Sunday, August 26, 2012

From the "no such thing as a stupid question" department

where babies come from graphics Pictures, Images and Photos Just over two years ago, I wrote a long, rambling post titled "The fall of the Western Empire ... redux" on The Other Blog.  It was a rather futile attempt to articulate my concerns about the future, not by looking at just one aspect (the economy, population trends, education, etc.) but by looking at everything as interconnected.

Okay ... it was really a rant.

One of my concerns is "demographic winter".  Liberals, still vested in the "population bomb" meta-narrative, pooh-pooh the fears provoked by falling birthrates in much of the First and Second Worlds by engaging in rather fascinating exercises in point-missing.  

For instance, Antonia Zerbisias, writing for the Toronto Star, sneers, "Never mind that the human population expands by 78 million a year, with one in three doomed to live in slums without clean water, plumbing or electricity."  What do you mean the electric company's gonna shut off our power at midnight?  The air conditioner's still running!  (The point is that the demographic slide is going to begin sometime between 2030 and 2050; to object that the world's population is still expanding now is hardly a prima facia rebuttal.)

But wait! it gets better:

Screened by right-wing think tanks and pro-life organizations, [the documentary Demographic Winter, which I haven't seen yet] argues that the only way to combat the disappearance of homo sapiens — as if we aren't already killing ourselves by fouling our nest — is by bringing back "the intact married family," eliminating extramarital sex and banning contraception.
It always comes down to confining women, doesn't it?
It always comes down to reflexive second-wave feminist paranoid fantasies, doesn't it? 

More technical and less obviously rhetorical is Ronald Bailey's piece in The Hook, where he argues, "Having fewer children means that people have more resources to invest in themselves and their children which improves human capital."  Moreover:

As we've seen, people don't get rich simply because they live in countries with more workers. People get rich because they live in countries in which workers become increasingly more productive. Higher productivity means that workers produce more output per hour. Ever increasing productivity results from a positive feedback loop of human capital (education and effective social institutions) combined with constantly improving physical capital. Rising productivity is what supplies the modern world with the plethora of goods and services that people in developed countries enjoy.
 Except that falling population means fewer people to consume the increasing production, no?  Bailey is focusing on the supply side of the equation, but at the cost of missing out on the demand side.  But no worries!  Technology will rescue us:

Besides being physically healthier, advances such as memory pills and personal robots will help older people maintain and enhance their mental acuity. Even more tantalizing is the possibility that some time in this century anti-aging research could achieve actuarial escape velocity that would allow people to have indefinitely long healthy and productive lives. This means that instead of peaking, people's life cycle consumption (and production) will stretch into an open-ended future driving economic growth forward.
 Gee, just what I wanted ... another five hundred years of work.  Bailey burbles enthusiastically that "the percentage of Americans between ages 65 and 74 who are still working has risen from 20 percent in 2000 to 23 percent today"; however, this is not necessarily just because they can but because they have to, as Social Security and various pension plans fail to keep up with rising medical and energy costs.  Nor are they all going back to work as managers and professionals; many of them are at jobs paying one-third to one-fourth of what they used to make, such as being greeters at Wal-Mart or cashiers at Arby's.  Certainly, IF the gee-whiz scenarios of the Ray Kurzweils of the world take place, people will be able to work longer as managers and professionals.  But I'm not convinced the necessary breakthroughs will take place before the economy of the Western World shuts down and kills off scientific research.

All this is a terribly long prologue to a question I read in somebody's combox recently.  (Unfortunately, I can't remember whether it was Creative Minority Report or Acts of the Apostasy.)  The discussion was about traditional marriage and demographic winter, and two commenters were squaring off over same-sex marriage.  In the midst of her rebuttal, the person defending SSM, an apparently intelligent woman, asked in dead, derisive earnest:

"Who says reproduction has anything to do with sex?"

Yikes. That question should never come out of the mouth (or typing fingers) of any adult with an IQ over 85 and a high school education.

Yeah ... we're screwed.