Sunday, October 29, 2017

Derek Thompson at the Atlantic writes about the trio of ingredients in the doom spiral of liberalism: low birth rates, anti-immigration sentiment, and the fragility of the welfare state

Here are three trends that are often discussed in isolation:
  1. The low birth rates of advanced economies
  2. The rise of a xenophobic anti-immigration politics
  3. The fragility of the welfare state
While these subjects might seem to have nothing to do with each other, in fact they crash into each other like dominos. As rich countries have fewer babies, they need immigration to grow their prime-age workforces. But as the foreign-born share of the population rises, xenophobia often festers and threatens egalitarian policymaking.
There is no reason to think that this cause-and-effect is inevitable, but the trend is clear enough that liberal policymakers need to think hard about this doom loop and how to break it. Let’s spell it out in greater detail.
First, babies. American demographers are “freaking out as each year brings a new record low in the number of women giving birth. There are several ways to cut the fertility data—including annual births per population, or total lifetime births per woman. But every statistic tells the same story: Americans are having fewer babies than they were 50 years ago, or even 30 years ago. Japan and many European countries are dealing with their own “perfect demographic storms.”


or as some of my older friends have put it, the demographic decline in citizens giving birth means that we're reaching the point where the number of old people who will be expecting to draw from Social Security is larger than the number of under-retirement age employed people who are actually able to pay into the system and that would be now, let alone in the future.   Now there are a handful of self-identified conservatives I know who say the smartest response to this should be the most lenient and generous immigration policies we can provide because it's not the native-born American citizens who are necessarily willing to do the jobs that immigrants are often doing now.  Give all those immigrants full citizenship and the rights thereof and they can pay taxes. 

But, as Thompson notes, anti-immigration sentiments can be widespread in first-world nations and not just the United States.

A baby shortage sounds like an adorable misfortune of middling significance. Actually, it’s a critical problem. To expand their economies, countries need to expand their populations, particularly at a time of low productivity growth. Rich countries also need a larger and richer workforce to pay for government services to the sick, poor, and elderly. In the long term, with automation, these countries may run out of jobs. But in the short term, they are running out of people. In fact, the number of Americans between 25 and 54 years old has not grown in more than a decade.
That brings us to the second story: immigrants. As the birth rate has declined in the U.S., Canada, Western Europe, and Japan, the immigrant share of their populations has increased. This is a perfectly natural and good development. These countries have high median incomes, which are attractive to international migrants, plus their economies need new humans to sustain both GDP growth and government services.
This might sound counterintuitive to some people who’d assume that a large influx of low-skilled immigrants would be a huge drag on federal resources. In the short term, they might be. But as the children of immigrants find jobs and pay taxes, immigrant families wind up being a net contributor to the government over many decades, according to a 2016 report from the National Academy of Sciences. Beyond this economic accounting, there is a strong moral case to allow families from low-income countries move to a richer country, where they can improve their lot by an order of magnitude.

Something I've discussed with a progressive friend over the years is that the last thing the United States needs is free college for everybody.  Longtime readers know I'm not against education and I'm slogging through Adorno's Aesthetic Theory and Gadamer's Truth and Method right now, so it's not like I'm against ideas and stuff. 

That said, there are enough legitimate concerns as to why college is or should be necessary for employment on the one hand and on the other hand enough legitimate concern as to whether or not the entire educational system has inequality cooked into it that education beyond high school doesn't seem to be what we need.  What we need is a more robust "unskilled labor market".  The extent to which people tout college as an answer for adding job skills is the extent to which I suspect these people have had the luxury of getting decent-paying jobs not long after they got out of college.  Some people get degrees and end up in scut jobs the rest of their lives. 

Which, in a way gets to the tension between immigration and resentment of immigration in relationship to the welfare state.  For anti-immigration sorts the illegal immigrants are the socio-economic vampires who suck up all the resources that, so the belief seems to go, would be going to real American citizens. 


This is where the story finally connects with welfare and the future of liberalism. Rich countries tend to redistribute wealth from the rich few to the less-rich multitude. But when that multitude suddenly includes minorities who are seen as outsiders, the white majority can turn resentful and take back their egalitarian promises. Take, for example, the Twin Cities of Minnesota. They were once revered for their liberal local policies—like corporate-tax redistribution from rich areas to poor neighborhoods and low-income housing construction near business districts. But since the 1980s, as the metro area attracted more nonwhite immigrants, the metro has become deeply segregated by income and race and affordable-housing construction has backtracked. Or take Finland, that renowned “Santa Claus State” of cradle-to-grave social services, where the welfare state is being “systematically dismantled.” The far right has emerged in the last few decades, just as foreign-born population has suddenly grown.

