Archive for the ‘Demographics’ Category

A County Boy Can Survive, But His Culture May Not

Monday, April 21st, 2008

I am no fan of Obama. But I felt a little sorry for him give all the abuse he took for saying…

“You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

If you listen to all those people spouting off about what Obama said, you would think that I should be offended by those statements. I have a lot of relatives in small towns in Pennsylvania. I work in with a bunch of guys from small towns in Pennsylvania. I live in a rural area myself. What’s more, almost everyone I spend any amount of time with is heavily into God or guns or both. So I guess I am amongst those who should feel insulted by Obama’s clinging remarks.

But I don’t.

It’s not that I think Obama’s comments were accurate. As I will explain latter, I think he got things completely backwards. But it is hard for me to get mad when I think someone is trying to defend me.

Even though he did not know what he was talking about, I think Obama honestly thought he was defending us folk. After all, he was talking to an audience in San Francisco were everyone assumes that we hill folk are dumb drooling idiots who are easily manipulated by those evil republicans into voting on social issues when if we knew what was best for us we would vote based on our economic interests. In that context, I read Obama as saying “Why shouldn’t they vote solely on social issues when neither Democrats nor Republicans have ever been able (or willing) to help them out with economic issues?” I think Obama was trying to remove the slur of stupidity that is so often imputed to rural folk by the more sophisticated urban dwellers by pointing out that rural folk could not rationally expect either party to do anything substantive about their economic issues. So why should it surprise anyone that they cling to social issues? What else can they realistically do?

In the context of how I have seen many urban people talk about rural folk, this constitutes a ringing defense. But it is also wrong.

To understand why this defense is wrong we will start with some music.

Now perhaps the above clip signals nothing more to you than the fact that country boys are overly macho, boastful ignorant slobs who like to celebrate their cultural backwardness and fondness for killing wildlife. Depending on your world view and personality, such a view is defensible. But if that is all you can see in such a song, you are as blind as a bat.

Ask yourself this: does anyone make songs boasting about living in the suburbs? Is there a class of music devoted to celebrating living in subdivisions that is the equivalent of country music?

The answer is no of course. So what does that tell you about rural culture?

While you are pondering that question, let me make some observations on the song.

In the first place, let me point out that anyone who hears the above song and thinks it is about the superior economic security supposedly enjoyed by country boys is missing the point. The focus is not one the economic superiority of the rural life, but on its masculine superiority and by extension its social superiority.

A Country Boy Can Survive does not seriously argue that a city boy is going to starve as result of rising interest rates and falling stock markets. Rather the implicit contrast is that economic bad times can cause the city boy to lose his 9 to 5 job. If that happens to a city boy, what is he worth? Chances are, none of the skills that made him useful to his employer have any relevance to the needs of his household. So a city man without a job is good for nothing but housecleaning. In other words, to the masculine mind he is worth nothing.

By contrast, if a country boy losses his job, he can still hunt, fish, or fix anything. His masculine role is independent of economic forces. He is worth something even if his employer no longer wants him.

This message of male empowerment is why the death of the singer’s friend is given such prominent role in the song. If you understand the country mindset, you will understand that the tragedy of the friend’s death was not the fact that he died, but that he was unable to defend himself from a punk with a knife. If you don’t get the message loud and clear that a country boy would not find himself in that situation, you are deaf.

But the story of the friend’s death also serves to highlight the social superiority of the country life. The implicit message of the song is that in the country we are all a band of brothers whereas in the city everyone is preying on each other. The bitter “for 43 dollars my friend lost his life” is meant to accentuate the broader point that in the city your worth is measured in dollars and cents, not your social ties and adherence to a cultural code of honor.

The social superiority and masculine superiority of country life are closely intertwined, as the line “We say grace and we say we say Ma’am” makes clear. That line conjures up the image of a close-knit community with strong shared values. But saying grace is a peculiarly male function in rural life. Thus, that line also highlights the fact that in the country men are men and women are women in contrast to the city, where males and females are interchangeable cogs in the economic machine.

I should note that though the song is from a male view point, the outlook expressed is not exclusively male. I know of one woman who comes from a country background, lives in the country, and has typically country attitudes. She is employed in a male dominated technology field and she does not act overly feminine (e.g., she is not afraid to express her opinions or get her hands dirty). Yet she will not look twice at any man, no matter how big his paycheck, unless he is rough and tough. Nor does she bother to conceal her contempt for all men who fail to measure up to her idea of what masculine is. And this is not because she lacks options.

I would not venture a guess as to how widespread this attitude is, since I am generally not privy to the honest thoughts of women. Truthfully, the only reason the above example sticks in my mind is because it violated my understanding of how the universe should work, to come across a woman who is more chauvinistic than I am. But I have seen and heard enough that I would be willing to bet that the attitudes expressed in “A Country Boy Can Survive” finds an echo in the female half of the race.

But so far we have been taking the song at its word as far as its depiction of what country life is like. It gets more interesting if you consider where the song stoops to a falsehood.

