Depopulation cont.

Several readers wrote with comments similar to Andy’s reactions to my post on the low birth rates in most of Europe and their probably consequences.

Taking Andy’s points in order,

1. Yes the average population density of Europe is high compared to the US. That is not why housing is expensive in those of its cities people really want to live in, any more than low average population densities in the US have made New York and San Francisco housing cheap. People don’t live on the average all over their countries, they live in particular parts of them. If the French would stop subsidizing their farmers to grow (yummy) food, the rural parts of France would be all second (not first) homes and go back to forest, and housing prices where the French actually live would be about the same. Cheap villas in Tuscany will not induce Italians who have to live where they can make a living to have more kids. Anyway, I’m writing this in a nice 700 square foot two-bedroom apartment in Brussels–prosperous as the European Union capital but not especially attractive on lifestyle grounds–that rents for $650 a month; not every European city is expensive.

How much would the US population have to fall until the backlog of people who want to live in Boston, SF, or New York was small enough that they became cheap? How much of their attractiveness is precisely owing to their local high density, public transit, walkability, diverse neighborhoods and all that follows from that?

2. Actually life in Italy in 1920 was so generally awful that a flood of Italians left for the US and Argentina and the rest elected a fascist dictatorship. But this argument really makes no sense to me. Sure, Europeans can have a good life with a workable age mix over a wide range of total population. But I’m not talking about some sort of across-the-board proportional evaporation of a fraction of the population, only family emigration or a plague can do that. I’m talking about societies that are having their age distributions, first the proportion of children to the total, then the proportion of working to idle, rapidly altered to one that is economically unworkable. The consequences of this are really big; people without kids tend not to vote to spend money on education, for example, and the downstream consequences are huge. The quality of life prospects for old people depending on a much smaller economy to support the same number of them are quite scary.

Note that saving doesn’t solve the problem, even if it could surmount the one-time transition problem for the generation that has to go from the old to the new system and, in effect, pay for two retirements. You can only save money, but some real economic goods like services can’t be banked and your savings won’t buy as much of them if the labor force has shriveled.

3. Americans have learned to be good at growing through immigration over more than two centuries. It may be that Europeans can acquire the cultural capital and private habits and skills to do this much faster, but then again it may not, and I bet against it. In any case I don’t have Andy’s implicit view that this is an issue of assigning blame; if they don’t want to solve their problem, the heck with them. If he ever has a relative who can’t shake a damaging addiction, I bet he won’t airily say “well, he could solve his problem with will power, so no sympathy from me, it’s just weak character (addictionism, say).”

I myself am concerned about the welfare of my friends, but even as a tourist and just fellow-traveler on the planet I have some selfish interests Andy might actually share. First, a whole lot of everyone’s cultural patrimony has been unfairly put in Italy (for example) and in Europe generally, compared to the New World, and the Italians are having the devil of a time figuring out how to take care of it with the economy they have now, never mind one two thirds or half as big, and are also not doing so well making it accessible, as I can attest after a day at the Musei Vaticani. I guess they could just sell it to us, but a lot of it isn’t portable….

4. If people always do what’s best for themselves and for society at large, behavior always indicates the optimal behavior for an individual, a couple, or a group, and Dr. Pangloss was right. The premise doesn’t apply to me or, actually, lots of my life experience so far, but I have to grant Andy an airtight argument within its limits here.

5. More people generally have a lot of environmental impacts, mostly bad, and rich people like

Europeans are especially consequential in this way. Whether it’s better from a planetary or a local perspective that population should be lower or stop growing in, say Bangla Desh or in Europe is an interesting question I won’t address here. (By the way, Andy, the Bangladeshis are squoze in at five times the density of Italy and having lots of babies; I think the theory that Europe has stopped having kids because it’s ‘full’ is a near total loser.)

But holding constant environmental quality of life considerations, I’m astonished at Andy’s cavalier dismissal of the value to him of the extra 80 million Americans he mentions. I would presume they painted a quarter of the pictures, wrote a quarter of the songs, and made a quarter of the scientific and engineering breakthroughs we enjoy. Perhaps two of them were the guys who invented Google, and then Andy couldn’t find facts to write blog posts about without a schlep to the library. Or are we historical determinists who believe everything that could be discovered will be, in response to large Hegelian immanent forces, and have nothing to do with individuals?

He and I would also have chosen our friends from a group two-thirds the size, definitely cutting down the right tail of niceness and interestingness, where my friends are. In fact…one of the missing ones might have been Andy, and then we wouldn’t have this conversation! If he really thinks it doesn’t matter how many people there are, why doesn’t he live in, say, a suburb of San Luis Obispo, and just fax his stuff in to wherever?

Andy recognizes some of the implications of what’s going on at the end of his post; I think he greatly underestimates the coming social cost of the transition being carried on the way it is. I would also point out that we can’t be sure that we’re watching a period of low births leading to a smaller total population which then starts having 2.1 babies per woman and stabilizes. If fertility doesn’t pick up, we’re seeing a one-time transition to (i) an age mix that implies a much-diminished quality of life for everyone and (ii) a population that just keeps getting smaller.

