Take the kids—leave the cannoli

More on population decrease and its causes and costs.

Mike’s post, in response to mine, in response to his on the perils of depopulation in Italy and Europe generally, is fun, smart, and invigorating—to my mind, but readers may not agree if we go on too long. So I’ll try to make this my last word on the subject.

I never really meant that population would rebound in Europe, or anywhere, as soon as depopulation made housing cheap. (If that were true, Troy, New York and Flint, Michigan would be growing explosively.) My intended point was not that high density rendered Europe bound to shrink but that it gave Europe lots of margin for (benign) shrinking. Nor would low density guarantee bigger families, as opposed to making them easier. I do think that Mike underestimates the possibility of living in what’s now considered “the country” if one has Europe-quality trains to commute with (or German-quality Autobahnen with hypothetically no traffic on them) but this would admittedly happen on the margins.

A bigger factor is sprawl, which we do better than most of Europe. A kid-friendly society is a suburban society: “walkability” et al are attractive mostly to people with no kids, or only one. (I, too, like hip urban restaurants, and musical venues, and art galleries, within walking distance. But now that I have a young child I like them mostly in theory. I would trade lots of hipness for a yard.) Mike’s Brussels two-bedroom apartment for $650 a month is cheap as hell by L.A. or San Francisco standards but expensive as hell—and too small—by the standards of mid-Americans intending to raise two kids on the median income. In Tulsa, that money buys you this—and plenty of places are cheaper than Tulsa, and much of Europe far pricier than Brussels. Sure, lots of people can and do make the sacrifice, and rear many kids in small spaces both in First World urban areas and in Bangladesh. But they’d rather not if they can help it, and American land use makes it possible for them to help it.

As said, though, I don’t think that high density as such is the cause of fewer kids in Europe. It couldn’t be, since Italy’s population has been flat for decades while low birth rates are more recent. I still think the cause is feminism—European men have never done any child care, and European women have recently started to notice and resent that—and opposition to real, assimilation-style immigration, and the natural desire of rich, cultured young people to keep their lifestyles instead of sacrificing them.

(Again, it used to be the women who sacrificed while the men went to chess clubs and concerts. That will no longer fly.)

Mike seems to think all these things undesirable, unimportant, and/or ephemeral, as if somehow a little exhortation and eye-opening would make people want to go back, but I’m not sure why he thinks that. The parts of the U.S. that are gaining population like crazy are those with immigrants, with little feminism and lots of traditional religion, and/or with so few cultural opportunities that young people don’t realize there are things in life more interesting than taking the kids to the mall. Mike and I both like Europe, I assume, partly because it’s not like that. But only one of us is willing to accept the effect of these causes. A Europe with more babies would be less urbane and probably more religious than it is—i.e. too American for my taste. If European governments think that they can induce more babies without creating a more conservative and boring culture, they’re welcome to try and I’m not against it. (I like free child care too, and wish I had some.) But I don’t mourn the erosion of such a culture.

Mike may be right that being allergic to immigration should be seen as an addiction rather than a moral failing. But if so, let’s work on the addiction. The first step is admitting you have a problem. I see no reason to assume that the cultural causes of resistance to immigration are harder to change than the structural causes of low birth rates. Circa 1960, Americans weren’t used to immigrants either. Most of you, except Tancredo (ironically!) and Dobbs, have come to terms with us.

I agree that a sufficiently low proportion of “working to idle” is unsustainable. I just think we can change who’s idle. Lots of able-bodied and able-minded Italians and Germans expect to retire on fat pensions in their early sixties, despite the advances in life expectancy and general health that make sixty the new fifty by any objective standard. As I said, the market ought to reward with high wages old people who fill up the gaps left by missing young workers. (I have no objection to people stopping work early who do backbreaking physical jobs, but such workers should get fat disability checks subsidized by the rest of us, not a general pension.) Money saved on school spending could be invested in emerging-market funds; there’s no reason Europe can’t globalize its savings and pension investment. Finally, I doubt there’s an absolute labor shortage in any sense that matters. European youngsters will simply need to realize that more of them will go into geriatric medicine instead of pediatric, more will do adult education instead of schoolteaching, more will teach elder yoga than power yoga. It’s not impossible.

