Monday, December 03, 2012

The Decadence of It All! Ross Douthat on the Baby Dearth.

Ross Douthat has written the predictable piece about the baby dearth in the United States.  Sadly, he has to use euphemism in lots of places because it's not kosher to call the race wars race wars in the New York Times.

Thus, Douthat argues for "more babies!" by giving these reasons:

IN the eternally recurring debates about whether some rival great power will knock the United States off its global perch, there has always been one excellent reason to bet on a second American century: We have more babies than the competition.
Based on that argument, some rather unexpected countries could become the next United States.  Birth rates were very high in Iran, until quite recently, for instance, and they are high in many African countries.

Douthat confuses two different things:  The population size of a country and its birth rate.  Sure, one might ultimately be able to create a large country just through atypical population growth.  But most giant countries were created by the invasion and combination of many smaller countries.

Or put in another way, the European Community intends to have a role not dissimilar from the United States, not by birth rates but through accepting more member states.

The rest of Douthat's piece wonders what might happen if the drop in fertility becomes permanent.  He even hesitantly suggests public sector support for families with children but not the kind of support which has been shown to raise birth rates:  Paid parental leaves and subsidized daycare.  Those were probably omitted because they allow women to work in the labor force AND have more children.  But anything which does NOT support women's ability to remain in the work force will not affect the reduced fertility rates.

Whether high birth rates are desirable, from a global point of view, is a different question.  Douthat limits his viewpoint to competition between countries, failing to ask how many people this earth can support if, as is most likely, all of them wish to have a style of living which is currently available for only the wealthier parts of the world.

Be as it may, what I truly enjoyed about Douthat's column was when he got going on decadence!  Stuff like this:

Beneath these policy debates, though, lie cultural forces that no legislator can really hope to change. 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.
Such decadence need not be permanent, but neither can it be undone by political willpower alone. It can only be reversed by the slow accumulation of individual choices, which is how all social and cultural recoveries are ultimately made.

Wonderful!  I imagine all those decadent individuals reclining in bedrooms covered with dark-red velvet, incense burning in lamps shaped like naked women!  Everyone wears nothing but tiny smoking jackets and everyone smokes long black cigarettes at the end of those 1920s holders.  Monocles!  Brothels!  Wombs arid like stone!  Decadence.

Sorry.  It's odd how even the term "decadence" evokes ideas from the Victorian era, its brothels and the men who were their customers.  Note that this is the era of the history which presumably created the comforts and pleasures of modernity.

What really bothers Douthat is that such "decadence" might now have been adopted by those uppity women who aren't breeding enough.  The basic sacrifice he talks about surely must be that one?  It's women, after all, who must give birth to all those large families, and in Douthat's reality it's women who must take care of all those multiple children the greatness of America demands.

But of course any woman who decides to have, say, twelve children, just on Douthat's say-so will have no time to enjoy the comforts and pleasures of modernity.  Except in few cases, she is going to find herself and her family in poverty.  The Republican Party is opposed to policies which would support her.

Hence the need to evoke shame, the real function of the term "decadence" in this context.