What makes the falsehood so remarkable is that the song is remarkably honest for such a boastful song. Oh, you might be able to quibble about its portrayal of urban life if you were so inclined (though you should remember that the song was written in the early 80’s when urban crime was more of problem than it is today and rural crime was less of a problem than it is today). But I don’t think that anyone who has lived in rural areas can fail to think of dozens of men who could honestly make almost all the explicit and implicit boasts in the song without the slightest exaggeration.

But there is one line that would sound false. That’s where Hank sings “I live back in the woods, you see, the woman, the kids, the dog, and me.” The impression given is that of nice traditional family living off in the backwoods. But a man who can honestly make that boast is a lot rarer in the backwoods than men who can do the rest of the stuff that Hank sings about. Certainly Hank can’t make that boast. He divorced his fourth wife not so long ago.

When I think about all the men that I know who could be called country boys after the model of Hank’s song, a lot of them follow the same pattern.

For example, there is this one guy I know. We will call him Tall Boy. He is an excellent hunter. He hunts anytime it is legal. It doesn’t matter if it is black powder or bow season. It doesn’t matter if it is deer or turkey season. He is always out there. If he is not hunting he will be out fishing. And he is an excellent fisherman. It doesn’t matter if he is casting for salmon, waiting for bass, or sitting out on the ice. He always does well. In between fishing and hunting, he hunts for mushrooms in the appropriate seasons, tends his honey bees, rebuilds his tractor, cuts his supply of firewood, bails hay for his wife’s horses, works on whatever construction project he had going, and occasional tends to the small business that he owns, just to name a few things that he occupies his time with. He is one of the few left around who butchers a cow by bashing it over the head with sledge hammer. A very humane way of killing a cow if it works, but if it doesn’t, you are dealing with a half a ton of very mad beef. I could go on and on telling you about all the skills he has and all the things he has done but it would take a small book.

He got his skills growing up on a farm. His father abandoned the family when he was young, leaving his family struggling. His mother use to send him out to poach deer so they would have something to eat. He only married once but his wife did not want to have any kids because of his drinking problem along with other problems. He often mentioned how much he regretted this and many other things that he did when he was younger. He had no happy home life.

I know another guy. We will call him Square Boy. He hunts deer, coons and many other things. He goes after mushrooms himself, but not to the same extreme as Tall Boy. He raises beef cattle, horses, dogs, and homing pigeons (so that he could race them against other flocks). He gets firewood and bails hay. He was an iron worker, a tree man, a sawyer, and a landscaper among many other things. He built his own house and barn. He has blotches all over him that he acquired in Vietnam from Agent Orange. He is known for his huge capacity for hard work and inhuman toughness. He once cut his arm almost completely off with chain saw. He pinched it tight with his free hand and walked over to the neighbors so that they could take him to a hospital. Once there he refused to allow the doctors to give him anesthesia and when they insisted he turned and started walking out. They gave in and sewed up his arm without anesthesia. I never did find out why he did not want anesthesia. I suspect it was because he did not have insurance and did not want to pay for it. He is a very tight with his money. Again, to tell the full tale of the range of things can do and has done would take a small book.

He grew up in a dirt poor family. He told me how he used to pull the blankets over his head and hold them tightly down because he was afraid of the rats that lived in his house. He said he used feel them running over his bed at night. His father died while he was a still a teenager. He dropped out of school so that he could help support his family after that happened.

He married and had a couple of daughters. But he is divorced and he never sees or hears from them anymore. He says his ex-wife turned them against him. This saddens him greatly. He also wishes he could have had at least one son.

I know another guy. We will call him Small Man. He is a big time hunter and fisher. He loves to shoot off guns and he has a gun collection that would outfit a small army. But what he was really known for was his black powder shooting skills. He used to win shooting matches at a hundred yards with him using a black powder rifle and his opponents using scoped rifles. He made his living as a butcher, a welder, and by working in stone quarries amongst other things. He had a bit of small man complex and would often get involved in fights with people much bigger than him. Typically he would win, because when he loses his temper he would go insane and wouldn’t even realize what he was doing until it was all over. Once when he was angry he hit a door so hard he knocked it off its hinges. Again those are only some of the highlights.

He grew up in large family. But his brothers and sisters came from several different fathers. For a while he lived in a house without any indoor plumbing while he was growing up.

He got married and had a daughter. But he divorced and his daughter lives many states away. He rarely sees her but she will send her son to stay in the summer time. He loves to teach his grandson how to hunt and fish and other such rural activities. He is proud of what a good shot is grandson is and plans to leave him his gun collection when he dies. He will be heartbroken if his grandson decides he is no longer interested in visiting his grandpa once he hits his teenage years.

And I could tell many other stories like this. Most of the country boys I know don’t have nice little nuclear families to go home to. And I don’t think my experience is atypical. The statistics tell of a lot of teenage pregnancy and single parent homes in rural areas. And those numbers are all the more jarring when you look at them in context of the rapid aging of most rural areas. You get the feeling that very few young people in rural America have their life together.

