April 28, 2003

Brad DeLong on the Defeat of Malthus

"The world's high- and middle-income countries should not imagine that the relatively rich can fence themselves off indefinitely from poverty and misery in the poorest countries. Nationalism has long been a powerful cause of political violence. Nothing is more likely to strengthen nationalism and turn it to violence than a sense that one's own homeland is being exploited-kept poor and powerless-by other nations to satisfy their own selfish interests. The world today is too small for any of us to be able to afford for any corner of it to be left out of the conquest of Malthusianism."

-- J. Bradford DeLong, "The Final Defeat of Thomas Malthus?"

Arts & Letters Daily has linked to this recent article by Brad DeLong (scroll down to Goodbye, Mr. Malthus). Interestingly, he suggests that "population may well decline" after it reaches a projected 9-10 billion around 2050-2100. I know absolutely nothing about this topic, but when did that ever stop me? I have a couple of queries about this statement:

"Literate, well-educated women with many social and economic options in today's rich countries have pulled fertility below the natural replacement rate. The problem is not that such women on average want fewer than two children; in fact, on average they wish to have a bit more than two. But because many of them delay childbearing until their thirties, actual fertility falls short of what they desire."

First, how representative are "literate, well-educated women" with lots of options? Do they make up even half of the women in the more affluent countries, and aren't they a distinct minority in the less affluent nations? Second, how many of these women really do want more than 2 children? The vast majority of "literate, well-educated women" I know (ok, not exactly a scientific sample, but speaking anecdotally here) want between 0-2 children. Many of them want 0 children. Which brings me to the third question: is it really the case that delayed childbearing has a significant impact on fertility rates overall? Again, what percentage of women are delaying childbearing until their thirties, and of this number, what percentage are unsuccessful in their attempts to have the number of children they desire? Or, to put it another way, how much of the falling birthrates in western, industrialized nations can be attributed to delayed childbearing, how much to the fact that some women don't have children at all (which is not necessarily the result of delayed childbearing: some women decide to opt out of childbearing altogether), and how much to smaller family sizes on the part of those who don't delay until their thirties (who have children in their twenties, say, but who only have 1 or 2 children)? Uh, I guess that's more than a couple of queries, but they're all related.

DeLong is not only an expert on Malthusianism but also a prolific blogger with the most complex and comprehensive blog archiving system I have come across. In his spare time, he's a Professor of Economics at Berkeley.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at April 28, 2003 02:05 AM

Dr./Prof. Delong/Brad isn't just a prolific elder statesman of the blog community (I think his archives go back 3-4 years), he also served as an economic advisor for the Clinton Administration.

I don't know if his blog makes me more justified about my blog, or inadequate b/c I can't seem to fit as much in my life AND keep it updated...

Posted by: Eric at April 28, 2003 03:14 AM

Ah. Different reference points. In my economic historian life, "well-educated" means "some high school." :-)

Italy's now at 1.4 children per potential mother. The U.S. is hovering around 2.0. Most of Europe is less than 2.0, and the rest of the world is rapidly moving toward the same fertility rate. Thailand, South Korea, and Taiwan are already looking like western Europe. Much of Latin America, however, is still at about 3.0 children per potential mother. India's fertility rate was 6.0 in 1951, and 3.3 in 1997. Further declines, however, hinge on what happens in the relatively-poor Ganges valley, where fertility it still relatively high. My bet is that we are heading for something close to a zero-population-growth world by 2050...

As to whether it's intended or not... how much of the decline is desired, and how much of it is the result of a desire to delay childbearing that then turns into involuntary childlessness as fertility declines with age... that is a very good question that I don't know the answer to.

I asked Ron Lee--our real demography professor here at Berkeley--and, IIRC, his answer was "we will see." The next 50 years will see a lot of medical progress in assisting relatively older women in having children. It might well be the case that post-industrial country fertility will rise above the 2.0 replacement as medicine helps diminish infertility in your 30s and 40s. It might not. I cannot imagine having a third child now, in my mid-40s. But Ann Marie might decide differently. We still have our high chair in the garage...

Brad DeLong

Posted by: Brad DeLong at April 28, 2003 04:17 AM

"In my economic historian life, 'well-educated' means 'some high school.'"

