What's the Matter With Everywhere Other Than Scandinavia and the United States?


In the cover story of this week's New York Times Magazine, Russell Shorto seeks to explain falling fertility rates in Europe. He argues that the combination of a modern economy and traditionalist society tends to produce extremely low birth rates; I agree with him, and argued as much in reason's July cover story. But I don't think this conclusion, which he appears to endorse, is quite justified:

So there would seem to be two models for achieving higher fertility: the neosocialist Scandinavian system and the laissez-faire American one. [Sociologist Arnstein] Aassve put it to me this way: "You might say that in order to promote fertility, your society needs to be generous or flexible. The U.S. isn't very generous, but it is flexible. Italy is not generous in terms of social services and it's not flexible. There is also a social stigma in countries like Italy, where it is seen as less socially accepted for women with children to work. In the U.S., that is very accepted."

By this logic, the worst sort of system is one that partly buys into the modern world — expanding educational and employment opportunities for women — but keeps its traditional mind-set. This would seem to define the demographic crisis that Italy, Spain and Greece find themselves in — and, perhaps, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other parts of the world.

By "flexibility," Aassve means a flexible labor market. Women are less fearful of dropping out of the workforce for a while if they know they can jump back in, and labor markets in the United States allow them to do just that. By "generosity," he means social benefits like mandatory maternity and paternity leave, monthly payments to parents, free daycare, and other pronatalist incentives.

This strikes me as an elaborate attempt to establish causation between Scandinavian social welfare schemes and high total fertility rates. As developed nations with unusually high birth rates, what distinguishes the United States and Sweden is less important than what they share, and what they share are relatively liberalized gender norms. The relevant divide is not over the provision of lavish benefits or the flexibility of the labor markets, but over the traditionalism and stigmatization Aassve mentions as an afterthought. In the United States, as in Nordic countries, working shortly after bearing children is less frowned upon than it is in Southern Europe and Asia. Women feel less pressured to choose between education and motherhood, and frequently choose both. Unsurprisingly, men in Southern Europe and Asia are less likely to help with housework or child care. Here is how Bruce Sacerdote and James Feyrer put it in a recent NBER study on the relationship between household status and fertility:

We believe that changes in the status of women are driving fertility change. At low levels of female status, women specialize in household production and fertility is high. In an intermediate phase, women have increasing opportunities to earn a living outside the home yet still shoulder the bulk of household production. Fertility is at a minimum in this regime due to the increased opportunity cost in women's foregone wages with no decrease in time allocated to childcare. We see the lowest fertility nations (Japan, Spain, Italy) as being in this regime. At even higher levels of women's status, men begin to share in the burden of child care at home and fertility is higher than in the middle regime. This progression has been observed in the US, Sweden and other countries.

While it's plausible that the government can help liberalize norms by subsidizing daycare and supporting working women, it's important not to conflate social acceptance with government incentives. You cannot simply start throwing benefits at a socially conservative society and wait for babies; were this an effective strategy, we would be seeing a lot more tiny Singaporeans. Pro-natalist incentives (which should probably be distinguished from an all-encompassing welfare state) may have a very small effect on birth rates, but the sudden, small increases demographers see may just reflect a difference in the timing of births. In other words, natalist incentives may encourage women to have the same number of kids today rather than tomorrow.

The end of the Times Magazine piece includes a fantastic discussion of creative ways to manage shrinking cities, which is as relevant here as in the population-stable U.S. as well. We move around; cities shrink; but politicians continue to nurse embarrassing delusions of bringing Buffalo back. Why not learn to decline gracefully?

NEXT: "Almost, Not Quite, Entirely Unlike Tea"

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  1. So is there a problem implied here? The decline of western civilization? Less folks on the beltway sounds fine by me.

  2. “Generous” means taking money from your citizens by force to give it to others? Odd, that’s not what I had thought.

    (Howley makes a lot of sense here though.)

  3. Ed and Kerry are both right. Declining birthrates are only a problem for people who advocate direct intergenerational government welfare.

    For the rest of us it means cheaper housing and less commuting time.

  4. For the rest of us it means cheaper housing and less commuting time.

    Unless you’re a certain someone who sees the coming MexicanAssimilationOfAmericanCulture.

  5. So, with all this working and birthing when is she supposed to clean and weld?

  6. Can someone explain to me this notion of “2.1” being the replacement rate? That would be correct if mom and dad dropped dead upon giving birth to their second child, but with life expectation in the high 70s, their are multiple generations alive at the same time.
    girl + boy + mom + dad + grandmom + grandpa + greatgrandmom + greatgrandpa = 8 people alive who weren’t before???

  7. Ed:

    There are always a certain number of people who die before reaching sexual maturity. The .1 is to compensate for that.

  8. There are always a certain number of people who die before reaching sexual maturity. The .1 is to compensate for that.

    And people who don’t have kids.

  9. Why not learn to decline gracefully?

    Great idea. Turning vacant lots into parks makes more sense than abusing eminent domain. Youngstown, OH is spearheading that philosophy.

  10. And people who don’t have kids.

    On further thought that’s moronic, as the fertility rate is an average.

