FROM AN EXCELLENT essay in America's most excellent popular journal of ideas, the Wall Street Journal's saturday "Review":
For two generations we've been lectured on the dangers of overpopulation. But the conventional wisdom on this issue is wrong, twice. First . . .
. . . global population growth is slowing to a halt and will begin to shrink within 60 years. Second . . . growing populations lead to increased innovation and conservation. Think about it: Since 1970, commodity prices have continued to fall and America's environment has become much cleaner and more sustainable -- even though our population has increased by more than 50%. Human ingenuity, it turns out, is the most precious resource.
Low-fertility societies don't innovate because their incentives for consumption tilt overwhelmingly toward health care. They don't invest aggressively because, with the average age skewing higher, capital shifts to preserving and extending life and then begins drawing down. They cannot sustain social-security programs because they don't have enough workers to pay for the retirees. They cannot project power because they lack the money to pay for defense and the military-age manpower to serve in their armed forces.
There has been a great deal of political talk in recent years about whether America, once regarded as the shining city on the hill, is in decline. But decline isn't about whether Democrats or Republicans hold power; it isn't about political ideology at all. At its most basic, it's about the sustainability of human capital. Whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney took the oath of office last month, we would still be declining in the most important sense -- demographically. It is what drives everything else.
(Jonathan V. Last, "America's Baby Bust," WSJ "Review," February 2, 2013, adapted from What to Expect When No One's Expecting: America's Coming Demographic Disaster (Encounter))
The lede points out that the fertility rate of America's white, college-educated women -- "a good proxy for the middle class" -- is 1.6, virtually as the same as China's 1.54. "America has its very own one-child policy. And we have chosen it for ourselves."
A chart shows that America's fertility rate of 2.07 is highest among the top ten counties by gross domestic product. Only India, tenth on the list, with a fertility rate of 2.73 exceeds the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. Lowest are Japan (1.32), Germany (1.36), Italy (1.38), and Russia (1.44).
The only reason America is so high, Mr. Last says, is because we're outsourcing or fertility to recent immigrants, who tend to have more children than their native neighbors. Without immigrant babies, our fertility rate would be 1.5.
Update: See the thoughtful comment below. Also, consider this related item by Michael Barone, pegged in part to Mr. Last's new book:
Last week, the Commerce Department announced that the gross domestic product shrank by 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012. And the Census Bureau reported that the U.S. birthrate in 2011 was63.2 per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44, the lowest ever recorded.
Slow economic growth and low population growth threaten to undermine entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. Despite contrary rhetoric, they are programs in which working-age people pay for pensions and medical care for the elderly.
When Medicare was established in 1965 and when Social Security was vastly expanded in 1972, America was accustomed to the high birthrates of post-World War II baby boom. It was widely assumed that the baby boom generation would soon produce a baby boom of its own.
Oops. The birthrate fell from the peak of 122.7 in 1957 to 68.8 in 1973 and hovered around that level until 2007. The baby boom, it turns out, was an exception to the general rule that people that people tend to have fewer babies as their societies become more affluent and urbanized.
Social Security had to be tweaked in 1983 when it became clear there weren't enough working-age people to fund benefits promised to the elderly. It needs tweaking again today for the same reason.
Medicare presents even greater problems. . . .
(Michael Barone, "Fewer dollars and babies threaten social programs," washingtonexaminer.com, February 1, 2013)