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February 2, 2013 / Jake Seliger

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.

2 Comments

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  1. Steve Sailer / Feb 9 2013 5:04 pm

    “We don’t need to improve “the highway system” or boost “opportunities for telecommuting:” we need to remove urban height limits.”

    I was fascinated to learn from former Mexican foreign secretary Jorge Castaneda’s latest book that Mexicans hate living in high rises and hate taking public transportation, which has obvious implications for America due to demographic change. Castaneda writes: “The people of this country do not like to share common spaces with others, which is exactly what an apartment building, high- or low-income, entails”.

    The sprawl is exacerbated by “the Mexico City middle class’s adamant refusal to use public transportation,” despite the capital having 125 miles of decent subway. In a recent study of “commuter pain” by IBM, Mexico City tied with Beijing for the worst traffic in the world, scoring 99 on a 0-100 scale. (In contrast, Los Angeles is worst in America, but only scores 25. In other words, traffic can get much worse.) The average Mexico City commuter drives four hours per day.

    This Mexican predilection for sprawl and traffic jams has obvious implications for the U.S. Some East Coast public intellectuals, such as blogger Matthew Yglesias, have been pushing the idea of higher density cities to lower carbon emissions and thus save the world from global warming. Somehow or other, letting in 165,000,000 more immigrants is also part of the master plan.

    But Mexicans don’t want to live like Upper West Siders. They want single-family homes and V-8 vehicles. Castañeda points out that during Mexico’s construction boom of 2004-2008, only three percent of the new residences built in Mexico were apartments. The number of private cars in use in Mexico has been growing 12 to 15 percent per year. The chief goal of many Mexicans appears to be to get away from other Mexicans.

    Not surprisingly, Mexicans in the U.S. have been trying to bypass urban centers and move to the exurbs. The housing bubble of 2003-2007 was most concentrated in heavily Mexican areas of the four Sand States.

    • Jake Seliger / Feb 16 2013 12:54 pm

      The average Mexico City commuter drives four hours per day.

      That’s terrible. If you haven’t read “There and back again: the soul of a commuter:” http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/04/16/070416fa_fact_paumgarten?currentPage=all , you sh ould.

      Some East Coast public intellectuals, such as blogger Matthew Yglesias, have been pushing the idea of higher density cities to lower carbon emissions and thus save the world from global warming.

      Well, I grew up in Seattle but recently moved to New York, and I agree with Yglesias both for the reasons he lays out and for the reasons evident in Edward Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City. I don’t think he has a “master plan” for much of anything, however, though I’ve never asked him and haven’t seen much evidence for one.

      Anyhow, I can’t speak to whether “Mexicans [. . .] want to live like Upper West Siders” or not, but the sand states you cite are all set-up to be car-centric.

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