Interview: US Decline Ahead Without More Babies, Author Says

The United States is facing a crisis due to its falling fertility rate, author Jonathan Last argues in What to Expect When No One's Expecting: America's Coming Demographic Disaster.

The myth that the world is overpopulated and disasters will ensue as a result was popularized in Paul Ehrlich's 1968 book, The Population Bomb. The myth remains popular today even as Ehrlich's predictions turned out to be wildly off the mark. Not only was he wrong about mass starvation by the end of the 1970s, notes Last, a senior writer at The Weekly Standard, but he was wrong at exactly the time that fertility rates began a steep drop in the U.S. and across the world.

Last cites studies showing that nations with a growing population, those with "total fertility rate" (TFR) greater than 2.1 babies born per female over the course of her life, flourish, while nations with a TFR lower than 2.1 decline. High fertility nations flourish because they invest in their young and have higher rates of innovation. In low fertility nations, on the other hand, resources shift to caring for the elderly and fewer workers must work to pay for increased health care costs.

Last does not encourage those who do not want children to begin making babies. He notes that those without children are, on average, happier than parents.

"To raise a child is to submit to a staggering amount of work, much of which is deeply unpleasant," Last writes. "It would be crazy to have children if they weren't so damned important."

For those whose chief goal is their own happiness, Last warns, having children would be disastrous: "... children won't just change your life. They will utterly and completely destroy it."

Modernity lies at the heart of the coming demographic crisis, Last believes, because it is a worldview that places the self at the center and made us into "deeply unserious people."

Children will never be attractive where pleasure is the highest goal, Last explains, "But pleasure is a shallow goal and the well-examined life requires more. It demands seriousness of purpose. Nothing is more serious than having children."

Last also does not believe it advisable or effective for the government to engage in programs designed to encourage fecundity. He does, though, have some policy suggestions aimed at helping those who want to have children, including, reducing college costs or eliminating the need for college for many (by encouraging training by employers), lowering taxes for parents raising kids, better infrastructure (to help those with large families find affordable housing and commute between work, home and school), greater immigration (to increase the population and because immigrants generally have higher birth rates), and the government showing less hostility toward religion (because the more religious have higher birth rates).

Last spoke Thursday with The Christian Post about his new book. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

CP: You talk about how the 1969 book, The Population Bomb, warned that the Earth is becoming overcrowded. Why do you think the myth that the world is overcrowded persists?

Last: Part of it is because we've been told it. The book was enormously influential. It sold two million copies. It really shaped the thinking of people who don't do this for a living -- people who work in government, people in the academy who actually don't study demographics full time were enormously influenced by this. It's sort of gotten into the bloodstream.

And also, in fairness to Ehrlich, he had a sort-of superficial coherence to it. It sounds like, if you look around the world and watch the news reports, it always looks like there are more people. In theory, it seems like, more people, finite resources, we should run out of things. To get around that, you have to think about something complicated, like conservation and innovation, which aren't immediately apparent.

CP: You write about immigration and the high birth rate of Latina immigrants as preventing the situation from being much worse.

Last: Yes, that's been very helpful.

CP: Imagine we could go back in a time machine to 1970 and prevent any further immigration. Where would the U.S. be today if we had not welcomed so many immigrants since then?

Last: We would look like Europe then. We would have a much lower TFR. We would be much closer to shrinkage. We would have a much older age profile. We would be further along all the trend lines than we are now.

CP: What other consequences would that lead to?

Last: Social Security and Medicare would be in worse shape than they are now. We would have more old people, fewer young people. We would have not quite as robust an economy.

There would be good things too. What frustrates me about the immigration debate politically is the pro-amnesty side just refuses to recognize that any of the concerns the other side has are valid. There's quite a bit of research that shows that immigration pushes down the lower end of the wage scale. So there are certainly people at the lower end of the wage scale that would be doing much better today if we did not have all this massive immigration. There would be bright spots, things that are working better.

In the biggest picture, in a demographic sense, we would be worse off and we would be closer to the crisis point than we are now.

CP: You point out that those with high levels of religiosity tend to have more children. So could changes in religiosity have an impact in either direction? Could a religious revival save us from the crisis, or could greater secularization quicken it?

