Tag Archives: Fertility

The Insular Fertile Future

Fertility (= kids per adult) has been falling worldwide for centuries. It seems to be correlated strongly with societal (not individual) wealth, and mediated by norms transmitted via mass media. World elite culture supports falling fertility by celebrating professional more than parenting accomplishment. Among many rich world elites, fertility has fallen below replacement level, and is still falling further. More others should join them as the world gets richer and more culturally integrated.

With seven billion humans today, if the population were to fall in half every two generations it would take roughly 1600 years for humanity to go extinct. So the risk isn’t immediate, and lots of things might change before then. (E.g., see my book Age of Em.) But as this trend has been consistent for centuries, it’s hardly crazy to think that it may continue for many more centuries.

Yes, extinction isn’t that likely, as a more likely scenario has selection stepping in to promote higher fertility. However, on reflection I think it also makes sense to worry about that better scenario, as the most likely way for selection to promote fertility is by promoting insular subcultures, especially re gender/mating/fertility. Let me explain.

Today the cultures associated with higher fertility tend to be more “traditional”, and less integrated with the dominant world elite culture. And a few small subcultures, like Mennonites and Amish, or Mormons and Orthodox Jews, even manage to maintain high fertility while staying closely connected to the dominant culture. However, as a big fraction of the youth of such subcultures leave them, it isn’t obvious that these subcultures can long sustain net growth.

But this does point to the plausibly winning strategy: subcultures that are both highly fertile and highly insular, keeping enough youth from wanting to defect from their subculture to join the dominant low fertility culture. Through some combination of genes, culture, and tech, they find a way isolate their members more from outside cultural influence, and thereby to support sustained population growth (or at least less rapid decline).

That scenario is a win relative to human extinction, but it should worry those who see much value embodied in the dominant culture, and much harm that could come from more cultural isolation, or from the religions or ideologies that might be used to sustain such insularity. For example, as traditional cultures are the main source today of insular fertile cultures, they seem likely to also be the main source of such winning subcultures in a few centuries. Maybe we’ll get a traditional culture who happens to take a lot from the dominant culture. But also maybe not.

What other options do we have? We could hope that genetic evolution will turn out to be faster than we fear, that global culture will change its mind and switch to promoting fertility, or that cheap nurturing robot parents will appear in time. But these seem faint hopes. The dominant culture may well seek to repress divergent insular fertile subcultures, but that would raise the risk of human extinction.

One possible fix that comes to mind here is for the dominant culture to tolerate and even encourage mating and gender variance among new cultural descendants of that dominant culture. That is, encourage the creation of new subcultures that inherit most of their cultural elements from the dominant culture, but that explore different approaches to mating, gender , and parenting within each subculture. Swinging, polyamory, and home schooling subcultures of today show that such cultural descendants are at least possible. Hopefully such subcultures would mainly be more culturally insular only regarding their mating, gender, and parenting aspects.

With enough such experiments, we might find new subcultures that promote much higher fertility, and yet which also inherit many aspects of dominant culture. And these might have a fighting chance against insular subcultures descended from more traditional cultures. Alas, this fix requires that the dominant culture become much more tolerant of local variations in gender, mating, and parenting, which may not be much more likely than their just coming to see the wisdom of promoting fertility. After all we are currently in an increasingly Puritan era of more not less conformity on such things.

I’m afraid I really don’t see a good solution here yet. But I at least want to flag the problem for consideration.

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We Moderns Are Status-Drunk

Twelve years ago I posted on how our era is a rare unique “dreamtime” of fast growth, wide cultural integration, and delusional beliefs. But I think I missed a big reason why we have the delusions we do: as we get rich, we each increasingly over-estimate our relative social status. Let me explain.

The core idea of evolutionary psychology is that evolution shaped our behaviors to be adaptive in our ancestral environments. That is, we do stuff that gives us more descendants. But because our ancestors only experienced a limited range of environments, we only evolved behavior rules sufficient to induce adaptive behavior in those actual environments. This made our behavior indeterminate in the other new environments which humans have experienced since then. So a re-run of the process of evolution could easily lead to different behaviors in these new environments. That is, human behavior today results not just from adaptation to ancestral environments, but also from the many random ways that evolution happened to encode our behavior in rules.

For example, our ancestors needed to drink water to avoid dehydration, but because in their environments water always had the same combination of water smell and water feel, we could have evolved either to check that stuff is water by its smell, or by its feel. If those two water features always go together, and if both methods are just as easy, then this difference won’t make much difference to behavior. We find water, check that it is water, and drink it. But if later we encountered stuff that had water smell but not water feel, or water feel but not water smell, then these two different ways to detect water might lead to very different behaviors. For example, water-smell humans might drink stuff that smells but doesn’t feel like water, while water-feel humans would not drink such stuff.

