Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Is What's Bad, Good?

Conservatives such as myself complained for years about a dysfunctional welfare system that encouraged poor women to have children to increase their government stipend. But could what once was seen as a bug, be a feature?

Michael O'Hare comments on the long-term depopulation of Europe due to Europeans declining to have children:
...fertility rates in Europe are at levels never observed in countries not at war or the grip of psychotic dictatorships. Even in France, which has had aggressive pro-natalist policies in place since the thirties, the population pyramid has very broad shoulders and fashionably slim legs...

The phenomenon is creepy, but what's like a science fiction movie about zombies is the pervasive lack of concern. Good studies are commissioned and filed away, governments have started some tentative child-subsidy tax programs, especially generous in France, but there's no conversation about it, nothing in the newspapers, an election in a week in Italy and I can't find a word about this impending catastrophe from a candidate in the newspapers or on TV. The current administration seems to have spent its entire term in office keeping the prime minister out of jail, not attending to this (or anything else, as far as I can tell).

What could possibly be more important to Italy than the looming extinction of Italians? And even if the society had decided it's time to roll up the enterprise and pass the peninsula to someone else, or just turn out the lights and close the door, what do the twenties and thirties of today expect to have for dinner when they're old, having paid taxes to support their (more numerous) parents most of their working lives? Why is everyone acting as if this isn't happening??!!

As an italophile on many dimensions, sitting in a comfortable train [this is shorthand for a competent system of public services that provide a high quality of life] between Rome and Milan where life is very good in so many ways, in the land of Giotto, da Vinci, Fermi [supply your own pages of really smart Italians who think outside the box], I find myself suppressing a tendency to grab people at random by the collar and yell at them, "forse queste cose non mi riguardono, ma siete pazzi, voi? ciecchi?" (si, amici miei, questo è per voi) [maybe this is none of my business, but are you people nuts? blind?]

Megan McArdle speculates that the rise in incomes generally, and of women specifically may have raised the opportunity cost of raising a child too high. Yet the United States has a booming economy and we have a birthrate above the replacement level:
...we still need to come up with an explanation of why America, which is still getting richer and putting women into the workforce, isn't below replacement rate. But much of our fertility comes from poor women and immigrants, who have a much lower opportunity cost for childrearing than overeducated professionals like me. Our welfare policy may be inadvertently pro-natalist--since, unlike Europe, the only way for a healthy woman to collect benefit is to have children.
There are two objections that I would make to Ms McArdle's reasoning. First, are there enough children of poor or single parents that can rise high enough in economic class to replace the "missing" children of wealthy non-parents? If not, then the children born to a lower economic strata may be unable to provide the economic base from which future benefits should be paid. (A complaint against the old welfare system was that it made its clients net consumers, not net creators of wealth.)

My second objection is that the question of natalism in the United States is not completely reducible to economics. The US has an Evangelical religious culture largely not found in Europe. That culture is very pro-natal, pro-child. For all the demonization of anti-abortion protesters by the political Left, these people are the expression os a demographic component that my be providing the managers, craftsmen, and artisans that pay for all our Social Security benefits!

UPDATE: Rich Lowrey over in NRO, says this about immigrants that lack a high-school diploma:
The National Research Council reports that an immigrant to the U.S. without a high-school diploma — whether legal or illegal — consumes $89,000 more in governmental services than he pays in taxes during his lifetime. An immigrant with only a high-school diploma is a net cost of $31,000. Eighty percent of illegal immigrants have no more than a high-school degree, and 60 percent have less than a high-school degree.
This may be comparable to native-born children without a high-school diploma. In that case the economic case for the pro-natal consequences of our welfare policy is even weaker than I thought.

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