Interviewing Jonathan Last on “What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster.”


In many respects, the spending crunch that we’re seeing here in America and across Western Europe is actually a demographics crunch. That’s why Jonathan Last’s latest book on demographics What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster is so important; it’s covering an issue that, despite having a dramatic impact on our lives, is seldom being discussed. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation. Enjoy!

Demographics is an extraordinarily important issue, but it’s something that’s completely off the radar for most Americans. So let’s start with the basics; what’s happening to demographics in America and what impact is it having on our society?

So what’s happening in America is that we’ve had a collapsing fertility rate since the early 1970s. Beginning in 1968, fertility rates in the Western and industrialized nations started falling off the table. And in America we’ve crossed the low of what is called the replacement rate — that is, the number of children that the average home needs to have to keep the population stable over time. We crossed below that threshold in 1973. We’ve been below it basically ever since then.

Now around the world what’s interesting is this fertility collapse has happened everywhere now. It began in the West, but today 97% of the world’s population lives in a country where their fertility rate is declining. Now in America we are eventually running up against the problems with all of this. …We’ve been spared the worst of the actual demographic decay because we’ve had massive immigration over the last 30 years. Now that immigration comes with all sorts of its own problems, but just in a demographic matter it has kept us from being where Europe is right now; strip out our immigrants over the last 30 years: we are Europe.

Well, related question with Greece: how many of its problems are really – if you get right down to it, are related – deeply related to demographics?

A lot of them and what you see in European countries and in Japan in particular is that all of their welfare state and entitlement state problems are wrapped up in demographics because at the root, what demographics is really about is creating new taxpayers. Once you wind up in a sort of socialized state where the government is handing out goodies to people as they get older, that doesn’t work. You’ve got to have new taxpayers.

Now, among others I’ve heard you, Mark Steyn, and Pat Buchanan discuss this subject at length — but I think you’ve done the best job of explaining why it’s happening. So about that, why are we seeing less kids particularly in all these western nations?

Well, it’s a whole bunch of factors and some of these factors are generalized for everybody — things like urbanization. As people move out of rural areas and into urban areas, whether they are in Brazil or Canada or America or Singapore, they’re going to wind up having fewer kids. Another interesting general factor is housing structure…..single family homes versus a town home versus what the modernists called tenement housing, what really just means sort of apartment buildings. People in single family homes are going to have more children. All these things sort of influence everybody.

But then other countries have their own particular causes. In Russia, simple alcoholism is a big factor in their fertility rate decline. In America, we’ve got really two things happening. One is sort of the economic factors — things like the increasing cost of children, things like the increasing cost of living in America, problems with Social Security and Medicare, which a couple of studies suggest depress the fertility by about half a child. Then you have cultural changes which would include the rise of contraception and abortion. You would include the breakdown of marriage, the increase in the divorce rate. These things just in an objective matter depress fertility. So you have all these things happening….

Yeah, it is a fascinating subject. You know, the first time I dated a woman who told me she didn’t ever want to have kids, I was really surprised. But then, it happened again and again and initially I thought, “Wow, this is strange.” I’ve always wondered if, like let’s say 100 years ago, you had to have kids to have a retirement. If you got old without any kids, you were going to starve to death. Now we take care of people and the kids, instead of being a huge economic help, are a huge hindrance because it’s incredibly expensive to have a kid.

It’s super expensive to have a kid — and you point to something that’s very interesting. We certainly have had a rise in people who are not interested in having children. But I would say those people are over represented in the elite level, educated classes, people with more money. This is one of the most interesting things I’ve found in researching something called the ideal fertility rate. That’s the number of kids people say they would like to have in a perfect world. There are three really interesting things about our ideal fertility rate in America.

The first is that men and women have basically the same ideal fertility number. You would guess that either one sex or the other would prefer more kids, but they don’t. We have very similar ideas about it. The second is that your concept of your ideal fertility changes over time. When people are at the beginning of childbearing years in their late teens and early 20s, they have a lower ideal number than they do when they’re getting towards the end. So when you’re 20, you idealize having fewer children than you do when you’re 35. But the third most interesting thing is that in America our ideal fertility rate is actually 2.5 which is pretty high. That’s pretty robust and more to the point, it’s been 2.5 for almost 40 years. So we do have people changing their attitudes towards kids and we do have more people saying they don’t want kids — and that’s perfectly valid. I say this in the book over and over — I am not trying to argue anybody into having kids. If you don’t want them, I say God bless you and I hope you go see a movie on a Wednesday night and think of me.

Speaking of movies, there is a movie about demographics that comes up a lot in discussions of the issue and I wanted to know if you think it has any validity; that is Idiocracy. I’m assuming you’ve seen that, correct?

It’s funny. I was sitting here thinking to myself, “Is he going to say Idiocracy or Children of Man because I’ve seen Idiocracy, but I haven’t seen Children of Man. I’m embarrassed because I know that I should see that.

Well, could you give people a little rundown of what the central idea of the movie is and whether you think there is anything to it.

Yeah, so the premise of Idiocracy and it’s Mike Judge, for any of you who haven’t seen it. I assume everybody has seen Office Space. If you’ve seen Office Space and loved it, then you should see Idiocracy. It’s not as funny though.

Great movie, enjoyed it a lot.

