- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 6, 2008


What is the role of the United States in the future? There is much talk today — as there was a few decades ago — that America is in big trouble.

It is said America is too powerful — the sole superpower and consequently arrogant and unpopular. We hear the war in Iraq has been lost, our political system is both bizarre and broke, we are flooded with immigrants, especially illegals, we pay little heed to the rest of the world, the dollar is cheap, the gap between rich and poor is growing, and so on.

Accordingly, so it is said, we are headed for a grand fall. This is not just garden-variety anti-Americanism. We need only listen to the rhetoric coming from our primary elections.

Surely, America is powerful. Never has there been a nation as economically potent, geopolitically influential, culturally dominant, scientifically important, and with a language that has become universal — American, or if you prefer, English.

I have worked more than 40 years examining and interpreting American and international social and economic data. To me the evidence seems clear. There is no collapse in sight. The United States will become vastly more powerful in the decades to come.

My primary reason concerns demographics. The first U.S. Census counted 3.9 million Americans. The Census of 2000 counted roughly 300 million Americans, an increase of 7,500 percent. Just over the course of the 20th century, the population grew by 400 percent. Careful projections by both the U.S. Census Bureau and the United Nations Population Division now show a growth path to 400 million by 2050 and 500 million by 2100. But that is an increase of 67 percent — not close to 7,500 percent or 400 percent. Relatively, growth is slowing down — but a half a billion people is a big number. Population yields influence.

The astonishing point of this sequence of numbers is that almost every other nation — developed or less-developed — is on a path toward, or has already started decline. The exceptions I can think of are Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Israel.

In 2004 I wrote a book titled “Fewer.” Its operative sentence was “Never have birth and fertility rates fallen so far, so fast, so low, for so long, in so many places, so surprisingly.”

I think the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is the most meaningful way of measuring what is going on demographically. It reflects the average total number of children born per woman over the course of her childbearing years. It takes 2.1 children per woman to “replace” a population over time. Sooner or later the two parents die — and the .1 represents those children who do not live to the reproductive age.

Today, the TFR in Western Europe is about 1.6 children per woman. Southern Europe is lower. In Italy, once famous as the land of the bouncing bambino — the rate is about 1.3. Not long ago that was the lowest in the world. Today the TFR as low or lower in Eastern Europe. Japan and South Korea have rates near 1.1 children per woman. China’s coercive one-child family policy has left them with a massive demographic shortfall. Who will pay the health and retirement bills when small cohorts of Chinese have to pay for huge numbers of elderly people who need health care and living expenses?

Already more than 25 Less Developed Nations (formerly called “Third World”) have TFR below replacement fertility rates. These include Cuba, Costa Rica, Tunisia, Iran, probably Turkey, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and North Korea.

Russia is in a particularly perilous demographic situation. Its TFR is about 1.2 children per woman — but exacerbated by out-migration and low longevity, particularly among men, due to alcoholism. That’s not the portrait of a super-power: a fleet of rusting nuclear weapons, a sea of oil — and ever-fewer people.

“Ever-fewer” is the root of the demographic situation. The horror stories about the “population explosion” concerned how population growth moved in a geometric progression. One scientist testified to Congress that if trends continued the radius of the human flesh would expand at the speed of light.

Other alarmists, like Paul Ehrlich had somewhat more modest projections. (My late colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, Herbert Stein wisely noted that “a trend that can’t continue — won’t.”)

But when the TFR goes below the replacement level —- the depopulation also proceeds geometrically. The Europeans, Russians, Chinese and their East Asian neighbors will have starkly fewer people. India is still above replacement, but on a steep path toward decline — accelerated by female infanticide.

Therefore what? Commercially powerful nations will be less so as markets and workers diminish — unless they accept huge numbers of immigrants from the Muslim world or from Sub-Saharan Africa, a trend depopulating nations resist with passion.