Aha! Well, I wasn't thinking graduate school (it's arguable whether people come out of that grind well-educated), but I was definitely thinking college-educated. I believe Canada's rate is now below 2 children per potential mother also, not quite as low as some of the European countries, but lower than the U.S. rate. I am rather sceptical of the idea that there are significant numbers of women in their 40s and 50s who would make use of new technologies to have children. But I guess we will see :)

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 28, 2003 10:22 AM

The point is, DeLong is absolutely right: Malthusianism is now once and for all demonstrable bunk. Ehrlich and his brood of nay-saying population-bomb Soylent-Green-fearing experts were wrong not just in the specifics of their predictions but the generality of their understanding of human demographics. The heavy-handed state regulation of human reproduction that they avidly shilled for (along with equally heavy-handed efforts to properly 'educate' national populations about the horrors of overpopulation) turn out to have little or nothing to do with why most developed nations are at ZPG or nearly so. Even a few developing nations with notoriously high growth rates (like India!) are showing signs of sudden slowing.

So the real question is, "Why is this happening?" Basically, it's a magic recipe with several ingredients:

1) Meaningful legal and social protections for the rights of women coupled with access to education for women (e.g., you have to have a state and civil society prepared to protect those rights in whole or in part)
2) Urbanization
3) The growth of a cosmopolitan middle-class culture, most signally involving individualism and consumerism, e.g., the proposition that the cultivation of one's self is at least as important as aiding the next generation's aspirations.
4) Readily available birth control.

None of this, except for birth control, was in the toolkit of the population bomb crowd, particularly not urbanization and the growth of middle-class individualism. It has the same effects whether it's Italy or Malaysia. Add in disastrous sources of early mortality like death from heavy drinking and suicide in Russia, and you can even go below ZPG.

It doesn't matter whether reproductive technology will effectively extend the age of female fertility: I think it is for the foreseeable future going to be an expensive kind of technologically mediated reproduction and as a result is not going to lead to large numbers of families of 3, 4 or 5 children had late in life.

The really explosive question for 2030 or so is whether Western European societies will embrace naturalization of the immigrants that their economies are going to need in order to keep functioning. The EU has only two choices to make, somewhere around 20 years from now: aggressive state intervention in promoting fertility (and I mean aggressive, way beyond offering a tax credit here and there) or embracing an American-style model of immigration, naturalization and long-term generational social mobility. I don't think you can have a sustainable society where immigrants do all the work but remain forever and in perpetuity second-class citizens. If Italy isn't prepared to have an "Italian" national identity that encompasses and embraces North Africans, Arabs and others, they'd better give the Pope some legions to search and destroy all birth control devices and forcibly confine women to the home again.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at April 28, 2003 01:38 PM

Very interesting comment. Re: the direction in which EU countries might go. I doubt that aggressive pro-natalist policies would have much success: once those four factors that you cite are firmly entrenched, what kind of state intervention could persuade women to have more children? The intervention would have to be positively coercive, and such coercion would meet with strenuous opposition (based in part on formal legal and constitutional protections, but also on broader, extralegal and sociocultural factors: individualism, consumerism, and the like.)

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 28, 2003 05:46 PM

On a personal level, this is very poignant. I always thought I'd have a family. But I have always known two thing: 1. That I was more than a breeder; my talents, intelligence, teaching ability, creativity and professional passion were as worthy as any man's. 2. That it was dangerous to assume, esp. for women, that all of one' needs could be met in the context of a marriage. I had be prepared to take care of myself. How many men have to think about that? Or be prepared to answer the question of how atteactive they are? I wonder if having a wife would have helped me in my career.

Maria, Ph.D., MPH, a 42 year old childless, unemployed, and well published anthropologist

Posted by: Maria at April 28, 2003 09:31 PM

Pardon my typos; I was fired up. Consider my post an example of the sociological imagination, the link between personal problems and social issues, biography and history.

Posted by: Maria at April 28, 2003 09:35 PM

Quite right about those two things you have always known. But there shouldn't have to be such a tradeoff: either you're a mother and nothing else, or you're something else and not a mother. It just shouldn't have to be this way. I'm increasingly inclined to see motherhood as liberal feminism's final frontier.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 28, 2003 11:22 PM

Motherhood, or fatherhood? *evil grin*

(I grin evilly when this kind of thing comes up because I am one o' them evil childfree women. You know, *them*.)

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at April 29, 2003 01:56 AM

Yes, fatherhood too. At the very moment when significant numbers of fathers want and/or need (i.e., because of working wives) to play a much more active role in childcare, the workplace is increasing its demands on workers -- the ideal worker is an unencumbered self with no other interests or obligations that might impinge on the interests of the employer.

