Originally published: 2004
241 pages

Chapter 43

FEWER


Ben J. Wattenberg

 
Population is a big-picture subject that is typically presented as a simplistic, short and long-term issue; specifically, that there are too many people already on the planet and there are likely to be a whole lot more. That that portrait is no longer true is the point of Ben Wattenberg's essay; he dispels the notion that this is only a numbers game:

               About modernity, then, think economics, not biology. . . .

Media pundits, non-profit population foundations, demagogic politicians and UN bureaucrats, all of whom have a vested interest in doomsday over-population scenarios, offer the public their traditional, generally monochromatic agendas concerning population. But there is something new in the air, different from what we've been hearing for so long, something quite striking. Fewer doesn't fit snugly into the First Principles grid, but it does have its place in an open-ended category: The Future. This book is not about political philosophy, but it does form the basis for long-term global economic and political reassessment.
     According to Wattenberg, there are two key points about current demographic figures. The first is simultaneously mundane and far reaching: world population growth estimates, based on observable trends, have been officially and dramatically lowered-to the point where population decline will be a reality by the end of this century. The second point is as interesting as it is important: almost no one is talking publicly about this shift. The lack of discourse is likely a

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result of the conception most people still have about population: that its growth is based on Malthusian theory, which posits the inevitable extinction of the human race due to over-breeding. This misperception is not helped by the media's short-term, profit-motivated tendency to peddle alarmist stories that support the Eastern Establishment's big-government model as the only solution to the supposed population crisis (perhaps, in their view, ultimately entailing forced sterilization, euthanasia, or other such outrages). The liberals don't want the fact that the world is getting better, all by itself, to become part of any new paradigm. Least of all can the liberal press admit that any of this is occurring through the mechanism of free-market economics in contravention of their accepted wisdom that only by government intervention can the world be made to work optimally.
     Wattenberg, the U.S. Representative to the UN World Population Summit in 1984, presents in direct and concrete terms facts and figures to explain the slowing and ultimately declining population numbers. He cites known statistical resources and then offers a more probable estimate of population trends, based on a lifetime of study that allows him to observe how far behind reality (most likely because of political considerations) official sources inevitably are. Fewer provides a probably more accurate extrapolation of population trends than that which appears in any
standard reference work-especially those published by the United Nations. Of necessity (if one is going to take on the UN) Wattenberg concisely explains why.
     Of equal or perhaps more value than his observations and calculations on actual population trends is Wattenberg's overview of population issues from a combined political, social, and economic perspective. There is utility in knowing what is happening and there are advantages in realizing why, but what is of paramount importance is to grasp what it means going forward. Wattenberg addresses all three of these concerns.
     Those who understand the import of population dynamics on all facets of economic, governmental, and national-security issues may find Wattenberg's data rather bleak for most European countries and Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, but more positive-with certain caveats-for the less developed countries. The U.S. sits in something of a middle position as one of the few exceptions to all the other rules. Wattenberg eliminates the standard euphemisms, qualifications, and dissembling in his presentation. His refreshingly simple language and concepts enable anyone to understand what is happening.

