutilation, pain, and death. This was a risk women did not face."

What happened when war dislocated women vs. when it dislocated men? What happened to women left without husbands? It wasn't like they suddenly obtained the ability to work in their husbands' stead. In fact, inheritance laws could easily leave widows in penury in a way that womens' frequent death in childbirth did not for their husbands.

Womens' lives might have been marginally less uncertain, but their ability to respond effectively to adversity was massively impaired relative to their male counterparts. Also, I would be willing to bet that pregnancy killed more women in the second millennium than war killed men.

nato

Okay, I don't know what the heck happened here. Whatever; it's certainly reminded me how distant we've gotten (okay, really it was mostly my fault) from the original post.

nato

okay, now the comments are back. Typepad is behaving very strangely today.

Nathan Smith

Well, pregnancy, yes. But that had to do with medical technology, not political arrangements.

If a man is dead and a woman is widowed, I guess I'd say the man has the worst of it. But yeah, war certainly hurts both genders.

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