Colson on “Demographic Winter”June 19, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
Chuck Colson recently completed a 3 part series on what he called “demographic winter,” a supposedly devastating (and imminent) financial and economic crisis caused by declining population. In the article on “Demographics and Prosperity,” he writes:
[B]uying stocks is essentially betting on the future of the economy, and the best guide to that future is the actions of policymakers and financial markets. Correct?
Well, not necessarily. There is another—arguably more reliable—predictor of economic health: demographics…
In other words, future prosperity is determined, to a significant degree, by the number of children being born today.
In hindsight, this ought to be obvious: Consumer spending drives the economy. The more people you have in their peak spending years, the more spending you have on everything from housing, to travel, and taxes paid. As a population ages, it spends less.
The ultimate cause of this problem? An amazingly simple one.
But, as Spengler and others have pointed out, the root of the problem is “the decline of religious faith.” Loss of faith in the world to come leaves us grasping for everything we can get in this one, even at the expense of future generations.
Myself, I’m going to reserve judgment on whether or not the problem even exists. Clearly, the movie that Colson saw impressed him very much, and gave him enough material for 3 separate blog posts. The “facts” he cites, however, seem a bit inconsistent. First of all, it’s hard to pinpoint “lack of faith” as the root cause when you’ve got religious leaders like Jesus telling us, “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Religious people aren’t any better than any other group in terms of anticipating future problems and making sacrifices today in order to forestall them. If the response to global warming is any indication, they might even be worse.
Secondly, it’s hard to take “declining population” as a serious threat when the other big “problem” conservatives are ranting on about is the “inundation” of Mexicans and other would-be immigrants just barely being kept at bay by our Homeland-defending Border Patrol. Colson’s answer is that Mexico, too, and other 3rd-world countries, are also facing a declining birth rate.
In 1965, the average Mexican woman gave birth to seven children. Today, it is 2.1—the same as their American counterparts. It is estimated that, within the next several decades, Mexico’s population will be older than ours.
This is part of a worldwide trend. We usually associate low birth rates with the industrialized nations. But according to Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, up to half of the world’s population lives in countries with below-replacement level fertility.
Thus, it is not only Japan; it is Korea, China, Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka . . .
In other parts of the world, the threat may be graver. In 1980, Iran’s birth rate was 6.5 births per woman. Today, it is 1.7 births per woman—well below replacement level.
The problem with these statistics (aside from the lack of documentation) is that they rather contradict Colson’s claim that the problem is loss of religious faith. Mexico, for example, is still pretty heavily Roman Catholic, and Iran is not exactly famous as a hotbed of atheism.
Birth rates are influenced by a number of factors, of which the economic environment is a major influence. Who wants to give birth to a baby that’s just going to starve to death after depleting a family’s already-strained resources? Hope, and not selfishness, is the major criterion by which people decide whether or not to have children. You have kids because you hope they will do well and bring you happiness.
And let’s not dismiss hope as just another form of selfishness. You can be just as selfish in deciding to bless yourself with a “quiver full” of offspring as in deciding to forego the chance to have someone to take care of you in your old age. Is it selfishness which leads priests and nuns to pursue a vow of chastity? (Ok, maybe it is, but would Colson admit it? Either way, it doesn’t look like the “loss” of religious faith is the real problem here.)
Ultimately, Colson’s fear-mongering is just another thinly-veiled excuse to insinuate that Christians (i.e. his kind of Christians) are better people than everybody else. People who “lose” his religious values and faith-based worldview are people who become selfish, and who throw away the future for the sake of materialistic indulgence. Never mind that the true causes are complex and that the “religious values” only change how people justify their selfish behavior. If it hypes the faith and disses the doubter, it’s all good.
If this were indeed a problem, I personally would be more inclined to follow the advice of someone who wasn’t quite so sure that some deus ex machina necessarily has to get us out of any jam we might bring upon ourselves. Let’s see this “problem” show up on the real-world radar, and not just as a self-congratulatory smear against non-believers. If Colson is right, and this is a genuine problem, then it’s going to affect all of us, and we ought to be working together to understand it and resolve it. Merely exploiting it for faith-based propaganda, however is counter-productive. And selfish.