Apparently there has been a small media debate over the past few weeks over the effect of fertility on economic prosperity, which I managed to entirely miss, maybe because I’m out of the loop generally speaking, or maybe because these articles are all written by a bunch dudes who don’t bother to mention that childrearing is done primarily by women. They do at least give us credit for forming humans inside our bodies and pushing them out.
First up we have Jonathan Last writing “America’s Baby Bust” in the Wall Street Journal. In it. Last writes, “Forget the debt ceiling. Forget the fiscal cliff, the sequestration cliff and the entitlement cliff. Those are all just symptoms. What America really faces is a demographic cliff: The root cause of most of our problems is our declining fertility rate.” He goes on to say that this is caused by a lot of reasons like middle class wage stagnation, ladies getting educated, birth control pills. Last thinks that the good aspects of some of these things, like say women’s empowerment, also carry serious costs, like us being left with too many old people, making social security unviable. He makes some preposterous arguments about lack of incentive for innovation since consumption tilts toward healthcare services, which I guess he sees as an area that doesn’t need or strive for innovation? Anyway, next.
Ross Douthat wrote “More Babies Please” in the New York Times, and manages to mention the word “women” only twice in the entire article. Once just to introduce what the fertility rate is, and another time to tell us that too many women are having babies out of wedlock. So based on the article title and his sparse mention of those of us who are actually the ones making, having and raising babies, moving on…
Finally is Paul Hsieh writing “Freedom, Not Fertility, Is The Key To A Thriving Economy” in Forbes. Hsieh is less concerned about the fertility rate and makes some good points that it is not the government’s job to try to promote economic growth, or whatever other promotable value, through fertility incentives. But he then goes off and uses this as a platform to just rant about free-market policy proposals which have an at-most tangential relationship to fertility. His first recommendation, which he notes as most important, is to promote free market policies to encourage economic prosperity. Of course if you don’t believe free market economies actually promote economic growth and especially not in an equitable manner, than this is dumb. I get his point of wanting economic prosperity to stave off a lack of economic prosperity, duh, but I don’t buy his leap in thinking or his faith in the free market. Second, he supports immigration reform so immigrants can inject economic vigor into our economy. Wut?! Also, it’s just good policy to have reasonable immigration standards so people who want to come here and work here can, despite our expectations for vigor (and probably an underlying hope that they’ll make some babies too). Third and finally, he says we should privatize social security, so that way we don’t need to worry about paying for all these old people who are bringing impending doom upon our economy. There are many reasons why this is bullshit, not least of which is the economic equality that social security helps maintain for the elderly and also the many possibilities for social security reform that continue to provide an equitable and viable social safety net for our nation’s aging population without privatizing it. But despite all these reasons I disagree with Hsieh, again, barely any mention of women. What’s going on here?
Not surprisingly, these male finance and economics writers seem to have a total disconnect between babies and women. They acknowledge that the fertility rate has women as a factor in its calculation and that women’s changing economic position has changed their decisions about having babies, but they don’t really delve into how women’s lives might be affecting their declining fertility rates. For example, women not only birth babies, but they also raise them (men help too, but not nearly as much – according to this CBS article from last year, only 50% of men acknowledge helping with childcare on the average day). So women are not only choosing to have fewer babies, but really they are choosing to live different lives entirely. They are spending more time working and developing careers and perhaps this means that they are giving higher quality standards of living to the children they choose to have both because of economic circumstance and because of their ability to choose to do so. A result of this is a declining fertility rate, but I’m not sure if this is something we should really be up in arms about when it comes along with women’s economic and social empowerment. Let’s hope instead that these changes mean we can look to women for a source of economic prosperity, rather than looking to their wombs.