Douthat’s WTF Statement on Having Children

The birthrate in the United States has apparently hit a new low, which is causing much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Russ Douthat, for example, is asking for “more babies, please” in a NYT column, arguing that America’s relatively high birth rate has been responsible for much of our competitive edge. And he wants the government to encourage more children:

Government’s power over fertility rates is limited, but not nonexistent. America has no real family policy to speak of at the moment, and the evidence from countries like Sweden and France suggests that reducing the ever-rising cost of having kids can help fertility rates rebound. Whether this means a more family-friendly tax code, a push for more flexible work hours, or an effort to reduce the cost of college, there’s clearly room for creative policy to make some difference.

More broadly, a more secure economic foundation beneath working-class Americans would presumably help promote childbearing as well. Stable families are crucial to prosperity and mobility, but the reverse is also true, and policies that made it easier to climb the economic ladder would make it easier to raise a family as well.

While I’m all for making it easier for people to afford raising families, I am absolutely baffled by this claim by Douthat in a follow up:

After all, if children are not the only good in human life, they do seem like a fairly important one, no? Maybe even, dare one say, an essential one, at least in some quantity, if the pursuit of the wider array of human goods is to continue beyond our own life cycle? Or to put it another way, if we have moral obligations to future, as-yet-unborn generations, as almost everyone seems to agree, surely those duties have to include some obligation for somebody to bring those generations into existence in the first place — to imitate the sacrifices that our parents made, and give another generation the chances that we’ve had?

WTF? We now have an obligation to hypothetical future people to make sure they are more than hypothetical? No, almost everyone does not agree with that. Hell, I don’t know how anyone could possibly agree with it. I can accept that we have an obligation to actual future people, our children and grandchildren and theirs as well, to leave the planet in some reasonable shape that will preserve their health and ability to survive, I cannot imagine why anyone has an obligation to make more of those future people if they don’t want to. In fact, I find that whole idea to be quite twisted.

James Joyner seems to be on the same page:

Essentially, then, Douthat is arguing that a whole lot of somebodies should sacrifice any semblance of the life they’d like to have because, well, they owe it to future generations. It’s not at all clear where that obligation derives. And, if it exists, a whole lot of the conservative agenda should go overboard along with the right of family planning.

All, incidentally, to solve a problem with much simpler and less disruptive solutions. Before we try shaming women into having more children than they want, why not start the proverbial stapling of green cards to the diplomas of foreign graduates of our universities? Or, a saner immigration policy more generally?

Sounds perfectly reasonable to me.

Comments

  1. matty1 says

    Hmm, US birth rate per 10000 persons 13.68, Mexico 18.87 (source). If you are worried about your current rate will lead to America running out of people the solution seems obvious.

  2. ArtK says

    Douthat is avoiding the underlying religious hypothesis. These “future generations” already exist as souls and unless we get busy and start humping like rabbits, God can’t embody them and he gets sad. That’s the same underlying reason for “life begins at conception.” If a foetus is aborted, then we’ve thwarted “God’s will.”

    God is such a wimp. Can’t embody a soul without help from us puny humans.

    Hmmm… may be I could take the attitude of a Republican senator and withhold my “vote” until God gives me what I want. “Sorry, God, but it’s staying in my pants until you send me that new Porche and cut defense spending.”

  3. ArtK says

    *sigh*

    No sooner did I post that then one of the ads switched to “L.A. Sperm Donors Needed.” Perhaps God is trying to tell me something. If so, I’m still waiting for the Porche at least.

  4. raven says

    arguing that America’s relatively high birth rate has been responsible for much of our competitive edge.

    This isn’t even remotely true.

    Our competitive edge comes from our lead in science and technology.

    A report from the Bushco administration blames science for half of our economic progress in the 20th century.

    Douthat BTW is a Catholic defender and idiot, one of the worst the US Catholic church has ever produced.

  5. raven says

    Government’s power over fertility rates is limited, but not nonexistent.

    This isn’t quite true.

    Human birth rates are plastic and respond to incentives and optimal conditions.