Don’t get me wrong. There are happy families out in woods where the men of the family can honestly make all the boasts in Hank’s song without having to fake the happy family bit. I know of some of them myself but I won’t bore you with their stories (if are interested in reading about a happy rural family you can go over to the Pioneer Woman’s site). To truly understand the concerns of most rural folk, you need to understand that the permanent problem facing rural areas is the absence of children. And you will not be able to understand the problem of the absence of children if you examine the happy families.

If you doubt that missing children are a big concern in rural areas, just pick up any old hunting magazine. Odds are you will find at least one article in the magazine that laments that the fact that few young people are taking up hunting. It is common knowledge in hunting circles that the number of hunters is going to implode in the coming decades. The average age of your average hunter keeps climbing. And all attempts to bring in more young people into the field have fallen flat on their face.

The causes of this coming implosion are also well known in hunting circles. It has to do with the declining number of children being born and the sharp increase in single parent homes. It is the latter that gets the most attention in hunting magazines. Over and over you read that kids don’t go hunting with their dads like they used to. The biggest reason for this is that often their dads are not at home anymore.

Now it occurs to me as I am writing this, that the three example country boys I gave might not support the idea that fathers not being around to teach their kids to hunt is anything new. But I can tell you the vast majority of hunters I know learned to hunt from their fathers. Those who did not learn from their fathers learned from their grandfathers.

Tall Boy would be a good example of this. He learned from his grandfather who lived on the farm with Tall Boy when he was growing up. Contrast that with Small Man who is trying to teach his grandson who lives many states away and you will understand why the kids today are less likely to learn from their grandparents. And since the majority of hunters that I know are divorced and no longer live with their kids, it is not likely that they will learn from their dads either.

As hunting goes, so goes rural culture in general. But you should understand that rural culture or even hunting in particular is not just about blowing up furry critters with large caliber rifles. If you don’t understand what I am talking about, you didn’t listen to Hank’s song very close.

It is this love of their culture, and not any economic insecurity, that causes rural folk to “cling” to social issues. After all, those whose primary love was money and other materialistic things left for the city a long time ago. Those that are left were self-selected to care about other things more than money.

To be sure, we can overstate this. There is more than a few people who are bumming around the countryside because they lack the ambition or the brains to leave the place where they were born. And there are others whose primary concern was the privacy or fun that that they could find in the country.

But the love of many for the culture that can be found in rural areas is very real and not just a faked artifice of country music. In my neighborhood there was a couple who were having serious financial problems due to the problems their small business was facing. As a result, they were thinking of selling their place and moving to cheaper place 20 minutes away in an effort to save money and extract some equity from their land.

Tall Boy became very upset with them over these plans. He took it as a kind of betrayal. He had made efforts to help them out and he thought they could cut down on their expenses a lot more than they had. He felt that the fact that they were going to move even though they could have tightened their belt and stayed with help from their neighbors showed that they did not value their friends very much. When I observed that they were only moving 20 minutes away and that it would still be possible to visit back and forth without too much trouble, he retorted that you can’t be a good neighbor to someone who lives 20 minutes away.

As turns out, they did not move. But the incident demonstrates how Tall Boy placed a high premium on living in a place with a tight social network in spite of the moral failings which made it impossible for him to raise a family. His conception of a good community was a place where anyone would jump in their truck at a moment’s notice to fly down the street to help out a neighbor. Or conversely, where anyone could jump in their truck and go borrow a tool that was needed. It was his conception of what a community should be like that lead him to join the volunteer fire department when he found out they were short of people (he is now the captain). In other words, even though he led a wild life (and still does to an extent) he always sought out and tried to foster the rural ideal of community.

This paradox between being unable or unwilling to live the type of life that is necessary to raise a nuclear family, but at the same time deeply attached to a tight-knit community explains the social conservatism of rural areas, even though statistics show they don’t live that much differently than urban people do as far as personal morals. Every man who loves rural culture knows that it is doomed without strong families. For without strong families they know there will be no hunters. They know that without strong families there will be no neighbors who will help them. They know that without strong families there will be no tight-knit communities.

And if you get to know the men who love rural culture, you will hear them regret that there is no one for them to pass all their skills to. They express the wish that they could go back and do things differently. They are horrified that that they are aging and facing death and there is no one to carry on after them. They loved the patriarchal ideal of being men in a community of men, but now they find themselves facing the most horrible of the patriarchal curses. They have no descendants.

This is why Hank felt obliged to fake the idea that country boys were all out their raising happy families. If the culture dies, there will be no more country boys. And that is a thought that Hank does not want to face. It is also the fear that Obama does not seem understand.

Social Security is only a problem if you look at the larger context

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

Megan McArdle ran a post entitled Demography is Destiny today. I was happy to see it. For some reason I had her pegged as part of the “Demographics don’t really matter” group because of some posts that I saw go up on Free Exchange. Recent posts at her new site have demonstrated that I was mistaken.

Unfortunately, her latest post revolves around Social Security and why the optimistic projections for its future are almost certainly wrong. This issue has been hashed over so many times that revisiting it does not contribute much to the debate. Most Americans realize Social Security has problems. Most Americans also think that Social Security problems are relatively easy problems to fix. If you talk about America’s demographic problems in terms of Social Security, most Americans are already going to have a well formed opinion so discussing the issue is not going to get you anywhere.

