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How Big a Deal Is European Population Decline?

Andy Sabl says, "not very," and makes some quite plausible arguments, responding to Michael O'Hare on the same blog (Reality-Based Community). I'm not sure he's right, but if you're interested in these questions, Andy's post is much worth reading.

calvin coolidge (mail):
I did a quick scan of the first few points, skipped the rest, and then did a search on the page for the word "democracy." The word gets no hits.
4.5.2006 3:24am
Eugene Volokh (www):
Mr. President: I'm not sure I quite grasp your point. Is it that population decline is supposed to be bad for democracy? Why?
4.5.2006 3:27am
Splunge (mail):
Eh, I'm underwhelmed. I'd say Mr. Sabl's argument boils down to "What me worry?" said in about four different ways. The most insightful thing he says is that population decline is self-correcting. Inarguably he's correct, but the sensitive issue is that the population that rebounds is not usually the same, genetically or culturally, as the culture that died out. Neanderthals are replaced by Cro-Magnons, in other words. So, yes, it's very likely the Italian peninsula will have a robust population 500 years from now. But it's unlikely that population will boast the genes or culture of present-day Italians. Most people find it unnerving and sad to imagine that they will make zero contribution to the distant future -- that neither their genes nor their ideas will live on.

Also he is seriously mistaken that a contracting population is no more socially disruptive than an expanding population. Consider the age distribution. In the latter an unusually high proportion of the people are young, ignorant but good at learning, healthy, and energetic. In the former an unusually high proportion of the people are old, wise but strongly opinionated and poor at learning, sick and disabled, and tired. Which has greater resources to deal with problems seems obvious.

Finally, he asks why the US with 300 million people might be better than the US with 200, but can't think of anything, perhaps because he focusses in a dreamy liberal-artsy way on mere "culture" and "vibrancy." Sheesh. The major changes in society since 1 AD are technological, not cultural. I suggest Periclean Athens was no less "cultured" or "vibrant" than modern Europe. But ancient Athenians lived far shorter lives, and the bulk of them (those not privileged to stroll through Academe, pontificating on the Infinite) lived hard lives punctuated by hunger, disease, horrific childhood mortality, and endless days of boring, backbreaking hand labor that brought meager rewards.

The increasing size of the US has meant a steady improvement in its technology, essentially because a larger absolute population boasts a larger absolute number of people with clever ideas, and it is the absolute number of clever ideas, not the number per capita, that determines your technology, ideas being those curious goods that do not diminish in value when shared.

Steadily improving technology has meant that an ordinary person's life has become steadily easier, healthier, and more interesting -- yes, even measurably so since the 1970s. Thirty and fifty years ago people lived shorter lives, died more often in accidents, and had fewer job and spouse choices. International travel was only for the "jet set," and lolling about in college until age 22, not starting a job, was an option open to many fewer.

Of course, I daresay the quality of opera singers and vibrancy of cafe conversation is no better in 2006 than it was in 1906. But one ought not to conclude thereby that life hasn't in general improved, unless one chooses to focus on only the experience of the most privileged classes.
4.5.2006 4:13am
David M. Nieporent (www):
But it's unlikely that population will boast the genes or culture of present-day Italians. Most people find it unnerving and sad to imagine that they will make zero contribution to the distant future -- that neither their genes nor their ideas will live on.
But you elide his point that the fact that the genes won't live on doesn't mean -- or doesn't have to mean -- that the culture won't.
Also he is seriously mistaken that a contracting population is no more socially disruptive than an expanding population. Consider the age distribution. In the latter an unusually high proportion of the people are young, ignorant but good at learning, healthy, and energetic. In the former an unusually high proportion of the people are old, wise but strongly opinionated and poor at learning, sick and disabled, and tired. Which has greater resources to deal with problems seems obvious.
This was the biggest weakness of his piece, I thought. Superficially, he's right when he says that there are still plenty of Italians. But he acts as if 50 million is 50 million, as if it doesn't matter whether it's 35 million old people and 15 million young people, or vice versa.
4.5.2006 4:30am
Mike G in Corvallis (mail):
"Remain calm! All is well!"

-- Kevin Bacon as Chip Diller in "Animal House"
4.5.2006 5:47am
George Gregg (mail):
Splunge: interesting take. I might agree, but for the notion that it seems you conflate absolute level of technology with rate of advance in technology.

