In the latest issue of Bookforum, I review Jonathan V. Last's much-discussed What to Expect When No One's Expecting: America's Coming Demographic Disaster.
It's an interesting, extremely well-written book that starts out by rightly mocking Paul Ehrlich and other early '70s doomsayers for fretting over a "population bomb" that had already been effectively defused by the time they were predicting massive starvation around the globe. Which isn't to say that Last doesn't stint on what he considers to be the real apocalypse: a horrifically underpopulated planet.
He's totally convincing on two points. First, fertility rates are declining and will likely continue to. Second, that there's very little that can be done to reverse that. From the review:
Last's conservatism guides his recognition that there is essentially nothing that governments can do to reverse declining fertility rates. Japan, the country that represents the leading edge in "demographic disaster," has tried for decades to boost its population by giving parents stipends and cash bonuses, creating nationalized networks of day-care centers, and more. The results? Continuously falling birthrates, a subculture that dresses dogs like babies and pushes them around in carriages, and a booming market in hyperrealistic-looking robot babies.
Nothing has worked on a large scale to promote fertility. Stalin awarded "Motherhood Medals" to women with six or more living children, but the program did nothing to increase the next generation of new Soviet men and women. Authoritarian Singapore has thrown money, housing, ad campaigns, tax incentives, and sex instruction at couples, but all for naught. "If Singapore," sighs Last, "can't convince its modern, sophisticated population to have babies, what hope does anyone have? The answer may well be, 'not much.'"…
All merits aside, I find Last's gentle millenarianism unconvincing in the final analysis:
But many, if not all, of the issues raised by [declines in population] are less clear-cut emergencies than Last contends; they may not be serious problems at all. For instance, consider Social Security. Everyone agrees that the program as currently structured is unsustainable. Benefits will be cut, taxes will be increased, or policy makers will use some combination of these approaches. We all may have differing views on how—or even whether—to provide taxpayer-funded income to retirees. But there's no reason to believe that older Americans, already the wealthiest slice of the population in terms of total assets, will be reduced to eating cat food.
Come for the review, but stay for this enjoyable rant against Bookforum's editor, Chris Lehmann, for assigning a review of Last's book in the first place and giving the job to me in the second. From the ballpoint pen of "Louis Proyect: Unrepentant Marxist":
What the fuck? Nick Gillespie reviewing some book about "America's Coming Demographic Disaster"? Gillespie is the editor of Reason Magazine, a Koch-funded libertarian publication that fancies itself "rebellious" after the fashion of Spiked Online in Great Britain. In fact Gillespie has adopted the slightly punkish look of many Spiked writers, wearing a black leather jacket for his occasional Bill Maher appearance. My only advice to this 50-year-old man is to stop dyeing his hair. The shoe polish tint is just a bit too Reaganesque.
My first reaction to spotting this article in a magazine I paid good money for was akin to seeing a hair on an entrée that had just been delivered to my table at a pricey restaurant. It turned my stomach. At least in a restaurant I could send the dish back but what was I supposed to do with the Bookforum? Send it back to Chris Lehmann with instructions to replace Gillespie's article by something written by Scott McLemee or Liza Featherstone? Fat chance of that.
After taking a swig of Kaopectate, I sat down to read Gillespie's article. I figured that Lehmann, being a pretty smart young fellow, might have seen some wisdom in it that made it worth publishing. Boy, was I wrong.
For the record—and as my colleagues can plainly attest—I don't dye my hair, which is more full of silvery strands every goddamn day. To paraphrase the historian Eugene Genovese regarding a communist victory in Vietnam, I don't fear my hair turning gray, I welcome it. And, kind Louis, Kaopectate is mostly for diarrhea, not indigestion. For the latter, I recommend Pepcid, Zantac, or another over-the-counter acid blocker.