The premise of Idiocracy is people higher on the socioeconomic scale don’t have babies and aren’t reproducing while the dumb people down at the bottom are popping out kids left and right. Then in the far future, the idiots inherit the earth. There is nobody smart left and the whole world is run by the left hand side of the bell curve. So that’s the theory of the movie and hilarity ensues. It’s actually a very funny movie.

Now a lot of conservatives in particular sort of embrace that as the model of what’s going on and they’re wrong because the truth is much more dangerous and terrifying. There’s some great research by this Austrian demographer and he looked at 900 different data sets of population going back 700 years and what he found is that fertility has always been what he calls an aspirational behavior. What he means is that the people who are — we’re just going to sort of abstract things crudely; the idiots have always patterned their child making decisions on what they take to be the behavior of the people who are very successful. Seven hundred years ago, the wealthy, more educated people had more kids than the people through below random spectrum. Around 1750 that began to shift and at the elite level, they began cutting back on the number of babies they had. And the idiots of the world, again if we’re going to just be crude, started following them. So what we have seen then is that since then, people at the lower end of the professional spectrum continue to cut back on their fertility — continue having fewer and fewer children over time because they are watching the people at the higher end of the scale do the same. So you can see how this creates a negative feedback loop where people at the top keep cutting back because they have other things to do in life. And so the people at the lower end of the social spectrum keep cutting back on their fertility rates, too, and we all end up sort of circling the drain together then.

Now there are two details you note that are related to immigration. The first is that Mexico’s birth rate has dropped to the replacement level of 2.1, which may reduce the number of illegal immigrants coming into the United States and two, you note the only reason America’s birth rate hasn’t dropped as far as western Europe is that the birth rate of Hispanic Americans has been much higher than the white population, but now that’s also dropping a lot. So how does this all play into the immigration and illegal immigration debate?

…Without immigration, we surely would look like Europe already and what we’ve seen though is that regardless of what we do here, we may wind up with a supply side problem to the immigration story in the long run. Right now, all the countries in Central and South America are seeing massive declines in their fertility rates. About 1/3 of those countries are already below their replacement level and the countries which are already below their replacement level do not send us immigrants in any significant numbers.

So we are still getting immigration from countries that have reasonably high fertility rates and those countries are heading south. In 20 years they’ll all be below their replacement level. The question then is, what happens? Now here you have a sort of theological debate between the economists and the demographers. When we look at Mexico, which has traditionally sent us about 2/3 of our immigrants –Mexico, the last five years, has sent us a net of zero immigrants. This is as their fertility rate has collapsed to the replacement level. Now the economists tell us don’t worry. They say as our economy recovers, Mexican immigration will resume as it was before and demographers say maybe not. Maybe when Mexico has a fertility rate of 1.7, which they will probably have within 10 years or so, maybe Mexican immigration to America is going to be structurally altered. So that’s something I think that is just sort of important to keep in the back of our head as we’re debating domestic policy here.

The other thing is about the fertility of recent immigrants here, particularly Hispanic immigrants. What we see is that they come here with very high fertility rates, in fact, particularly from Mexico — immigrants who come here from Mexico typically have a higher fertility rate than even the average Mexican woman does. So we’re getting the people on the high side of their fertility average. And yet, once they’re here for a couple of generations, they go rushing back to the mean at an incredibly fast rate. So I think what that just speaks to is how powerful the cultural effects in America are on people’s fertility. All those cultural things we’ve talked about and economic factors, too, are sort of pressing people to have fewer and fewer kids. In fact, no one is immune from them.

On a side note, and this from the devil’s advocate view here, I’ve read your Amazon reviews and not unexpectedly. there are liberals who don’t like your book. You may be shocked to find that out. But most of them seem to have the same complaint and that is that the world is already way over populated. We’d be much better off if we had 1/2 or 1/3 as many humans. I mean one guy even said a billion would be a nice top level. What do you say to that argument?

All of the negative reviews on Amazon admit that they haven’t read the book. It would be nice if they had gone to the trouble of reading it before they trashed it.

So what I say to my environmentalist friends is this: we’ve been hearing the exact same complaints over population for 200 years, dating back to the time of Thomas Malthus. The only thing which has changed about it is that once upon a time all those complaints were explicitly racist and now they’re not. The complaints really used to be we don’t want the wrong kinds of people reproducing because they’re going to ruin it for the rest of us and the environmentalists, to their credit, have dropped that. They’re no longer racists. They’re just anti-humanist.

What we have seen over the course of that time is that the standard of living all around the world has increased dramatically. We have seen that the life expectancy all around the world has increased dramatically. Fewer people go hungry now than ever before in human history. Famine has basically been eradicated except as a political weapon used by corrupt dictators against their own people. We have more food than we know what to do with. In questions of scarcity, if you go by commodities prices which are a pretty objective measure of scarcity, commodities prices have dropped consistently for an entire century. So, this isn’t to say that there isn’t some theoretical level in which there are too many people, but we ain’t near that theoretical level by any objective measures. So this is really a faith-based argument for them.

It’s just a matter of faith that they believe that there are too many people and they believe that there is some number, some golden, magic number which is the right number of people — and the truth is everybody’s got to believe in something. That’s fine. They’re not going to argue me out of the virgin birth and I’m not going to argue them out of thinking that there should be fewer people, but I do wish that they would understand that there isn’t actually any science on that. It’s just a matter of personal faith and I say God bless them.

Jonathan Last, I really appreciate your time.

John, I appreciate it.

Once again, Jonathan Last’s new book is What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster.

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