Want to save your country from its aging decline -- cut your entitlements for seniors and have more babies. Really. I've been hearing that refrain from international financial and investment think tanks for 20 years. And Monday's Morning Edition gave unquestioned voice to the latter half of this message in a bland Lynn Neary interview on a subject that should be treated as a riptide of controversy.
I recently described a key link to the age-based attack on sovereign nations doing what they can to support their elders in "S&P's U.S. Downgrade: What's Age Got to Do With It?" ("In the shadows of S&P's downgrade of the U.S. credit rating is its 2010 global aging report, calling for nations to cut their health and pension budgets--or else!")
To the casual reader/listener, the connection between slashing pensions and health care for elders ("On, Wisconsin!") and keeping women all but barefoot and pregnant might seem remote. But Neary and her budget-obsessed fellow broadcasters at NPR News are supposedly journalists charged with connecting the dots, not casual observers nodding complacently as one might over a latte at Starbuck's.
Neary's unanswered interview is posted on the NPR website with the header, "How Declining Birth Rates Hurt Global Economies." Here's the lead-in: "Around the world, there are more aging people and fewer young people to take care of them. A new study about the trend suggests this demographic shift could drag down the global economy. The report is called 'The Sustainable Demographic Dividend.' Co-author Phillip Longman, a senior research fellow with the New America Foundation, talks to Lynn Neary about the study."
Longman tells Neary:
"The first-order effect of a decline in the birthrate tends to be positive for the economy. A society finds it has fewer children to raise and educate. That tends to free up a lot of female labor to join the formal economy. But with the next turn of the screw, things change. As fertility rates remain below replacement levels, you still have fewer children, but now your workforce is beginning to decline and you've got more and more seniors as a percentage of your population. And so around the world today we see many countries struggling with their fiscal situation largely because of the exploding cost of pensions and the relatively slow growth of their labor forces."
Later, Longman answers her question about the solution with, "You know, we have governments like Singapore that are sponsoring speed dating events in hopes of getting up the birthrates, right." Italy also was paying women to have more babies some years ago, at the same time it was continuing its anti-immigration policies. Now that's been great for their economy, right, Mr. Berlusconi?
NPR's Neary made no effort to mention that Longman, while well respected as a market-oriented policy analyst, has been flogging the deficits of the old and benefits of family values on fertility at least as far back as his 1987 book, Born to Pay: The New Politics of Aging in America. A simple Google search would have turned up a string of alarmist policy articles warning of population aging -- We can't afford all these old people! -- such as "Think Again: Global Aging," in Foreign Policy, November 2010. It's cover line: "A gray tsunami is sweeping the planet -- and not just in the places you expect. How did the world get so old, so fast?"
Well, Ms. Neary, there is another viewpoint held by a long list of experts in aging and economic policy, many of them not much farther than a Social Security number's length from the NPR studios in Washington. Sadly, one important voice on this issue, Theodore Roszak, died this summer, but his 2009 book The Making of an Elder Culture (New Society Publishers) eloquently goes into historical detail on this issue.
Like Roszak, authorities at places like Campaign for America's Future, the Center for Economic and Policy Research and other progressive places dotting DC, believe that after that "first-order effect," aging societies actually become wealthier over time and more productive, as older people are able to contribute more to society and women take a greater economic and leadership role. But, of course, it doesn't help when institutions like the U.S. Supreme Court do something like making it tougher for older workers to file anti-discrimination cases based on age, as they did two years ago.
In fairness to Longman, I have not had time to read his 44-page report thoroughly. The executive summary suggests a careful reading to discern what he's getting at. For instance, one summary point of the report states: "Children raised in intact, married families are more likely to acquire the human and social capital they need to become well-adjusted, productive workers."
Another notes, "Men who get and stay married work harder, work smarter, and earn more money than their unmarried peers."
Still another says, "Nations wishing to enjoy robust long-term economic growth and viable welfare states must maintain sustainable fertility rates of at least two children per woman."
I'll be reading to see whether Longman calls for more economic equality and ethnic/racial justice in American society. The report does, says the summary, recommend, "Countries should increase access to affordable health care and lifelong learning to strengthen the economic foundations of family life." And it states, "Companies should use their cultural influence to get behind positive, family-friendly advertisements and public education campaigns."
Hmm. Social equity? Corporate social engineering? What's Longman getting at. Calling NPR News -- is there a journalist in the house to help frame questions and give context?