It's unreasonable to compare the technological levels or average lifespans of ancient Greece to some future scenario, because technology is accretive. It's not like future generations will forget how to make and use a laser and jets and penicillin just because population growth is declining.

It's reasonable to believe that the US, even had its populaton not increased appreciably int he past 100 years, would still have made technological advances. They just wouldn't have occurred as fast, probably. But it's not that there would be absolutely no progress. Future societies may well have fewer new innovations per year, but it's reasonable to believe that the progress in technology will still be positive, even if it's slower.

And given the communication permeability, technological advances in one society can seep pretty quickly to other societies on the planet, too. Cell phones and satellite t.v. are an excellent example: I've been in villages in Africa that are dirt poor and don't have reliable running water, but they have satellite dishes on the side of most houses and many folks carry their cell phones.

Because of this, I'm less inclined to be worried that even declining population levels would result in technological reversion, overall.

Finally, as far as genetic makeup and ethnic turnover, that's been a hallmark of even growing societies throughout the ages. The genetic makeup of the US today is dramatically shifted from what it was 200 years ago, especially on a localized basis.

Societies being organic things and seem to be able to manage such shifts, as long as it's occurring as a gradual admixture to the culture (as opposed to, say, violent upheaval such as famine or war-induced, large-scale population migrations).

All of this said, the more compelling argument, for me, is the age distribution. A population that shifts age distribution significantly can be in serious jeopardy. We're experiencing a tiny taste of some of that social pressure here in the States as our Boomers age and retire.
4.5.2006 8:06am
ericvfsu (mail):
I posted the following comment in reponse to Andy Sabl's essay:

"The perceived problems are thus:

The combination of Europe's declining birth rate, lengthening life spans, and generous government benefits will be difficult to maintain. The solution, of course, is immigration (as you point out). However, European countries have a generally poor record of assimilation and the growing Muslim population seems to be growing ever more resistant to assimilation attempts (to the extent that any attempts are being made).

It appears that so far Europe is failing on two fronts to pass on its culture: having children and assimilating immigrants.

Some might say that passing on European cultures is not so important. Maybe not, but first we must look at what will replace it (or, more likely, significantly modify it). That would be Islamic culture. And now maybe you see the perceived problem."
4.5.2006 8:53am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
The problem with the article is that it supposes that Europe is slowly aging in a vacuum. It isn't. Throughout history, civilizations have fallen most often to barbarians with higher birth rates. In the end, the Roman military supremacy fell to German population growth, just as Greece had fallen to Roman birth rates.

Sometimes, the take over of one culture by another people is quiet, with the newer people assimilating into the older culture. To some extent, that is what we saw in Europe as Rome fell. The Germans, etc., became Romans, adopting their language, dress, and culture. A large part of Romance speaking Europe is not descended from people who were there 2,500 years ago, but rathher, from well assimilated barbarian invaders from the north and east.

And, the U.S. may be able to accomplish this. How well we succeed is still up in the air, and those protests with all those Mexican flags are troubling. But our immigrant population is primarily Christian and share a lot of our western European culture. So, I think we have a chance.

The problem in Europe is that they aren't aging in a vacuum. They face immigration pressure from a nearby people who have a lot more kids than they do, and their immigrants are mostly not Christian, and are not likely to convert. They are primarily Moslem, have a lot of pride in their own cultures, and are showing little interest in assimilating.

And, because of the aging European population, they don't have the vigor to really resist this. We are seeing this in France, where they initially resist, attempting to crack down on race riots, but very quickly back down to accomodate their Moslem immigrants, because the French, as a people, don't have the vigor to resist.

We keep hearing about how the Europeans are about to push back and reclaim their heritage. They won't. Their immigrants are much more vigorous than they are, because they are, on average, much younger. So, I would not be surprised to find Rome, outside the Vatican, under Sharia law by the end of the century, if not quite a bit sooner.
4.5.2006 10:57am
Houston Lawyer:
Also overlooked are the different birth rates between the white (formerly Christian) Europeans and the nonwhite Muslim immigrants already living in Europe. If every white woman is having one child and evey nonwhite woman is having five, what is that continent going to look like just two generations from now? The term Eurabia comes to mind.
4.5.2006 11:33am
Freder Frederson (mail):
Throughout history, civilizations have fallen most often to barbarians with higher birth rates. In the end, the Roman military supremacy fell to German population growth, just as Greece had fallen to Roman birth rates.

