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Walking in a demographic winter wonderland

Why are people averting their eyes from the coming collapse of population growth?
Jennifer Roback Morse | 8 January 2009
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flickr / Lynn FagerlieDemographic Winter is an independently produced film describing the consequences of the population collapse of industrialized countries. I have been amazed at the response, or I should say, lack of response to this film. Many of the reviewers either dismissed the thesis of the film, or changed the subject. The lack of serious American attention is surprising, considering that Demographic Winter has been translated in several languages, most recently, Romanian. (Full disclosure: I was interviewed as one of the experts for Part II, as yet to be released.) Commentators Left and Right are wandering through a Demographic Winter Wonderland with their eyes glazed over.

The film argues that falling population will mean a diminished quality of life for the aging generation and for future generations. For instance, pensions, both private and public, have to be paid for. When the retired population is too high relative to the working population, paying the promised pensions becomes an enormous burden. Either the young pay crushing taxes, or the elderly will not get what they expected, or both.

Consumer spending keeps the economy humming and the stock market climbing. When population shrinks, the demand for goods and services of all kinds shrinks. Harry Dent, one of the experts interviewed on the film, is an investment advisor. He discovered the significance of population growth by accident. He had a chart showing birth rates over a hundred year period on his desk next to a chart showing the stock market over the same period. He laid them over each other and realized that the stock market tracks birth rates with about a 40 year lag. That is because people spend the most money in their 40s. They buy the biggest house they’ll ever have; they feed, clothe and educate their children; they buy cars and vacations.

I have been thinking about Harry Dent and his charts while I drive through my San Diego neighborhood. Out of 42 homes, we have 4 foreclosures. Yes, the housing prices ballooned up and people took on mortgages they couldn’t pay. But there is more to the story than the credit crunch: there simply are not enough people at the right age, with enough income, to afford these houses. Because the Baby Boomers didn’t replace themselves, there are not enough people to buy their homes. Falling demand translates into falling home prices.

The Chattering Classes can not bring themselves to take the Demographic Winter thesis seriously. The Left dismisses it as a hysterical racist rant. Kathryn Joyce, writing in the Nation magazine, reports on her conversation with Stephen Mosher. "Mosher, president of the Catholic anticontraception lobbyist group (cue scary music) Population Research Institute (PRI), describes his grim vision of Europe's future: fields will lie fallow and economies will wither. A great depression will sink over the continent as it undergoes ‘a decline that Europe hasn't experienced since the Black Death.’"

Joyce never refutes Mosher’s argument that population decline precedes economic decline. Instead, she changes the subject to something she wants to talk about: the alleged racism of pro-natalists. "The white Christian West, in this telling, is in danger of forfeiting itself through sheer lack of numbers to an onslaught of Muslim immigrants and their purportedly numerous offspring."

Oddly enough, the Demographic Winter film makes no mention of race or nationality. In fact, the film emphasizes that the problem of population decline is a worldwide problem. Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker notes that 70 countries now have fertility rates below replacement. The left-wing commentariat would like the film to be about race, so they can dismiss it as unworthy of attention.

Representing the Libertarian Right, we have Ronald Bailey of Reason magazine. He likewise makes no pretense of engaging the actual argument of the film: "I doubt that the "demographic winter" portends economic collapse or social deterioration, but let us set that aside for this column, and instead ask why people are choosing to have fewer children?" He wants to talk about how the modern world has given men and women more choices, which is a good thing.

His libertarian instincts blind him to the fact that the Invisible Hand does not always promote the social good. Having children may be optional for individuals, but it is not optional for society as a whole. The principles of individual liberty and personal choice that he holds dear are not self-sustaining. Those ideals will collapse, if the people who hold them do not transmit them to the next generation. In this case, we are not even creating a next generation.

As I mentioned, the producers of Demographic Winter interviewed me to appear in Part II. The producers happen to be Mormons. They told me that they had anticipated more interest in the film from church groups of all kinds. But in fact, only Catholics and their fellow Mormons seem receptive.

This is not entirely surprising, in that these two groups have theological reasons for supporting larger families. But still, churches and all of civil society, ought to take the argument of Demographic Winter seriously.

Jennifer Roback Morse, PhD is an economist and the Founder and President of the Ruth Institute, a nonprofit educational organization devoted to bringing hope and encouragement for lifelong married love.

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