Saturday, January 31, 2009

Review of The Empty Cradle by Philip Longman

The Empty Cradle, by Philip Longman, is a wide-scope book delving into a truth much more inconvenient than “global warming.” It is a fact that birthrates are falling all over the world, and that in many countries, particularly Western nations, the rates are already below replacement. In this well researched book, the author logically lays out a history of birthrates – particularly in the modern era (since the founding of America), the economic consequences of labor shortages, and some suggestions for stimulating a rise in birthrates again without relinquishing secular equalitarianism. The author’s worldview is specifically secular, and he expresses some fear that religious fundamentalists (that would be me) may inherit the earth by default of having more children. He describes the overcoming faith that such people have, enabling them to go ahead and have multiple children despite cultural and economic pressures that depress the birthrate among pragmatists.

Once upon a time the government was concerned to see birthrates falling (they fell in the United States for about a century between the Civil War and the end of World War II). In the 20th century, however, prominent voices began sounding an alarm of overpopulation – a myth, since the population of the world has multiplied magnificently in the ensuing decades and managing an ever-increasing productivity. Quality of life has improved significantly since the middle ages, when the population of the earth was but a fraction of the present 6 billion.

A few pages are devoted to the causes of declining birthrates. Accessible and legal and socially acceptable birth control (the Pill) is mentioned, along with abortion. Mostly the author discusses the “liberating” policies of equality and the economic forces of increasingly technological jobs. There is also the cultural/materialistic glamorization of adults free of the burden of children.

How important is the birthrate? The middle of The Empty Cradle describes the devastating economic situation we can anticipate when 1) birthrates fall steeply and 2) birthrates fall below replacement levels. The population ages. Aging populations reproduce less even than their parents did. This is a downward spiral with drastic consequences. Most attempts to deal with these results depress the birthrate even more.

Economics effect social structure and the type of government people find acceptable and necessary. As he builds toward the concluding recommendations for turning these trends around, Mr. Longman incorporates a good tutorial on economics, the examples of history, and some political theory. If you’re interested in the power of taxation and laws, read this book.

In Chapter 7 is a discussion of the economic implications of having children, including “opportunity cost.” At one point the author states that “cheaper by the dozen” is true, but he minimalizes this. He is exaggerating when he uses the phrase, really only calculating for two or three children, not by a larger number like a dozen. In a broad economic sense, one woman raising and educating 6-12 children, cooking for them at home, growing her own vegetables, etc. would be a much more efficient means of producing a crop of laborers than the present one. Also the data he uses in calculating the cost of a child is an average, representing the values of a society that prefers things to people. Priorities change (people whose priorities have not changed consider this a sacrifice) and thrift is employed when you really wish to invest in having many children. What the author does not do in analyzing whether all the costs typical of raising a child are necessary or even beneficial, he does for the elderly. There are many pages describing the extension of life expectancies, the ineffectiveness of healthcare, and environmental excesses that cost money to produce and to remedy but which could easily be avoided with a bit more prudence.

The final chapter of the book (none of this book is superfluous; there is not even a summary conclusion – a concise style I appreciate) lists three primary recommendations the author has for making the most of the labor we have and for encouraging adults to invest in the future through bearing a next generation. In keeping with his worldview, the recommendations avoid appeals to virtue or self-responsibility, instead increasing the role of governments wielding taxes and laws to corral the people to a preferred socially beneficial behavior (including more healthy lifestyles and diets). My favorite recommendation is one that would be difficult for a government to force, but which may be the inevitable social response to increasing economic and political pressures from the declining population: return to smaller communities in which production is less efficient but healthier and more viable long term.

All the facts, observations, and analyses of this book had the ring of truth (included are multiple sources and footnotes). I disagree with interpretations in some places, and with prescriptions in others, but benefited from reading the author’s different point of view. This is a book I want to own, to keep on my shelf and to use in home educating my, God willing, many children. The information presented in The Empty Cradle is important for every person to know, and the writing and layout are superb. Therefore, I recommend this book to you, and to all of my friends.

To God be all glory.

1 comment:

åslaug said...

"he expresses some fear that religious fundamentalists (that would be me) may inherit the earth by default of having more children."

I laughed when I read this =)
That would be me as well I guess..
I like the thought of increasing the percent of religious fundamentalists by having more children, not a bad idea!