Bret Stephens, opinion columnist for the Wall Street Journal, has lately been on a tear (see, e.g. his recent piece on Obama’s intelligence, on which I posted). In Lessons From Europe (Take 2), he explains why Europe’s future is so economically dismal, and how it came to be thus. Like Paul Krugman recently discussed about the supposed Texas economic miracle, demographics plays a leading role:
Demography also prevents reform. The median age in the EU is 40.6 years. (In the U.S. it’s 36.9). Older populations typically resist change, demand the benefits they’ve been taxed all their working lives for—and vote. The demographic balance is only going to tip further in their favor, and it will change only when younger Europeans decide that children, plural, are worth having. What that will take, only a faith in future prosperity—and in God—can provide. Outside of its growing Muslim population, Europe has neither.
Forget everything else–the ossified political structures that impede any real reform from taking place; belief in the efficacy of governments to create growth yielding a pervasive statism that sucks dry the innovation and initiative wells of society–the reason Europe is doomed resolves to demography. Stephens notes earlier in the column that the fertility rate for Western Europeans is 1.56 children per female, well below the rate at which the population is replaced.
The United States is more like Europe than Stephens wishes to admit. The fertility rate for the US, in aggregate, is just at the 2.1 children per female that is required to replace the existing population. The median age for the US is actually 37.2 years, according the latest data from the 2010 census, even including the hordes of youthful immigrants from Latin America. The numbers for the white majority (and black minority, which is more or less following the demographic trajectory of native-born whites) can be presumed worse. Of the seven states with a median age of over forty, Maine (42.7), Vermont (41.5), West Virginia (41.3), New Hampshire (41.1), Florida (40.7), Pennsylvania (40.1) and Connecticut (40.0), only one, Florida, has a significant immigrant population; its haven as a retirement destination presumably explains the difference.
If the white populations in the US are considered simply an extension of European populations, it appears the sun is setting on the day of world-wide European cum US hegemony, an age so profoundly Euro-centric that the last major conflict in which it engaged was called a World War, though two continents were barely involved (Africa and South America) and a third (Asia) was not more than half engaged in the struggle.
The epicenter of human activity is slowly shifting away from Europe and its progeny, heading east and south, to North Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and China. It will continue to do so unless demographic trends among the rich white populations of the US and Europe are somehow arrested and reversed. What is most likely to happen is that traditional majority populations will be overwhelmed by immigrant populations; Hispanics in the US, and Arabs in Europe. It remains to be seen how much will survive of the native European/US cultures as they are assimilated by the new immigrant majorities.
There is a special reason Western Europe became a welfare state after World War Two. It became a client state (actually, individual states) of the American empire, owing its survival and prosperity to American military might, particularly relative to the Soviet Union and the nuclear arms race. Western European governments, shorn of their defense responsibilities by American nuclear (and conventional) forces providing existential protection, turned to justifying their existence, reach and breadth of influence by providing a social safety net to their citizens. The post-war boom in population helped make such cradle-to-grave social benefits possible, at least until the population boom fizzled out, and the state had either to borrow or impose heavy taxation to keep its promises to a burgeoning class of the aging and/or unproductive. The borrowing and taxation have now reached the critical limit beyond which economic growth grinds to a halt, yet the promises keep piling up, and native populations for whom the benefits were intended, continue to decline.
Neither the US nor Western Europe has any hope for long-term sustainable economic growth until the transition to majority young and vibrant immigrant populations is complete. European social democracy doesn’t work, but not because it is a flawed system. It doesn’t work, and won’t, because the population necessary to support it is rapidly aging and dying.
The age when it seemed the world’s only concern was the activities of the descendants of several barbarian tribes in Western Europe and America is passing. The old man of Europe, and his American cousin, is wheezing and gasping, dying with a whimper, and not a bang.