    Both Australia and France had low birth rates not so long ago and put in place policies to raise them, economic and tax changes. Which worked.

    Bushco destroyed the US economy for a lost generation. The US birth rate has dropped for 5 years in a row now. Anyone who wants to find the blame for the falling birth rate can look at the Tea Party/GOP and Bush. And if they voted for the guy, look in a mirror.

  6. raven says

    surely those duties have to include some obligation for somebody to bring those generations into existence in the first place…

    Douthat is just stringing together a bunch of strawpeople.

    The US birth rate is low but not that low. We aren’t going to run out of future generations in the near future. In fact, our population is still growing fairly rapidly.

  7. thalwen says

    Most developed countries either have a low, neutral or negative birth rate. In non-feudal agricultural systems, having a lot of children is not beneficial. The countries with the highest birth rates also tend to have the lowest rates of education, opportunities for women, lifespans and the highest rates of poverty and infant mortality.
    I doubt Douchehat is really for all the things (paid maternity leave, cheaper health care, education, ready access to family planning) that would make life better for children and to take away the fear that a poor family might have about bringing another kid into the world.
    And yeah.. it’s bad enough that anti-choicers like him give priority to the unborn to the born. Now we have to worry about them trying to protect the pre-conceived.

  8. baal says

    Again, if your econ model only works with increasing population, you’re doing it wrong. It’s also abundantly clear that the religious conservative xtians are on board with a frightingly simple heuristic that get’s mis- and over- applied. “Anything that makes live births = good, anything that hinders live births = bad)”.

  9. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    Most developed countries either have a low, neutral or negative birth rate. – thalwen

    A negative birth rate? How does that work? Are people being sucked up into their mothers’ wombs and de-developing into zygotes, which then split into egg and sperm?

  10. tbp1 says

    Douthat has been married several years but, as far as I can tell, is childless.

    I really think he that if he is going to write crap like this, he should explain that. I don’t think deeply personal details are required, especially if there’s some kind of medical issue, but some kind of basic explanation is due, IMHO.

  11. D. C. Sessions says

    Ed, Ed, Ed. You missed the hidden text: “we need a higher birth rate” should be read with the silent “white.” The point of this whole thesis is to put a stop to abortion and to contraception, and then we will have all the babies we need without young brown sluts having any — so we can stone them and cut off all of that welfare that they’re getting rich on.

  12. jesse says

    I’ll join the fun and note that Douthat seems to have little grasp of the relationships between birth rates, economic development and well, anything resembling history.

    Birth rates are high in any society that is mostly made of farmers. Why? It’s labor-intensive. Farmers will have as many children as they can, especially when you don’t expect half of them to reach the age of five.

    As the infant mortality rate drops, the birth rate does too. On top of that, as people move away from farming, they have fewer kids. Kids in a city are a drain on resources.

    In the US, most people worked on farms until about 1920 or so. (That was actually a big deal when the transition happened, many farming states were quite worried they would lose votes in Congress. They were right, though it took longer). Then the city population outstripped the farms.

    Birthrates didn’t drop immediately, because a) migrants to cities don’t de-acquire children and b) it takes a generation for cultural habits to change. On that basis the “baby boom” isn’t so unusual. All those people that used to live on farms were now living in the suburbs and in cities. It’s also worth noting that the low birth rates in 1930, 1935 and 1940 can be directly related to the Depression, which cut into birth rates quite a bit. But once people were at it again in 1945 the boom wasn’t so far out of historical norms. Here’s a table:

    http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0005067.html

    You can see that rates were dropping before the Depression, and didn’t reach 1910 levels afterwards — a steady drop that was already in place kept going. THe “boom” was just relative to what had gone on in the previous decade.

    Anyhow, leaving all that aside for the moment, every country that has improved education for women and the general health of the populace has a lower birth rate than previously. See the above point about kids reaching the age of five.

    What about the effect on economic power/ prosperity? A quick look shows that birth rates haven’t got much relation to either. Birth rates are a trailing indicator. They tell you what the condition of the country is, they aren’t a prerequisite. After all, Japan and Germany did not experience anything like higher birthrates after WW II, except in the same relative sense that the US did. (Killing a big chunk of the population tends to dent that kind of thing).

