Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Phillip Longman: The Empty Cradle; Bortelo: Fertility; Santorum: It Takes a Family

Phillip Longman. The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What We Can Do About It. New York: Basic, 2004. ISBN: 0-465-0505-6

Referral website: http://www.newamericafoundation.org/index.cfm?pg=event&EveID=362; Amazon link.

Longmen here presents analysis that really is not new at all, but he provides a fresh interpretation and perspective on it. That is, that the falling birthrate (below “replacement levels”) in many countries is a threat to economic prosperity and social stability. But he is trying to argue from a liberal, progressive position rather than from a moralistic one that condemns childlessness as “selfish.”

We used to hear a lot about the “world population problem” as overpopulation, but concern for underfertility has been common in the past. Conservative Christians have only occasionally bragged a pronatalist program to increase the relative numbers of the faithful. He quotes Mary Pride as saying, “All we’d have to do is to raise children and raise them for Christ.” And Longman is right, there is a long term threat that cultures or countries that have many children at the expense of immediate standard of living will become politically and maybe militarily powerful. The people who don’t “get it” (the new self-directed culture) or who feel religiously or politically motivated will procreate more than those with higher standards of living, but the evidence that this is really happening in various regions of the world is rather ambiguous.

The fertility issue affects not just western countries, but many Asian cultures as well (such as Japan).

But the dirty little secret that still relatively few authors delve into, is how much it costs to raise children in our culture, and the new economic incentive not to have children.

“Instead, the problem is that the value created by the ‘nurturing sector’ of the economy is, in effect, being taxed away to the point that it makes less and less sense for individuals to invest or participate in it, so increasingly they don’t. (p. 138)

“…parents are expected to potty train their children, keep them quiet and well-behaved, and let the joys of parenting be their own reward… A corollary of this view is that people who decide not to have children hurt no one, or even benefit society, and so cannot be criticized…The problem with these attitudes is that they fail to account for the deepening dependency all people have on both the quantity and quality of other people’s children.” (pp. 139-140)

A bit socialistic, to be sure. And a rebuttal to my own concept of meritocratic “responsibility for the self.”

Anecdotally, when I look around I see a lot of people still having kids and being dedicated to them, and I think the problem is more than just economics. It is psychology, aesthetics, and culture. People want relationships to satisfy themselves, not just to propagate their bloodlines. Aesthetics exists in many areas with only a remote connection to children, and can add a lot to a modern culture. The modern gay community provides an example. Gradually, people have come to define themselves apart from family responsibilities, and this may become a particular problem with eldcercare, as the number of longer-living elderly increases with fewer children to support them.

Here, I must say, I have lived most of my adult gay life as one of the selfishly, unsocialized childless. Perhaps I have gotten away with something that will not be possible in the next generation.

Longman finally gets to his policy proposals, and his main one is to reduce or eliminate social security taxes for married couples with dependent children. (Libertarians, remember, want to replace social security entirely with private retirement accounts, but that would not help homemakers or with paying to raise children.) As a sidebar he visits gay marriage:

“My personal view is that a good compromise would be to sanction gay marriage, but to insist that marriage be at least an initial requirement for receiving parental benefits.” (p. 175)

His other proposals regarding health care, family businesses (working from home), and reducing suburban sprawl seem less original and controversial. He does believe that better health care would extend the working career of most adults by ten years or so and reduce the burden of caring for the elderly, but this advice applies in a society that accepts a low birth rate.

Longman here sidesteps discussion of the symbolic importance to many people of the sex act itself and its connection to actually making children. It seems that he could have made a case here for gay adoption—if you encourage adoption, you encourage more people to take the chance of having children. You also provide another brake against abortion.

This whole discussion does call up our values—how important are people “as people” compared to the values people represent. That is an important part of gay psychology. Many people would want to be parents if they knew they would have Clark Kent to raise, but the lottery of having kids doesn’t work that way. Longman, again, sees this is a collective problem, not as a moral failure of individuals, who simply are designing personal goals in line with a culture with new rules. Other writers, such as Elinor Burkett (maybe even Elizabeth Warren), will disagree as to whether society is really penalizing having children to the extent that public policy must change. From my perspective, the competitive pressure a gay singleton like me can put on families with children seems very real, since often I can work “cheaper.” So I cannot avoid the possibility of looking at this as a personal moral matter, too. Any public policy change favoring having more children has to be seen in terms of penalizing persons (like me) who don’t, which is somewhat a different bag from encouraging parents to get and stay legally married. We can sit around and speculate “what if” and imagine, with some horror, a list of such changes (some might be unconstitutional). One in particular that comes to mind could be bringing back filial responsibility laws (or enforcing existing ones in some states). Such a development could indeed become catastrophic to the gay and lesbian community unless gay marriage (and not just civil union—Longman gets that point) and gay adoption were fully legal and expected everywhere.