One of the problems with discussing America’s demographic problems in the context of Social Security is that all the answers seem obvious. Only blind ideologues refuse to admit that Social Security has problems. But by the same token, when the focus is only on Social Security, only people with a blind hatred for the program will refuse to admit that the problems are easily solved.

So you have to raise the retirement age to keep the program solvent. Big deal. We are all living longer. Heck, we don’t even have to raise the retirement age. If we were willing to stop playing super cop and cut our military spending we could keep the current form of social security with only modest tax increases. As Barkley Rosser likes to point out, by 2030 we will have a retiree to worker ratio that much of Western Europe has right now. So if you keep the discussion focused on Social Security, reasonable people are going to feel that America’s demographic problems are no big deal.

But of course, we will not be dealing with Social Security in isolation. There are the other entitlements like Medicare. There is the fact that most local and state governments have severely underfunded retirement systems. There is the fact that medical costs soar with age so health care costs will sky rocket as the average age of population increases. There is the fact that world birth rates have been falling so that the supply of immigrants that we currently rely on to do many jobs will start to dry up just as we need them most. It is only when we consider all the ways that an aging population will cost more that we start to realize the true scope of the demographic problem. Social Security is only a drop in the bucket.

I wish Ms. McArdle had chosen to focus more on the issue of the shrinking labor force. She mentioned the issue, but only in the context of why it would be harder to fund Social Security. But the shrinking labor force is going to have a profound effect on how we live our lives. Even if Social Security were not a problem, the effects of the shrinking labor force would be devastating.

I don’t think most people appreciate how devastating the shrinking work force is going to be because they think that all parts of the work force will shrink at the same rate. Thus they imagine the work force of the future as being a smaller version of the one we have now. But it is not going to work out that way. It will be a long time before our stock of trained IT workers depletes significantly. But our stock of people trained in the construction trades is going to all but disappear in the next 10 to 20 years. Given the state of our infrastructure, that is going to cause big problems down the road.

Aging infrastructure comes along with an aging demographic

Wednesday, October 24th, 2007

If you have been keeping awake as the talking heads drone on, you have probably heard of America’s problem with aging infrastructure. After all, we have had the levees break in New Orleans. We have had a bridge collapse in Minnesota. We have a major dam threatening to blow in Kentucky. Since all of these problems are related in one way or another to America’s aging infrastructure you ought to be dimly aware that the problem exists. But I don’t think most people know how bad the problem really is.

In order to understand the scale of the problem, you need to understand that the reason that so much of America’s infrastructure is reaching old age all at once is similar to the cause of America’s baby boom generation. In the years following World War II, America got busy doing all sorts of things. Not only did the Greatest Generation produce one heck of a baby boom, but they also built much of America’s infrastructure. And lot of that infrastructure is going to start failing at the same time the baby boomers start to retire.

The scale of this problem is obscured by the fact that the experts discovered some kind of design flaw in everything major that has failed so far. I think that this gives people the impression that the only thing we have to worry about is the dodgy work. But while the poorly designed infrastructure will be the first to fail, everything is going to fail in the long run. And given that so much of America’s infrastructure was built within a couple decades after World War II, quite a lot of it is going to need to be rebuilt all in a similar time period. The challenge for my generation will be to duplicate the Greatest Generation’s construction feats while supporting Baby Boomers’ retirement. On top of all that, we will be dealing with increased environmental and labor regulations.

Naturally, the optimists of this world will argue that this should be very doable. After all, the Greatest Generation raised the Baby Boomers and built all of the infrastructure that we are going to have to rebuild. What is so different about handling the Baby Boomers’ retirement and rebuilding the old infrastructure with all the new technology available to us?

My short and snarky answer is that the Baby Boomers couldn’t vote when they were kids. Now they can, and they are going to want all kinds of goodies from the taxpayer. A wealthy Baby Boomer requires more government funds than a welfare mom on crack.

But I will leave the analysis of the likely burdens of the Baby Boomers’ retirement for some other time. Right now, I would like to focus on the scope of the problem that our aging infrastructure presents.

For starters, there are the bridges. The average age of the bridges in this country is a little over 40 years old. This is why so many bridges are failing to make the grade….

Of the country’s nearly 600,000 bridges, 26% were found structurally deficient or “functionally obsolete” in a 2006 U.S. Department of Transportation report. The condition of heavily used urban bridges like the one that collapsed this week is even worse: one in three are classified as aging or unable to accommodate modern vehicle weights and traffic volume.


They shall die alone

Sunday, October 7th, 2007

A while back an anonymous commenter tried to get me to react to this article in Slate. In the words of my anonymous commenter, “I just posted that to see your reaction to the educated class contemplating encouraging species suicide.”

I don’t know why this person wanted to bait me. I have posted numerous posts on demographic decline and on the ideals that lie behind it. My reaction to the educated class contemplating encouraging species suicide cannot be too hard to predict.

That is not to say I could not write more. In my mind with its secret places and many voices I store many unwritten essays that touch on this subject.