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     The reproductive numbers are simple: replacement fertility rates for most societies center at 2.1 children per woman during her core childbearing years; i.e., through age forty-one. In the lesser-developed countries, the replacement benchmark is slightly greater because infant mortality is correspondingly higher. These rates have been exceeded for centuries.
     The startling fact is that the worldwide population explosion experienced since the Middle Ages (roughly the last five hundred years) slowed and then reversed during the second half of the twentieth century. To repeat, this reversal occurred in just fifty years. Comprehensible only with a long view, this transformation is extraordinarily significant. A trend of over five centuries' duration, a trend that had threatened an environmental disaster of biblical proportions, stopped and then turned itself around within two generations, with little prospect of reverting to the old pattern (for both social and mathematical reasons that are dealt with below). The change portends, quite simply, a truly new world order.
     Population growth is calculated in terms of the total fertility rate (TFR), which is a measure of how many children are being born, per mother, at any given moment. In most Western countries (except for the U.S., where the TFR is just under replacement level at 2.01) fertility rates have plummeted. As Wattenberg observes, it isn't just that the TFR for developed countries has fallen below 2.1; it has actually collapsed-down to 1.14 in Russia, 1.15 in Spain, 1.17 in Korea, 1.23 in Italy, 1.32 in Japan, 1.35 in Germany, 1.47 in Canada, 1.60 in Great Britain, Sweden, and Australia, and 1.89 in France.5
     The TFRs for the less developed countries, especially "the billionaires," as Wattenberg refers to India and China, are equally astonishing. China's TFR of 1.80 is already below replacement and India will reach a rate lower than replacement in the near future. (It is difficult to tell exactly what the rate is at any specific time in any given nation, but the trends are clear from ongoing surveys of birth records and other local statistics.) In Mexico, where the TFR was seven children per woman in the late 1950s, the rate is now close to 2.1 and will fall below the replacement rate within a year or two, if it hasn't already. (As an aside, the dramatic decline in the birth rate in Mexico may not only solve the illegal immigration flow from Mexico to the U.S. within the next twenty to thirty years-because there will not be enough young

5 All figures in this synopsis are current as of 2004.

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Mexican workers to run Mexico much less supply labor for the United States-but the demand to stop Mexicans from entering the U.S. may quickly reverse, to the point where the U.S. makes emigration from Mexico attractive to bolster our own declining labor force.)
     The international fertility numbers do not mean that population will stop increasing this decade, for the earth's current inhabitants will continue to procreate, albeit on a decreasing scale. But it does mean that global population will drop meaningfully, before environmental or social catastrophe likely descends. In other words, Wattenberg finds sound reason for optimism in the statistics and their causes.
     All of this is stunning, and in stark contradiction to the doom and gloom portrayed about the future of the earth by the population and environmental Cassandras. Instead of a world population of 15 billion or more, in less than two hundred years we face a potential global population of near 3 billion, less than one-half what it is today. Making an educated guess as to this number is not easy, since there are varying methods used to achieve high, middle, and low-range estimates. None of this is set in stone, but today's real numbers, as opposed to those concocted using archaic theories, tell us what is most likely for tomorrow.
     Considering the messages of radical environmentalists and strident climatologists proffered by the media, it would appear that these "experts" are wholly unaware of the news. Perhaps they are ignoring these facts until they discern how to spin them to stay in business. Various ramifications that Fewer brings to the fore about the near-term effects of a declining population, though stark in their political, geopolitical, and economic implications, have also been largely ignored by media outlets. This cannot last much longer as neglecting the facts inevitably becomes unsustainable.
The first lesson to be gleaned about population decline is that almost none of this happened as a result of strong private or church sponsored family-planning efforts, coercive political/administrative methods (except in China), or any other form of direct governmental action. It has come about as a result of modernity and economics.
     As modernization proceeds, populations manifest a shift from a rural-based short life expectancy and high birthrate, to an urban-centered increased life expectancy and lower birthrate environment. There are many reasons that explain the changed population paradigm, most are the result of changes in culture: broader urban educational efforts, especially for girls and women; paid (as opposed to in-the-