    There is a case to be made that lots of people means a bigger pool of talent to draw from. But if you can’t educate them because there’s no schools available or you’re too busy trying to feed them, then it doesn’t help. (With the caveat that famines are usually a result of distribution, not supply, see: Amartya Sen).

    ANd if a high birth rate was a key to economic success then you’d have to wonder why the Chinese did what they did with the (unevenly enforced) one child policy. (I’m not saying this was a good idea necessarily, just that the rationale led them to a rather different conclusion than Douthat’s. and they have a fast-growing economy, so their birth rate doesn’t seem to be an issue there).

    Douthat also doesn’t seem to understand the concept of productivity per worker increase. Current workers are what, 5 times as productive as those of 1945? Ten times? We have an economy that is easily 10 times as large as it was then, and we don’t have 1 billion+ people.

    Sorry, end rant. Too easy to shoot this guy down.

  13. Sastra says

    surely those duties have to include some obligation for somebody to bring those generations into existence in the first place…

    … and bring those generations into existence in a country which is not choked with over-population and into a family which wants them and has the time and ability to focus on their needs. Since when are the children better off if people think having babies is a grim duty, one undertaken for the good of the country rather than personal satisfaction?

    You know who else wanted women to have lots and lots of children in order to foster the strength of the mighty nation? Just sayin’.

  14. raven says

    Again, if your econ model only works with increasing population, you’re doing it wrong.

    It’s a pure Ponzi scheme.

    They work until they collapse.

  15. tubi says

    …a more family-friendly tax code…

    Hmmm, let’s see. Does he mean something like tax deductions for primary mortgage interest, so it’s easier to afford a decent home in which to raise the kids? Or maybe tax deductions and government support to help defray the cost of higher education, so the kids can have a better opportunity for success? Or maybe this has something to do with tax deductions for medical expenses (or even universal health coverage) so major expenses don’t devastate the family?

    I think Douthat might need to set up a meeting with John Boehner.

  16. DaveL says

    So if I have a duty to my neighbors to maintain my property and not interfere with their quite enjoyment of theirs, does that mean I have a duty to produce those neighbors in the first place? If I have a duty to other drivers to be courteous and safe on public roads, does that mean I must produce other drivers? Hey, I’m only one man; I can only do so much.

  17. bobo says

    #14

    You know who else wanted women to have lots and lots of children in order to foster the strength of the mighty nation? Just sayin’.

    QFT

  18. siveambrai says

    #9 At its most simplistic it’s a ratio of live births to deaths within a population. So a negative birthrate means that people are dying faster than they are being born. It’s often a result of an inverse population pyramid (lots of elderly and fewer young people) and looks likely that the US will experience one someday due to the population glut that it the baby boomers as they age.

  19. says

    It’s because of people like Russ Douthat that the day I get fixed will be a personal holiday as well as a precautionary measure rather than just a medical procedure.

  20. Rodney Nelson says

    if we have moral obligations to future, as-yet-unborn generations, as almost everyone seems to agree, surely those duties have to include some obligation for somebody to bring those generations into existence in the first place

    In rebuttal I quote the eminent logician Sir Boyle Roche:

    Why should we put ourselves out of our way to do anything for posterity? For what has posterity ever done for us?

  21. Sastra says

    if we have moral obligations to future, as-yet-unborn generations, as almost everyone seems to agree, surely those duties have to include some obligation for somebody to bring those generations into existence in the first place.

    First of all, we only have some control over bringing ONE generation into existence — unless Douthat thinks there is also a high moral obligation to nag our offspring and offspring’s offspring into having grandchildren (yeah, that works.)

    And second, exactly how large a number of people born within a certain period have to exist in order for these people to be considered a “generation?” Can it be too small? Generation Y, for example, makes up 70 million. Would, say, only 30 million people born in a 20 year period mean there is NO generation Z? What about 10 million? They’re not enough for a generation, so they might as well not exist?

    This gets sticky.

