Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Feminism and Birthrates

As I’ve written about in the past, by my reckoning the direst problem of our time is that the west is not having enough children to replace itself. It is literally dying out. To make matters worse, the distribution of birthrates seems significantly dysgenic. It is the rich and educated who are having the least children. We are not just shrinking, we are getting dumber to boot. If you doubt me, I’ll gladly stake a wager on whether you should expect to see more articles about “The Flynn Effect” or “The Reverse Flynn Effect” over the next 20 years. One does not have to be a HBD fanatic to observe that, if current trends continue, it is hard to see a scenario where this ends well.

And, as far as I can tell, we don’t really know why all this is happening, though of course there are theories. Some parts, as I’ve noted, are purely technological. We have much better birth control technology, which means that those people who are inclined to not have children have a much easier time of arranging this. We’ve short-circuited evolution’s link between having sex and having children, so we do the former, but not the latter.

But there’s another part that missing in the previous analysis. Even among the couples that do want to have kids, there’s an increasing sense that they can’t afford to have as many as they’d want. The cost of raising them has gotten too high, both in terms of money and time. For today, let’s just focus on the money aspect (with the acknowledgement that this almost certainly doesn't explain the whole thing).

While it’s worth taking this complaint seriously, it sounds very odd at a first glance. Society is immensely richer than it was a hundred years ago. We have a lot more labor-saving technology, and ipads and televisions to entertain children. How is it that the cost has not only gone up, but gone up so much that it overwhelms the increase in income, resulting in the budget set allowing for fewer children under current preferences?

Part of this is just a raised set of standards. When people lived in primitive societies, often everyone in a family slept in the same room and the same bed. A hundred years ago, it was entirely normal for children to share bedrooms for years at a time. Now, it’s considered vaguely odd for middle class children to not have their own bedrooms for their whole life. So people acting as if it’s better for the child not to exist in the first place than to have to share a bedroom. Hey, I didn’t say it made sense, but that’s the implication.

If children are expensive, what are the costs that make it that way? By my reckoning, the two biggest costs are schooling and housing. The two are correlated. Part of the cost of schooling is being able to afford a house in a good school district, which makes it harder for people to just buy a bigger house in a cheap area. The alternative is to spring for private school, which is even worse for birthrates, since this adds a fixed per-child cost.

The sheer mendacity of the social discourse about “good schools” makes it hard for people to even explain what it is they’re after. Part of the demand comes from delusion about the idea that schools with good educational outcomes get results solely from good teachers and more resources, as if the quality of the student body had nothing to do with it. Partly it comes from a realistic appreciation about what the student body’s qualities have to do with the chances your kid ends up being friends with drug dealers and gang bangers, or just gets beaten up at school.

But whatever the reason, it’s deemed very important to be in a good school district, so there’s lots of demand for houses in these areas.

And a similar geographic aspect is present in the demand for housing itself we described. If it’s hard to afford a big house with a bedroom for every child, is this because the cost of construction has gone up? Not really – building technologies keep getting cheaper.

No, houses are expensive because of land. You might be able to afford a big house. You just can’t afford one in any place you’d like to live. Schooling is expensive because it is assigned by school district, which is also based on land. If there were more selective, entrance-exam public schools, a lot of this pressure might be alleviated. But disparate impact related hysteria being what it is, land is the currency of our time for schooling.

Land is interesting, because it’s almost the classic example of a positional good. There is a certain amount of beachfront real estate in Los Angeles, Miami and the Hamptons. The ability to make more of it is approximately zero. The best land will end up being held by whoever the richest people in the area are at the time. Whether the society is rich or poor, someone will get to look at the ocean view, and the ocean isn’t much different than it was in 1950. As more money comes in, this will simply drive up the price, because the supply is highly inelastic. In one sense, you can build skyscrapers so lots of people live there. This solves the problem of getting to look at the ocean, but not the school district problem whereby the new entrants will be poorer than those who would live there if it’s only single family dwellings. So for the school district problem, it’s even more of a positional good problem.

And this is where feminism comes in.

Because the patriarchy, even in its relatively mild 1950s form, acted like a fairly strong co-ordinating mechanism whereby we all agreed that only 50% of us were going to work. For positional goods, if we all co-ordinate to do exactly 50% as much work, we end up holding exactly the same land as before – the ordering of who is rich and poor doesn’t change, and neither does the mapping between the richest and the best land.

In theory, you could get a similar effect with a rule that said that only one partner in a marriage was allowed to work (regardless of who it was), and everyone had to be married. In practice, even putting aside the desirability of this in terms of men vs women doing the child raising, and the relative complexity of trying to co-ordinate on this alternative, I don’t know how much difference this would make. Gary Becker famously noted that assortative matching between high income potential women and high income potential men (for any number of reasons, from preferences on down) means that the number of cases where the women would be the optimal choice to be a sole worker would likely be a lot lower than 50%, provided that men enjoy some income advantage. In other words, the “one worker per married couple”, if enforced, would mostly end up as only having the man working.

Either way, the norm that, in general, women don’t work, was a reasonably strong Schelling point around which to co-ordinate. As long as everyone stuck to the deal, you could afford exactly the same house and school district as before, but now there was someone at home to make dinner, keep the house clean, look after the kids when they came home from school.

As the Schelling point collapsed, we got the school district arms race. The first couple to have dual incomes can move up a long way in the school district / land rat race, but it wasn’t stable. Other people joined in, and before you know it, everyone has to have two incomes just to afford the same house that they would have had before under a single income model.