In one such unwritten essay that goes by name “We have become like gods” or “The Removal of all Restraint” (it depends on my mood) I explore the constraints that biology and physics use to place on societies. I then go on to explore how the great technological advances of the last hundred years have freed us from those constraints. In this hypothetical essay, I then argue that as societies become freed from constraint they invariably start to emulate the attributes of the pagan pantheons. I then show that the logical culmination to this trend is some kind of Ragnarök.

In another unwritten essay tentatively titled “The Earth Cries Out” (I have got to think up a better title for this one. Perhaps “The Alienation of Man”? ) I talk about the paradox of people who do not believe in a God or any absolute standard of right and wrong and yet believe that man is fundamentally evil and deserves to be wiped off the face of the earth. From there I go on to explore the apocalyptical sensibilities of many atheistic ideologies and how they have a common theme that mankind deserves a horrible fate. I then ponder what it is in mankind that leads them to believe that their own race should be destroyed.

Maybe I will put both of those essays up on my essay site someday. But neither of those unwritten essays seems like an appropriate response to the prodding of my anonymous commenter. They are filled with too many references to things most people do not bother to read. They border too much on the mystical. Those unwritten essays strive too hard to make people think to be a proper response from a simple ape man.

But as I was reading through those things that are on the Ethereal Voice, the proper response to the educated class came to my mind: they shall die alone.

It came to my mind as I read this post on Karisa’s blog expressing her anger that an old widow went 120 hours in isolation. It strengthened as I viewed this slide show on the demographic imbalances in Europe, with its charts showing that old people in Europe outnumber the children. I could not get the vision of millions of old people dying alone out of my head.

I see them dying in a heat wave because no one came to check up on them like this…

Scientists at INSERM, the National Institute of Health and Medical Research, deduced the toll by determining that France had experienced 14,802 more deaths than expected for the month of August.

The toll exceeds the prior government count of 11,435, a figure that was based only on deaths in the first two weeks of the month.

The new estimate includes deaths from the second half of August, after the record-breaking temperatures of the first half of the month had abated.

The bulk of the victims — many of them elderly — died during the height of the heat wave, which brought suffocating temperatures of up to 104 degrees in a country where air conditioning is rare. Others apparently were greatly weakened during the peak temperatures but did not die until days later.

I see them clinging to robotic dolls to keep themselves from dying of boredom like this….

TOKYO (AFP) — Japan’s growing elderly population from will be able to buy companionship in the form of a 45-centimeter (18-inch) robot, programmed to provide just enough small talk to keep them from going senile.

Snuggling Ifbot, who is dressed in an astronaut suit with a glowing face, has the conversation ability of a five-year-old, the language level needed to stimulate the brains of senior citizens, its software designer said.

If a person tells Snuggling Ifbot, “I’m bored today,” the robot might respond, “Are you bored? What do you want to do?”

To a statement, “Isn’t it nice today?”, the robot could say, “It is a fine autumn day,” by detecting the season from its internal clock.

This is the future the educated class is bringing about. This is future they think they want. This is the future they think they are ready for. They talk about how they are going to be the healthiest generation of old people yet. They talk about how they will work far longer than their parents did and how they will stay active well into their later years.

But the technology they think will save them from the demographic problem, the technology that enables people to live longer and thus work longer, will turn on them in the end. For just as they lived longer than their parents, so, too, will they linger longer in that space between life and death for longer then then their parents did.

That is the place where you can still think and talk, but have difficulty walking from your bedroom to the bathroom. That is the place where you can not see well enough to drive. That is place where your social circle will constrict to those young enough to come and visit you.

For most of them, there will be no one healthy enough who wants to come visit. There will be no one who wants to deal with the burden of the elderly in exchange for their stories. There will be no one who will help them through the long years that they will spend between life and death.

As befitting a pagan generation, some will probably kill themselves as they see the isolation coming on. But most will cling to their robotic dolls until they die alone.

Young male economic participation, existential questions, and the failure of the social sciences

Saturday, July 21st, 2007

Why should we bother to exist? What gives life meaning? Why shouldn’t we all just give up and go off into that good night?

I doubt that you want to hear my answers to those questions. And frankly, I am not at all sure that I would be edified to hear your answers to those questions. But in spite of our reluctance to talk about such existential issues, we should always remember that those questions are foundational to the social sciences. To forget this is to render the social sciences worthless.

In the past, such a reminder would not have been necessary. To even raise the issue would have had all the relevance of pointing out that the sky was blue. After all, most of originators of the social sciences were philosophers who dealt with existential issues as a matter of course. For example, Adam Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments as well as An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

But these days it seems that the social sciences would rather forget the existential questions. They envy their comrades over in the hard sciences. They want to spell out the laws that govern men with same precision that the physicists have when they lay out the laws that govern rocks.

It is only natural, then, that the social sciences would seek to emulate the way that the hard sciences ignore the existential questions. After all, it would be kind of silly for a physicist to explore the purpose of a rock’s existence. A physicist can never answer such a question. Thus, pondering such questions would only distract the physicist from the questions that they can answer.