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home or in-the-field) employment for women; greater access to basic health care for all age groups; increases in the availability and use of contraception; greater personal wealth as free-enterprise becomes the norm (which allows mothers to think of and certainly to appreciate an enhanced quality of life for their children-a very important factor as the educational, healthcare, and economic levels of women also increase); and the mere move from rural to urban areas (in an urban setting children are more of a burden, in rural areas they are more of an asset). Additionally, as women become more equal with men in their ability to participate in modern society (with marriage thus coming later in life), and cohabitation becoming an accepted living arrangement, the socially desirable childbearing years for all women are reduced, thus the TFR declines across the board, through choice. In other words, as women experience the drive toward self-realization, children, per se, or at least large numbers of them, are not always their first priority, or sometimes a priority at all.
     Of equal or greater importance to modern parents is the quality of life their children experience. There is a relatively direct correlation between the number of children in a family and the quality of that entire family's existence. As women become educated and urbanized this reality strikes home
with great force. Even poor women who live in a remote setting are having fewer offspring, perhaps because of a modern communications system (think satellite TV and even a rudimentary electric generator) that simply allows them to see what is possible, both for themselves and their progeny.
     Aside from the likely continuation of the foregoing fertility-inhibiting conditions, there are practical reasons why fertility rates will not be reversed yet again, at least not soon and not easily. One is the same Malthusian calculation that had predicted exponential population growth. Once population is substantially diminished, mathematical realities (how many children women can bear), constrained by the time involved to return to former population levels (how long it takes to mature each generation), dictate that it would take centuries to re-attain today's population level. It is unlikely that people would see that as a good thing having already experienced overpopulation once, thus there is reason to be optimistic.
     Additionally, government intervention in various countries to increase fertility rates (called pro-natalism), generally through monetary incentives and offering government child-rearing support such as day care, educational opportunities, and health cost relief, has not

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been successful, for purely economic reasons. Giving a couple ten thousand dollars (or even ten times that) to encourage having a child doesn't begin to cover the overall cost of child rearing in modern society. In other words, governments cannot afford to "buy" children, especially considering lower tax revenues going forward because there are fewer workers as population declines. While governments struggle to support the public costs involved in paying off the retirement and health care promises made to existing adult citizens very few funds will be available for pro-natalism. Most important, the basic reasons for population decline are the economic and cultural factors that have been developing for half a century; the genie that created them won't fit back in the bottle. All of this shows the law of unintended consequences (free-market capitalism creating the solution to overpopulation) in one of its most powerful and almost certainly irreversible manifestations.
     The implications of the two-step process, first the decline in population growth, followed by a decline in population levels, are profound-especially for Western countries as their next two generations age. The unfunded, pay-as-you-go public retirement and health-care systems in place throughout the developed world, but particularly in the U.S., Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, are simply fiscally insupportable in the face of population collapse. This portends significant economic and political reconfiguration if not confrontation unless alternative solutions are embraced. Such solutions are feasible, but not always seen as desirable and thus are pushed off into the future where they become ever more difficult to implement.
     The public's sense of entitlement to high, even untenable, levels of pension payments, subsidies, and health care indemnification-that populations bought into when spoon-fed such notions through political pandering-seems to grow in inverse proportion to fiscal reality. The idea that the older generations have somehow "earned" their "entitlements" through votes for a free lunch to be provided by pyramid-scheme social programs becomes more unreasonable each year. Almost all of these programs are going to collapse if dollars are not aligned with sense. If they do founder because of political naiveté or willful public ignorance, the consequences will be sudden, and the cures (and pain) dramatic.
     Wattenberg notes that demographic changes also offer seldom-considered realities regarding national and international security questions. Who will fill the ranks of the armies of the future? One possibility is

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that armies will be less used, even if they will not be less useful. As world population
shrinks and resources are freed up, while national territorial pressures are reduced, it may be that diminished proximity will simply decrease tensions in every direction.
     The new demographic reality gives rise to myriad issues involving regional, religious, cultural, and ethnic considerations, as well as environmental, business, legal, governance, education, and immigration problems. The migration question, in particular, is one of the more controversial and complex. Wattenberg contends that immigration is the most likely antidote for the various declining labor forces and declining numbers of taxpayers facing developed countries. The problems of population decline in these nations are compounded by the reluctance of the native-born to engage in labor or work past quite early retirement as life expectancies expand, while these same citizens do not welcome the immigrants necessary to keep their economies going. Wattenberg doesn't discuss the apparent lack of appreciation in developed societies for the inherent dignity in all work, but this cultural attitude may change in the near term as the demographic situation forces a reappraisal of workforce needs. People are both more resilient and realistic than many pundits seem to believe, thus the future may not look as bleak as Wattenberg's book might suggest to some readers.
     An additional consideration is that demographic changes in combination with technological developments will trend toward economic convergence, leading to a shrinking global community where wealth is more evenly distributed. Immigrants earn higher wages in their new countries, send excess funds home, and thus raise the economic level of their country of origin. In the home country these funds are often pooled as capital rather than just as income, thereby raising the economic base there.
     Another example Wattenberg offers refutes the American myth (often promoted by the press and some politicians) that the rich are getting richer, the poor poorer, and that the gap between the wealthy and the less well-off is widening. This is a falsehood perpetuated by the misuse of both language and statistics. The rich are indeed getting richer, but so too are the poor, sometimes more quickly than the wealthiest sector of the economy. The wealth gap sometimes widens marginally, and sometimes shrinks, but the important fact is that all sectors of the workforce are doing better, with the least well-off improving their lot every year.

