What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster is a new book out by the Weekly Standard’s Jonathan Last, and he was available for an interview with me on it and its argument – which is, essentially, that worldwide fertility rates are crashing, for a wide variety of reasons; including ones that we’d rather not change, like lowered infant mortality and increased educational and employment opportunities for women. In point of fact, Jon was available for two interviews… both of which crashed and burned in a fiery software mess. Rather than subject Jon to a third interview, I just pulled a three minute audio clip that was salvageable and will review the book generally.
To sum up What to Expect When No One’s Expecting is in some ways easy; it’s a numbers-driven book that points out the global drop in fertility, and attempts to look at some of the reasons why it’s been happening. It’s also, pretty deliberately, not a sentimental book; there’s a good deal of zero-sum in it. To give just one example: one major reason that fertility has dropped in the US is because we’re sending more people (especially women) to college. Jonathan Last thinks – as do I – that this is a good thing for our society, and obviously it’s a good thing for women… but it’s still bad for our fertility rate, and there’s really no way to get around that. There are, in fact, no really good and easy answers to the problem (and, as Jonathan points out, the historical record shows that population decline is heavily associated with general societal problems); to go back to the example, Western Europe’s attempts to make it easier for working mothers to have no children seem successful, but they also require a good deal of constant effort for somewhat modest gains. Which is something that is, generally speaking, impolitic to say or write in public.
And, speaking of impolitic… there’s our current immigration debate, which, while it’s not really brought up all that much in the book, is probably why you should read it anyway. What’s basically happening right now is that demographic research suggests that we’re assuming precisely the wrong things about immigration from Mexico: to wit, that the level of illegal immigration will recover to the levels seen prior to the 2008 meltdown; and that the immigrants who have already come over are going to keep boosting our fertility rate. Neither assumption is all that valid. Mexico’s birthrate has dropped precipitously over the last few decades, and is hovering at replacement levels now; and immigrant fertility levels, while initially usually higher than native-born fertility levels, have been dropping at a faster rate than the natives’. All of which means that if you’re using a straight-line extrapolation of Hispanic population growth in support of your policy positions on immigration – i.e., you’re both the Democratic AND the Republican party – then you stand an excellent chance of having that blow up in your face. And this risk applies to everybody, from the people being unbending on a fence to the people insisting that amnesty is simply inevitable to the Democrats smugly certain that they’re going to be just given blocs of free voters for the next sixty years. Sean Trende noted something similar in his own book The Lost Majority; you can’t assume that things won’t change, even though standard policy planning apparently refuses to do anything except precisely that.
In short: I do recommend that you read What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, if only to get an idea of just how badly our average assumptions are about fertility rates, why we’re seeing them drop, and what to do about them. The math is not hard to follow, and the writing style itself is both straightforward, and easy to follow. Check it out.
Moe Lane (crosspost)