Last: All the evidence suggests that if we were to undergo a significant change one direction or the other, it would affect our fertility rate quite a lot. There's some studies, by a couple of guys at Harvard, that suggests we may be at the high water mark of secularism right now because the fertility difference between seculars and religious adherents is so great, it overwhelms the attrition rate among religious believers and the pass-on rate of religious believers to their children.

CP: When HHS recently issued a rule requiring employers to cover birth control, it was described as "preventative medicine." Normally, that term has been used to describe the prevention of disease. Here, we're talking about preventing children. Is that language indicative of a change in mindset about how we think of children?

Last: Yeah, it definitely is, the view that children is disease, that abortion is therapy. It's a very, very different worldview than what existed 60 years ago, even 40 years ago, truth be told.

The HHS decision is the type of thing, aside from its obvious philosophical and moral problems, is another thing that, long term, speaks to the idea of the state trying to crowd religious life and religious institutions out of the public square in ways which I think will probably in the long term be negative for fertility.

The truth is, the government has an interest in people having babies and, therefore, has an interest in welcoming religion into the public square a little more fully than it is. Maybe like something we had in the 1980s would be nice, something like we had in the 1960s would be nice. We need not be Taliban, Afghanistan, obviously. Not having outright hostility, like the HHS thing or the Hosanna Tabor case. There's even another case where the government withdrew HHS funding from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who had a program helping people who are the victims of sex trafficking. The government revoked its funding just because they thought, well, religious institutions shouldn't be in the business of doing this, this is the sole purview of the secular world and the government. I think that's probably in the long term counterproductive.

CP: You say in the book that you don't want government trying to make people more religious, but you're basically saying you want the government to do no harm.

Last: Yeah, at least don't be hostile. Maybe we don't want to turn the clock back to 1965 in terms of the relationship between church and state, although I wouldn't mind it. But maybe we could turn the clock back to 2007.

CP: You point out in the book how complicated the issue is, that it's not as simple as this one thing causing this one thing. The fact that it's complicated makes it harder to fix, right, because if there were just one cause you could try to fix that?

Last: Right, it does make it harder to fix. I sort of finish the book saying these are some ways we could possibly try to fix it, but also, I don't know that it is a fixable thing. It could be something that just must be endured.

My own sort of private criticism of the book is it is sort of wishy-washy. I'm always saying the future is malleable, the future is not ordained, these bad things might happen, maybe we can combat them, maybe we can't. There's a lot of waffling in it that I was frustrated with myself as I was writing it.

On the other hand, the thing that drove me nuts about the Ehrlich book was the voice of total authority, as if he was sitting with a crystal ball. He says in his opening, hundreds of millions of people will die within a couple of years and there is nothing anybody can do about it. That voice of authority stuff drives me crazy because nobody has a crystal ball and nobody really knows what's going to happen, and trends change sometimes. The Baby Boom happened unexpectedly. I try to be as careful as possible when talking about this stuff. I worry that it makes it a little boring when you write carefully.

CP: While you offer some policy prescriptions to help those who want to have more children do so, you do not seem optimistic that the coming demographic crisis can be stopped.

Last: No, I guess I'm not. I do think the heart of the crisis is one of modernity and I don't know how you change that. Truth be told, I don't think it's something that can be changed. Our relationship with modernity will evolve in its own way, on its own timetable, in its own direction, irrespective of what we consciously try to do about it.

To the extent that you are going to engage in policy on this, the goal of the policy should not be coerce or incentivize people into doing this or doing that, but trying to look around and see, ok, where has the government created artificial market distortions or artificial roadblocks that are preventing people from getting where they want to go, and try to remove those roadblocks and let people do what they will. I really think that's probably about the best you could hope for in all this.

CP: Does it follow, then, that we should also be planning for how we're going to live with this crisis that's coming?

Last: We would almost be crazy not to. At the most basic level, you have to figure what you're going to do with Medicare and Social Security. Something is going to break and it's going to break reasonably soon.

Winston Churchill once said the United States can always be trusted upon to do the right thing. The problem is she'll wait until the last possible minute to do it. I suspect that is probably true about Social Security and Medicare. We will eventually put that house in order. But I do worry that we'll wait until the last possible moment and because of that, the cost of fixing it will be much greater that it could have been.

CP: Anything else you would like to add?

Last: Not really, except that I don't hate women. [Laughs] I sort of get a lot of that. I thought that by explicitly saying about every five pages, "I'm not trying to tell you to have kids," people would take me at my word, but they don't seem to be.

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