In 1970, Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich published a famous book, The Population Bomb, in which he described a disastrous future for humanity: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” That prediction turned out to be very wrong, and in this interview American Enterprise Institute scholar Nicholas Eberstadt tells how we are in fact heading toward the opposite problem: not enough people. For decades now, many countries have been unable to sustain a population replacement birth rate, including in Western Europe, South Korea, Japan, and, most ominously, China. The societal and social impacts of this phenomenon are vast. We discuss those with Eberstadt as well as some strategies to avoid them.
Recorded on June 14 at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC.
To view the full transcript of this episode, read below:
Peter Robinson: Throughout almost all our history, the population of the United States of America has grown and grown and grown from 2.5 million people in 1776 to 330 million people today. But what if that growth stops? What if our population shrinks, what then? One man has devoted himself to studying that very question. Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt on Uncommon Knowledge now. Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, a Fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, Dr. Eberstadt, I should say by the way that we're filming today at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt earned both his undergraduate degree and his Doctorate in Political Economy from Harvard. Dr. Eberstadt's many books and papers include "Poverty in China" and "The End of North Korea." In recent years, Dr. Eberstadt has been examining population and demography. First he recognized that other countries have a problem publishing "Russia's Peace Time Demographic Crisis" in 2010. In more recent years, he has been describing this country's problem publishing, "Men Without Work: America's Invisible Crisis" in 2016. Our topic today, well, let me just read the title of a long essay Dr. Eberstadt published in National Review not long ago. "Can America Cope with Demographic Decline?" Nick, thank you for joining me.
Nicholas Eberstadt: Thank you for inviting me, Peter.
Peter Robinson: It's a pleasure to see you and it's a pleasure to have you to myself to read an Eberstadt essay with Nick Eberstadt. Nick Eberstadt I'm quoting you, "Over the past decade and more since the crash of 2008 "and the Great Recession, really, America's birth trends "have taken a fateful turn "veering well below the replacement level." What is the replacement level? What does it mean to veer below? What makes us suppose this is ominous?
Nicholas Eberstadt: The replacement level or a net reproduction ratio of one means that there's one baby girl born for every childbearing woman who's gonna make it up to childbearing age herself. What this means is that a society is on a long-term trajectory for population stability without compensating immigration or anything like that, to keep things at stability or above. For 30 years before the crash of 2008, almost 30 years, the United States was the lone large rich society that was at replacement or slightly above the replacement level, above this let's say 2.1 births per woman, per lifetime level roughly speaking. We have slumped steadily since 2008, we've been on an escalator going down. And of course the COVID shock didn't get everybody into the bedrooms, having babies, it actually had the opposite effect. The United States is now maybe on track to be 20% below the replacement level if current trends continue, which is a weasel word we always have to use because demographers are really pretty clueless about forecasting fertility into the future. But if current trends continue, the United States would be on a track without compensating immigration, to shrink 20% for each generation, each succeeding generation.
Peter Robinson: And this is entirely new in our history.
Nicholas Eberstadt: We had a blip in the 1970s, which some of us are old enough to remember, weren't a super great time in the United States where snapshot calculations of replacement rates had us below replacement for a while. What was really going on in those days was that there's a big shift in timing of kids, women were deciding to have their ba... they ended up deciding to have about the same number of babies, they just decided to have them later. And if you did the snapshot for a couple of years, it looked like there was a dip below replacement. What's going on now does not look like a shift in timing, it looks like there may be a shift in the total number of desired children that young people wish to have.
Peter Robinson: So this is tremendously arresting to put it mildly. You get in country growing and growing and growing and now in historical terms, quite suddenly, it looks as though the growth may stop. Absent immigration will come to immigration. The next question of course is, well, what does it matter? The European Union is ahead of us if that's the way to put it, their fertility level has been down for several decades, they expect their population to begin shrinking what, within a decade or so?
Nicholas Eberstadt: At the end of this interview, I think.
Peter Robinson: At the end of this interview. Russia's in a worse case, China from the point of view of population is in worse circumstances still. In spite of having eliminated the one-child policy, Chinese just aren't having children. The birth rate is I think, the number you gave was 1.3.
Nicholas Eberstadt: Yeah, it's plunged since the end of the coercive one-child policy for some fascinating reason.
Peter Robinson: So, the question would be for those immediately seeking reassurance, well, well, well, this may be happening to us, it seems to happen all over. Let us call broadly construed, the modern world and other countries are in worse shape. We're still retaining our relative position, we still have relative growth. And then Nick Eberstadt says, well, maybe, but "The formula by which the US ascended "to its current status of wealth and power "was predicated on over two centuries of continuous "and exceptional population growth, "unique among Western countries in tempo and scale." We don't know how to be a country without population growth.