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     What is critically misleading, however, about exaggerated claims in this venue, is that people move through various levels of economic well-being as they age and gain experience; the "poor" at one statistical moment are not the same people who are "poor" twenty years later. Apropos of this matter, Thomas Sowell observes:

               Although people in the top income brackets and the bottom income
               brackets-the "rich" and the "poor" as they are commonly called-may
               be addressed as if they were different classes of people, often they are
               the very same people at different stages of their lives. An absolute
               majority of the people in the bottom 20 percent in income in 1975 were
               also in the top 20 percent at some later point. . . . Fewer than 3 percent
               of those in the bottom 20 percent in 1975 were still there in 1991, while
               39 percent of them were now in the top 20 percent. Most of the "poor"
               of the 1970s had reached higher real income levels in the 1990s than
               most of the whole American population had in the 1970s.

                                                                            (Basic Economics [2000] p. 136-37)

In other words, the permanent underclass is much, much smaller than demagogues would have us believe, and the solutions to its problems can be much more modest than the massive government programs often recommended; that governments with declining populations will be less able to afford such largesse is becoming equally apparent. Although sometimes government assistance programs are popular because of politically calculated voter empathy for the poor, they are often wholly unwarranted and actually counterproductive for the economy, the cohort to be helped, and the society as a whole. Lower population levels will likely force recalibration of both what is needed and what can be supported in this arena.
     The entrepreneurial/educational impetus of any given economy drives its fiscal realities. Yet, this positive, utterly factual attribute of social life is often painted in snapshot form and for political purposes as a greed-based negative. The demagogic pronouncements of today's welfare-state enthusiasts won't be discussed at length here because economics and capital, which underlie wealth creation in its various forms, are the subject of many other synopses in this volume. Some of these works also discuss the fact that a hierarchical system, an inherent result of human differences, allows for the exact result recounted by Dr. Sowell.

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     As Wattenberg observes, "Wars, like life, can be about several things at once." His intriguing and substantive presentation of the consequences of global depopulation touches on many issues that should be part of political and economic conversations regarding the near and long-term world outlook. Demographic realities must be faced by modern nations whose responsibility is to continue to provide sound economic foundations for their citizens. National leaders and voters would do well to heed Wattenberg's warnings and act sooner rather than later on the opportunities he foresees.

About the Author
Ben Wattenberg is a prizewinning author and commentator, political activist, and recipient of various public tributes and appointments. He graduated from Hobart College in 1955, and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Hobart in 1975. Wattenberg was an aide and speechwriter for President Lyndon B. Johnson from 1966 to 1968. He served as an advisor to both Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey's race for the Senate in 1970 and Washington Senator Henry Jackson's campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 and 1976, years when Mr. Wattenberg also helped write the Democratic National Platform. Among his public service credentials are his appointment as a public member of the American delegation to the Madrid Conference on Human Rights by President Carter and a 1981 appointment by President Reagan to the board of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.
     Since the early 1990s, Wattenberg has hosted a PBS show that features discussion of topical matters with professionals, politicians, and experts, and he has written ten books, many of them on population issues. His most recent major TV/print project was The First Measured Century, an effort to understand, explain, and dramatize American life through the lens of social and economic data. He spends much of his time investigating demographic facts and trends. Mr. Wattenberg lives in Washington, D.C., where he is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He was born in 1933 in the Bronx, New York.

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