In America, too, there is some resistance to immigration, particularly to illegals. But the United States has thrived on assimilating newcomers — after hating them. Benjamin Franklin denounced German immigrants. The Irish were hated, so were Jews, Italians and Poles. There were immigration laws against certain groups — as in the “Asian Exclusion Acts.” But most of the descendants of those immigrants not only became productive citizens, but presidents, corporate innovators and Nobel Prize winners. Today many and grandchildren of the haters now celebrate the American mosaic. The hate du jour has shifted to Mexicans.

Of course, depopulation will not continue indefinitely: According to its leading demographers, Mexico already has a TFR below the replacement level. In theory, if Mexicans keep emigrating and Americans keep buying beachfront condos — the indigenous population of Mexico will disappear and the nation will be composed entirely of rich Yankees.

There are dueling studies about whether the current immigration to America will be economically positive or negative. But none of them can take into account Rudy, the son of my housekeeper. His mom, Iris, arrived in the United States as a teenager, stuffed into the trunk of a car with 15 other people. Rudy is now almost 16. He goes to an excellent public school. He gets fine grades. He speaks English without an accent. He plays fullback on his school’s football team. He does not do drugs or smoke. His major complaint is that he can’t yet drive a car.

What will Rudy contribute to America? I doubt he will win a Nobel Prize in science. He could become an engineer or the CEO of a corporation. He can surely be the sales manager of an American company with a territory in any Spanish-speaking country. No regression analysis can predict what the Rudys will be worth to America, just as none could foretell the role of immigrant Albert Einstein.

Will this global demographic free-fall continue? To halt it — to reflate fertility in order to re-instate current population levels would require a TFR of 4 to 5 children per woman. That won’t happen, certainly not where the dominant mode of residence is the apartment, rather than the American-style free-standing private home.

The central question is: Can global fertility go back up to 2.1 and stabilize at a lower level? I would assume so: I doubt the world will be composed of the descendants of Mormons and Ultra-Orthodox Jews. Demographers used to say, wryly “Oh, Latvia is ‘going out of business’ ” or Estonia, or Austria. Today you might include Russia, Italy, Japan and scores of others. I doubt that will happen.

But when will world population restabilize? A few years ago the United Nations ran projections out to the year 2300. There are plenty of scenarios in that remarkable document: The one I thought most realistic showed a total population of just a little more than 2 billion people.

The current global population is about 6.5 billion people. The medium variant projection a few years ago had world population growing to 11.5 billion. The population projections related to global warming were first based on that number and have now been reduced to 10 billion. But recent data shows population will reach about 7.5 billion before beginning a long decline.

A large part of global warming induced by humans depends on how many humans there will be. As the number of humans declines, human-induced greenhouse gas emissions will fall, particularly so as “green” technologies fall into place. Al Gore has not noticed.

I have been invited to attend small U.N. meetings of demographers. I learned a great deal. But the most powerful statement came from the man I was seated next to, the Italian demographer Antonio Golini. He kept muttering one word: “unsustainable, unsustainable, unsustainable.”

What sort of world will the birth dearth yield? Different. In theory, immigrants will be prizes, not burdens. There will be labor shortages. Whether humans can overcome their fear of strangers remains to be seen. Commerce will change. Big and populous countries with big markets — will shrink. Power and influence will shift.

A Russia with a perilously low TFR, compounded by high death rates due to alcoholism and substantial emigration will be a much diminished power in the years to come. Europe will be a substantially less important player than today.

Consider economics. We hear other nations will “pull” their money from the United States because of the “cheap” dollar. But if you are a pension plan manager looking for a large, stable, democratic, nation with a relatively honest stock market — there is only one. The allegedly terrible housing situation is also a nonstarter. Either 40 million American will sleep on the streets in 2050 or there will be a housing boom.

These facts are not graven in stone. It is hard to believe that great and ancient nations will “go out of business.” But, when does the free-fall stop? We do not know that. For the moment it remains very useful to know the terrain.

Ben Wattenberg is moderator of the PBS program “Think Tank.” His forthcoming book is “Fighting Words: a Tale of How Liberals Created Neoconservatism.”

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