European governments, and the voters who choose them, could change their policies to make all this easier. None of these trends are surprises, and demographics is the kind of science that yields very good predictions. If Europe doesn’t adapt, that will be the fault of people who don’t recognize the implications of demographic change, not the fault of the change. Population increases, even large increases, are treated as a policy problem. I see no reason to treat population decreases any differently.

If the Vatican had to sell its treasures to a Bloomberg or a Soros, that would be both historical justice and poetic justice. For a “country” of celibates to complain about low birthrates seems a bit odd. More relevant to Italy generally: if old Italians won’t sacrifice some proportion of their pensions to save the culture of old Italy, I can’t see by what logic I should care more than they. I can see why we shouldn’t steal Italy’s treasures. I can’t see why we shouldn’t buy them, if they refuse to pay upkeep. Italy’s loss will be the Getty villa’s gain. And whatever happens, there will still be scads more great art in Italy than any person could see in twenty lifetimes.

That last entails a more general lesson. That 80 milion Americans produce much culture of great value I don’t doubt. That a country of 300 million produces more culture of value to me, or any other individual, than a country of 220 million is vanishingly unlikely. American novelists, filmmakers, playwrights, artists, and so on provide many, many times more terrific stuff every year than anyone can enjoy, and there were advantages as well as disadvantages to a culture in which “all cultured people” (fewer of them!) knew what “the good books” or “the good films” were and were talking about the same ones. Granted, I’m glad that there’s more cultural diversity than in 1970—but that’s a matter of immigration and wealth more than numbers. I’m not sure that the U.S. was a cooler place in 1938 than in 1918. What goes for culture also goes for friendship groups: there are presumably lots more interesting people in the country than when I was a kid, but the pool among whom I’m searching for interesting friends is not 300 million but a few hundred: the number I have time to actually meet and talk to, which isn’t affected by overall population. There may even be systematic reasons why a bigger population gives one less time with friends.

As for technological discoveries: yes, 80 million people implies more bodies around to invent things, but it also means 80 million more bodies on the freeway, a problem whose solution nobody’s invented. If we look at the probability of potential benefits and the numbers affected as well as their size, the analysis is (1) impossible to carry out, since nobody can predict technological change; (2) not clear in its direction. And yes, I think that somebody would have invented Moveable Type even with lower U.S. population, no Hegelian optimysticism required. If necessary, let someone in populous India do the job.

I’ll admit that there’s heart as well as head involved in my view. L.A. when I was a kid had fewer people than it does now, and the six-county metropolitan area a lot fewer people. (The cop show about suburban L.A. was called Boomtown for a reason.) Old L.A. was “Kansas,” a city of bad restaurants and relatively uniform culture—again, a matter of wealth and immigration, not just density. But it was also a city in which middle-class people had bungalows with yards and upper-middle-class people had pools. Finally, it was a city in which many cultural and culinary amenities could only be found in far-off neighborhoods—but you could get to those neighborhoods in 25 minutes on the freeways, which had no traffic. (My parents lived in Brentwood and regularly went downtown for dinner or a concert. Try that statement on an Angelino now and watch her expression.) Few good things come without costs, few bad ones without compensations. Given lots of time to adapt, the compensations become clearer—as they will in Europe.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

13 thoughts on “Take the kids—leave the cannoli”

  1. I have a long-ish reply on these issue (with no URLs) that's waiting for approval on the previous post. Is there some length threshold that activates the need for approval?

  2. You know, Europe – as in EU – has had quite a population growth the last five years. So Italy has a stagnating population. Well, Cincinatti isn't doing too swell neither. And? Actually, all this inconsistent alarmism about Europe on American blogs – too much (muslim) immigration, to little immigration, too much (musliminduced) population growth, stagnating populations – pisses me off. Can you Americans please fix your current account deficit and stop consuming like hell – first is potentially wrecking havoc with the world economy, and the second is wrecking havoc with our natural resources and the climate. When you have done that, you can go back bitching about European decline .