Nicholas Eberstadt: The last time that we faced the specter of population decline, which might be a clearer term than demographic decline, which sounds kind of like Spenglerian. The last time we faced the specter of population decline was in the great depression for reasons that we can imagine. Not a time of great optimism about the future, almost no immigration. And the projections from the 1930s had us peaking and declining by 1960s. Those were as wrong as demographic projections so often turn out to be, it didn't happen that way, but we're back to a moment where it is very plausible to think our population may peak and decline. The latest information from the Census Bureau reports that US population growth, measured US population growth, never been as tiny as it was last year. And that's births, deaths and immigration make for the total. We've never had a confluence of births, deaths and immigration that ended up with such a fractional increase in US population since we started collecting measurable statistics.
Peter Robinson: And the question would be, why does that matter to our health, our buoyancy, our economic growth? I mean, I'm thinking of crude thoughts. You can count on thoughts that come to my mind to be crude thoughts, Nick. So I'll offer a crude thought.
Nicholas Eberstadt: I can be pretty crude if you want me to.
Peter Robinson: But I think to myself, all right, real estate. All those overbuilt neighborhoods in Las Vegas, all the building in Florida, those huge tracks being erected in Texas, what happens if nobody is around to live in them? There's a banking, borrowing, legal system that does property, you get a whole sector of the economy predicated on the existence of growing numbers of human beings. And that just goes away if the population stops growing, is that correct? And there's some tie between economic growth and population growth, and if population stops growing, economic growth gets harder. It's more complicated than that, but tease that out for me.
Nicholas Eberstadt: Yeah, so we can look at it two ways. We can look at it as, kind of like the headcount rancher sort of way of looking at population. We look at its components and what we might call the productivity or human capital, the quality of human resources if we want to get into this a little bit more. I was always a skeptic of the population scare back in the '70s and even into the '80s, the idea that we were gonna end up denuding the world, like locusts by just having too many people because was looking at the components of population change, the population explosion wasn't driven because we were breeding like rabbits, it was because we stopped dying like flies. It was because it was a health explosion. Well, if you have to deal with the population problem, I'll take a health explosion any day of the week, because you can mess it up, but you've got a lot of potential there. Also, I would want to caution against people who are alarmist about population decline in a world that is bursting with health and bursting with innovation and technological potentialities. We've got an escalator that we can work with that's moving in the right direction there. We have to be pretty mindful about what you do, but if you surf that wave, a aging and shrinking society can not only maintain its prosperity, but improve it. If we look at what's happening now in the US, I mean, we can see what's troubling if we break it down into births, deaths and immigration. People will have a debate about what the right number of births is. And I don't think that I can tell parents how many children they should have, people know themselves what they think the right number of children is, leave that aside for a moment. Everybody agrees that less deaths is better than more deaths and longer lives and better health is better than the opposite. The United States has been moving in a very troubling direction for the past decade. We've basically flatlined in improvements in life expectancy, even before COVID we were creeping along. With COVID of course, we've had a severe, almost catastrophic setback in health levels for the United States. And apart from COVID itself, as you know, Peter, we've had this problem of deaths of despair in the United States with suicide and drug poisonings and cirrhosis and all of the rest, which looks a little bit too much like Russia for comfort, I'd say. So the increase in deaths that we have seen over the last decade and more, it should be a flashing red warning sign for us. Immigration, the arithmetic of American population growth has been the arithmetic of our exceptional immigration flows, which came in a wave up to World War I, and then resumed again in the '60s really. During the COVID calamity, despite all of the comedy or tragedy that we see on our Southern border today, it appears that immigration tanked, we don't have any good immigration statistics, no other open society has good immigration statistics. We find out in the rear view mirror, by looking at the residual, after we look at births, deaths and population change, it appears that our net immigration has tanked as well and we're already seeing the effects of that in the United States with the spike in unfilled job openings since COVID. So that's immigration is a hot button political issue. I happen to be of the variety that thinks that on the whole immigrants have made terrific Americans and that we've benefited tremendously from the international talent that has come to our country. That if we want to fix the immigrant welfare problem, we fix the welfare state and we have rule of law and control our own borders. So all of that said, immigration has tanked, then we get to the birth question.
Peter Robinson: Can I put a pause on that one because you're getting into a handful of items that you mentioned in this article, and I'd like to go through each of them at least briefly. In theory, I'm repeating something you said a moment ago. "In theory, it should be perfectly possible "for a modern society not only to maintain prosperity, "but to increase it in the face of pervasive population "aging and the demographic stagnation or depopulation." So the population gets older, it begins to get a little bit smaller, but as long as they do this and this and this, and this would involve innovation, it would involve being smart about education, developing human cap, you list the things. Then there's no reason why an older and smaller population shouldn't continue to be perfectly prosperous. "This path entails advances in research "and knowledge creation with incessant innovation "in the business sector, "labor markets and the policy realm." Now, let me take you through the Nick Eberstadt checklist of how we're doing. Dynamism, economic dynamism, quoting you Nick. "Knowledge creation may still be proceeding apace, "it is devilishly difficult to measure "and wealth creation continues at a remarkable pace. "Yet dynamism in our economy and society "is on the wane in some significant "and easily verifiable respects. "America's vitalizing churn is heading down. "And America's health progress has gone badly off course." You've discussed health a moment ago, but what do you mean about churn, vitalizing churn?
