Two bits of important, and related, news today.
1. Demographer Lyman Stone sounds the alarm. Excerpts:
Fertility has fallen sharply over the last 6 months or so, even as the economy has picked up steam. The most plausible forecast for 2017 calendar-year total fertility is 1.77; which, by the way, I’m not the only person who thinks that; professional demographic consultancy firms independently arrive at the same conclusions.
We are now in our 3rd-most-rapid period of fertility decline on record, after the 1920s drop and then the post-baby-boom decline. I expect that by 2018 or 2019, the U.S. will hit it’s lowest total fertility rate ever.
Guys this is dire stuff. But I want to zoom in on 2017 and elucidate just how crazy 2017 really is. Yes, the rate of decline was sharp, but it was also broad-based.
I am worried about fertility in 2017. I am very concerned about fertility in 2018. I am scared of what fertility numbers will be in 2019, especially if a recession hits somewhere in that period. Our fertility decline is on par with serious, durable fertility declines in other big, developed countries, and may be extremely difficult to reverse. I have no happy ending to this blog post.
Read the whole thing. The devil really is in the details. The bottom line: you know all that doom-and-gloomery a lot of conservatives like me have been on about regarding population collapse in Europe? Well, we Americans are now there. In The Benedict Option, I write about how the US is now on the same downward slide with Europe into secularism, which means that American Christians have no reason at all to feel superior to Europeans. And now we’re in the same sinking boat on fertility.
Why is this a big deal? Among the reasons:
The dire economic and social effects of plummeting birthrates remind us that marriage and childbirth are not just private lifestyle choices. A country with fewer children becomes, on average, increasingly older. Cities and towns begin to empty, while the cost of caring for retirees and elderly sick people skyrockets. Old people spend less and invest less, shrinking capital pools for the new businesses that create new jobs. Entrepreneurs do not come from among the aged: countries with a higher median age have a lower percentage of entrepreneurs.
Most important, a shrinking labor force means fewer workers contributing the payroll taxes that finance old-age care. The Social Security program is already beginning to be impacted by the decline in the worker-to-retiree ratio. In 1940, there were 160 workers for each retiree. By 2010, there were just 2.9. Once some 80 million Baby Boomers retire, the number will plummet to 2.1. This means taxes will have to increase and benefits be cut substantially to keep the program solvent. Medicare is similarly threatened by declining fertility. Both programs will cost more but have fewer workers footing the bill.
It is not news that the US fertility rate has been declining for a while. Jonathan V. Last wrote a much-discussed 2014 book about America’s demographic crisis. What’s happened now is that the bottom has fallen out bigtime. Which brings us to our second big story:
2. Our president, that Great And Good Populist, came out today for shaving two percentage points off his proposed corporate tax cut, and using the savings to expand the child tax credit. The NYT reports:
Later this week, [Utah Republican Sen. Mike] Lee and Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, will take on another top priority of the president’s, cutting the corporate tax rate to 20 percent from 35 percent. The senators plan to offer an amendment that would cut the corporate tax rate to 22 percent, instead of 20 percent, and use the proceeds to help families with little or no income tax liabilities benefit from the expanded child credit and to allow the child credit to rise with inflation.
A White House spokesman, Raj Shah, wasted no time declaring the president’s opposition on Wednesday.
Take a look at this Atlantic piece by UVA sociologist Brad Wilcox (a social conservative) and policy analyst Samuel Hammond (a libertarian). They blast the GOP for abandoning working families in tax proposal, giving lie to Trump’s claim to be standing up for the little guy. Excerpt:
To take just one example, the Child Tax Credit—long recognized as a tool for promoting stable families—is finally being increased after losing a quarter of its value to inflation since 2003. Yet instead of better targeting it to struggling working-class households, where an extra thousand dollars per child has been shown to reduce household conflict and improve child and parental mental health, the Senate bill expands the credit dramatically for rich households that were never close to being eligible in the past, including those making as much as $500,000 a year.