But there was one important exception to that trend. And that is the one that explains why the western world has dominated the planet for the last 500 years. If the plague hadn't wiped out a third of the population of Europe in the 1300's, simultaneously destroying the Feudal system, creating a huge labor shortage, shaking faith in the Church, and easing the pressure on the tired soils and resources of Europe, Europe would have remained a cultural, economic and technological backwater. The huge population and demographic shifts forced changes on Europe that allowed them to expel the Muslims, trigger the reformation, and the Renaissance which encouraged techonological advances to compensate for the massive loss of labor. Those that survived were also able to demand higher wages and begin to break the bonds of serfdom and were better fed because the overused land had to support a much smaller populatin.
4.5.2006 11:36am
Baronger (mail) (www):
Surprised he didn't mention productivity increases due to technology. To use a simple metaphor, lets look at ditch digging. It used to take a dozen men with shovels to dig a good size ditch. Now a ditch can be dug by one guy with a backhoe. In the future it will nod doubt be dug by nobody since a robotic backhoe will be used.

However, I do think that overall trend needs to be considered. He mentions that they were fewer Italians in the past, however the trend was still for increased population. Social policy was based on this fact. Which is the main problem today, which is that the welfare state is on the brink of collapse.

A big population is helpful, since people are one of the main keys of production. Labor, capital and land are the traditional economic keys. You need a large enough population to produce goods and services.
4.5.2006 12:03pm
AppSocRes (mail):
I tried to do some real research on the supposed disparity between the birth rates of native Europeans and Muslim immigrants in Europe. It turns out that the data for doing this don't really exist. France actually has regulations that hamper collecting information on race/ethnicity etc. by government agencies.

While fertility in Muslim countries is high by European standards, it has been declining steadily for two decades. It is more than likely that the fertility of Muslim immigrants in European countries is higher than that of native Europeans, but it's probably a lot closer to the fertility of their current country of residence than their country of origin. The panic is based on misleading comparisons of incomparable data. Some data collection relevant to the problem would be useful.
4.5.2006 12:13pm
Taeyoung (mail):
His first point seems awfully unpersuasive to me. That's the one where he goes:
If having kids is a financial sacrifice because spacious houses in suburban Frankfurt are expensive, it will be much less of a sacrifice when ancestral farmhouses in Tuscany can be had for a song. (Why? No heirs.) Yes, this reasoning is crude, and I'm using aggregates when the action is more localized.

I think the cost of buying "ancestral farmhouses" is not a particularly significant "cost" in terms of the decision to have children. In the past, people had plenty of children, yet lived, often, in far more cramped conditions than today. Even today, in places like Hong Kong or Singapore, people have multiple children and raise them in tiny apartments that -- even by European standards -- would appear cramped. I think the really significant costs here come from two things: (1) the income you sacrifice by having children and working fewer hours, and (2) the cultural expectations of how much a child ought to consume in resources. How much space he should be given, how many presents he should receive, how many toys, how many piano lessons, etc. Land is valuable, and more land is always nice, but I don't think it's a determining factor. To those two, one might also add (3) that when you choose to have children, you have to give up many pleasures too. Far fewer nights out on the town, say. And in fairness, he notes these reasons later on, even if he doesn't note how they obviate his first speculation.

But these are not pressures that are going to let up in the face of a declining population. They emerge, as I see it, out of the dominant cultural and economic mode of the society, and won't shift until that culture and economic system shift too. But that culture and economy is not shifting back to enabling childrearing. If anything, it seems to be moving further and further away.

Will the inevitable outcome be zero population? Probably not -- he's correct that it would (in theory) take infinite time to reach 0, and in any event, traditionalist elements of the population will keep on breeding (and taking the economic hit). But they will be swamped by new and different peoples, coming in. What was once Italy or France will still probably be a polity called "Italy" or "France," and may even include an Italian or French cultural rump living out in its little enclaves (for tourists to ooh and ahh over, perhaps). Will immigrants adopt what we would see as a French culture, or an Italian culture? They might, I suppose. But why would they? So they too can fade away, to be replaced by new peoples from . . . where?
4.5.2006 12:50pm
go vols (mail):
Splunge,

I'm unconvinced by your argument that the number of clever ideas (or technological advances) a nation produces is a function of its population. A top of my head search doesn't find support for that in ancient history or in modern times. The US prediliction for invention seems a product of its adherence to capitalism, good higher education, and freedom of thought, not population growth. Did you mean industrial capacity? Economic power?
4.5.2006 12:53pm
chris (mail):
The author writes "To measure a country's well being by its growth in population is a VERY old habit; ancient historians did it, and the Enlightenment made a fetish of it. Perhaps it even made sense when a country could only survive through producing young men for war and when low population tended to come from pestilence and famine."