It’s actually worse than that – as well as having to pay more for the same house, the couple now has to pay to contract out all the services that previously would have been done by the woman who stayed at home, from childcare to cooking to cleaning. Feminists, like progressives, are always apt to insist that the problem is simply a lack of more feminism! We just need to have more family-friendly work policies, free childcare etc. It’s true that this will help somewhat – there is probably a J-shape of feminism and birth rates, where a moderately large amount of feminism without any maternity leave or childcare subsidies (a la the American model) is probably about the worst possible scenario. But look at the Scandinavian countries. Even with all the childcare in the world, the total fertility rate for Denmark, Sweden and Norway are 1.69, 1.88 and 1.75 children per woman respectively (without even inquiring how many of those are ethnic Scandinavians as opposed to third world immigrants).

It seems apparent that more feminism is entirely unable to solve the school district problem, because they don’t even understand it, and they don’t think about the extent to which this is driving the birth rate choice. It’s not a surprise then that even going the full retard of feminism doesn’t get you even replacement rates.

And in the cross-section, which people are going to feel this school district / birthrate pinch the most?

Those who are most likely to think that education and school districts are highly valuable. Which is to say, those who are highly educated themselves, since they likely attribute their success to their education. Being unable to bear the possibility of their kids going to “bad schools”, they instead get a small house in a good area and have fewer children. So we end up with not only reduced birth rates, but dysgenic birth rates to boot. Which, as I noted last time, is the biggest puzzle to be explained in the cost story.

And like Scott Alexander’s Moloch, we now don’t know how to stop the process. Some co-ordination mechanisms are easier to break than they are to get started again, even if there were the will to do so.

Of course, the problem will resolve itself one way or another. It’s just that the some of the resolutions sound like “the disappearance of people who care about school districts, and the societies able to sustain such infrastructure”.

As far as I can tell, the only groups of westerners with significantly above-replacement birthrates are Orthodox Jews, Mormons and the Amish. It is no surprise that all of them are considerably more patriarchal than the secular west. On current trends, there will be a lot more of them in the future, and that’s currently the best case scenario.

If you don’t like that, you’d better start figuring out some alternative, because the future is coming one way or another.


  1. Schools are a big problem, that's for sure. One thing worth mentioning perhaps is that children weren't just "cheaper to produce" but were, in fact, capital goods that payed for themselves and earned money to their parents. Back when average life expectacy was much lower, nobody would have achieved anything if he spent three decades schooling. Mass famines lead to mass infanticides, and even cannibalism, but in normal circumstances children were "another pair of hands" fully employed to work, and thus very profitable. But today, we think that child labor is something horible, but consigning children to mind-rape prisons a supreme good.

    Also, it would appear that egalitarian culture creates taboos that act in lieu of legal regulation, regulation that prevents existence of many jobs, because today they are considered untasteful at best (such as, for example, manservant) and thus in combination with the welfare state and the cult of schooling prevents lower classes from having a gainful employment, instead sending their children to criminal factories that are schools.

    1. That's a great point. In that sense, if you view children as being a consumption good, maybe the complaint that people can't have as many as they want isn't so surprising - people always want to consume more than they can afford.

      I think the consumption VS production version is a really good point, especially for understanding the long term trend. To my view, the Feminism part of the analysis kicks in more in the 20th century. In particular, I think there's a part of the decline that kicks in during the post-agriculture period. But in the bigger picture, it almost is like genetic variation coming from lots of genes. The overall result is made up of lots of parts, each of which add somewhat to the overall disastrous trend.

    2. Yes, each thing contributes in its own way. But, we see that loss of deontological sense to "be fruitful and multiply" contributes too. Unlike Amish and OrthoJews, Mormons aren't really cut-off from contemporary culture. And yet...

  2. Looking for solutions? You might like my book: https://www.amazon.com/Notes-Towards-New-Life-America-ebook/dp/B076J9D9C5/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1513548423&sr=1-1

  3. Here is a shorter link: https://goo.gl/8cWYCW

    I address your analysis in 2nd and 3rd chapters.

  4. Fascinating. I appreciate this is written in a manner that's easy enough for lay people like myself to comprehend. (Seriously.)

    Children used to be regarded as a necessity as well as a future work force for the family. They were a resource that would help obtain other resources.

    Now they are viewed as a luxury, and one that you pour "luxuries" into. Diaper changing of siblings, cooking, cleaning, chores? Those can be hired out apparently.

    Logically, if you have large enough families, the attention you give to each child is limited to what you can give to the others, assuming you favor one child more than the other - similar to the role the first-born played back in the day.

    Now we have maybe two kids at most and we pour far more into them then we would have if we have 10 kids. There are both obvious benefits and drawbacks to this.

    Currently me and my wife have two sons, one 10 months and another 20 months old - to give you an idea of how long we waited - and it's at this initial stage that the time and resource demand are likely at their highest. If we didn't have my mother around to babysit during the day, I don't know how we would afford childcare on top of a mortgage payment.

    And that right there is precisely it.

    Lack of a large support network and immediate family - free babysitting, resources, etc. ensures that having children - is going to be a tough ordeal. It gets put off until the time is right - which for 95% of people will never be right - especially in a consumer materialist entertainment mindset which many people's worldview seems to be consumed by. People want everything now - hedonism included. The future can wait or simply when it comes to reproduction, never occur.

    The real curse of modernity is the isolation and extended distances of families to each other. No real immediate pressure to be responsible, have children, etc.