Nicholas Eberstadt: Well, there are lots of different ways you can look at the kind of dynamism of a society and an economy. One way of looking at it is new business creation, new startups in relation to the existing number of enterprises or businesses. As best we can measure this, it's been going steadily south since we started to collect these numbers in the late '70s, early '80s.
Peter Robinson: Despite of the rise of Silicon Valley.
Nicholas Eberstadt: Despite the rise of Silicon Valley, despite new McDonald's everywhere, despite everything that we see, if you measure dynamism that way, it's been less. Another obvious measure of mobility is like whether people get up and move and Americans used to be, get up and move.
Peter Robinson: When jobs were in Florida, you moved to Florida.
Nicholas Eberstadt: So leave aside COVID, 'cause that was a lockdown time and it's completely unlike any other time, from the mid '80s until the day before the Wuhan virus came to the United States, America's proportion of population moving in any given year, even to an apartment next door in the same building was heading south and it's dropped by about half since the mid '80s. Now you have to qualify that a little bit by saying, well, there's a lot of remote work, you can do stuff at home that you never could do before. And that's all true, but I'm not sure that that gets us over this particular hump that we just described.
Peter Robinson: Education again, I'm quoting you. Between the emphasis, this is a staggering thing. Between the end of the Civil War and the late 1970s, got a little little over a century. "Between the end of the Civil War and the late 1970s, "the United States was almost always the global leader "in education attainment. "But over the past two decades, adult educational attainment "has been advancing at scarcely a third "of that historical pace, "even as other countries surpass us." What happened?
Nicholas Eberstadt: We still haven't got a good answer to this because this is one of the big problems in America that somehow is managing to hide in plain sight. Elsewhere on another homework assignment, I talked about the new misery in the United States and things like of deaths of despair, it took our health sciences economy, a decade and a half to realize that the poor whites were killing themselves in these tragic new ways. This problem of slower improvements in educational attainment has been in our face for almost 40 years. And so far as I can tell, not more than a handful of economists and educators have even noticed it. I do not have the answer for why it has happened, I can tell you where it is happening. The epicenters are native born Americans, native born American men, native born American Anglo men. There's a big overlap with the deaths of despair problem. I can identify it, I can't explain to you why it's happening, but its results, its consequences are alarming. There's a general correspondence, general correspondence between improved educational attainment and improved productivity. If you do back of the envelope and I like to be simplistic, if you do back of the envelope, the slow down in educational attainment improvement looks like it's costing us at the moment about $4 trillion a year compared to our previous historical trend, it's a lot of money.
Peter Robinson: Here's a related item, I think it's related, you'll explain. The labor force, again, quoting you Nick. "In an aging society making the most of existing manpower "is of the essence." "But America is also failing at this task. "The backbone of the US workforce is still the so-called "prime-age male cohort, men from 25 to 54 years of age. "But the current prime-male work rate "is two and a half points lower than it was in 1940." 1940 sounds like the Second World War, it's not. Pearl Harbor isn't bombed until 1941, 1940 is the tail end of the Depression and prime-age male workforce participation is two points below what it was then? This is staggering.
Nicholas Eberstadt: The work rate, this is another part, Peter, of this new misery, the big problems hiding in plain sight in America for some reason. The work rate, the employment to population ratio was as we'd say for men, civilian non-institutional men, 25 to 54 years of age is as we speak, worse than it was in the 1940 census, which was taken as you indicate in March of '40, when the national unemployment rate was 15%. So we right now have depression level employment rates for prime-age men in the US.
Peter Robinson: All right, government, quoting you once again. "Budget discipline and social policy reform are necessary "for maintaining prosperity in an aging society, "but America appears to have no appetite for either. "Pay-as-you-go arrangements for old-age pensions "and healthcare may be an ingenious contrivance "for a society where working age taxpayers "greatly outnumber elderly beneficiaries, "but the arithmetic becomes unforgiving "if the ratio of funders to recipients plummets." All right, if I'm not mistaken, you're talking about social security, which accounts for roughly a quarter of the federal budget. And you're talking about medical spending, Medicare, Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program and Obamacare, those four programs account again for another 25% of federal spending. What you are saying is that because we have set this up the way we've set it up, one half of federal spending is simply becoming untenable.