I was unaware that we no longer had to be able to fight wars in order for our societies to survive. When did that happen?
4.5.2006 12:57pm
Taeyoung (mail):
Re: AppSocRes,
It is more than likely that the fertility of Muslim immigrants in European countries is higher than that of native Europeans, but it's probably a lot closer to the fertility of their current country of residence than their country of origin.


I think you are probably correct -- the difference does not seem to be that great. There seems to be an attempt to address this question here. In the US, too, immigrant populations converge towards American fertility norms within a generation or two. I think they are still slightly more fertile than the natives, but not significantly. On the other hand, the problem is not exclusively that immigrants who have already immigrated will outbreed the natives. As far as I know, they have not closed off their borders.

In order to supply the labour for their factories, and prop up their welfare state, they will continue to import cheap foreign labour (as they did in the 60s and 70s), and these imported labourers -- coming from high-birthrate high-poverty countries, probably former colonies -- will, together with those already there and their descendants, shift the population further away from "French" and towards something different, though with incidental French characteristics. The same for Italian, German, etc. Their economies will continue to demand warm bodies. And those bodies won't be natives -- they'll have to come from abroad.
4.5.2006 1:04pm
Taeyoung (mail):
Or, at least in the case of France, the economy might just implode under the weight of young Frenchmen demanding secure jobs where they don't have to do anything their bosses tell them, because they don't have to worry about getting fired. They won't need foreign labour then, because there will be no jobs for them to take.
4.5.2006 1:06pm
Baronger (mail) (www):
Chris:

I was unaware that we no longer had to be able to fight wars in order for our societies to survive. When did that happen?


I'm sure the robotic legions and other tech advances will take care of that. We are already on that track.

I agree that Singapore and other high density societies does refute his argument that space is a major factor. The major factor is more cultural then economic. The decision to have children often transcends economic considerations and often embraces cultural norms. Sometimes it seems we develop a tunnel vision in focusing on the economic situation.
4.5.2006 1:06pm
Defending the Indefensible:
Off the immediate topic, but what do you think of the free speech implications in France of this?
4.5.2006 1:09pm
Floyd McWilliams (mail) (www):

If the plague hadn't wiped out a third of the population of Europe in the 1300's, simultaneously destroying the Feudal system, creating a huge labor shortage, shaking faith in the Church, and easing the pressure on the tired soils and resources of Europe, Europe would have remained a cultural, economic and technological backwater.


Sorry, I don't buy that. Europe had made tremendous technological advances in the centuries before the Black Death, and it was only after the plague that advances stalled and governments and the church stifled progress. A useful source is The Medieval Machine.
4.5.2006 1:20pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
AppSocRes

A couple of things. I have seen an estimate that while some 10% or so of those in France are Muslim, some 20% of the youth. These figures may be off by a bit, by I definately remember the youth figure being almost twice that of the Moslems in general. And that disparity is important.

Secondly, you can't discount the Moslem growth back home, since that is a big part of what is fueling their emigration. There are jobs that need doing in western Europe, and there are too many people for the jobs available back where the Moslems came from. The result is population movement.

A couple of interesting articles showed up in a Google search. One titled "As Muslims call Europe home, isolation takes root" in the post-gazette.com talks about nonassimilation. And another archived article from frontpagemag.com titled "Islamist Nukes: The French Connection" that points out that the native born French couples are having on average 1.4 kids, while the Muslim immigrant couples almost twice as many (3.4 per couple). It also points out that France, like Spain, is considered Dar al Islam, Muslim territory that must be reclaimed for Islam.
4.5.2006 1:27pm
AppSocRes (mail):
Taeyoung:

I agree with you that if Europe continues to rely on immigration for replacement population, they are going to see a major change in the racial, ethnic, and religious character of their populations. Ultimately these changes will impact -- even more than they do now -- the internal and external politics of these countries. We're even getting a little bit of this in the US from recent Latin American immigrants! The problem is that European social policies require large numbers of taxable young workers at the same time they discourage middle class family-building qand reproduction. The only current solution is immigration of young workers.