  11. Edward L. Glaeser’s “Let Buffalo Die” is a terrific piece. But you could also write a terrific piece on “Let the Family Farm Die” as well. The Democrats subsidized dying cities. The Republicans and the Democrats subsidize dying farms.

    As for the “coming MexicanAssimilationOfAmericanCulture” dude, check out the hemisphere (and the rest of the sphere): Brown is coming to town. Get over it.

  12. jtuf,

    Um, I think we ned a few more logical steps before getting to the Takings Clause from here than the cliff leap you took.

  13. Brown is coming to town. Get over it.

    And it’s acting whiter and whiter.

  14. Brown is coming to town. Get over it.

    And stop over feeding the ladies. The lose much of their appeal when they get round.

  15. Guy,

    You forgot to mention sandwich making in your 2:16 post. Forgivable, however. Also, how round are we talkin’? I like thick women, but they have to be toned up a bit.

  16. NS,

    I can make my own food. She needs to clean up and weld.

    If you can’t see her ribs any more she is too round.

    If she does not pass the spandex test, ditto.

    However, toned is perfect for legs, arms and tummy.

    Thus the chores, in her best interest, of course.

  17. were this an effective strategy, we would be seeing a lot more tiny Singaporeans.

    Are there any large Singaporeans? Even the tall ones are beanpole thin.

  18. Scandanavia: You get welfare just for being alive, get to stay home all day watching the telly, and the gub’ment pays for any children you have. Of course they have a high birthrate!

  19. If Art thought the comments in the last post about KMW were distasteful just wait till he sees what happens in a K. Howley thread about birthrates. Let’s go boys!!!!! yeeeeeehaaaawwww!!!!!

  20. Perhaps in America, the diminished birth rate is du to millions of abortions.

  21. Guy Montag | June 30, 2008, 2:29pm | #


    Um, I think we ned a few more logical steps before getting to the Takings Clause from here than the cliff leap you took.

    Sorry, Guy. I thought everyone here was familiar with the history of redevelopment. When US cities started declining in the 1940’s and 1950’s, they used eminent domain powers to take vacant land and sell it at low prices to developers. One case made it all the way to the Supreme Court where they said redevelopment is OK to fight “blight”. If cities had planned for decline instead of desperately trying to keep a stable population, we wouldn’t have so many problems with redevelopment today. Populations naturally cycle up and down over the decades via migration and changing death and birth rates. Governments that adjust to demographic trends are better than governments that try to stop them.

  22. Kerry, you could always link to the study.

    It’s not the only thing going on, as the link with social insurance is also quite strong, as you know. (Though you and your Will seemed to be determined to deny or ignore those papers.)

    One interesting thing about the study that you linked to, Kerry, is that, as the paper says, “We also note that as the poor nations of the world undergo the demographic transition they appear to be reducing fertility faster and further than the current rich countries did at similar levels of income.”

    The currently high level of female equality countries never went near as far down in fertility as the current “middle” countries. The hypothesis that a society where women without children (or unmarried women) suddenly get more freedom while women with children are expected to fill the same roles and give up their careers would have less children is very plausible to me. I’m not completely convinced that it explains everything, but I suppose it’s possible that the strong social insurance correlations are partly coincidence.

    The paper also seems to think that Italy, Japan, etc. will rebound to the level of the US and the Nordics. We shall see, I suppose. I’m interested in a good hypothesis for why the countries that started on female equality a little later have fallen so much further in fertility than the US ever did.

  23. Perhaps in America, the diminished birth rate is du to millions of abortions.

    Looks like the abortions are working as intended then.

  24. I can think of one other factor that wasen’t mentioned: Nordic culture.

    I worked with a bunch of Scandanavians (sp?) while I was with the UN. The first thing that struck me about these folks is that they were NOT europeans. Calling one of them a european was a surefire way to start an arguement, or worse. Their belief systems and cultural norms were very different from the continental folks assigned to the mission I was on.

    For starters, in many ways they were very conservative and found the limp wristed ways of the continent everything from amusing to idiotic. Personal independence was also a really big deal with these guys. Strange for a bunch of people from what are basically socialist societies.

    Another factor was that they were hyper-ethnic. As one man I worked with proudly spoke, “A Dane has been a Dane for 1500 years. A Dane is not a Turk who speaks danish.” A common topic of discussion amongst the Scandanavians (by this I mean Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes) was who was more Viking. Surprisingly, the inside answer was the Icelanders, but they would only tell you this if very drunk.

  25. Timing matters.

    Abortions do not appear to impact the total number of children that a woman has, but it delays them. This lengthens the generation time, and can have a dramatic impact on total population numbers.

    Likewise, a pro-natalist policy that encourages women to have babies at a younger age will reduce the generation time and increase the total number of people walking around at any given time.

    When calculating population numbers, the generation time matters as much as the number of kids each woman has.

  26. Oh, and the replacement rate is the number of kids each woman needs to have in order to maintain a stable population. 2.1 accounts for offspring that do not make it to adulthood, and therefore don’t “count.”

    In other words, each woman needs to have 2 kids who themselves have 2 kids… .1 for accidents, etc.

    The *size* of the stable population depends on the generation time, life expectancy, and of course the current population.

  27. You’ll need your tin foil to keep your prozac in

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