The main burden of my post was actually assuming that all that stuff was obvious to any thinking person, and therefore that the insouciance with which it’s being treated by European citizens and their leaders is both ill-advised and astonishing. No, population growth is certainly not an index of welfare, but immigration from somewhere to Southern California is very different from the failure of a whole society to have enough children to keep itself afloat, and government policy can make a difference.

This week’s Economist lead editorial left me little to add about the doings in France; global warming reflections to come.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

6 thoughts on “Depopulation cont.”

  1. You might add that the existence of expensive, durable infrastructure to support a large population means there will be a lot of resistence to allowing populations to fall very dramatically, as this will lead to financial crises (infrastructure that is costly to maintain can't be supported by a small tax base, local asset valuations can't be sustained, neighborhoods turn to half-vacant slums). This creates a strong incentive for encouraging immigration rather than letting below-replacement birthrates cause depopulation. Whether or not this is a good thing depends on your values, and the manner and character of the immigration.
    Some mix of "better" immigration, however defined, and enhanced incentives to reproduce might work to help European countries stabilize population levels.
    (Consistent with Andy's piece, stable rather than growing populations may be a reasonable outcome, although this would still require economies and welfare states to change some assumptions.)

  2. Demographic change in Europe is one of our recurring topics at Fistful of Euros. Pull up posts from Edward Hugh for lots of thoughts and info on Spain and Italy in particular. Germany is more my metier; I last wrote about it on March 16, prompted by a study by the Berlin Institute for Population and Development.
    The very short version of our discussions would be that getting democratic governments to address long-term problems is no easy task. Some are proving more adept than others, of course, and Italy is on the wrong side of a fairly large number of indicators. So it's a good place to look for the challenges, if not necessarily the solutions yet.
    A prolonged period of below-replacement fertility is indeed a new development, and it challenges the way that European states finance their welfare provision. The systems built for an age pyramid perform poorly with an age column.
    On the other hand, Europe has produced an enormous amount of wealth in the postwar period. For the first time since the 19th century, two generations have grown up without seeing their countries ravaged by war, and this accumulated, undestroyed wealth is helpful for making the transition to an age column.
    (Why, exactly, does that new age mix imply a much-diminished quality of life for everyone? I don't see this argument being made in the post. I also missed the argument for shrinking economies.)
    One of the changes is the extension of working lives. The US began to grapple with this problem at the national level at least 20 years ago. It is that much ahead of most European nations. Italy has one of the lowest actual retirement ages (mid-50s, if memory serves), making it one of the places where reform is most necessary.
    Immigration is also part of the mix. Britain is one example. And it's not as if integrating immigrants is foreign to European traditions; this is a fairy story put about by conservative parties. Berlin, at one point, was almost one-third Huguenot, for example. Post-war West Germany integrated millions of people who were immigrants in everything but name.
    Government policies to make child-care easier would no doubt help. Though lack of those policies in the US does not seem to be a barrier to fertility.
    In sum, there's no need to panic (demographic panic was yet another unsavory element of interwar European political culture), there's no silver bullet, and lots of room for incremental improvements that will add up.

  3. You write:
    Actually life in Italy in 1920 was so generally awful that a flood of Italians left for the US and Argentina and the rest elected a fascist dictatorship
    The Wikipedia entry on Mussolini says nothing about coming to power through elections, but rather that the king appointed him PM to forestall a civil war between the fascists and socialists.

  4. How much would the US population have to fall until the backlog of people who want to live in Boston, SF, or New York was small enough that they became cheap? How much of their attractiveness is precisely owing to their local high density, public transit, walkability, diverse neighborhoods and all that follows from that?
    Another aspect of San Francisco or NYC housing is a sort of self-selecting elitist thing. There is a high density of interesting people around, and other people who are interested in interesting people (who tend to be interesting) will pay to be there.
    I spent 10 years in San Francisco, and now 4 in NYC, for precisely this reason. Having grown up in the rural south, I'm very familiar with boring. That I'm waiting for the housing bubble to go before snatching up a nice property in Western Mass. has more to do with the fact that my work is location independent and I'm getting older, and am sick of paying $3500/mo. in rent. Cities are great for young people; I wouldn't have spent my youth any other way.

  5. Locally expensive real estate stays expensive when aggregate prices change. I picked up a dusty book off a shelf once that plotted Chicago real estate prices along various streets by decade as lines. Each street would look like a succession of lines, with peaks representing locally desirable properties. As decades passed, aggregate price levels rose and fell, but the local peaks were quite consistent.
    I find your other current arguments unpersuasive, but as you've moved on from your breathless omg-Italians-are-going-extinct thesis, I can't muster the energy to respond.
    Kudos for being more reasonable this time.

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