I'm surprised that no one has suggested that Europe try to recruit young workers from South America, the US, Canada, etc. (places with young populations where European language, religion, and culture are predominant) and discourage it from countries whgose cultures are more alien. Even encouraging immigration from countries whose peoples seem less hostile to Western values (China, India) than current countries of origin (North Africa and the Middle East) would seem to make sense. Certainly US liberals would seem to be a natural target for such recruiting efforts. They should be clamoring to go to European countries where the policies they reccomend for this country have been so thoroughly implemented.
4.5.2006 1:39pm
Taeyoung (mail):

If the plague hadn't wiped out a third of the population of Europe in the 1300's, simultaneously destroying the Feudal system, creating a huge labor shortage, shaking faith in the Church, and easing the pressure on the tired soils and resources of Europe, Europe would have remained a cultural, economic and technological backwater.

That sounds like an invitation to mention Walsh's The Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries. Haha.
4.5.2006 2:02pm
Freder Frederson (mail):
I agree with you that if Europe continues to rely on immigration for replacement population, they are going to see a major change in the racial, ethnic, and religious character of their populations. Ultimately these changes will impact -- even more than they do now -- the internal and external politics of these countries.

Europe was bringing in people from third world countries for the same reason we are--to fill low wage, low skill jobs. Plus, countries like Britain and France have the legacy of Imperialism to make up for. They can't turn away people from countries where they stripped the resources from, enslaved the people and ruled with an iron fist. They owe them something for 400 years of exploitation.

Sorry, I don't buy that. Europe had made tremendous technological advances in the centuries before the Black Death, and it was only after the plague that advances stalled and governments and the church stifled progress.

Oh yeah, name one they didn't steal from the Arabs. How can you possibly say this? Europe was limping along at a glacial pace prior to 1400. Everything took off after that. Europe didn't invent a damn thing between the fall of the Roman empire and the Renaissance except maybe the compass and that was invented by the Pagan Norse.
4.5.2006 2:13pm
BU2L (mail):

Plus, countries like Britain and France have the legacy of Imperialism to make up for.

You are joking right? Western societies tend to reject the notion that sons must atone for the sins of the fathers.
4.5.2006 2:32pm
Angus:
I guess immigration destroyed America. We got so many Africans, Irish, Germans, Jews, Hugarians, Poles, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, and Hispanics that it destroyed our culture and our pure genetic pool.

Hogwash. It made this country the greatest nation on earth.

The concern in Europe should not be over immigration, but over assimilation and mainstreaming future generations.
4.5.2006 2:36pm
SenatorX (mail):
Is France really immigrating cheap labor from Moslem countries?
I was under the impression the Saudi's were exporting Moslems to the west as part of the war. Isn't France on track to be a Saudi province?
4.5.2006 2:51pm
Taeyoung (mail):
The concern in Europe should not be over immigration, but over assimilation and mainstreaming future generations.

They have been trying that in France for fifty years now, trying to turn every little immigrant into a little Frenchman, to ensure they speak French, to ensure they know the words to the Marseillaise, to ensure they know the history and the glory of France. And they have failed.

Maybe it's because the French are racist, whatever their aspirations to pluralism and tolerance. Maybe it's because their immigrants came mostly from former French colonies, and resented the French for their brutal colonial policies. Maybe it's because their immigrants came from anciently civilised peoples and sneered at these parvenu French upstarts touting the achievements of a few paltry centuries on the world stage. But whatever the reason, French efforts to assimilate and mainstream generations of immigrants and their descendants appear to have been a miserable failure.

What would make us think they'll succeed any better this time?
4.5.2006 2:55pm
ericvfsu (mail):
Angus:

Um ... which post above did you regard as anti-immigration? Or am I misunderstanding your "I guess immigration destroyed America" comment?

Most of the commenters seem to agree that Europe needs immigration and that successful assimilation is the problem (as you point out). But, you seem to be arguing with someone. Maybe I'm misunderstanding you.
4.5.2006 3:07pm
Fern:

I guess immigration destroyed America. We got so many Africans, Irish, Germans, Jews, Hugarians, Poles, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, and Hispanics that it destroyed our culture and our pure genetic pool.