  22. says

    “I really think he that if he is going to write crap like this, he should explain that. I don’t think deeply personal details are required, especially if there’s some kind of medical issue, but some kind of basic explanation is due,”

    I think you’re incorrect.

    Regardless it being “personal”, if someone’s going to suggest that WE owe it to others to fuck ourselves into extinction, he-at the very least–should have a passel of his own kids. If he or his wife are unable to make teh babeez there are plenty of small mixed race children ready for adoption.

    I’ve read, several different places, that Ross was elevated to his current position at the NYT to replace Bill Kristolballs. I suspect that during a meeting of the Illuminationists who actually run the Times, one of them said, “Kristoll is stone fucking nutz, who’s that whiz kid over to the Atlantic? He seems slightly less unhinged, see if he’s available.”

    Slate, IIRC, had a piece about the transition and offered a guide to prounouncing his last name. How difficult could that be?

    /do͞oSH/bag

    See, it’s easy.

  23. D. C. Sessions says

    It’s amazing to me that the same people can be so concerned that we won’t be filling up the world with still more billions before we die but aren’t in the least concerned over whether that world is habitable.

  24. says

    There’s nothing new in Douthat’s sentiment. When I was a young twenty-something, thirty years ago now, I was quite determined that I never wanted children. I cannot count the number of times I was accused of being selfish for that decision, as if human beings exist solely to procreate.

    This is just the same old beast dressed up in a new sauce.

  25. John Horstman says

    White babies, Ed, they want more White babies. Granting more not-White people green cards doesn’t help with that.

    Hat-tip to jesse (#13) for debunking the idiot view of economics so the rest of us don’t have to.

  26. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    So a negative birthrate means that people are dying faster than they are being born. – siveambrai

    No, it doesn’t. That’s a negative population growth rate; “negative birthrate” is simply nonsense, as birthrate is measured as the proportion of births to current population and therefore cannot possibly fall below zero. Relatively few countries yet have negative population growth, although many more are expected to do so, because their birthrate is below replacement level: women are on average giving birth to fewer than two children who will reach adulthood. In the short term, this is compatible with a growing population if there are fewer people in older age cohorts than in those currently having children; but in the long term, unless death rates among the old fall to near zero, will lead to negative population growth.

  27. naturalcynic says

    …a more secure economic foundation beneath working-class Americans would presumably help promote childbearing as well. Stable families are crucial to prosperity and mobility, but the reverse is also true, and policies that made it easier to climb the economic ladder would make it easier to raise a family as well.

    You mean like:
    wages and salaries the middle class paralleling gains in productivity
    executive salaries that do the same
    work rules that don’t lead to overwork and burnout
    strong unions that ensure the above

    Somebody is going to have his epaulets ripped off, his sword broken and then sent out into the cold cruel world.

  28. John Hinkle says

    Whether this means a more family-friendly tax code, a push for more flexible work hours, or an effort to reduce the cost of college, there’s clearly room for creative policy to make some difference.

    Hmm, that sounds suspiciously like “government regulation.”

  29. mako says

    Mexico isn’t a source of population growth for the U.S. anymore. Mexicans are actually at about a net zero delta in U.S. population (as many leaving as coming). Moreover, the Mexican tfr is rapidly approaching convergence with the U.S. and even Western Europe. http://www.indexmundi.com/g/g.aspx?c=mx&v=31

    Additionally, in the U.S. Latino tfr will probably drop below replacement either in 2012 or 2013. That means that the birthrate will no longer sustain an increases in population growth (however, population growth can still occur with an ever decreasing slope until the slope will eventually go negative).

    Actually, white tfr in the US has been seen the smallest drop in the past few years although still below replacement. Asian tfr has tanked, black tfr has dropped slightly but more than white tfr. The greatest drops in tfr? Latinos by far (U.S.-born Latino women declined by 21 percent from 1990 to 2010 and by 30 percent among foreign-born Latino women). The only comparable deleterious drops are to be found in tfr are in the Arab world’s recent fertility declines.

    So if you believe that population issues will be solved by large scale immigration from Latin America, you are probably way way off the mark.

