Monday, May 7, 2007

Demographic Exceptionalism?

American Enterprise Institute scholar Nicholas Eberstadt wrote an article in yesterday's Outlook section entitled "America the Fertile" that really caught my eye -- but not in a good way:

The concept of "American exceptionalism" has long been applied to the political differences that separate the United States from the "Old World." But America's "exceptionalism" today extends beyond the explicitly political and into the nation's rhythms of birth and death. Indeed, we may now rightly speak of American "demographic exceptionalism."

Two demographic tendencies separate the United States from virtually all other developed countries in Europe and Asia. The first is childbearing patterns: At a time when most rich countries report markedly low birthrates, fertility levels in the United States are close to long-term population-replacement levels, making the United States peculiarly fecund for a contemporary affluent democracy. The second is immigration patterns: America's absorption of foreigners continues apace, with high and continuing inflows of immigrants from the Third World, but without (as yet) the symptoms of "cultural indigestion" that have lately troubled much of the European Union.

These differences will beget many others in the years ahead. They presage a major and unavoidable "demographic divergence" between the United States and the rest of the developed world -- a growing demographic divide that may hold myriad implications for America's future.

America's population profile is set to depart not only from Europe but also from the rest of the developed world. By 2025, according to Census Bureau projections, the U.S. population growth rate would be the highest among the more developed regions, and America's median age should be among the lowest. The United States would be the only developed country of 5 million-plus people with more children than senior citizens and the only developed country whose working-age population (ages 15 to 64) would be growing.


The single most important factor in explaining America's high fertility level these days is the birthrate of the country's "Anglo" majority, who still account for roughly 55 percent of U.S. births. Over the past decade and a half, the TFR for non-Hispanic "white" Americans averaged 1.82 births per woman per lifetime -- below replacement levels but more than 20 percent higher than corresponding national levels for Western Europe and much higher if one compares "Anglo" total fertility rates with those of Western Europe's native-born populations.

What then accounts for "Anglo" America's unexpectedly high and stable propensity to reproduce? Pro-natalist government policies cannot explain it: The United States has none. Nor do U.S. labor patterns seem especially "family-friendly": Americans work longer hours and enjoy less vacation time than any of their European friends. Other economic and policy explanations are similarly unsatisfactory.

The main explanation for the U.S.-European fertility gap may lie not in material factors but in the seemingly ephemeral realm of values, ideals, attitudes and outlook. In striking contrast to Western Europe, which is provocatively (but not unfairly) described as a "post-Christian" territory these days, religion is alive and well in the United States. It is not hard to imagine how the religiosity gap between America and Europe translates into a fertility gap. Unfortunately, the hypothesis is devilishly difficult to explore. There are virtually no official national data for the United States that would permit a rigorous testing of the hypothesis that America's religiosity is directly related to its childbearing. For the time being, at least, this religion-fertility proposition must be treated as speculation.

For its part, immigration (both legal and illegal) is a central feature of U.S. demographic life. Though Western Europe has experienced its own influx of newcomers over the past generation, the trends do not compare with those in America. No large country today has an immigration rate even close to that of the United States: America accounts for a fourth of the population of "developed regions" but nearly half of its annual net migration. In purely arithmetical terms, America's high flows of net immigration do explain much of the country's steady population growth.


With its exceptional and robust projected population growth, America is poised to account for an increasing share of the total population of the present developed countries. Whereas the ratio of Americans to Russians today is a little more than 2 to 1, by 2025 that ratio may be almost 3 to 1. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 3.6 Americans for every German today, and there will be 4.4 per German in 2025. There are five Americans for every Italian today, and there will be six per Italian in less than two decades. And so on.

Such trends might reinforce U.S. international predominance -- even though the divergence in demographic profiles between the United States and the other developed countries may also portend an era of diminishing affinities between the United States and its historical Western allies.

In short: U.S. demographic exceptionalism is here to stay, as far as the eye can see. Indeed, America's demographic profile could look even more exceptional a generation hence. Whatever else may be said, if our American "moment" passes or U.S. power in other ways declines in the coming decades, demographics is not likely to be the culprit.

The emphasis was all mine. To summarize Eberstadt: demographic projections show that (1) U.S. and European interests will diverge in the future and (2) America will remain a superpower into the 2030s.

I'm suspicious of the premise of this column because it rests on two murky assumptions. The first assumption is that demography influences a nation's policy preferences. Sociologists, anthropologists and biologists have been thrashing out the nature versus nurture debate for decades without resolution. Until this issue is resolved, the link between demographics and policy preferences will always be an open question.

The second assumption is that demographic or cultural affinities can define the shape of international relations. The cultural similarities between the U.S. and the UK didn't prevent us from fighting the War of 1812 or drafting the infamous War Plan Red (even though it was withdrawn in 1939, it wasn't declassified until 1974). One could easily argue that our "special relationship with the UK was forged by our common strategic needs during the interwar period and that it was extended by the collapse of the British empire and concomitant ascension of U.S. hegemony. Nor can demography explain U.S. military intervention on behalf of Muslim Bosnians and Kosovars, but lack of action on the behalf of the Tutsis in mostly Christian Rwanda.

This is not to say the demography-foreign policy linkage does not exist. My criticism is that Eberstadt assumes the linkage is true without supporting it in his argumentation. We will set that aside for the moment and focus in on the huge issue that he practically glosses over -- the role in immigration in U.S. national power.

By Eberstadt's own admission, the "Anglo" portion of America has a birth rate of 1.8, which is well below the replacement rate of 2.1. This means that even though the U.S. population is projected to grow out past the 2050s, the "Anglo" portion of the population will decline relative to total population. That may not be an issue for most Americans (including me), but the decline of "Anglo" America is a huge deal with many Republicans on the xenophobic far right.

This leaves a huge question for politicians like presidential-hopeful Congressman Tom Tancredo who often demagogue immigration for threatening "our culture". If immigrants are necessary for the maintenance of American power in the international system, is American power more important than protecting their conception of America?

Where Mr. Tancredo sees a conflict, I see clear linkage: American culture isn't about being Christian or "Anglo," it is the belief that meritocracy and risk-taking lead to greatness. "American exceptionalism" as originally described by Alexis de Tocqueville is roughly based on the same idea -- America believes itself great because it is willing to make the effort and take the risks needed to ensure stability and prosperity. Then again, I'm a second-generation American, so my view may be a little more xenophilic and optimistic than most.

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