We're a nation of immigrants, Europe is not. To dismiss Europe's problems by saying "well, America did it and look how good America is doing" is pointless. For one thing, there really isn't an American "culture" to displace. Our society is formed on ideas, and on the whole, immigrants come here because they already agree with the basic premises America was founded on. Immigrants aren't moving to France because they already love French culture or French ideas, they're immigrating to France because they need a job. Thus the job of assimilating immigrants into French culture is that much more difficult because the people moving there don't really want to be French, they just want jobs that happen to be in France. The problems France is having are much more analogous to the current American problem with illegal aliens than to any of the previous large influx of immigrants you referenced.
4.5.2006 3:31pm
Taeyoung (mail):
on the whole, immigrants come here because they already agree with the basic premises America was founded on. Immigrants aren't moving to France because they already love French culture or French ideas, they're immigrating to France because they need a job.

I think this distinction is a bit naive. Most immigrants come to America for jobs too. It's what happens once they're here that makes the difference. My take is that because our society has so little history, and shared identity/culture is so stripped-down -- it's mostly oriented around ideas, after all -- it's easier to meet the minimum criteria for "American-ness," and easier to be seen by the natives as "American."
4.5.2006 3:37pm
Taeyoung (mail):

Most immigrants come to America for jobs too.

"Came" I should have said. Of course, sometimes it was just that they were starving back home, as with the Irish potato famine. So not jobs per se.
4.5.2006 3:39pm
Fern:
Taeyoung--I should have made it more clear that I was referencing past large influxes of immigrants that Angus was talking about. It seems that many immigrants of yesterday came here because they disliked their native government/society/culture and thought that America would be better. In contrast, it seems that many of the Muslims moving to France want to reproduce their native government/society/culture in France and merely want to benefit from the higher quality of life in France without any regard for the impact that French culture and government has had in creating that higher quality of life.
4.5.2006 3:45pm
AK (mail):
The European social welfare Ponzi scheme cannot survive declining birthrates. The US Social Security system is facing a crisis as the ratio of workers to retirees shrinks. Europe faces a problem of the same type, but on a far more massive scale.

As the population of Europe declines, the caucasian subpopulation ages and retires, and begins demanding lavish pensions without contributing labor. There are few workers to support them, and the workers that remain will be increasingly Muslim and increasingly unskilled. Young Muslim workers will have increased political clout and little incentive to contribute increasing portions of their paychecks to support white geezers.

That's the problem with a population decline: it is utterly incompatable with a generous welfare state.
4.5.2006 4:07pm
Fern:

That's the problem with a population decline: it is utterly incompatable with a generous welfare state.

I think most of the people commenting on this post would agree with you. But then the problem you've outlined is not one with population decline, the problem is an unsustainable economic policy. If the only problem that population decline presented was that it will quicken the downfall of the socialist economies of Europe, then I don't think as many Americans would be as concerned as they are.
4.5.2006 4:14pm
Jim Christiansen (mail):
Europe was limping along at a glacial pace prior to 1400. Everything took off after that.

This is nonsense. Europe experienced explosive growth between 1050 and 1300, while innovating both culturally (universities, Gothic architecture, reviving Roman law) and technologically (three-field system, water mills, horse collar). The fifteenth century was, in comparsion, one of relative stasis.

To the limited extent that Europe borrowed from the Arabs, so what? Japan has borrowed from the west. Is it any the less rich or successful for that?
4.5.2006 4:17pm
Freder Frederson (mail):
That's the problem with a population decline: it is utterly incompatable with a generous welfare state.

Well according to you on the right, any demographic or economic system is utterly incompatible with a generous welfare state. What is the alternative to a generous welfare state--letting people starve in the street? Keep borrowing money from China until the tax rate in the U.S. is zero and tax revenues are therefore infinite? That seems to be the solution that has been proposed for the U.S. and you are absolutely convinced will work.

Our longterm prospects are no better than Europe's, we just have different problems we refuse to address--like we have dug ourselves such a huge hole of debt and we have no feasible way to get out of it if current economic policy continues. At least Europe's infrastructure is intact, it isn't willing to let its major cities fall into the ocean, it is investing in education and high technology infrastructure instead of letting the phone companies recombine and strangle innovation (in a couple years we will be down to two phone and wireless companies and they will control broadband access). And it is much more energy efficient than us--something that will be very important if George Bush does something really boneheaded like bomb Iran.