Similarly, a social scientist cannot really answer the question “what is the purpose of human life” with a scientific answer. Hence, any social scientist who desires to be “scientific” will seek to avoid dealing with those questions.

The problem is that people are not like rocks. They can ask “To be or not to be?” The answer they give to that question has profound implications for how they behave. Those changes will not be predicted or understood by theories that assume that peoples’ answers to existential questions remains constant amongst all people and all cultures at all times.

The only demographic effect that educated people will accept

Tuesday, July 17th, 2007

Why is it that there is one and only one demographic effect that the majority of highly educated people in the world are willing to accept? And why is that one effect the idea that less children are good for the environment?

A lot of highly educated people are willing to argue that people in the developed world should have fewer babies because their children will consume a disproportionate share of the world’s resources. Even more educated people are willing to lay all the problems that Africa and other third world countries have at the door of overpopulation. And even those who are not willing to be quite so accusatory still feel that less people would be better for the environment.

Why can’t all of these people make the mental leap between the idea that having children will have an effect on the environment to the idea that not having children might have effects on other things? After all, fewer children are supposedly good for environment because less kids means less future economic activity. Yet somehow people can only see benefits from that fact. Any kind of talk of a down side to that particular fact is treated as wild talk from the doom and gloom crowd.

But the inconsistency of your average educated person goes further than that.

After all, if you take the underlying assumption of “less kids is good for the environment” seriously, you should be against all forms of economic growth. In fact, you should wish to see every economy in the world in recession.

The fact of the matter is that the absolute number of people in the world has very little to do with how much of the earth’s resources are consumed. The real key is the level of economic development that those people are operating under.

For example, let us say that X represents the maximum amount of consumption per year that the earth can sustain (grant me for a moment that such a limit exits if you don’t belong to that school of thought). Let us say that every human being consumes a certain amount. It therefore follows that a constant growth of the human population will lead humanity to bump up against the limits imposed by X. This much everyone can understand.

But let us say that GDP per person represents a rough guide to how much of the Earth’s resources a person consumes. It would therefore follow that a static human population could reach X simply through economic growth. Heck, even a falling human population could reach X if economic growth grew faster than the human population declined. It would therefore follow that man’s infinite wants are a bigger problem than absolute human numbers.

In other words, is it better for a place to be full of subsistence farmers or one big monoculture grown to provide the bio fuel for some dude’s private rocket ship?

Some hard core environmentalists are consistent on this point. They are against economic growth as much as they are against population growth. And for that consistency I respect them.

But most educated people fly all around the world for their vacations. They eat expensive food and drive expensive cars. They live in big houses/apartments compared to their less educated peers and they want even bigger houses or a second vacation home. And when they have their cocktail parties they discuss their stocks and how population growth is such a threat to the world.

That bothers me.

I think that willingness of the educated classes to lay so much blame for the environmental problems of the world at the feet of those crass enough to have babies says a lot about them. It also goes a long way towards explaining why they are so resistant to the idea that there might be negative effects to having too few children.

Demographics and Productivity

Tuesday, June 26th, 2007

In a post I that I wrote last week I said (speaking of Edward Hugh’s post on a recent article in The Economist called Suddenly, the old world looks younger)…..

But while I agree with most of what Mr. Hugh says, his post fails to relieve me of the need to write my own post. This is partially because I think Mr. Hugh misses several important flaws in The Economist article that I think should be pointed out. But mostly it is because Mr. Hugh is just too kind to The Economist.

Now I think I have compensated for Mr. Hugh’s over-niceness in my last post. But I never really dealt with any issue in The Economist‘s article that Mr. Hugh had not already tackled in his own overly nice way. As time permits this week, I would like to raise the various issues in The Economist‘s article on demographics that Mr. Hugh did not address in his post. I am not doing this to continue to pile it onto The Economist (I like a good rant, but you can have too much of a good thing), but because I think there are some important points that often get overlooked and The Economist‘s article is a good springboard for talking about them.

Before I continue, I should admit that I exaggerated when I said in my previous post that Mr. Hugh misses several important flaws in The Economist‘s article. He got all of the important flaws. But since there were so many important flaws he probably felt that it would be overkill to deal with some of the more subtle problems that the article had. This is understandable.

But when I am not getting all excited and going off on a rampage, I actually find the subtler sorts of problems to be more interesting than dealing with obvious flaws. So now that I have calmed down a bit, those are the types of problems in The Economist‘s article that I would like to focus on.

For today I would like to focus on this passage in The Economist‘s article….

In the decades after the second world war, rich countries everywhere experienced broadly similar trends. The bonds of traditional family life began to slacken. More women got jobs. People sought enjoyment and satisfaction more and more through individual pursuits, rather than in families. This social transformation, which also occurred in America and East Asia, led to a demographic bonus (a bulge of people in work) and to what might be called the postponement of everything. People left school later, left home later, married later, had children later. They also died later.

Now let us think about this for a moment. Whenever someone tries to start up a discussion on the negative long term effects of a low birth rate, you are sure to have someone come along who will say “nobody can predict the future, so why do you think you can intelligibly talk about a country’s demographic future” or something to that effect. But as The Economist is admitting in the passage above, demographic change has already happened. The only thing is, the effect of the demographic change has so far been positive.