  3. Why do you add the unnecessary "New York" after "Troy". I understand housing is quite cheap in Troy Asia Minor yet the population hasn't bounced back.
    True the houses are fixer uppers, but in many parts of Europe the material house, you know walls and roof and stuff, has less than half of the value of the legal house, that is permission to build a house. That is to say, a large meteor could only cause a house to lose about one third of it's value.
    Believe me, I have seen some expensive ruins near Florence and Rome. What's worse is that a woman to whom I am married has seriously considered trying to convince me to buy them to house us and our two daughters (so she did her part to prevent the depopulation of Italy). Actually only one of our daughters was born in Italy, which reminds me that the way Italy treats women bearing children it doesn't deserve to have any.

  4. How did you come to pick that particular house in Tulsa–in fact, how did you come to pick Tulsa? It's a lovely city, y'know.

  5. Funny you should mention addiction.
    Yes, the first thing you must do is to admit you have a problem. It is just that the real problem is not the addiction.
    Is Addiction Real?

  6. I'm still trying to figure out how "yard" automatically equals "suburban". Maybe you have to live in the suburbs for a two-acre plot, but quarter-acre (that's roughly 50×200) or smaller zoning is typical of many towns and small cities, and works reasonably well with neighborhood stores, restaurants and other amenities. "Downtown" areas might have higher densities (especially if you can get away from the multiple acres needed for parking lots). Oddly enough, both the small city I grew up in in the US and the towns where various cousins live in europe have these characteristics. Heck, even the cousins who live in an urban center like Berlin have a yard. The US does sprawl amazingly badly.

  7. Try to remember that the Renaissance, in some ways, the cultural high point in Italian history, was accomplished with many fewer people.
    Here is a European population trendline:
    1500
    around 80 million (basically, the first century by which Europe had recovered from the Plague in terms of population trends)
    1600
    around 100m.
    1700
    Around 120m
    1750 – 1845 major growth.
    Very high growth 140m in 1750 to 250m in 1845 (half of world population).
    1914: 450m., not including emigration of unheard-of proportions. Could have been 500m.
    Innovation is the difference between being able to comfortably support 80 million and 450 million+ people.
    The question is, will people change their expectations about work? Will they devalue children and education, or to the contrary, will they encourage and support them?
    We grew up in a world that is used to having a lot of young people and the accepted outlook is that a lot of young people generally leads to cultural ferment and vitality but is it inevitable? Isn't it possible that having fewer people can also lead to innovation, such as, for instance, labor saving devices that avoid the need for certain types of manual labor?
    The Plague was good for workers.
    There are just too many variables to work out a final equation.

  8. "For a "country" of celibates to complain about low birthrates seems a bit odd."
    Wish I'd written that! Very interesting piece. The problem is, Europe doesn't exist in a vacuum. As its population declines and its culture and economy wane as a result, the slack will be picked up by areas with more youthful, dynamic, growing populations. Those places are most likely to be home to religious fundamentalists whose contributions to world culture I shudder to imagine.

  9. A kid-friendly society is a suburban society: "walkability" et al are attractive mostly to people with no kids, or only one.
    That's only because the American suburb has metastatized to the point where having kids means having to drive them everywhere all the time. I grew up in a suburb of Belfast, Northern Ireland, and walked or cycled or took the bus everywhere. You can have places that are low density enough that there are houses with yards, but high density enough that buses work and there are sidewalks along the road, not just from the front door to the garage.

  10. I agree that the overall size of populations is not particularly relevant. A population of 10m Italians could keep the boot Italian. The difficulties arise when proportions change. Mix every Italian into India, and there would be no Italian culture, just barely an Italian impression on Indian culture.
    The 'problem' is that proportionately, several European countries are doing that dilutive mixing in their own countries. Italy isn't a particularly good example of this, but look at Holland. It is quite likely that within another generation, the culturally Dutch will be a distinct minority in Holland. In a generation after that, there might not be anything culturally Dutch left…just a minor Dutch impression on an ascendant follow on culture.
    Without any judgement of good or bad, the culture of many European countries is changing, and fast. Take a European country liberal enough to legalize gay marriage, but still outlaws polygamy. Want to bet that 50 years from now that isn't reversed? That is cultural change. And absolute population numbers are irrelevant to it…it is about proportions.

  11. The birthrates in european countires will be self-correcting, but *only* if immigration is discouraged. Immigrants will naturally reduce the fertility of the native population, gradually leading to a replacement of the current population with with Muslim immigrants.

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