I guess immigration destroyed America.

I'm sure the native population of the U.S. would probably agree with this statement. The pre-Columbian population of the United States may have been as high as 20 million. Between plagues brought by Europeans and imported from Africa (especially Malaria), forced relocations, planned starvation (the slaughter of the bison wasn't just uncaring white hunters having fun), wars and outright genocide, the current native population has been reduced to around 3 million people. It was even worse in Central and South America and the native population of the Caribbean was wiped out completely within a generation of Columbus' first voyage.
4.5.2006 6:00pm
Tuch (mail):
The big problem with declining population in Europe and other places is that it leaves a serious age imbalance, which affects politics, especially with respect to the distribution of eonomic benefits by government.
4.5.2006 6:05pm
Anomalous Taster:
If the plague hadn't wiped out a third of the population of Europe in the 1300's, simultaneously destroying the Feudal system, creating a huge labor shortage, shaking faith in the Church,

Hmm, I wonder it the current (larger) population decline will shake Western Europe's faith in its secular worldview.
4.5.2006 6:25pm
Peter Wimsey:
This is nonsense. Europe experienced explosive growth between 1050 and 1300, while innovating both culturally (universities, Gothic architecture, reviving Roman law) and technologically (three-field system, water mills, horse collar). The fifteenth century was, in comparsion, one of relative stasis.



Yep. Don't forget the stirrup, high-backed saddle, horseshoe,and plate armor. Plus the rotary grindstone, crossbow, longbow, and brace and bit. The lateen sail (possibly from Arabs, though) and clinker built ship were important. Also, glassmaking was developed and there were several innovations in clothmaking, including the developement of specialized centers at Ghent and other locations in Flanders. Oh, yeah, the blast furnace.

There are a lot more medieval inventions, but I think that's enough. In the context of medieval technological developments, it's important to keep in mind that the roman empire have very little technology and developed very little technology; its economy was rooted in a largely slave based agricultural system and there was very little demand for labor saving or labor multiplying devices.
4.5.2006 6:44pm
Anomalous Taster:
The Romans did have some technologies which were important and lost: esp in civil engineering and plumbing. But, while civil engineering and plumbing are very important for public heath in urban settings, these are technolgies which primarily serve the urban elite.

But many of the inventions of the middle ages: horse collars, mills, village blacksmith: these are democratic developments which primarily help peasants.
4.5.2006 7:04pm
Taeyoung (mail):
Keep borrowing money from China until the tax rate in the U.S. is zero and tax revenues are therefore infinite? That seems to be the solution that has been proposed for the U.S. and you are absolutely convinced will work.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the structure of the Chinese problem mostly that, like practically every other East Asian central bank, they keep buying up huge quantities of US Treasury bonds for no discernable reason other than to drive up the value of the dollar and enable a substantial export market for their goods, thereby incentivising their domestic industrial development within the confines of a market structure? It's not like we're "borrowing" from them, strictly speaking. I suppose we could cut off the flow by banning Chinese government entities from purchasing portions of the public debt of the United States (in which case they would buy it on the secondary market or through intermediaries, which they probably do anyway), by no longer issuing treasury bonds (in which case, I expect they would just buy up even larger quanitites of dollar-denominated obligations or something), or by banning Chinese imports. But none of these seem like particularly useful approaches. Which is, as I understand it, why our current approach has been mostly to beg the Chinese (and the Koreans and the Japanese) to stop buying up so many treasury bonds. And threatening them ineffectually if they will not.

But then, my understanding of international finance is somewhat shakey, to say the least. Are we actually going to Beijing and asking them to lend us money?
4.5.2006 7:44pm
Michael Livingston (mail):
At least for Italy, I think the crowding is an important reason for low population growth, but not the only one. The relatively slow pace of change involving Italian woman--the fact that schools close early, there is relatively little organized child care outside of a few urban centers, etc.--definitely plays a role as well. If you simply talk to Italian women about this, they will tell you.
4.5.2006 7:57pm
Steve Reuland (mail) (www):
A large part of Romance speaking Europe is not descended from people who were there 2,500 years ago, but rathher, from well assimilated barbarian invaders from the north and east.


