How can we make sure that the United States retains its global power forever and ever? Babies, babies, babies, and more babies: an army of babies, who will all one day grow into upstanding citizens ready to contribute to the economy, fight for their country, go to church every Sunday, and have babies, who will then have more babies. But, uh, who's going to take care of all of the precious little saviors?
U.S. birthrates were at their lowest recorded rate ever in 2011, according to last week's Pew Research Center report; baby-making belly flopped thanks to the financial crisis in 2008, and it hasn't bounced back. It might — that's what happened after the Great Recession — but, as Ross Douthat points out in "More Babies, Please," his latest Times column, "native-born" Americans have been increasingly more "eh" about child rearing for decades: "For Americans without college degrees, economic instability and a shortage of marriageable men seem to be furthering two trends in tandem: more women are having children out of wedlock, and fewer are raising families at all."
(Remember this bit, because it's the one and only time he mentions ladies throughout his entire column.)
Douthat calls the baby decline "decadent," because, for most Americans, choosing not to have a baby (or too many babies) is akin to ordering that second piece of double-chocolate cake even though you're soooo full already:
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.
He also brings gay people into it, who selfishly want to marry each other even though they can't technically make babies together:
Finally, there's been a broader cultural shift away from a child-centric understanding of romance and marriage. In 1990, 65 percent of Americans told Pew that children were "very important" to a successful marriage; in 2007, just before the current baby bust, only 41 percent agreed. (That trend goes a long way toward explaining why gay marriage, which formally severs wedlock from sex differences and procreation, has gone from a nonstarter to a no-brainer for so many people.
See, the gays really are ruining America.
Douthat does mention other countries, such as France and Sweden, which have better policies in place to help parents weather the cost of child rearing, as opposed to America, a country in which female CEOs feel pressure to work through their maternity leave. But while he's correct in calling on our government to develop more policies that would help reduce the cost of raising kids, his final conclusion is that people who choose not to have a ton of children will lead to America's demise:
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.
Asking for "more babies" is a nice and simple-sounding solution to the economic consequences of population decline, but who does Douhat think should take care of all these kids? He doesn't flat-out say "women" — again, he doesn't actually write the word "women" more than once in his piece — but, without specifically stating the contrary, that's the obvious implication.
Douthat writes that "Today's babies are tomorrow's taxpayers and workers and entrepreneurs," but the ones who aren't born to parents who actually want them are also costing U.S. taxpayers roughly $11 billion each year, according to the Guttmacher Institute's "conservative" estimates. And it's just plain ridiculous to imply that we're only having fewer children for "decadent" reasons. Sure, women aren't having as many kids because they have more choices, but also because fewer women have a choice. Mothers are the primary breadwinner or a co-breadwinner in two-thirds of American families, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. If women have to work, they can't churn out babies on the regular.
Sure, the simplest solution for making more babies would be to go back to the historically tried-and-true strategy of barring women from the workforce so they can focus on cooking, cleaning, and child rearing while their husband brings home the cash. Douthat doesn't actually suggest we do that in so many words — the farthest he'll go down that road is lamenting that fewer women "are raising families at all" — but if he believes the road to more baby-making has more to do with "individual choice" than political policies, what's his solution? And how come he (and his editors) saw no problem with writing an op-ed on the birthrate without considering those who, you know, actually give birth?
More Babies, Please [NYT]
Image via SvetlanaFedoseyeva/Shutterstock.