Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006
JPod points to an interesting piece by Glenn Reynolds on why fertility has fallen. Reynolds adds social factors that have made parenting more work and less fun to a list of economic factors offered by Phillip Longman.

But . . . fertility is falling everywhere.

Japan, China and South Korea; Thailand, Vietnam and Sri Lanka; Brazil, Trinidad and Cuba; Russia, Ukraine and Poland; Italy, Spain and Greece; Iran, Turkey and Algeria. Care to guess what these countries have in common? A total fertility rate below replacement.

Of course, there are big chunks of the world where fertility is well above replacement: chunks of the Muslim Middle East and most of Africa, as well as Malaysia, the Philippines, Paraguay and a few other places still have total fertility rates above 3 children/woman. But most of Latin America has a TFR in the 2.5 children/woman region, and still dropping, with the largest country (Brazil) already below replacement - and, contrary to popular belief, there are numerous Muslim countries that are below that 3 children/woman TFR (as noted, Iran, Turkey and Algeria are below 2 children/woman; in addition Egypt, Morocco and Jordan are all below 3 children/woman; super-fertile countries like Afghanistan and Yemen are outliers rather than the norm even in the Muslim world).

Longman thinks that the cost of kids has risen primarily because of the expense of education. That's a persuasive argument for the developed world - but for Algeria? Vietnam? Brazil? Reynolds thinks one culprit is that raising kids is more work and less fun. Again: reasonable for America, but I don't even think this does much to explain Italy or Russia, much less Iran and Sri Lanka.

Economic, social and religious factors unquestionably make a difference around the edges. Why do Britain and Sweden have a so much higher total fertility rate than Spain or Latvia? The answer probably has economic, social, maybe also religious factors; the legacy of Francoism and Stalinism probably plays in as well. Why has South Korean fertility fallen so far so fast realtive to, say, Taiwan? Again, economic and social factors probably relate to the answer. Or Tunisia's relative to Syria's? But in big-picture terms, fertility is falling everywhere, in Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and secular societies, in rich and poor countries, and that demands a big-picture explanation that works across so many varied locations.

The two big-picture answers that have the most explanatory power are: (1) urbanization, and (2) female empowerment (and specifically access to contraception). Countries where the population is overwhelmingly urban (e.g., Japan) have among the world's lowest fertility, and urbanization seems to correlate with drops in fertility almost universally. (There are exceptions, of course; Ulster and Gaza are very dense, but have surprisingly high fertility rates because the people there view themselves consciously to be engaged in a demographic war with hated enemies.) I find it very hard to see how either of these trends - greater urbanization and greater empowerment for women - reverse themselves in any major society any time soon. And yes, that includes a world in which Islam continues to make advances against the secular world. Iran is a mullahocracy and has below-replacement fertility. Algeria is a country that voted for an Islamist regime in the 1990s and now has below-replacement fertility. These are not secular societies, not even to the degree that Turkey is (and that's not very far - Turkey's population is overwhelmingly devout and the current regime has an Islamist character, albeit a moderate one). Therefore, any effort to shore up fertility is necessarily going to be swimming against the tide. A country like Italy, with a fertility rate below 1.3 children/woman, has a real problem on its hands, and should examine the economic and social factors that might be driving fertility to such low levels. A country like Finland, with a total fertility rate just above 1.7 children/woman, probably won't be able to do much to get that level up. Finland will probably shrink until young Finns feel like there's enough elbow room (down at the southern end of the country where there are occasional warm days) to make 3-child families seem perfectly reasonable.