Nicholas Eberstadt: We've got a kind of a Ponzi scheme problem on our hands. And as you indicated, Peter, as long as you've got a growing base to the pyramid in relation to the recipient peak, you can be pretty generous. When things flip around, you got whip sawed really fast. We do not seem to have any appetite in either political party for balancing our budget and controlling our national finances, the way we would with our household budgets. And we have gotten into the very dangerous habit of borrowing to pay for current consumption. It's one thing to borrow money for a national emergency or for a war. You might even make the argument that it's okay to take out bonds, to build infrastructure where you can amortize on some sort of ROI scale, but when you are basically using your credit card to go to the Safeway and things are not gonna work out too well because today's consumption for seniors like myself are being financed by the unborn and that's not a good business model.
Peter Robinson: Immigration, I'm gonna quote you one more time, Nick. "Only one policy can hope to affect long-term consequences "in population size, and that policy is immigration." On the whole, this is a straightforward, simple declaratory sentence, but it's not straightforward. "On the whole, assimilation works well in America." I'll have to come back and ask you to explain that. "Yet the Biden administration's witless posture "on immigration, its maddening insouciance "about our Southern border and stubborn lack of concern "about illegal immigrants, seems almost designed "to provoke anti-immigration outrage." So assimilation works well, I'll ask you to explain that in a moment. And your larger point is because assimilation works well, some kind of sensible immigration policy where we control our borders, but let people in according to sensible criteria, and then don't demonize them ought to command bipartisan support. And in fact, it creates people running around this town, pulling out their hair, gnashing their teeth, as maddening an issue as we have in American politics. But let's start with assimilation works well in America on the whole assimilation works well.
Nicholas Eberstadt: Take a look at what happens with the children of newcomers in the United States, overwhelmingly they end up as loyal and productive Americans, as great citizens.
Peter Robinson: They learn English, they get jobs.
Nicholas Eberstadt: They learn English, they get education.
Peter Robinson: They get an education.
Nicholas Eberstadt: They work hard and they believe maybe more than native born Americans in the American dream. They're brought here, they're attracted by the American dream. And risking all of your human capital in the passage to the United States takes a certain amount of guts in general. Pluck grit, let's put it that way. Compare us to, for example, Europe, which is a prosperous democratic area full of open societies. Assimilation works well for a lot of newcomers there, but if you do the compare and contrast, I know which country I want to have the assimilation record of, it's going to be the USA. There is much more problematic record, Europe's a mixed bag, but on the whole there's a much more problematic record with becoming citizens, with getting education, with going into employment and with resentment of the country that they've chosen as their home or their parents have chosen as a home. Our record of assimilation is very good by international comparison. There are other countries that also look pretty good like Canada, like Australia, like New Zealand, Israel, but for a large country, there's no country that's got an assimilation record as good as ours.
Peter Robinson: All right, but you'd stop short, I know you'd stop short. I'm stating this just to give you the chance to address it. There may be a tickle of a worry here. You've just said native born American males, especially native born white American males are underperforming.
Nicholas Eberstadt: Yes.
Peter Robinson: Despairs of death are up, workforce participation is down. We have here a sorry group of people, let in the immigrants to do what the jobs these guys should be doing.
Nicholas Eberstadt: So I took economics also, admittedly it was back in the stone age, but I learned at that time that if you have more of a supply of something, you make it less expensive. We have a big supply of lower, skilled labor from abroad in the United States. The economics one I took back shortly after the Civil War would tell me that that would have a depressing impact on wage levels for less skilled Americans. And I think that is true, I think that is true. That being said, the patterns of employment for less skilled American men, bear no correspondence to what we would think of we would be recognizing from that natural experiment. The differences in attachment to the workforce seem to have to do a lot with things like family structure, which is not got to do with wages and with attachment to various social welfare programs with one's criminal record, which again, isn't necessarily a jobs wage question. And we've just ran a complete per almost perfect natural experiment in the COVID time, we had a drop off of about a million immigrants who would have been in the labor force, and what happened? We had an increase in unfilled jobs by about 4 million during the COVID time. Employers are begging for workers. I don't know, there was no time in my life, I don't think when workers had as much bargaining power as they have now. And this isn't all for coders and hedge funds, they're not just looking for those, it's in the service industries, in restauranting, hotels and other things where really the only skills you need are showing up on time every day, drug free. And there may be a longer term impact from this natural experiment, but we've had two years of it and it has not been drawing people back off the couch.