Republican leaders in Congress will say that there’s simply no room in the budget to do more for working-class families, most of whom earn too little to owe federal taxes in the first place. But these same families lose roughly 15 cents of every hard-earned dollar to federal payroll taxes, directly diminishing their incentive to work and their ability to put their families on a firmer financial footing. Indeed, as pundits ferociously debate the incidence of the corporate tax on workers (“Is it 70 percent, 20 percent, or something in between?”), virtually no one disputes that workers bear the full burden of payroll taxes. So why are such taxes left out of the conversation?
The truth is that there are ample resources to cut taxes for working families. Congress could, for instance, extend the $2,000 Child Tax Credit to payroll-tax liability, as Senators Marco Rubio and Mike Lee have proposed. This would put markedly more money in the pockets of working-class families who play by the rules and are struggling to realize the American Dream. Moreover, an expanded child tax credit could easily be paid for by cutting the corporate tax rate a mere percentage point or so less than the 15-point corporate-rate cut now being proposed by the Senate. In other words, if we cut corporate taxes to 22 percent, not 20 percent, we could ensure a full payroll-tax refund on the first $26,000 in earnings for a family with two children.
To do so will require Republicans to stand up to their wealthy, corporate donors.
No, we can’t have that. Conservative columnist Pete Spiliakos is beyond angry with the Republican Party for refusing to pay attention to the actual country they live in, and instead always going to the mat for business interests. This, he says, is “political insanity.”
I exhort you to read Ross Douthat’s Twitter thread, starting with this tweet.
Douthat refers to populist European leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who is hardcore on immigration, but also working hard to implement government policies that might raise his country’s dismal fertility level … because Orban understands that the two issues are linked.
What about the American right-populists? They’re wound up about Negro football players kneeling during the National Anthem, and TV news people who speak ill of our president. Meanwhile, the Great Populist Trump and the Republican Party are selling them out to the richest Americans.
Read all of Douthat’s rant on his Twitter feed. It’s exceptional.
But he’s not necessarily right. Daniel McCarthy has a smart, contrarian analysis on Twitter. It begins here:
Basically, McCarthy contends that the hard right doesn’t believe child tax credits can do much to turn around the crisis. It puts its faith in industrial policy and anti-feminism. McCarthy adds:
He suggests that religious revival — which cannot be planned — may be one of the only ways out of the downward spiral.
Though I share Douthat’s deep frustration with Trump’s phony, superficial populism, I think McCarthy is right that tax credits aren’t going to do much of anything to turn it around. No country has found a policy solution for this crisis. Douthat’s anger — and again, I find it justified — is that none of these populist types are lifting a finger to make it easier for people to have bigger families, or even to prioritize helping the little guy over corporations.
The truth is, if you don’t want kids for their own sakes, the government is not going to do much to change your mind. Raising kids is hard work. A couple of weeks before my first child was born, my sister phoned us in Brooklyn to say that my wife and me were about to discover a truth that every new parent does. She said if she had known in advance how hard raising kids were, she would have hesitated to start her family. But having been a mom for six years by that point, she said that it’s impossible to convey to those without children the joy that they bring.
“You’re about to find this out,” she said.
She was right. In a non-agricultural economy, it’s hard to think of a cost-benefit analysis that will show on paper why having children is a net good. If you’re going to have them, especially if you’re going to have a lot of them, you’re going to need to see them as good in and of themselves. Religion is a powerful motivator on that front, and may be the only reliable motivator of the familial ethos. In fact, a political scientist I know who studies this subject professionally told me that he sees no way to reverse the West’s population decline without religious revival.
That’s beyond the capacity of a family-friendly tax cut. But some meager thing from this government is better than nothing at all. A so-called “populist” president who spites a proposed change to reduce the corporate tax cut by a mere two percent to provide tax relief to families with children is no populist at all.