To paraphrase Voltaire: the comfort of the rich requires a vast population
of the poor.
You’ll notice this whenever (for example) you read comment threads about
movements like OUR Walmart (seeking better pay and working conditions for
people at that company), or the Hostess/union bankruptcy story a couple weeks
back: anytime any worker asks for higher wages or better working conditions,
there’s plenty who’ll argue they don’t deserve these things because they’re so
very replaceable: “If you don’t like your job, there’s plenty of people who’ll
take it!” And that’s true, especially in this dismal economy.
So color me unsurprised to learn that pundits like Ross Douthat and Megan
oppose minimum-wage laws for sundry
reasons) are extremely concerned about America’s declining birthrate. Douthat
tut-tutted about it last week in a New
column titled “More Babies, Please
and McArdle agreed with him a few days later
when she worried about “Our Demographic Decline
It’s true that our current pay-as-you-go Social Security system can’t
survive without an ever-growing base of younger workers to support retirees. But
that’s true of any Ponzi scheme; the housing bubble would still be inflating,
if only America
had a few hundred million extra suckers and some additional too-big-to-fail
banks willing to lend them money with no concern about repayment. So even if my
generation (X) had enough kids to support us in retirement, that would only
kick the can down the road a generation or two.
Of course, to address an argument I’ve had thrown at me before, it’s absolutely
true that humanity would go extinct if everybody
decided to travel the childfree route. (Though pretty much any
life choice would be catastrophic if adopted by every adult on
the planet: “You want to be a doctor? But if everybody became a doctor then we
wouldn’t have any farmers, and we’d starve to death!” “You want to be a farmer?
But if everybody became a farmer then we wouldn’t have any doctors, and would
die of easily treatable diseases!”)
Not that Douthat or McArdle resort to the extinction-of-humanity strawman
argument. McArdle instead offers the following thought experiment:
… picture two neighboring towns, sharing all the
same infrastructure and economic opportunities, with one key difference: their
median age. In the first town, which I’ll call Morningburg, the average
resident is 28. In the second, which I’ll call Twilight City,
the average householder is 58.
indicates that even with all the same resources at their disposal, these two
places look very different, and not just because one’s grocery store does a
booming business in diapers while the other’s has a whole aisle devoted to
Morningburg, young workers are rapid, plastic learners, eager to try out new
ways of doing things. Since they’re still hoping to make a name for themselves
and maybe get rich, they take a lot of risks. They push their managers to
expand into new markets, propose iffy but innovative product lines, maybe start
their own firm if the boss won’t let them advance fast enough. For the right
opportunity, they’ll put in 18-hour days for a year or more.
City, time horizons are
shorter—people aren’t looking for projects that will make them rich or famous
20 years from now. They are interested in conserving what they have. That’s
mostly rational, given Twilighters’ life stage; but studies show that older
people worry more than younger ones about losses and are therefore especially
averse to risk. Twilighters also tire more easily and need more time off for
illness, so hours worked slowly decline each year. Wages stay steady, however;
Twilighters, like most people, get very angry if you try to cut their salary.
makes Twilighters expensive—so when they lose a job, finding another is tough.
As a result, Twilighters tend to cling fiercely to their positions, and may
block younger workers from getting a foothold in the labor market.
That’s happening already; high unemployment among the young is exacerbated by
Baby Boomers clinging to their jobs because they can’t or won’t retire. But
adding more young workers to the competition isn’t going to help, either. Nor
running short of upwardly mobile young entrepreneurs. The one thing we’re low
on these days is jobs that pay enough to support a family, for non-entrepreneurs
destined to found the next
Facebook or Twitter or Apple. (And for every twentysomething American today
working soul-crushing hours in hope of getting rich, there’s a far greater
number working just to keep themselves housed and fed.)
No, even if American births remain at below-replacement rates, we won’t run
out of upwardly mobile entrepreneurs, or of service workers to make their lattes
and care for their elderly relatives in nursing homes. But if birthrates don’t increase,
be a shortage of people
desperate enough to work such jobs for poverty wages. And it truly is an amazing
coincidence, the large level of overlap to be found between those who oppose minimum wage laws, and those who tut-tut over falling birthrates.