This raises the question, why has demographic change been beneficial so far? The obvious answer to that question is the one The Economist provides. When you have one generation that has a lot of kids and those kids have far fewer children (on a per person basis) than their parents did, then you will have fewer dependents per working person. Having fewer dependents per working person will mean that there is more economic output in society as a whole. Thus, the whole western world has experienced what The Economist calls a “demographic bonus.”

But I don’t think the obvious answer of fewer dependents per worker tells the whole story of the demographic bonus. I think there is also a productivity boost per worker as the average age of your work force increases. At least, up to a certain point.

After all, research has demonstrated that people are at their most productive in their 40’s. At this age, the degradation of their body has not been sufficient to negate the benefit of their experience. This number is not written in stone. It is quite possible that 50 will become the new 40 in the years to come. In any case, up until a certain point, ageing increases your productivity.

It stands to reason then, that as the average age of your work force goes up; your average productivity is going to go up (at least until a certain point). Therefore, it would seem logical to conclude that at least some of the productivity growth in the western world has been due to the ageing of the workforce, and not investment in capital or technological advancement.

If you have been following what I have been saying, you will understand that the “demographic bonus” is two fold. You have a smaller dependent-to-worker ratio and your workforce is more productive on average than it would be if you had not had a “bulge” in your demographic profile. Combine these two factors together and you have a powerful stimulus to national growth.

Or at least, in theory, these factors account for a powerful stimulus to national growth. I don’t think that this issue has been studied with the rigor that it deserves. But what studies that are out there tend to confirm the theory. For example, this study estimates that the effects of a demographic bulge account for one-third to one-half of the growth experienced in East Asia between 1965 and 1990. And this study is focused on the decrease in the worker to dependent ratio. They don’t even take into account productivity gains associated with an ageing work force.

But even with the lack of studies, almost everyone in the thinking world seems prepared to accept that having fewer children is a big part of the European and Asian success story. Yet very few people in the thinking world are prepared to accept that this bonus will reverse itself and turn into declining productivity growth and an increasing dependent-to-worker ratio. Why is it so hard to accept that the gravy train provided by the demographic bonus is going to stop?

Part of the problem is undoubtedly due to wishful thinking, but another part of this problem is due to insufficient research. We don’t really have a good handle on the economic effects of the demographic changes that have already occurred, much less how those demographics will play out into the future. This is particularly true of the issue of the aging of the workforce and productivity.

This is a particularly important issue. If I am right in suspecting that the increasing average age of the work forces has played a significant role in increasing average productivity, then there are no grounds for optimism in regards to the western world’s economic future.

That statement might seem a little extreme. But consider this: most people who are optimistic about the likely effects of a demographic shortfall are depending on productivity growth continuing at same rate that is has been increasing over the last 40 years. This dependency takes two forms.

First of all, even the most optimistic forecasters acknowledge that the dependency-to-worker ratio is going to go up in the near future. In order to maintain living standards at present levels, those workers are going to need to be far more productive than today’s workers. To reach this goal, productivity increases need to at least match the rate of increase over the last 40 years or so. But if a significant amount of the productivity increases over the last 40 years was related to the aging of the work force, this is not going to happen.

Second, the optimistic forecasters are depending on people to work for far longer than they do today to mitigate the otherwise sharp increase in dependent-to-worker ratios. But in order for this to provide any real relief, the older workers in their 60’s need stay at least as productive as they were in their 40’s. After all, even if increased participation by older workers holds the worker-to-dependent ratio steady (which not even the most optimistic forecasters believe), yet you have declining average productivity, then living standards are going to fall.

The above is not going to convince anyone of anything they don’t already believe. But my intention was not to convert anyone to the doom and gloom camp. Rather, I wanted to highlight the need for more research into the effects of the demographic changes that have already taken place. Particularly in the area of the ageing of the work force that has already happened and how that relates to past increases in productivity.

Only when we know what has already happened can we make reasonable predictions about the future.

Spanking the Economist

Sunday, June 24th, 2007

My apologies to Claus Vistesen over at Alpha.Sources. I think I lead him to believe that I was going to write a post focusing on a recent article on demographics in last week’s Economist. And that was what I sat down to write. But when I started writing a long standing grudge against The Economist started coming out. This forced me to cut out a lot of stuff I was going to bring out about The Economist article. When you are over 6 pages you have got to cut your losses.

I have been a subscriber to the British magazine The Economist ever since I got my driver’s license. I can date it that precisely because subscribing to The Economist is one of the first things that I did when I got my first real job. I was not paid much, so the subscription price took up a sizable percentage of my yearly income at the time.

Thankfully, it does not take up the same percentage of my yearly income today. But I am still a subscriber. I have never let my subscription lapse.

With a tale like that, you might think that I am big fan of The Economist. But the truth is that I have a love/hate relationship with The Economist. I love The Economist because of its international coverage. I am not aware of any weekly periodical that even comes close to The Economist as far as international coverage is concerned. I don’t even think that there is a combination of other periodicals that could replace The Economist‘s international coverage.