This is not true. With few exceptions (none in the Romance world as far as I know) none of the barbarian tribes replaced the indigenous popuations they conquered. In France for example, only about 20% of pre-WWII population was descended from Germanic Franks. The other 80% was Gallo-Roman, the same people who had been living there for many centuries. (Since then, they've had a huge influx of Italian and Portuguese immigrants.)
4.6.2006 12:32am
Steve Reuland (mail) (www):
We're a nation of immigrants, Europe is not. To dismiss Europe's problems by saying "well, America did it and look how good America is doing" is pointless. For one thing, there really isn't an American "culture" to displace.


It's always good to hear that I live in a nation completely devoid of a culture. No literature, no history, no musical tradition, no shared identity, no nothin'. Guess I'd better move to Europe.
4.6.2006 12:55am
Freder Frederson (mail):
The Romans did have some technologies which were important and lost

Gee, that's like the understatement of the millenium. Just concrete alone (which the formula for wasn't rediscovered until the 19th century) probably makes this one of the biggest understatements I have ever seen on a blog.

As for all those other wonderful inventions attributed to the mideival Europeans, valiant effort, but all of the inventions having to do with horse management were already known to the Chinese, Mongols, Arabs, Romans or Greeks well before the the middle ages, as were all the great technological "advances" you attribute to Middle age Europeans (e.g. water mills, blast furnaces, plate armor). The last two weren't even in wide use until well into the fifteenth century.
4.6.2006 11:05am
Peter Wimsey:
As for all those other wonderful inventions attributed to the mideival Europeans, valiant effort, but all of the inventions having to do with horse management were already known to the Chinese, Mongols, Arabs, Romans or Greeks well before the the middle ages, as were all the great technological "advances" you attribute to Middle age Europeans (e.g. water mills, blast furnaces, plate armor). The last two weren't even in wide use until well into the fifteenth century.

Actually, I don't believe that any of those cultures had the highbacked saddle. The padded horse collar *may* have been invented in Asia (this is unclear), although it appears to have been independently discovered in medieval Europe. I don't think China had three field architecture. And you competely ignore architectural innovations which allowed the building of cathedrals and the use of glass. (Interesting about cement, though).

But the main point is that these technologies were not available or not used in the Roman empire, whereas they were widespread in medieval Europe. Your conception of the middle ages as a period of technological backwardness is a view that scholars and, basically, anyone who has looked into the matter with any seriousness, has rejected for at least the last 50 years. The point is not even controversial. But rather than cluttering up the comments section with this side issue, I would direct you to any competent medieval history.
4.6.2006 2:05pm
JosephSlater (mail):
Bravo, Freder.

I'm always struck by the need of some on the right to insist not just that European countries that make broader provisions for social welfare are making tradeoffs that the U.S. should not, but further that their whole system is a "ponzi scheme" or is entirely unworkable. The American model isn't just the best overall in this view, it's the only one that won't lead to disaster in the present to very near future.

Freder is also right to note that the American system is encountering problems on similar issues. In addition to the debt and tax issues he mentioned, we've also been supplying health and pensions primarily through individual private employers. If you read the news, that's not working so well in significant parts of our economy.

I'm not saying that there aren't advantages to some parts of the U.S. model and disadvantages to some parts of the Western European model. But smug superiority should not blind us to the fact that the opposite is also quite true.
4.6.2006 6:00pm
hey (mail):
I love the comment near the top that there is no risk that a declining population will lose technology. Oh, really.

See the large difference in Roman city accomodations vs those of Europe up until 19-20th century. British Royals didn't have indoor plumbing until the 19th century, though it was common throuhout the Roman Empire.

All social models that are based on a certain ratio of workers to idlers become unsustainable as the ratio shifts more towards the idle than the working. Right wing barbarians like me oppose government provision of services because it is inefficient and unproductive. Our commenting on the irrational math of current North American and European benefit systems are completely independent of this critique, though they do rely on the same willingness to look at the programs clearly rather than the blind adoration of the left.

SS was a bad idea when there were 13 workers for every beneficiary. SS is an unworkably bad idea when there will be 2 or less workers for every beneficiary. Learn how to deal with the math of the question rather than the politics of the interrogator and you'll go farther. Sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting "La-la-la I can't hear you" is not a strategy, no matter how fervently you adopt it.
4.7.2006 12:13pm