In this post, I want to suggest that much of the “modern” human style which has arisen since the industrial revolution results from a particular way that evolution happened to encode human detection of relative status. This has made human history go surprisingly well in some ways, and surprisngly badly in others. Had evolution happened to have coded our status detection machinery differently, these last few centuries might have played out very differently. And perhaps they did, in alien histories. But before we get into that, let us first see how our status detection methods have shaped the modern human style. Continue reading "We Moderns Are Status-Drunk" »

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What Are Parents Owed?

In the ancient world, most relationships were seen as asymmetric in terms of dominance, and both sides had obligations to each other. This included parent-child, husband-wife, boss-worker, landlord-tenant, king-subject, god-mortal, and professional-client relations. Some of these obligations were enforced strongly by law, while others were enforced more weakly via social norms. 

In the modern world we continue with most of these relations, but because our newly-encouraged forager-selves resent dominance, we have tended to adjust these obligations, adding them on the more dominant side, and taking them away on the less dominant side. So our political leaders have more obligations to us, while we have fewer to them. Our bosses have more obligations to us, such as to pay for our healthcare, and we have fewer to them, such as to work overtime or treat them respectfully. (And UBI advocates seek to move that further.)

This change is especially dramatic regarding the parent-child relation. Children were once obligated not only to treat parents respectfully, but to obey them on many topics, including on who to marry and what jobs to take. And kids had to take care of parents when they were old. But today we face far weaker pressures to care for older parents, or to take their advice on dating or work. And to many it is now okay to publicly criticize their parents, re how they were raised or even for being born at all. 

Yet parental obligations have increased. Not only are corporal punishment and child labor now disapproved, but many consider parents to be bad if they do not arrange for kids to attend an expensive college, or host their 30 year old kids at home when out of work or pursuing a music career. When kids are young, parents are expected to spend far more time interacting with them and shuttling them around to activities. 

Many were quite indignant that in my last post I suggested overcoming inefficient abortion by paying women to instead have kids, and then later taxing those kids to pay for it. These indignant folks see any debt that a child might owe their parents as literal “slavery”. (Somehow pushed by capitalists as a way to immiserate workers.) Nevermind that they are fine with our collectively endowing kids with debt via national (and state and city) debt. [$345K per US taxpayer at fed level alone.] To them it is the worse possible moral outrage for kids to ever individually owe anything to their parents. No matter how much they also get, they may never owe. Not even gratitude.

Over this same period of time when we’ve been adding to parent obligations and cutting child obligations, we’ve seen a huge reduction in fertility. More people choose to delay being parents, and more end up having fewer kids. Many explicitly say it doesn’t look like they’d get as much pleasure in life out of parenting, compared to their alternatives. 

Which may well be true, given our current set of parent-child obligations. But consider that these obligations are a choice we’ve made; they weren’t imposed on us from above. Maybe if parents were owed more by kids, there’d be more parents, and more kids, to everyone’s benefit.

By the way, notice an interesting exception: we have not much increased the obligations of professionals relative to those of clients, or intellectuals and journalists relative to readers, or of artists and entertainers relative to fans. As those are framed more in terms of prestige than dominance, they’ve escaped the anti-dominance trends.

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Win-Win Babies As Infrastructure

I recently used cost-benefit analysis, and estimates of the dollar value of life, to consider the sensitive issue of covid masks, lockdowns, etc. While it can be emotionally hard to compare money and lives, we must do so if we are to think carefully about such things. Hey, as long as you and I have already paid that cost, why don’t we continue on to deal with another even more sensitive topic: abortion.

In the US about 18% of pregnancies end in abortion, for a total of 862K abortions per year. Many see this as a terrible moral wrong, while others consider it more wrong to limit mothers’ choices. When framed as a moral issue, we get stuck, and so one side or the other just wins if they have more political power. I’d like to frame this issue instead in terms of economic efficiency, and see if we can’t make more progress.

First, is abortion efficient? In the US today, mean GDP per capita is $67K, while mean lifespan is 78.5 years. Given the reasonable estimate that one life year is worth three years of income, the total value of a life at birth becomes $16M. All abortions in a year are then a loss of $13.7T, which is more than the $10.9T estimated loss that the US will suffer from covid from all causes for all time. So abortions are objectively a big deal. (Total US annual GDP is $20.5T.)

Middle income parents apparently spend $234K to raise a kid over the entire childhood, not including labor costs. And a poll I just did suggests that about 70% of abortions would be prevented by offering the woman $100K cash. So if the total cost to create a kid is about $0.5M, while the value created is $16M, that’s a 32 to one return on investment! Yes, taking interest rates into account would reduce the rate of return. And if we used the median income of women who abort today (75% of them make <$31K), instead of average income, that might cut life value to $4M, though it may also cut the costs to raise a child by a similar factor.

