Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Quote of the Week (Fertility Edition)

I definitely had at least half a mind to give this week's Quote of the Week to Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn, who did an admirable job of distilling a horrific incident down to a useful message (without preaching or being trite or condescending, like some people). It's rare that you see an athlete being so frank and dropping their guard like Quinn did (it happened around five minutes into the press conference, which started out pretty slowly), and I salute him for it.

As he mused, "when you ask someone how they're doing, do you really mean it... and when you answer someone back, are you really telling them the truth?" I think Quinn is right to decry the shallowness of many (or most) interpersonal relationships in our social media-driven era, and his words can definitely give us all some food for thought.

But I came across another excerpt yesterday that was even more academically intriguing, if somewhat less poignant and powerful. Courtesy of Marginal Revolution's Tyler Cowen, and echoing some of the comments I made in this blog post last week, I give you the New York Times' Ross Douthat, who discusses the reasons for and potential impact of America's plummeting fertility rate:


"There’s been a broader cultural shift away from a child-centric understanding of romance and marriage. In 1990, 65 percent of Americans told Pew that children were “very important” to a successful marriage; in 2007, just before the current baby bust, only 41 percent agreed... The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place."
                                            - Ross Douthat, New York Times

I think there's a lot of merit to Douthat's take on the matter. The decision to eschew having children is, in a sense, the pinnacle of short-term thinking (a dynamic which has clearly taken on a life of its own in recent generations). If we all made the decision to have no children, our society would (theoretically, anyway) disappear in a matter of decades. None of us would be here but for someone else's decision to procreate, and yet there is often no recognition of that fact when it comes time for us to make a similar decision.

The decision is, in fact, the ultimate indulgence of a rich and stagnant society, one that is made all the more possible and plausible by the emergence and standardization of birth control, the access to which the UN has bizarrely ruled a universal human right.

To be fair, for many people in my generation, the decision not to have children has been a direct by-product of the explosion of debt (student loans and other types) in recent decades, and in that respect it's a perfectly rational—yet still sub-optimal—decision. If you can't afford to have kids (or don't feel like you can), then you clearly shouldn't, lest those children be deprived or resented by their own parents.

Nevertheless, it's an interesting thought experiment to wonder what would happen if only the underprivileged people in the world (those who couldn't afford birth control, and therefore couldn't afford to decide not to have children) were procreating. What would the next generation look like? What would be the prospects for global economic growth? And what kinds of decisions would such a scenario lead governments and voters to make, if the rich and powerful had no direct connection to the next generation of humans?

I don't know the answers to all of these questions (especially since many of them are purely academic in nature), but I do know that those who have the weakest connection to the future are the least likely to make good decisions with respect to said future. And if we continue to make decisions that sacrifice the future to benefit today, then I'm pretty sure we're not going to like the future very much once we do get there.

[New York Times]
(h/t Marginal Revolution)

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