Oh Please: "More Babies, Please"?
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat fears that a "decadent" lower birthrate means America is doomed. But births likely will increase as the economy improves, and even if they don't, there's no reason to panic.
There’s always this creeping sense of dread whenever I
click on a Ross
Douthat column in The New York Times. This time as usual, the dread was
warranted. The headline alone, “More Babies, Please,” should have warned me not
to keep reading. But I just can’t help myself! It’s like a car wreck!
First, credit where credit is due. Douthat did say a few reasonable
things. If nations want to increase their birthrate, they might start by supporting
programs that make having kids easier – like flexible work hours and help with
college tuition. If having children
is unaffordable, more people will choose not to. (How Douthat plans to
explain that to lawmakers who want to cut Medicaid, food stamps, tuition aid
and other important programs for families is another issue entirely.)
But why is Douthat freaking out about America’s birthrate
in the first place?
Yes, our birthrate has recently fallen below replacement
level of 2.1 births per woman. Just like it has during other recessions. Call
me crazy, but I think it’s a good thing when people wait until they’re able
to afford a kid before they have one. When the economy improves,
historically, Americans start having babies again.
But what if it doesn’t this time? DOOM, right? Not
It’s true that America is aging, and as the Baby Boomers grow older, we’ll need
to make adjustments. We’ll need more gerontologists and fewer pediatricians,
and more retirement homes and fewer schools. But what people like Douthat fail
to take into account is that a high birthrate doesn’t
automatically translate into economic strength. For one thing, children
aren’t free. Simply having more babies is not a recipe for success if those
kids don’t get what they need to thrive. A nation must invest in health,
education and public safety if its kids are going to grow up to be productive
citizens. That stuff costs money.
Douthat also fails to consider the environmental
cost of an ever-growing population. Resources like land and water aren’t
infinite, and climate change-induced drought could make things worse. It’s
already estimated that the world will have to increase
food production 70 percent (!) to feed everyone in 2050. Adding to the
population adds to the challenge, especially when those extra people are
Americans. If everyone lived our resource-rich lifestyles, we’d need five
Earths to sustain us.
But where Douthat really annoys me is with his belief
that American women are shirking their moral duty by having fewer children. As
The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a
symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West
but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges
the present over the future … . It embraces the comforts and pleasures of
modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization
in the first place.
Did it ever occur to Douthat that some of us aren’t
having kids BECAUSE
we’re concerned about the future? The kids I don’t have leave more
resources for the dozen or so kids Douthat has – assuming he can talk his wife
into being the vessel of sustained procreation he clearly desires. That’s
anything but “decadence.”
As for “shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our
civilization,” I’ll listen to Douthat talk about “sacrifices” as soon as he’s able
to gestate another human being in his uterus for nine months, then push it out
his birth canal, risking life and limb, then repeating every two
years or so until menopause. The lower birth rates Douthat so fears mean lower mortality
for women and infants, but apparently the deaths of both are simply “basic
sacrifices” toward Douthat’s dream of sustained population growth.
I’d suggest that Douthat take a chill pill. We’ll be
fine. Americans will keep having babies. We’re not running out of people, even
if women are choosing to have fewer children. Many of us rather like the
freedom family planning gives us to pursue our own dreams – the freedom men
have always enjoyed.