Peter Robinson: Population growth is slowing. It looks like a permanent new trend. Soon enough, the population will begin sinking to remain a prosperous, vibrant economy in these circumstances, we need to do this and this and this and this, and we are not doing this and this and this and this, which brings us right back to the first question, why don't we just get the birth rate right back up? If the federal government is so good, I would almost be willing to argue this is the only thing the federal government is any good at, and that is spending other people's money. Why don't we just encourage higher birth rates through various forms of subsidies, tax relief and so forth. And Nick Eberstadt reply is again, to quote you, Nick. "Incentives to boost birth rates are likely to be costly "and to elicit only modest "and perhaps fleeting demographic results." How come and we have experiments attempting to subsidize, increases in births attempts to subsidize it one way or another, they're taking place in Singapore, France, Hungary, I think Sweden as well. So we must know something about these experiments, the results.
Nicholas Eberstadt: Well, we've seen the results of the experiments. I will give you my reading on them. My reading is not uncontested because baby bonus programs have got a lot of proponents in Europe and some here in the US already. My reading is that it's very expensive for temporary passing blips in fertility increase, which lead to subsequent slumps. The Swedes have been--
Peter Robinson: You can buy babies forward, so to speak, but you can't buy more of them.
Nicholas Eberstadt: Yeah, you can change timing. If some parents are on the fence about a second or a third child, let's say, and all of a sudden there's a baby bribe that's offered to them, they may decide to have the child now, instead of having it three years later or four years later. And if you look at that in aggregate, you get what the Swedish demographers call the Swedish roller coaster, which is you put in a new subsidy for kids, the birth rate goes up and then it goes back down further to below where it was when you first put the subsidy in. Because you haven't changed people's mentality, you haven't changed people's desire about family size. If you really wanted to get into the business of turning women into baby ranchers, you'd have to do something about the opportunity cost of their time. So maybe you'd want a program that involved, let's say 50% of the GDP. I don't think anybody's going to be proposing that anytime soon.
Peter Robinson: All right, this gets us right to the heart of your essay and of the matter. Quoting you yet again. "The single best predictor for national fertility rates "happens to be wanted family size as reported by women." Now you note, there are polls that ask women how many children they'd like, and you note that this doesn't correlate perfectly with birth rates, but it's the best indicator. "In one sense this is a reassuring, even heartening finding; "it highlights the agency "at the very heart of our humanity." You're talking about free will there, people choosing their family size. "But if we permit the non-material realm of life "to figure into our inquiry, we may conclude "that proposals to revive the American birth rate "through subsidies vastly underestimate the challenge. "That challenge may ultimately prove "to be civilizational in nature" So I look at, first of all, that hits like a two by four, civilizational in nature. And on the one hand, I think to myself, wait a minute, aren't we all supposed to be delighted that in this modern world, women are in a position to participate in the workforce, they're in a position to choose more carefully, more explicitly, more intentionally the number of children they'd like to have. Aren't we supposed to believe that that's a wonderful thing and that releasing that many women to the workforce should increase the dynamism and growth of our econ, all that, good, good, good, good, good. On the other hand, I think back to what little I remember about American demographic history and we got low birth rates during the Depression because everybody was poor, and they were discouraged and they didn't want to bring children into that world. And then we got low birth rates during the Second World War because life was frightening and the men were away risking their lives. And then we get Harry Truman and Dwight David Eisenhower, and my own reading of that history is that it's complicated. Truman was probably a much better president than he's generally granted, but set all that aside, what happens is whether you agree with this or that policy, whether you think Ike should have pushed back harder against the new deal, both of those presidents said with regard to domestic policy at least, let's just leave it alone. Let's give people a settled set of rules, a settled America, so they can have families, and they did. And you and I are both baby boomers, we are both products. And we think to ourselves, this is an achievement of American history that we struggle through the Depression and we win the Second World War and then we achieve enough stability and prosperity to permit people, to do what they most want to do and that is to have children. And that is good, it is a triumphant moment in American history. So what's going on here? Why should it be, may I put it one more way? I'll put it a different way. You have four kids, I've got you by one. Don't those of us who've had children feel that having children was the biggest thing that we'd ever done in our lives, the best thing that we've ever done in our lives, why aren't children are luxury good? Why don't we have more of them as we become a richer society instead of fewer? These are the bundles of questions, Nick, in my head, when I read that we've got a civilizational challenge, our civilization no longer likes life, why?
