- - Monday, March 4, 2013

WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN NO ONE’S EXPECTING: AMERICA’S COMING DEMOGRAPHIC DISASTER
By Jonathan Last
Encounter, $23.99, 240 pages

On Feb. 15, a 150-foot asteroid buzzed by the Earth, and smaller meteors broke through the Russian sky. If the asteroid had hit the earth, it would not have been an extinction event, but it would have created a tsunami-of-a-mess. The next big one, Apophis, is expected to pass by in 2028, narrowly missing Earth. However, according to theoretical physicist Michio Kauku, it could mortally graze our atmosphere in 2036 on its backswing. After reading Jonathan Last’s “What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster,” asteroids are the least of our worries.

Modernity’s extinction event is coming fast — and it’s not extra-terrestrial in origin but man-and-woman-made. If an asteroid ever hits us, the human race — if Mr. Last is right — will surely already be dying.

The problem is that we moderns no longer seem to want to have children — or at least not enough to keep up with requirements of such utilitarian sounding terms like “replacement rates.” This is not a surprise to the author — and it should not be a surprise to any parent: “raising children is difficult, resource intensive, socially inhibiting, and (if we can be candid) often unpleasant, it is not an exercise many people want to put themselves through multiple times.”

Are we so selfish? Oh, yeah. Is it liberalism’s fault? No.

According to Mr. Last, American liberals have fanned the fire — Social Security, Medicaid, the pill, abortion, no-fault divorce — certainly contributing to America’s slow-moving, inexorable “demographic disaster.” However, liberalism did not light the fire; the Enlightenment did.

When you make man the measure of all things, don’t be surprised when he is not attentive to the population requirements of welfare-state economics, or the necessary fecundity of the human race. Mr. Last borrows from a recently departed and dearly missed social scientist to make his case. “Taking the long view, James Q. Wilson blames Milton, Locke and the Enlightenment in general. His argument is typically fluid and persuasive.”

Because the seeds of our demographic destruction are not American-made, but rather a design flaw of the modern age, “What to Expect” has a thesis with global implications. Mr. Last artfully teases these out. It turns out China is in worse shape than we are, Russia is suicidal and Iran is driven by demographic necessity to get the bomb and invade its neighbors.

The 20th century belonged to the economist and his dismal art. However, it’s hard after reading “What to Expect” not to think that the 21st should belong to the demographer. Or better still, to thoughtful writers like Mr. Last, who can wrap their minds around the insights of an ignored but important discipline and translate the best prescriptions for the rest of us. If I could be Jeff Bezos at Amazon for one day, I would cross reference “What to Expect When No One is Expecting” to come up in searches alongside “The Tipping Point,” “Guns, Germs and Steel,” “Freakonomics” and “Bobos in Paradise.” Mr. Last has given us a timely, enjoyable, applicable treasure of a book.

Our demographic challenges are greater than our economic ones because our greatest economic challenges are really demographic in nature. In short, too many gray hairs and too few replacement taxpayers. In light of our demographic realities, Keynesianism is economic malfeasance and, to the advocates of growth, there is a deeper supply-side problem.

Unlike the liberal and popular demographers like Paul Ehrlich, whose dyslexic readings of demographic trends in “The Population Bomb” are matched with their illiberal policy prescriptions, Mr. Last offers policy settlements that do not claim to reverse the trend line but can bend it a bit — and, it is worth noting, are suited for a free people. Mr. Last’s menu is built on the assumption that you can’t force or even entice those who don’t want to have children to do so. If illiberal Singapore can’t coerce and incentivize their unwilling, we certainly can’t. There is a realism to Mr. Last’s thinking that is both liberal and just might lead to effective change.

As a father of teenage Irish twins — which, by the way, are not fraternal twins but siblings born a year apart to parents that lack the long-term capacity to think about paying for college — what “natalist” relief is Mr. Last offering to someone like me? There are five big ideas but here are my two selfish favorites. (Buy the book for the others.)

With the birth of every future taxpayer comes a 33 percent reduction of the parent’s Social Security-FICA tax — a “Parental Dividend.” Have three kids and earn your place on the Social Security rolls. Mr. Last makes the future-looking value of the parental dividend clear: “If I can make one prediction that’s a stone-cold, mortal lock, it’s this: Social Security taxes will keep going up. They have to.” Why should “emitters” saddle themselves with $1.1 million debt for each future taxpayer they are raising and subsidize those that contributed nothing to keep the Ponzi scheme going?

The biggest driver of seven-figure-per-kid sticker shock is the cost of education, particularly college, which Mr. Last shows has increased by a modest 1,000 percent since the 1960s. In three years’ time the DesRosiers need to come up with $400,000 to get our kids’ ticket for the American Dream punched. To quote a band of my youth, “Toll due, bad dream come true.”

Mr. Last draws on a policy idea from Walter Russell Mead for another proposal: If a college receives federal funds — which every school in America with the exception of Hillsdale and Grove City does — then our representatives, who claim to feel our pain, can require all universities to accept qualifying exams, much like the Advanced Placement tests that knock off college time and even justify the equivalent of a national baccalaureate. With the ability to prove educational competency, employers would be able to hire the workforce they need, depreciating both the importance and cost of the college education.

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