Some conservative commentators have noted that illegal immigration, and President Bush’s plan to allow some illegals who do our “dirty jobs” to stay, relates to the lower birth rate among the affluent and the economic pressure perceived by many to delay having children. Immigrants will have more children, and their needs for social support and especially educational support in the schools will be much greater.

Readers may enjoy this commentary by Steven E. Landsburg, “Be Fruitful and Multiply: Do the world a favor: Have more children” at http://www.slate.com/id/2037/ The Genesis verse is 1:28 (but see this commentary in Christianity Today from 2001, at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2001/014/4.58.html The verse is viewed as a “blessing” and not as a commandment. Then there is also the Apostle Paul’s take on fecundity at 1 Corinthians 7:9, “it is better to marry than to burn”; for example, see http://www.bereanbeacon.org/articles/better_marry_than_burn.htm

Suzanne Fields, in “Destined for the supper dish: How can our society survive an impulse for weakness,” The Washington Times, Jan. 16, 2005, reminds us that the comparative birthrates in Islamic countries is much higher, and that could eventually lead to the loss of liberty (through terrorism, war or gross political changes) of those who follow individualistic values that eschew giving a high priority to procreation and family responsibility. Radical Islam is seen as the “tiger.” Bring on the political cartoonists!

Again, Suzanne Fields writes, “Making babies in Berlin: Germany attempts to correct a dearth of births,” The Washington Times, March 27, 2005.

A related book is by Angelo Bertelo, Fertility: Power and Progress, Confidence in Life and Genius, Problems and Paradoxes, with forward by Prof. Bibek Debroy, Director, Rajiv Gandhi Institute For Contemporary Studies, Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, Jawahar Bhawan, Dr. Rajendra Prasad Road, New Delhi – 110001. Bertelo writes: humanity progresses when the birth rate is high; it does not progress, but regresses, when the birth rate is low, devolving towards its decadence and extinction.

You can read this book free at http://utenti.lycos.it/angelobertolo/

Ellen Nakashima, of the Washington Post Foreign Service, provides a story “With Birthrate Falling, Singapore Targets ‘Lifestyle Impotency,’ Singapore Increases Efforts to Increase Anemic Birthrate,” The Washington Post, Sept. 11, 2004, p. A13. The birthrate now is 1.25 babies per woman. The extreme work ethic, not sexual “morality”, is held to be part of the problem.

David R. Sands, “Europe’s ‘bay bust’ signals major change; Military, economic strength may falter,” The Washington Times, Nov. 24, 2005 (Thanksgiving Day) prints a chart of birthrates. The United States has a rate of 2.08 per woman, but most European countries range from 1.19 to 1.94. Paying “baby bounties” as do France and Italy and some countries seems to help minimally. The U.S. may have a high rate because of a lower population density. Psychological culture plays a role, as an urbanized culture offers many other opportunities besides family and kids. The riots in Muslim neighborhoods in France in Nov. 2005 are relevant. Kamai Daoudi, son of Algerian immigrants, was arrested for joining Al Qaeda and plotting an attack against the US Embassy in Paris; he told authorities that Muslim immigrants were regarded as cheap labor to support the “real French” when their “pyramid” gets thin as more and more turn elderly and no longer can support themselves.

Senator (R-PA) Richard Santorum has a new book It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good ( 2005, ISI, ISBN 1932236295), which begs for a natural comparison to Hilary Clinton’s “It Takes a Village (1996). Actually, the book is somewhat intended as an attack on overzealous individualism as it competes with families under the guise of social programs, or as it takes undue advantage of unsupervised use of technology (as with pornography or adult content on the Internet). Indeed, it is hard for low and moderate income families to raise their children and stay together in today’s competitive culture. Santorum, however, cannot afford to list really specific hard-nosed remedies to deal with it. We will remember Santorum’s speech supporting sodomy laws before the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision as dangerous to the stability of the family as a societal common element, and his support from the Senate floor of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, which died on the floor on CSPAN in July 2004. But he makes a clever nexus between gay marriage and the falling birthrates in western countries, which is even more striking in Europe. He argues that people have lost a sense of common importance and bearing with the whole natural (and biological) process of marriage, childbearing and new family formation. He seems concerned that marginal males, especially, are lured into homosexuality and upward affiliation when they could, if not “corrupted,” become fathers and heads of new families after all, despite a person perception of a competitive disadvantage. So he wants to have it both ways: marriage and family life is based on “true love” or “real life” but that love requires social ratification and freedom from competitive denigration. He could have been even more specific about the demographics: will people who don’t have their own children be assigned an even greater share of the eldercare burden in the future? Marriage may be more susceptible to too much support than he realizes.

In the high school social studies text The American Pageant (2002), David Kennert and Lizabeth Cohen discuss, toward the very end, the break down of “shared purposes” in the 60s, the rise of individualism, and the fact that the decline of the family is more than just unwed mothers. In the 1990s, one-third of all women 25-29 have never married, and three times as many adults lived alone (myself included) in the 1990s as in the 1950s. One-fourth of all children do not have two live-a-home parents (1/3 for Hispanics, 2/3 for African Americans).

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