Nicholas Eberstadt: So the demographers have all of these really neat little tools. And if you give them assumptions, they can calculate what trajectories are gonna look like in the future. But demographers cannot tell you what those assumptions should be. They cannot actually put the parameters into the black box. And for that, I think economics is fine so far as it goes, but what you really need instead of a Nobel Laureate in economics is a Nobel Laureate in literature, because you're talking about Sitegeist, you're talking about the human heart. You're talking about all of the things that bring meaning to humanity and fears of humanity in ways that economists aren't so good at calculating or much less demographers. As parents, we know how wonderful children are and what a blessing it is to be a parent. But one thing that I will say about children is for all of their boundless benefits, they're not convenient. And we have moved increasingly into a world, and this is just one take on a much more complicated set of questions that you've asked, but we've moved into a world in which convenience is prized and in which autonomy, personal autonomy is cherished. And in which constraints on personal autonomy are increasingly viewed as onerous. You don't have to be Leo Tolstoy to see what that means about desire for children. Add to that, the big change in lived experience, in the lived reality for young people today, as compared to those, we can all talk, you give grandpa's war stories about what life was like back in the 1980s, but people who were thinking about having children today do not live in Reagan's America, they live in a place that's got this new misery shaping it so much.
Peter Robinson: "Europe provides a case study in how a sea change "in values can lead to a sea change in demography. "Over the last two decades, the worldview of American youth "and younger adults has become much more European." That's what you're saying.
Nicholas Eberstadt: Sure, and not in a good way.
Peter Robinson: And not in a good way. Again, I go back to this, going back, back and forth, back and forth on the one hand, I struggle against the thesis. It's not a thesis, it's a set of observations, very beautifully laid out. I'd rather it weren't so, let's put it that way. And then I keep, well, alright, this is civilizational challenges. There's very little, that little Robinson or great big Eberstadt can do about that. So again, how do we find a way to live with this? And I go one more time to the question. What difference does it make, Europeans lead good lives. Despite the difficulty in assimilating the 1 million immigrants that Angela Merkel permitted to enter Germany, despite the lack of dynamism in their economy, they rely on us in all kinds of ways for technological innovation, for military protection. So still in decline though, that they may in some basic way be, Europe's a comfortable place to live. So why not? Why not just settle into a comfortable decline? And Nick Eberstadt replies, "Consider the moral and ideological baggage "that sub-replacement fertility "is likely to drag along with it. "Pessimism, hesitance, dependence, "self-indulgence, resentment, division: "do we really think there will be less of these "in a 1.5 child America?" Explain that.
Nicholas Eberstadt: Well, if we were well-behaved robots and each robot mom and dad had an average of 1.5 robot rising generation entrance, we could manage population decline perfectly well for all of the other reasons that I've mentioned, improving education, improving health, improving technology, all of the new possibilities that are coming forward. The devilish difficulty, I think, is the swamp of attitudes and values that are associated with sub-replacement fertility in the richest and most productive societies that humanity has ever yet created or seen. And in Europe and in the United States, in affluent societies, we have seen this ideational moral, if you will, revolution over the past several generations that has led to the triumph of solipsism if you will, and the downgrading of the very sorts of obligations that are necessary to nurture a rising generation and to continue a society. We can outsource, we can increase immigration from abroad to take care of the headcount question. What we can't do without a sort of an ideational call it a moral transformation is get back to a place where people are confident and brave enough to maintain a natural rate of replacement for society.
Peter Robinson: The land of the free and the home of the brave and bravery ought to be construed as the guts to have kids. Roughly, if it's good for national character.
Nicholas Eberstadt: I mean, we get out a little bit, we get on the bus or a subway or Metro, what strikes me so strongly about young people I meet today, and I realize I may not have a representative sample, is just how afraid they are, they're afraid of everything. They're afraid the planet's doomed. They're afraid about committing to a job, much less committing to a relationship, much less committing to having kids. It's a sort of an angst that it's hard to find a good historical analogy for this angst in our country.
Peter Robinson: "Further," you write, "would a 1.5 child America "really be willing to make incessant patriotic sacrifices "to defend itself and its allies, "or to preserve the post-war liberal economic "and political order upon which our prosperity "and security so greatly depend?" And those list of items we went through on what we as a society need to do and are failing to do, we were talking about just that, what we as a society need to do. Here is the question of what we need to do in the world. The world is a dangerous place and for all its faults and all our crudeness and stupidities and the way we've conducted our foreign policy over the last 75 years, the world is a freer and a safer place because of Americans are willing to sacrifice. Would a 1.5 child America really be willing to make the sacrifices?
Nicholas Eberstadt: There's no scientific reason that a sub-replacement population shouldn't be able to step up to patriotism or see the challenges in the world and deal with them. What I was suggesting there is that if we look at the real existing situation that we have, if we look at the tangle of perverse values, attitudes, outlooks, that seems to accompany our particular slump into below replacement fertility, that tangle is also a tangle that has big implications for not just sacrifice within the family, but sacrifice outside the family.
Peter Robinson: You do offer hope or at least an example of one way out of this. "The civilizational undertow now drawing Western societies "into ever deeper sub-replacement is not inevitable." I cling to those two words right there, not inevitable. "Israel provides proof to the contrary." Explain that, explain Israeli demographics.