But The Economist has also taught me why democracy is the least bad of all the bad ways to govern men and they remind me of it every week. That is where the hate comes in.

Now I suppose you all are wondering (a) why I need to be taught that democracy is the least bad way to govern men and (b) why being taught such a thing would leave me with negative feelings for The Economist.

To understand the answer to question (a) you need to understand that I work and live in totally different environment than the majority of my readers. Outside of those who read this blog and know me personally, I don’t think anyone really has much contact with the type of people that I work with.


Songs of Community

Friday, June 22nd, 2007

I know, I know, I owe a post on one of the three subjects that I said I wanted to blog about. And I will have a post on The Economist article on demographics up today or tomorrow (per Mr. Vistesen’s request I decided to do that one first). But Andrew Cusack linked to three u-tube clips that I want to link to on my own site with my own commentary.

Normally I post videos over at The Ethereal Voice. But one of the u-tube clips that Cussack posted has direct relevance to a post I recently wrote on Quebec’s demographics and they are all loosely tied together so I thought I would share them here as well as at the Voice.

This is a clip of the song ‘Dégénération’, by Mes Aïeux (in Québécois French, with English subtitles). According to Cusack this song is wildly popular in Quebec right now. Its relevance to my recent post on Quebec should be obvious and hopefully I don’t need to elaborate on the song for those that have read my post. But one thing I would like to note is the continued references to government jobs in the song. This is no accident. The Government commands an extremely large percentage of GDP in Quebec and it is about the only place to get “good jobs” in Quebec these days.

This next clip is ‘Roots’, by Show of Hands (an English Folk group). It is an angry lament over Britain’s lost culture. The song obviously has something in common with ‘Dégénération’ and musically I actually enjoyed it more. But the primary reason that I am posting this is that I found it interesting how similar the complaint was in these two songs written by people in two different cultures. There seems to be a common despair in the face of modern culture.

It is common for people to dismiss the sentiments expressed in these songs as misguided longing for a golden age that never was. I disagree.

There never was such a thing as a golden age. That I will admit. But modern culture has lost something in the transition to the modern era. We have more material things, but we are losing our social fabric.

I don’t see how anyone can deny that people are not as rooted in their communities as they once were. In fact, the very concept of a community is disappearing. To be a modern person is to be a rootless person. You are not tied to your brothers, cousins, or neighbors. You are free, but you are also rootless.

For some, like the blogger over at Free Exchange, this is a price worth paying. But for others, like Mes Aieux and Show of Hands, this is something to be lamented.

Needless to say, I have more sympathy for the likes of Mes Aieux and Show of Hands then I do for Free Exchange’s view point. But like all things human, a longing for community and the struggle to maintain it can be an ugly thing. That is what Cusack’s clip of the ‘De La Rey’, by Bok van Blerk (in Afrikaans, with English subtitles) reminds me of.

Now this song skillfully plays on the sadness of what happened to the Boer woman and children and the braveness of the Boer fighters. Yet I can’t help but remember all the peoples that that the Boers destroyed and all the African villages that the Boers burnt to the ground. And I think that it is fitting that such great devotees of the Old Testament as the Boers should receive an Old Testament punishment for their crimes (and eye for an eye…).

For me, the Boers are a prime example of how a people can deify their sense of community. The Boers had this conception of themselves as a holy people chosen by God which meant that they saw no difference between their desires as a community and the desires of God. For them, the two were one and the same. Like the deification of anything else human, this lead to horrible things. There is no restraint on a society that considers its desires the desires of God.

The Boers are not alone in that failing, and I don’t mean to single them out. It is just that the song ‘De La Rey’ calls to my mind the dangers of venerating your own community and the messianic desires that often accompany that veneration.

But in remembering this danger, we should not forget that man cannot live by bread alone. A society based solely on economic transactions will soon cease to exist. The question is: what is the proper way to fill this human need for community without creating some kind of pagan nationalistic god?

Discussion with Edward Hugh and Claus Vistesen over at Demography Matters

Monday, June 11th, 2007

Most of my regular readers probably already know this, but for those who missed it— Clause Vistesen posted an edited version of my post Does an aging demographic structure lead to an export-oriented economy over at Demography Matters.

Edward Hugh (A British born Spanish based economist who specializes in economic effects of demographic change) has posted a couple of comments relating to my post. And Claus Vistesen has one up as well (as I write this that is, I expect more from both of them).

Surprisingly, wordy old me only has one real comment up (plus one “be back latter comment” if you want to be legalistic) as of yet. The lack of lengthy comments from yours truly is due to the unfortunate fact that I find myself rather busy at the moment. In fact, I have work that I need to go do right now that I am holding off to write this.

Hopefully I will write more tomorrow. But that is iffy. I have to get up early and take a truck 100+ miles were I am going to load it up with 50 pieces of butcher block furniture and drive the 100+ miles back and unload it at a couple of different locations. I may not have much mental capacity after that.

All that is just to say if I seem a little slow to respond it is not for lack of interest. Hopefully, I will soon be is position were I can write proper responses to Mr. Hugh and Mr. Vistesen.