January 29, 2005


Stories of Imperial Collapse Are Getting Old (Victor Davis Hanson, 1/26/05, New Criterion)

The most recent doom-and-gloom forecast by Matthew Parris of the London Times would be hilarious if it were not so hackneyed. After all, Americans long ago have learned to grin any time a British intellectual talks about the upstart’s foreordained imperial collapse. And as in the case of our own intelligentsia’s gloominess, it is not hard to distinguish the usual prophets’ pessimistic prognostications from their thinly-disguised hopes for American decline and fall.

But this country is now in its third century and assurances that the United States is about through are getting old. In the early 20th century the rage was first Spengler and then Toynbee who warned us that our crass consumer capitalism would lead to inevitable spiritual decay. Next, the Hitlerians assured the Volk that the mongrel Americans could never set foot on German-occupied soil, so decadent were these Chicago mobsters and uncouth cowboys. Existentialism and pity for the empty man in the gray flannel suit were the rage of the 1950s, as Americans, we were told, had become depressed and given up in the face of racial inequality, rapid suburbanization, and the spread of world-wide national liberationist movements.

In the 1960s and 1970s we heard of the population bomb and all sorts of catastrophes in store for the United States and the world in general that had unwisely followed its profligate paradigm of consumption; yet despite Paul Ehrlich’s strident doomsday scenario, the environment got cleaner and the people of the globe richer. And then came the historian Paul Kennedy, who, citing earlier Spanish and English implosions, "proved" that the United States had played itself out in the Cold War, ruining its economy to match the Soviet Union in a hopeless arms race–publishing his findings shortly before the Russian empire collapsed and the American economy took off (again).

In the Carter ‘malaise years,’ we were warned about the impending triumph of ‘Asian Values’ and the supposed cultural superiority of Japan, Inc., which would shortly own most of whatever lazy and ignorant Americans sold them–before the great meltdown brought on by corruption, censorship, and ossified bureaucracies in Asia.

Currently Jared Diamond is back with Collapse, another grim tale from the desk of a Westwood professor, full of remonstrations about social inequality and resource depletion that we have come to expect from the rarified habitat in which tenured full professors thrive.

All that disenchantment is the context in which Matthew Parris now warns us that our military is overstretched and our economy weak–despite the fact that our gross domestic product is larger than ever and the percentage of it devoted to military spending at historic lows, far below what was committed during WWII, Korea, or Vietnam.

Where Have All the Children Gone? (Pavel Kohout, 1/27/05, Tech Central Station)
The question of why fertility has been falling so dramatically in continental Europe has been food for thought for both demographers and economists. The answer must be looked for in several important factors, which, to further complicate matters, do not simply add up in their impact. Nevertheless, it can be said with a fair amount of certainty that the existence of pay-as-you-go pension systems has had a very negative impact on birth rate. The National Report on Family published by the Czech Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs in August 2004 says:

"In terms of intergenerational solidarity, the importance of the child as an investment for material support in old age has been limited by the social security and pension insurance system, which has eliminated people's immediate dependence on children. The importance of the child's role in relation to its parents has transferred to the emotional sphere, which reduced the direct material indispensability of children in a family, while also allowing for them being replaced with certain substitutes bringing emotional satisfaction."

To put it straightforwardly, and perhaps a little cynically, in the past children used to be regarded as investments that provided their parents with means of subsistence in old age. In Czech the word "vejminek" (a place in a farmhouse reserved for the farmer's old parents) is actually derived from a verb meaning "to stipulate": in the deed of transfer, the old farmer stipulated the conditions on which the farm was to be transferred to his son. Instead of an "intergenerational" policy, there used to be direct dependence of parents on their children. This meant that people had immediate economic motivation to have a sufficiently numerous and well-bred offspring - whereas today's anonymous system makes all workers pay for the pensions of all retirees in an utterly depersonalized manner.

This system enables huge numbers of "free riders" to receive more than what would correspond to their overall contribution in their productive life. Those with incomes way above the average, on the contrary, are penalized, as the system gives them less money than they contributed to it. This is referred to as the "solidarity principle". In terms of birth rate, this arrangement is discouraging for both the low-income group and the high-income one. The latter feel that they are not going to need children in the old age, while the former believe that they can't afford to have them.

Today, children no longer represent investments; instead, they have become pets - objects of luxury consumption. However, the pet market segment is very competitive. It is characteristic that the birth rate decline in the 1980s, and especially in the 1990s, was accompanied by soaring numbers of dog-owners in cities. While in the past dog-owners were predominantly retirees, today there are many young couples that have consciously decided to have a dog instead of a baby. These are mainly young professionals who have come to a conclusion (whether right or wrong) that they lack either time or money to have a child. Thus, they invest their emotional surpluses into animals. [...]

The birth rate in the US is nearing the replacement level -- about two children per woman. Even so, comparing to Europe, the United States still appears to be a confirmed and stable superpower.

"Even if we include immigration, the population of the original EU-12 will fall by 7.5 million over the next 45 years, according to the UN calculations. Since the times of the 'Black Death' epidemic in the fourteenth century, Europe has never seen such an extensive population decline," writes Niall Ferguson, a British historian. He also predicts that in 2000-2050, the US population will grow by 44 percent. It seems that the European Union will have to forget for good about its ambitious dreams of becoming a "counterbalance" to America.

The demographic trends in Europe are indeed worrying. In Italy, for instance, the birth rate has fallen to an average level of 1.2 children per woman. Why? A journalist from the Daily Telegraph describes the life of young Italians in the following terms:

"It is virtually impossible to make a living. Just take Rome. Life with a minimum of human dignity (a small rented apartment, occasional dinner in a restaurant) requires a monthly pay of 3,000 euros before taxation, which accounts for some 1,800 euros after tax. If in the Anglo-Saxon world a majority of adults is expected to live an independent life on their own salaries, in Italy this is often not the case. An incredible 70 percent of unmarried Italians aged between 25 and 29 live with their parents, where they benefit from subsidized housing and where their poor incomes amount to a handsome pocket money."

When a modern young European has to choose between setting up a family of his own and a comfortable life without children, he is very likely to pick the latter option -- unless he belongs to a social class which regards children chiefly as a source of social benefits. A high amount of taxation combined with ill-functioning labor and housing markets is a truly genocidal mix. That is the case of Italy, but also Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. Its impact cannot be corrected by all sorts of government subsidies paid out to young families. On the contrary, under certain circumstances the benefits for families may even lead to a drop in birth rate.

And any European who cares about the quality of life for his children will leave to come to America. The end will come far quicker than anyone now comprehends.

-How the U.S. Became the World's Dispensable Nation (Michael Lind, 25 January 2005, Financial Times)

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 29, 2005 7:47 AM

Where have all the children gone? They've been flushed to the toilets (literally).

Posted by: erp at January 29, 2005 10:45 AM