Nicholas Eberstadt: When I started trying to understand population trends, a couple of generations ago, I wrote a study with a dear friend of mine about Israel, and we were more or less, entirely wrong about this. We argued back in the late 1970s that Israel was going to have to release the West Bank and Gaza for demographic reasons, because they were a Western society that was going to head down towards sub-replacement fertility. And the population of Palestinian origin was eight, seven, six babies and you could just draw the lines and see where things went. But a funny thing happened on the way to Palestinian demographic dominance of greater Israel, it didn't happen. And the reason it didn't happen is because Israeli Jewry did not agree to go into a sub-replacement. Instead over the last generation, fertility levels in Israel have actually gone up. And now for--
Peter Robinson: And it's not just the Orthodox.
Nicholas Eberstadt: Not just the Orthodox, even people who describe themselves as not terribly observant, it's across the board so far as we can see, and for Israeli Jewry as a whole, it's above three births per woman per lifetime on average, which is, I don't need to emphasize to you way different from any other affluent open democratic society these days.
Peter Robinson: And the Arab birth rate has declined.
Nicholas Eberstadt: The Arab birth rate has plummeted, and which by the way, is true in all of the rest of the Arabic speaking world.
Peter Robinson: I just wanna repeat this because I had this wrong myself, and so other people may have a mis... We're told over and over again, that among the Orthodox in Israel, the birth rate is very, very high and that's true. But your argument is, not the argument, simple observation of the facts, actually, even among secular Jews in Israel, the birth rate is well above replacement.
Nicholas Eberstadt: On the whole, yes, on the whole and it has been going up.
Peter Robinson: And it has been going up. Ours has been going down, that of Europe has been going down, China has been going down and Israel has been going up. And so that says something, well, it says something spectacular in all about all kinds of things, but in particular, the role of women. What do we know about Israeli society at least among secular non-Orthodox Israeli Jewry is that the women participate in the IDF, they fight in the army, they're fully integrated into the workforce. This is not a choice between a modern society and a high birth rate, this is a modern society with a high birth rate, is that correct?
Nicholas Eberstadt: Absolutely, it's a serious country with a serious approach to its demographic future. And it's one that this is not the result of government policy. This is not a particular government policy or a particular baby bonus, this is a mentality.
Peter Robinson: "Perhaps," you write, "I would be crude and simplistic "to say that Israelis want their country to have a future "and want their descendants to be part of it, "but then again, such a reading "might not be all that far off base." So it's what people believe. I found myself in a conversation with a young Israeli woman, this is in France a couple of years ago, and somehow, or other we'd only just met. It was a business conference actually, had nothing to do with think tanks. Somehow or other, this question of demographics came up. And I asked why Israeli demographics were different from those in the rest of the west. And she said, "I think my country, Israel, "I think my country is still a cause." Is that it?
Nicholas Eberstadt: Until you come up with a better explanation, Peter, that sounds like a pretty good one.
Peter Robinson: Nick, our friend, Roger Hertog, major figure in Wall Street for many, many years, put me up to interviewing you on this. He said, "Nick is doing," but what he said is "Nick is the only person doing "really serious sustained work on this." Apart from anything else that Roger said this, because he knows Wall Street in detail, the economic implications haven't even begun to be taken seriously on Wall Street, where they have incentives for getting these things right. You write something about this and everybody stops action to see what the latest that Nick has written. But we do that because there aren't a dozen other people studying. Why is this? Is it because it's so grim, so unrelievedly grim that nobody that there's even among intellectuals, even in think tanks, there's a kind of denial, we'd rather not look at that. Why is this not really part of the national conversation?
Nicholas Eberstadt: Well, Peter, remember what I was saying about things, big things that are hiding in plain sight. We've got this data revolution, we've got this information era. We've got these fantastic statistical tools, but they don't do that much good if you don't ask the right questions or you don't see the things hiding in plain sight. And I don't think there's any science to that. We've got a lot of really well trained demographers, economists, statisticians. But I think that in a lot of the academy, there's an incentive to kind of play a small ball. There's an incentive to come up with an elegant little permutation on a formula that'll get you tenure. You will notice that I'm not in the university, I'm at a think tank, so I don't have that same set of disincentives to work with. Why people in business are not noticing this, is in a way, a more interesting question I think. I mean, I gather that the richest guy in the world seems to think that demography--
Peter Robinson: Elon Musk, that's exactly right. Elon Musk does see this and he tweets about it. That the biggest challenge we face now is deep population. All right, so we have Nick Eberstadt and the richest man in the world, that's not a bad start.
Nicholas Eberstadt: I'll take that company.