  30. caseloweraz says

    Douthat: “After all, if children are not the only good in human life, they do seem like a fairly important one, no? Maybe even, dare one say, an essential one, at least in some quantity, if the pursuit of the wider array of human goods is to continue beyond our own life cycle? Or to put it another way, if we have moral obligations to future, as-yet-unborn generations, as almost everyone seems to agree, surely those duties have to include some obligation for somebody to bring those generations into existence in the first place — to imitate the sacrifices that our parents made, and give another generation the chances that we’ve had?”

    The implicit assumption here seems to be that future generations won’t exist without the policy changes Douthat pushes. That is absurd.

    He’s right that we (the present generation) have certain obligations to future generations, however many in numbers they turn out to be. Those obligations can be summarized as “To the degree we are able, we should avoid screwing things up for posterity.”

  31. caseloweraz says

    Jesse wrote: “There is a case to be made that lots of people means a bigger pool of talent to draw from. But if you can’t educate them because there’s no schools available or you’re too busy trying to feed them, then it doesn’t help. (With the caveat that famines are usually a result of distribution, not supply, see: Amartya Sen.)”

    I’ve seen the argument made frequently lately, perhaps most insistently by Robert Zubrin in his book Merchants of Despair. He maintains that more people means more solutions to problems. I’m not sure that’s true. To take the U.S. as an example, were we less productive and innovative when our population was 180 million than we are now at 300 million plus?

    I would argue that culture and the quality of public education are more important factors in fostering innovation. I notice that the world’s most populous nations are not its most innovative.

  32. Mal Adapted says

    D.C. Sessions:

    It’s amazing to me that the same people can be so concerned that we won’t be filling up the world with still more billions before we die but aren’t in the least concerned over whether that world is habitable.

    This. The last thing the world needs is more American consumers. I met my obligation to future generations by getting a vasectomy.

  33. khms says

    @Mal Adapted:

    I would argue that culture and the quality of public education are more important factors in fostering innovation. I notice that the world’s most populous nations are not its most innovative.

    Well duh.

    However, given equal culture and education, it is indeed true that larger populations can be more innovative (because they simply have more innovators, and also because innovators influence each other so that there is a larger effect than just linear – one of the big contributions of the Internet to innovation is just bringing people together who without the net would have never heard about each other).

  34. Mal Adapted says

    khms:

    @Mal Adapted:

    I would argue that culture and the quality of public education are more important factors in fostering innovation. I notice that the world’s most populous nations are not its most innovative.

    Well duh.

    I’ve been known to make some duh-worthy comments, but the comment you quoted should be attributed to caseloweraz #33, rather than to me 8^)!

  35. jesse says

    @caseloweaz

    Zubrin et al don’t get that environments are not infinite. Even if we had direct conversion of matter-energy there’s still a finite amount of stuff. They also ignore the concept of inputs/output ratio. For example: I can make stone tools with a rock I find around and get it made in a couple of hours. If I want an iron tool, I can do more with it but I have to mine the iron, smelt it, forge it, all that stuff. The iron tools may result in more people because of better food production, but the inputs to get them are larger also.

    With more people, you have more innovators, but you also put more stress on the environment around you. Eventually everyone starves. We’ve gotten awfully good at pulling nutrients out of the soil, but there’s a finite amount of soil area and a finite amount of energy you can get from it. One of the big misconceptions about the “Green Revolution” was that it came at no cost. The fertilizer inputs, for instance, had to come from somewhere — they didn’t just wave a magic wand and make soil more productive. And no matter how much fertilizer you use, rainforest soil simply isn’t that productive because of the laws of physics and chemistry. (For example, much of the Amazon has a soil layer with clay under it. Those forests have so much diversity because plants had to evolve “waste nothing” strategies, and part of that is not growing in huge single-species stands the way temperate forests, which have a much deeper productive soil layer, do). We are hitting the limits of agricultural productivity right about now, assuming we don’t want to cut down every last forest. (The next great resource war may well be fought in Morocco, over phosphorus).

    At a certain point, no matter how many innovators you have, you can’t get around the laws of physics. Conservation of mass/energy is one of those.

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