But still, it sure looks like abortion is quite often inefficient in a cost-benefit sense. And there may be even larger inefficiencies associated with failing to create more children more generally. After all, the calculation seems similar; the value the child gains from their life seems to often be far more than the cost the mother incurs to create that child.

This analysis suggests that we should seek ways to reduce abortions, and encourage fertility. Perhaps even via finding a way make these into win-win deals. You see, there’s a general econ theorem to the effect that it is always possible to find a set of cash transfers to make everyone prefer the package of those transfers added to any economically efficient policy. (For example, we might have freed the slaves by paying slave-owners, and that would have been cheaper than fighting the US civil war.) So if avoiding abortion is efficient, there should be win-win deals to make that happen.

The obvious win-win deal to consider here is to have the child later pay back the the cost of creating and raising them. That is, if not for legal barriers, pregnant women not inclined to raise their children would in effect pay others to raise their kids and endow those kids with debt, or equity-like obligations, that they must pay back over their lifetimes. If children usually end up valuing their lives more than the cost of creating and raising them, then we expect people to find the win-win deals possible here. In these deals, the mother prefers to have the kid, someone prefers to raise them, and the kid is grateful to exist, all relative to the alternate scenario of the kid having been aborted.

However, in actual practice we don’t allow adoptive parents to pay the original mother more than limited expenses, nor do we allow parents to endow their kids with debt or equity that they must repay and cannot easily evade via bankruptcy or emigration. So it seems we have two choices:

  • A) expand freedom of contract to allow such deals between moms, child-raisers, and children, or
  • B) have the government step in and try to produce a similar effect, suffering its usual reduced flexibility and adaptation to context.

When expanding freedom of contract, we might try to use something like incentivized guardians to negotiate on behalf of the children-to-be.

A government-based solution could look like this. The government pays each mother per child born, and pays people to raise those children, giving preference to the mother if she’s willing. When children are grown, they pay taxes to compensate for these expenses. Either the money comes out of general tax revenue, or just from those whose moms were paid to have them. Maybe these policies are very uniform, with every mother getting the same payment and every person paying the same taxes. Or maybe payments and policies vary by context, such as by the income or genetic fitness of the mother, or estimated values of these for the child. Maybe we give the mom the option to not accept payments up front, if in trade the child owes fewer taxes later. Such adaptation to context is something that private contracting tends to do better, but still the government maybe be able to do some things.

Note that I haven’t talked about whether to allow or ban abortion, which seems a separate issue. I’ve instead talked about how to entice mothers into not having abortions, and perhaps to even plan to have more kids.

This sort of government policy looks a lot like the “infrastructure investment” that people talk a lot about these days, because interest rates are so low. But instead of paying to build roads or power plants, this pays to build people. The usual problem with infrastructure investment is trusting the government to choose the types and amounts of different kinds of spending, and trusting them to choose efficient suppliers, instead of taking bribes to approve inefficient suppliers. Relative to roads, etc., investing in babies looks easier to manage, and requires citizens to less trust the details of government choices.

So, win-win babies seem an especially good government infrastructure investment.

Added noon: Many are mad that I described two approaches, one based on contract and the other on direct government transfers. They say my post would be fine if it only mentioned their favored approach, but that I look evil if I mention the other approach. They are evenly split re which side they favor.

Added 27Oct: Many say endowing kids with debt is slavery. But the US federal government endows each child at birth with $345K in debt. Cities & states add to that. Yes you could might escape this debt by moving to another nation, but the US might not let you take all your assets with you, and you can usually escape all kinds of debt if you are willing to run far enough away. Yes nations can inflate away or repudiate their debt, but these are expensive acts, which is why they are rare. Individuals can also go bankrupt, or use the threat of that to renegotiate their debt, but these are also expensive acts. So in practice the main difference is that national debt is collective.

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School Status Stops Kids

More support for the theory that fertility has fallen because status now puts more weight on having well educated kids:

Discussions … typically assume that the poor have more children than the rich. Micro-data from [62,146 women in] 48 developing countries suggest that this assumption was false until recently. …

In earlier birth cohorts (mostly of the 1940s and 1950s), both the number of ever-born siblings and the number of surviving siblings are positively associated with years of education in 25 countries and negatively associated in two. In contrast, in later birth cohorts (mostly of the 1980s), 20 countries exhibit negative associations between both measures of sibship size and education, while seven show the opposite. …

Changes in women’s labor force participation, sectoral composition, GDP per capita, [urbanization,] and child mortality do not predict changes in the education-sibship size association. Instead, one variable stands out …: the average educational attainment of the parent generation. …

Two explanations … stand out. … The first involves subsistence consumption constraints. … This explanation is somewhat difficult to square with the finding that economic growth is uncorrelated with changes in the education-sibship size association. … The second explanation is … that mass education induces widespread change in fertility norms … [and so] increases the importance of child quality relative to quantity in the utility function, [with] the preferences of the most educated couples [being] most sensitive. (more)

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