But fatherhood is not weighed down by the ideological baggage that accompanies motherhood.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 29, 2003 03:07 AM

Well, no, but that's not to say that there's no ideological baggage at all. It's just different.

Ask a stay-at-home dad.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at April 29, 2003 12:07 PM

I would ask a stay-at-home dad if only I knew one :)
But I did read a wonderful essay by a stay-at-home dad (about a year ago, cannot remember the name): he was a writerly type who had the idea that, while staying home to care for their infant while his wife went to work (she made more money), he would also use all that spare time to write a novel. He quickly discovered otherwise.

It is true that fatherhood comes with its own ideological baggage: much of it to do with breadwinning and the role of provider.

But in terms of combining parenthood and career, a father is not an object of suspicion the way a mother is. Nobody (or almost nobody) thinks, 'He has a child or two at home? He mustn't be committed to his career.'

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 29, 2003 12:30 PM

I suspect that the discrepancy between desired family size and actual family size is more of a methodological artifact than the consequence of delayed childbearing running into age-related infertility. People's desires change over time and a survey that samples a cross section of women "of child-bearing age" will miss that change.

To show what I mean consider a population which contains just three women: one just born, one 18 years old, one 36. The 18 year old thinks four children a desirable family size; the 36 year old will stop at two. Fast forward 18 years. The now 18 year old has the same notions that the then 18 year old had. But the then 18 year old, now 36, has had some experience of chiidbirth, can assess the pleasures and costs (including opportunity costs) of child-rearing, and now thinks to stop at two. Surveys of this population continually show that the average woman of child-bearing age desires three children; but each woman actually has no more than two. Infertility has nothing to do with it.

Posted by: jam at April 29, 2003 01:06 PM

Good point about the change in desires. As a child, I imagined myself having five children (what was I thinking?!). Now that I have one child, I know that two is my absolute limit.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 29, 2003 11:57 PM

Interesting article and thread! I seem to always be alone in my belief that it shouldn't be "wierd" to have kids when you are young. I'm not interested in having children, but if I had entertained the thought, I would have done so when I was in my early 20's at the latest! Sound strange? To me, not any stranger than 45 year old women deliberately choosing to get pregnant for the first time! I realize that modern day economics prevents many women from having kids at a young age (while still being able to survive financially) but I just don't see what is so hideous about women having kids while they are younger (i.e. 18-22 yrs--the taboo, don't-saddle-them-with-kids-let-them-have-an-extended-adolescence age range). It's getting to the point where only a small, select class of women are culturally "approved" to have kids (i.e. white, middle-upper class yuppie gals who have a special protected status when you compare them with other women in our country). If anyone outside of this category of woman dares to have a child, they are frowned upon and judged.
I also think that when considering population issues, you also have to consider consumption issues. One two year old in the U.S. probably has more material goods surrounding them than entire families in many nations on the globe! To me, this is the critical economic issue. When people's household pets have more toys than most kids in the world, you are facing a consumption crisis!

Posted by: Cat at April 30, 2003 05:19 PM

Erm, not to mention that if you happen to be a member of that privileged class of women, you get the negative judgments if you *don't* have kids. The practical ramifications are considerably less, of course, but it's two sides of the same coin.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at April 30, 2003 05:45 PM

There are practical problems with having children in one's early twenties. First, the mother and her children must have financial support. Either the mother works to provide this support, or else the support is provided by a partner or by the state. State support is no longer politically viable. The support of a partner requires a young woman to pair up very early in life, and to pair up with whom? To someone in the same age bracket? -- he will likely not have his own career established, it will be difficult for him to provide the support. To someone older and more financially secure? There are problems there too: do we want to tell young women that they should be looking for older men as partners? how would this effect the power balance in the relationship? And if the mother must work herself to provide the support, there are significant opportunity costs in terms of her own career. There is a reason why women who pursue professional careers tend to wait to have children: if they have the children early, they may never have the chance to establish careers.

But I agree that the list of those who are "culturally approved" to become mothers is shrinking.

Though I also agree with Dorothea that women who choose not to have children are often viewed with suspicion: a vague hostility sometimes mixed in with a kind of pity for what must be a huge void in her life.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 30, 2003 06:08 PM

Heh. Hostility's not so vague sometimes.

"Disbelief" is another common one.

Carolyn Morell's published dissertation _Unwomanly Conduct_ has a good exploration of the politics of intentional childlessness. Recommended, if you can find it. Routledge, I think.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at April 30, 2003 07:35 PM