April 23, 2009


Demographics & Depression (David P. Goldman, May 2009, First Things)

If capital markets derive from the cycle of human life, what happens if the cycle goes wrong? Investors may be unreasonably panicked about the future, and governments can allay this panic by guaranteeing bank deposits, increasing incentives to invest, and so forth. But something different is in play when investors are reasonably panicked. What if there really is something wrong with our future—if the next generation fails to appear in sufficient numbers? The answer is that we get poorer.

The declining demographics of the traditional American family raise a dismal possibility: Perhaps the world is poorer now because the present generation did not bother to rear a new generation. All else is bookkeeping and ultimately trivial. This unwelcome and unprecedented change underlies the present global economic crisis. We are grayer, and less fecund, and as a result we are poorer, and will get poorer still—no matter what economic policies we put in place.

We could put this another way: America’s housing market collapsed because conservatives lost the culture wars even back while they were prevailing in electoral politics. During the past half century America has changed from a nation in which most households had two parents with young children. We are now a mélange of alternative arrangements in which the nuclear family is merely a niche phenomenon. By 2025, single-person households may outnumber families with children.

The collapse of home prices and the knock-on effects on the banking system stem from the shrinking count of families that require houses. It is no accident that the housing market—the economic sector most sensitive to demographics—was the epicenter of the economic crisis. In fact, demographers have been predicting a housing crash for years due to the demographics of diminishing demand. Wall Street and Washington merely succeeded in prolonging the housing bubble for a few additional years. The adverse demographics arising from cultural decay, though, portend far graver consequences for the funding of health and retirement systems.

Conservatives have indulged in self-congratulation over the quarter-century run of growth that began in 1984 with the Reagan administration’s tax reforms. A prosperity that fails to rear a new generation in sufficient number is hollow, as we have learned to our detriment during the past year. Compared to Japan and most European countries, which face demographic catastrophe, America’s position seems relatively strong, but that strength is only postponing the reckoning by keeping the world’s capital flowing into the U.S. mortgage market right up until the crash at the end of 2007.

As long as conservative leaders delivered economic growth, family issues were relegated to Sunday rhetoric. Of course, conservative thinkers never actually proposed to measure the movement’s success solely in units of gross domestic product, or square feet per home, or cubic displacement of the average automobile engine. But delivering consumer goods was what conservatives seemed to do well, and they rode the momentum of the Reagan boom.

Until now. Our children are our wealth. Too few of them are seated around America’s common table, and it is their absence that makes us poor. Not only the absolute count of children, to be sure, but also the shrinking proportion of children raised with the moral material advantages of two-parent families diminishes our prospects. [...]

Unless we restore the traditional family to a central position in American life, we cannot expect to return to the kind of wealth accumulation that characterized the 1980s and 1990s. Theoretically, we might recruit immigrants to replace the children we did not rear, or we might invest capital overseas with the children of other countries. From the standpoint of economic policy, neither of those possibilities can be dismissed. But the contributions of immigration or capital export will be marginal at best compared to the central issue of whether the demographics of America reverts to health.

Life is sacred for its own sake. It is not an instrument to provide us with fatter IRAs or better real-estate values. But it is fair to point out that wealth depends ultimately on the natural order of human life. Failing to rear a new generation in sufficient numbers to replace the present one violates that order, and it has consequences for wealth, among many other things. Americans who rejected the mild yoke of family responsibility in pursuit of atavistic enjoyment will find at last that this is not to be theirs, either.

It will be painful for conservatives to admit that things were not well with America under the Republican watch, at least not at the family level. From 1954 to 1970, for example, half or more of households contained two parents and one or more children under the age of eighteen. In fact as well as in popular culture, the two-parent nuclear family formed the normative American household. By 1981, when Ronald Reagan took office, two-parent households had fallen to just over two-fifths of the total. Today, less than a third of American households constitute a two-parent nuclear family with children. [...]

Numerous proposals for family-friendly tax policy are in circulation, including recent suggestions by Ramesh Ponnuru, Ross Douthat, and Reihan Salam. The core of a family-oriented economic program might include the following measures:

• Cut taxes on families. The personal exemption introduced with the Second World War’s Victory Tax was $624, reflecting the cost of “food and a little more.” In today’s dollars that would be about $7,600, while the current personal exemption stands at only $3,650. The personal exemption should be raised to $8,000 simply to restore the real value of the deduction, and the full personal exemption should apply to children.

• Shift part of the burden of social insurance to the childless. For most taxpayers, social-insurance deductions are almost as great a burden as income tax. Families that bring up children contribute to the future tax base; families that do not get a free ride. The base rate for social security and Medicare deductions should rise, with a significant exemption for families with children, so that a disproportionate share of the burden falls on the childless.

• Make child-related expenses tax deductible. Tuition and health care are the key expenses here with which parents need help.

• Change the immigration laws. The United States needs highly skilled, productive individuals in their prime years for earning and family formation.

We delude ourselves when we imagine that a few hundred dollars of tax incentives will persuade individuals to form families or keep them together. A generation of Americans has grown up with the belief that the traditional family is merely one lifestyle choice among many.

But it is among the young that such a conservative message could reverberate the loudest. The young know that the promise of sexual freedom has brought them nothing but emptiness and anomie. They suffer more than anyone from the breakup of families. They know that abortion has wrought psychic damage that never can be repaired. And they see that their own future was compromised by the poor choices of their parents.

It was always morally wrong for conservatives to attempt to segregate the emotionally charged issues of public morals from the conservative growth agenda. We know now that it was also incompetent from a purely economic point of view. Without life, there is no wealth; without families, there is no economic future.

Tax diddles are well and good but we also need to roll back divorce laws so that they are much more difficult to obtain, especially once you have kids, and require that the tax breaks obtained during marriage be repaid. Similarly, as we move towards them, private accounts--SS, HSAs, etc.--should be heritable, but forfeit for those who die childless. And, obviously, given that immigration generally imports exactly the kinds of nuclear families (or men intent on forming them) that we cherish and require, amnesty and elimination of quotas are a priority. All of which is why oogedy-boogedyism is the only true progressivism/conservatism.

Survey defies illegal immigrant stereotypes (Linda Chavez, April 20, 2009, Dallas Morning News)

A new report out last week from the Pew Hispanic Center confirms what many observers already suspected about the illegal immigrant population in the United States: It is made up increasingly of intact families and their American-born children. Nearly half of illegal immigrant households consist of two-parent families with children, and 73 percent of these children were born here and are therefore U.S. citizens. [...]

And although earnings among illegal immigrants are lower than among either the native population or legal immigrants, they are far from destitute. The median household income for illegal immigrants was $36,000 in 2007 compared with $50,000 for native-born households. And illegal immigrant males have much higher labor force participation rates than the native born, 94 percent compared with 83 percent for U.S.-born males.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 23, 2009 6:49 AM
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