But as Charles Mudede wrote at The Stranger, racism against minorities has taken the form of despots in African nations blaming whites for economic troubles in African nations.  It can be so axiomatic in American journalism that far right=white racism against non-whites that we can forget that this isn't the only variant of institutional racism that's possible the world over, even if it's most certainly the dominant one in institutional terms in the United States.

Still ... take note of Finland, or any of its neighbors.  Americans with blue or left leanings have in the last decade floated the idea that we could try to retool our economy and social structure to be more like one of the Nordic countries.  That's a wildly improbable idea and even if it could be implemented, nations like Norway, Sweden and Finland are more culturally and ethnically monolithic overall than the United States can, should or even has been in its history.  It's not like xenophobia and wildly stringent immigration policies can't happen in the Nordic realm. 

Years ago there was a guy I knew who intended to expatriate to Finland or one of those countries and he discovered there was no way they would ever grant him citizenship for reasons that don't need to be enumerated in much detail.  A short version is there was a psych screen and an assessment of what could be regarded as criminal record issues and the answer was a pre-emptive and permanent "no". 

What some discovered here in the United States when considering heading north into Canada in the wake of Trump's election is that a nation that can be more generous in terms of social and healthcare issues at a number of levels is more stringent across the board about customs and immigration. You can't just head up to Canada these days, apparently.  As Fredrik DeBoer was noting a while back, even the Scandaniavian healthcare utopias touted by American leftists don't exist so much any more as the governments have shifted toward privatizing elements of care. 

Being the sort of pessimist that I am I would suggest that communism failed and capitalism fails and that nothing like socialism, if by socialism we mean that the workers as a whole actually own the means of production, will ever happen in the history of the human race.  It's easier to believe Jesus rose from the dead and will return to rule and reign with a new heaven and earth than to believe that the socialist future predicted in Marxist thought will ever happen in this world. 

The only sure thing is that humans will keep commodifying and exploiting themselves regardless of what formal ideologies are used to do so; it can be done with Marxism and capitalism in equal measure as even the most cursory survey of global history in the last two centuries can more or less generally establish.  Are there exceptions?  Maybe, but do those exceptions apply at the level of global powers?  Not so far as I've been able to see, and the colonialist empires of Europe are in demographic decline and maybe deserve to be.  America didn't get its globalist colonialist tendencies out of the blue, we inherited that sense of cultural entitlement from European forebears. 

It's not always clear to me these days that if Western civilization as we know it dies the world will really be worse off.  In global ecological terms the complete collapse of Western civilization might be a net benefit.  If the empires of the future are China and Japan, so be it.

This is a topic where writers and editors at The New Republic shouldn't act as though it's even a bad thing that Trump could lead the world to regard China rather than the United States as the up and coming global superpower.
China is now closer to the international norm than the U.S. on such key issues as trade, climate change, and Israel-Palestine. Is America at risk of abdicating its international leadership role to China, just as the British Empire did in 1945?

Why not regard the United States as culturally and economically being a spent force, bankrupt to the point where there's no point in attempting to salvage it? 

Maybe the British could be philosophical about the sun setting on their empire because through those upstart Americans their capacity to shape the entire fate of the planet was, however indirect, still in some sense assured.  So British fantasy and sci-fi could afford James Bond and Doctor Who during the period in which we were running with Star Trek and the Planet of the Apes.  Americans could imagine re-making or completely breaking the world while the Brits could imagine helping out a little here and there for the sake of a proper cause.

What if the "advanced economies" all deserve to collapse?  It's something I've been thinking about as I've read progressive and conservative polemics about the ways to best preserve or redistribute resources.  Redistribution only makes sense if we can safely assume that what is being redistributed is legitimate wealth with no ethical reservations to possibly be had about it.  But what if our entire system of fractionally reserved fiat currency is a sham?  Then envying the upper one percent because they are part of an information manipulation scheme seems crazy.  That's not wealth in the way of land or food or natural resources or human labor, that's just manipulated data points.  If our economics of fossil fuels is as perilous to the future of the global ecosphere as conservationists and environmentalists think it is then wouldn't the entire film industry that isn't strictly digital film be a count against the art form of film as an ecological disaster?   Sometimes it seems as if there's a weird irony in the entertainment industries being concerned about anthropogenic climate change because I can't help see a trailer for a film like GeoStorm and wonder whether the cumulative carbon footprint of such a film is justified by the warning the film might purport to provide about global warming. 

