May 28, 2012
The Reverse Roe effect
The Japanese government recently reported that the "under-15 population declined for 31st straight year" and the "number of newborns in 2011 came to a record low." Taking note of these statistics, Nicholas Eberstadt observes that
Gradually but relentlessly, Japan is evolving into a type of society whose contours and workings have only been contemplated in science fiction. [Though] it is not clear that Japan's path will be a harbinger of what lies ahead in other aging societies.
Eberstadt is right on that last point. Japan is quite different from other rich countries, in large part because of its very dense infrastructure and the great ability (largely unnoticed by western commentators) of ordinary Japanese to radically adjust their cost of living.
Still, I'm not sure that "Japan's path" will prove much of a harbinger even in Japan.
At the heart of these concerns is a curiously conservative ideology infecting the full spectrum of liberal and academic thought. It is perhaps best summed up in William F. Buckley's famous definition of conservatism: "It stands athwart history, yelling Stop."
First, seeing the world in static terms: whatever is will always be; whatever the current trends, they must be expected to continue forever. Any deviation from what was, or the expectations of what should (and ought to) be, becomes cause for great alarm. Steps must be taken!
Nothing illustrates this better than the recent flurry of "Japan going extinct in 1000 years" stories (coming a quarter century after the "Japan as #1" fad).
Second, an apocalyptic world view, which places every generation at the fulcrum of history, its hands on the levers that will move the world into or away from the precipice. But lurking beneath the sackcloth and ashes are towering egos convinced they can rule the world. And nature.
A fertility rate of 1.4 actually masks a more interesting reality: that a lot of women have no children, and a few have more than none. It's the mirror opposite of what James Taranto calls the "Roe Effect" (there are fewer abortion supporters every generation for the obvious reason).
The Roe Effect kicks in elsewhere. As Amy Chavez describes only mostly tongue-and-cheek (echoing Steven Sailer's theory that family formation inversely tracks cost of living), the owners of cheap land aren't selling, taking the sunk cost fallacy to the point of actual extinction.
It's yet another problem that will eventually fix itself. The people who have land and no children won't be around that much longer to not have either. The cost of family formation will drop as a result, meaning those who want to have more children can afford to have more.
As "Troy" cynically points out, thanks to Japan's much briefer post-war baby boom, the medium-term demographic problem in Japan "pretty much solves itself" by dying out quite promptly.
Now, if you're Greece, you may plumb run out of people while struggling past this dip. But if the worst case scenarios all come true, a century from now Japan will have the same population as--Great Britain right now. On the same amount of arable land. Hardly the end of the world.