In case you haven’t noticed, our debates increasingly focus not on the issues before us, but on the cultural distractions of the moment. It’s not so much that we fiddle while Rome burns, as much as we obsess about the Kardashian’s while the roof is collapsing on us.
History will recall with bemusement that while America was drowning in debt, we created yet another unaffordable entitlement and launched a $1 trillion stimulus spending program that promised to jump start the economy, but didn’t. As we slouch toward an inevitable debt crisis, we earnestly debate… what? Soda bans, plastic bag regulation, and how hard we should crack down on kids who use their fingers as pretend guns.
But those distractions may pale before the fertility crisis.
Even as we obsess over free taxpayer-funded contraceptives, gay marriage, and women in combat, the country actually faces an awkward and politically incorrect reality: we’re not making enough babies.
As author Jonathan Last notes:
The replacement rate is 2.1. If the average woman has more children than that, population grows. Fewer, and it contracts. Today, America's total fertility rate is 1.93, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; it hasn't been above the replacement rate in a sustained way since the early 1970s.
In other words, after years of being warned about the population bomb, we are in danger of actually shrinking. But is this necessarily a bad thing? In short: yes.
For one thing, we won’t have anyone to pay the bills we boomers have racked up. USA Today reports:
The slowdown is worrisome to many because of the growing gap between working-age populations that fund social programs and the elderly who rely on them.
The imbalance between children and retirees is growing. The economic burden on a child born in 2015 will be nearly twice that of a child born in 1985, according to the USC study…
In 1970, there were 22.2 Americans age 65 and over for every 100 working-age adults ages 25 to 64, Myers says. By 2010, that had gone up to 24.6 and based on Census projections, the ratio will rise above 40 by 2030.
One does not have to a statistician to recognize that as unsustainable. But Last argues that the consequences of our baby-less society run much deeper.
Low-fertility societies don't innovate because their incentives for consumption tilt overwhelmingly toward health care. They don't invest aggressively because, with the average age skewing higher, capital shifts to preserving and extending life and then begins drawing down. They cannot sustain social-security programs because they don't have enough workers to pay for the retirees. They cannot project power because they lack the money to pay for defense and the military-age manpower to serve in their armed forces.
There has been a great deal of political talk in recent years about whether America, once regarded as the shining city on a hill, is in decline. But decline isn't about whether Democrats or Republicans hold power; it isn't about political ideology at all. At its most basic, it's about the sustainability of human capital. Whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney took the oath of office last month, we would still be declining in the most important sense—demographically. It is what drives everything else.
Even so, it is surpassing difficult to imagine any politician (for the sake of this exercise, a Republican) who would say said such a thing in the midst of a campaign. The political class and the media have been too conditioned to think of population growth as (at best )a necessary evil; at worst a threat to the sacred tenets of environmentalism.
So we can only imagine how profoundly counter-cultural it would sound if a candidate blurted out the problem of fertility in the midst of a campaign.
Even mentioning the baby shortage would offend the cultural Zeitgeist deeply. Rather than introducing an important topic of national debate, talk about our fertility would likely be seen as a horrible gaffe, compounded of equal parts insensitivity to women and hostility to the planet.
And, anyway, this is America.
Wouldn’t we rather talk about Katy’s Perry’s dress at the Grammys?