A fool’s errand, and I’ll play the fool: Jonathan Last and What to Expect When No One’s Expecting
Responding to specious articles in the Wall Street Journal is largely a fool’s errand because the hard news sections of the paper have been gutted and too frequently replaced with right-wing pablum or with the same headlines you can find on any news site. It still, however, has enough readers that I get sent a fair number of articles, and occasionally I’m willing to be the fool—in this instance, for “America’s Baby Bust: The nation’s falling fertility rate is the root cause of many of our problems. And it’s only getting worse,” which correctly notes that demography is not going to play nicely with public programs for old people. But this: “The root cause of most of our problems is our declining fertility rate” is wrong today. Most of our problems are due to an innovation shortfall (see Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation, or see The Blueprint) or a finance / banking sector that has become so intertwined with the government that it has achieved quasi-governmental powers and immortality (see Lords of Finance for one account).
The problem is with verb tenses: Last says the root cause of most of our problems is our declining fertility rate,” when that might be or will be the root cause.
Last also gets important stuff wrong, or leaves it out. For example, this: “parenting has probably never been a barrel of laughs. There have been lots of changes in American life over the last 40 years that have nudged our fertility rate downward” is true but doesn’t mention one of the major problems with modern parenting: it appears that, historically, up until the 1970s, most people raised kids around grandparents and other extended family members. Neighborhoods were fairly cohesive and stable, which meant other parents would watch out for one’s offspring. In biology, they call this alloparenting, and it appears to be the historical norm. Since the 1970s, and arguably earlier, we’ve spent more time bowling alone and moving around; you can’t just drop your kids off at your sister’s place in a pinch, or vice-versa, if your sister lives in L.A. and you live in Seattle.
Last gets close to acknowledging these issues:
The problem is that, while making babies is fun, raising them isn’t. A raft of research shows that if you take two people who are identical in every way except for childbearing status, the parent will be on average about six percentage points less likely to be “very happy” than the nonparent.
This decline is much smaller than it appears, as Bryan Caplan discusses in Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, and the “raft of research” is highly dependent on definitional and time-of-day issues. In addition, the alloparenting issue mentioned above also plays a role, because taking two people, sticking them with children in an isolated suburb where they know no one, and telling them to raise children is a pretty crappy way to raise kids, but that’s become the American default, and Last appears to approve of it (see below). If you can take breaks from your kids to recharge, parenting won’t be so difficult.
He also has a section about solutions, where he says:
The Dirt Gap. A big factor in family formation is the cost of land: It determines not just housing expenses but also the costs of transportation, entertainment, baby sitting, school and pretty much everything else. And while intensely urban areas—Los Angeles, New York, Washington, Chicago—have the highest concentrations of jobs, they come with high land costs. Improving the highway system and boosting opportunities for telecommuting would go a long way in helping families to live in lower-cost areas.
But that’s inane. We don’t need to improve “the highway system” or boost “opportunities for telecommuting:” we need to remove urban height limits. Increasing supply is the only way to reliably reduce costs. See The Rent is Too Damn High and The Gated City for more on this subject. Last should take a look at maps of LA, New York, Seattle, etc.—there are no places to build highways. We could build subways, but Republicans hate subways for reasons that appear to be entirely about political power (see Jonathan Rodden’s work for more about urban voting patterns). Republicans love free markets, except when they don’t.
Last also discusses immigration, and, although I don’t like to rely on mood affiliation, I will say that the WSJ’s politicization is transparent: now that the Republicans have realized that they can’t be nativists, we can discuss the demographic advantages of immigration.
Finally, it’s also possible that global climate change will be the real problem in the 21st Century, or that something unanticipated will be.