Which in a way gets to something I've been thinking about from my college days.  I knew a Lutheran who said the Puritans were emphatically anti-arts.  I wondered about that since Puritans wrote like they literally had nothing else to do!  They couldn't have been anti-literature as a whole.  But what if we thought of the Puritan skepticism about opera and theater as being based on what they regarded as the profligate and predatory nature of its participants?  I.e. what if they saw in theater the Harvey Weinsteins of their time and regarded these mean as contemptible and said so?  Arts professors might like to remember the Bard and remember how fantastic all the art was that the Puritans had skepticism about.  It's possible for the art to be beautiful but to still reflect a level of corruption and decadence that I nitself is not necessarily so praiseworthy.

To piggyback on an old ribbon farm essay, it seems American culture prizes people seeking to be bards rather than chimney sweeps when what the health of a society may ultimately require is more people being willing to be chimney sweeps rather than bards. granting a sketchy part of the analogy in the sense that around Puget Sound people would advise we get rid of the fossil fuel energy grid altogether.  We can do that ... but I don't know if they've thought through all the social and demographic implications of a bunch of old people whose continuing survival hinges on plastic parts. 


cal said...

A number of thoughts:

Free college- I'm not sure there's a way to turn the dial back on the base line of the bachelor's degree in many industries. While I'd support subsidized education in this regard, it's clearly not enough. I think the best solution would equalize trade schools, and offer identical accreditation to liberal arts. It would cause revulsion among the chattering class, but I think it's necessary. I'm actually glad for this "anti-intellectual" epoch we're in, because it's forcing departments to justify their existences and unmasks the social elements of education. I mean, no one studies egyptology anymore because it has lost its social capital; it doesn't get you a career in the Empire (British, French, or otherwise). If tradeschools gave out bachelor degrees, maybe that would justify govt subsidies.

Empires and Economics- I don't really buy into the sunset of the British Empire story. London is still plugged into the American axis of power. The CIA assassination of PM Mossadegh benefited British oil, as much as American oil and central Asian geopolitics. And as it stands, Japan is still firmly in the American orbit. If Japan somehow ever got over its rabid antipathy for China, East Asia could be remade, but that's like wondering whether Italy would ever possess a function government.

You're right to be pessimistic about all such things, it's just that such pessimism has become a hallmark of this generation. People mass consume Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, etc., which is nothing more than a pessimistic fantasy. We're a colorful version of the goth kids in South Park. Pessimism can breed complacency. It's funny to consider how cynicism and skepticism have been such strange bed-fellows with status-quo apathy. If everything is unjust, it's easy to see how that justifies ones success. I'm not saying any of this strictly applies to you, WtH, but it's something I think about every now and then. Even if everything fails, it doesn't give me the greenlight to invest in the wickedness of the age.

Puritans & Art: I think this deserves elaborated thought :) It's easy to forget many early church figures (especially Cyprian, who I'm reading) condemned stage plays because they bred immorality both among the actors and the audience. The plays, Cyprian says, shape the audience's morals and view of life. They may not have committed adultery, but after watching Mars and Venus, one revels in it and seeks it out. People walk in chaste and walk out unchaste. Seeing how popular Deadpool gear is, I'm hard-pressed to disagree!

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

The equalizing trade schools proposal actually sounds like a great idea to me. :) Back when I was in high school I had a friend who was from Germany who was an exchange student and he told me that where he was from the state paid for your education but also decided what emphasis you would get later on based on how well you tested in a battery of tests and in relationship to where they knew they could probably find work for you. People loved studying the arts but there were community ensembles and private activity you could do (this guy sang in choir and was also a violinist). It reminds me, now, of Hindemith's complaint that American arts education was too geared toward producing star performers and teachers rather than people who just loved music. My brother recalls another person from our school days, a second generation German American who said that the basic problem with American educational philosophy compared to European models, as he saw things, was that the American high school is busy trying to give everyone the well-rounded education of a senator or someone who would have been part of a ruling class in Europe rather than giving them concrete tools to adapt the job market that was around them.

British imperial might living on by American proxy was something I was thinking about not long after I hit "publish" so it's good that you brought that up. :)