Peter Robinson: That's not, Nick, let me quote you another time here. Couple of last questions now. "People under 40 do not have much memory of an America "with a vibrant, private-sector driven economy. "They came of age during a strange historical run "of unusually poor political leadership. "From Clinton to Biden, they have arguably known "only substandard presidencies, red and blue alike." You're talking about our kids of course. "Theirs is in America where public confidence "in the nation's basic institutions has undergone "a gruesome and wholesale slide. "Do we wonder that millennials expectations and desires "about family and children might be diverging "from those of their Morning in America' parents?" Well, that went through me like kind of a knife, because of course you and I like so many of our friends came here and during the '80s, and during the '80s, we felt as though the country was going someplace.
Nicholas Eberstadt: Sure.
Peter Robinson: Taxes got cut, we thought that was an achievement, now we understand the importance of low taxes. Federal budget came more or less under control, at least shrank relative to growth in the private sector. We stand up to the Soviets, lo and behold, the Soviets throw it in and we win the Cold War and America seems a pretty glorious place. And my thinking and your thinking is conditioned by that experience. And our kids thinking just isn't. So what do you say, here's the question, Nick, because you're a wise man. Now I'm gonna ask, this is a question to you in your capacity as a wise friend, and not as a demographer. Let's imagine Augustine of Hippo in the early fifth century and there he is in North Africa and he's receiving bulletins about the sack of Rome and this high civilization that meant everything to him is gone. He watches as across the Mediterranean Rome falls, And yet he leads an impressive and good enough life that he comes down to us as Saint Augustine. If we're stuck with this America of creeping despair and a continuing loss in its relative importance in the rest of the world, what do you say to your kids about how to lead a good life in different circumstances from the ones in which you yourself grew up?
Nicholas Eberstadt: Sure, well, I mean the future starts here and the future starts in your own little circles and there's no reason that you can't be micro optimistic even if you see some pretty pessimistic things going on. And if you believe that you are in charge of your own destiny, that's a pretty good starting point. There's a lot that went on that we missed Peter, I'm afraid to say, after we won the Cold War, these trends that I mentioned, the failure to generate wealth for the bottom half of our society decade after decade, the slowdown of education, these are not immutable. None of these trends are immutable. And I still don't think that we're at the stage in the game, where it's smart to bet against the United States of America. There are things which may be going on now that nerds like me won't be able to recognize for years because we look in the rear view mirror by the nature of our craft. And there are things that government and experts can't predict that have revolutionized and transformed our society before, including great religious awakenings. And as my much better half Mary Eberstadt has said from time to time, she'd settle for a minor awakening. That wouldn't be so bad either.
Peter Robinson: So, oh, okay, so this really is the last question. And I'm gonna ask my boomer friend, this is boomer to boomer. 1970s, economic stagnation. By the end of the decade, inflation is in double digits. Arab Oil Embargoes, Soviets advanced throughout the world. They get countries in Africa, Central America, expand their Navy, Blue-water navy, and we have a collapse in national morale, particularly with a defeat in Vietnam and then the agony of Watergate. And then in the 1980s through policy, but still the economy rebounds. And there's a restoration of national morale, which I'm not making up, all the polls pick it up. And that Reagan reelection slogan of morning again in America rings true enough to the American people to enable him to carry 49 out of 50 states. And at the end of that decade, the Berlin wall comes down. We go from 1979, the Iranian hostage crisis and that national humiliation to the fall of the Berlin wall in one decade. Do we possess the resources, political, spiritual, human capital? Is this country still capable of another act of national self renewal?
Nicholas Eberstadt: Absolutely, of course it is. I mean, we've got strangely similar circumstances as you beautifully indicated, not the least of them being an incompetent humiliating, misbegotten White House at the moment, a lot of Carter flashbacks these days for those of us who are old enough to have the pleasure of having lived through that. And of course, we've got the resources. There really is no close second in the world. If you look at China in its particulars, which would be the competitor to us, there isn't a really a close second yet. We do not have the same absolutely unlimited reach that we had at the end of the Cold War, but that's such an unnatural, historically unusual situation. We've got the resources in our country and we've got the people in our country who of course can do this again. The one thing that I would caution about is that we have 40 years of poison distributed through our societies through an increasingly maligned university system. And we have seen a Gramscian march through the institutions of severely problematic points of view, in the old days, would've been unmockingly called unAmerican, or anti-American. We have that poison to drain from our society before we can, I think really flourish again. But that's certainly not impossible either. It looks hard right now, but if you recall, 1979, what 1979 looked like, very few people would've bet at that moment where we'd end up at on Christmas day in 1991 with the dissolution of the USSR.
Peter Robinson: Nicholas Eberstadt, thank you.
Nicholas Eberstadt: Thank you so much, Peter, it's always a pleasure.
Peter Robinson: For Uncommon Knowledge, the Hoover Institution and Fox Nation, recording today in the Offices of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, I'm Peter Robinson, thank you.