I’m not quite sure why Ross Douthat is engaging Matt Yglesias on questions of demographics. Yglesias often seems to know next to nothing about the topics he writes about. But I don’t really read him, so maybe Yglesias has spent the last five years deep-diving in demographic research and has a solid understanding of the field and its history. Yeah, let’s go with that.
Anyway, here’s Douthat:
This is why the moral aspect of the case for, well, familialism — the hackles-raising argument I’ve been making that a society that isn’t replacing itself isn’t fulfilling a basic intergenerational obligation— cannot just be set aside in favor of less charged and more technocratic arguments about economic self-interest and social cohesion and public health and the sustainability of public pensions and so forth. These arguments matter, obviously, and may matter immensely as we enter our ever-grayer future. But even allowing for all of the practical problems associated with demographic decline, it is still possible to imagine a world of declining birthrates and more attenuated relationships being more comfortable, in strictly material terms, than the present or the past. Matt Yglesias has been making roughly this case, for instance, painting a portrait of a future where the surplus from technology and automation under-writes leisure pursuits (mostly virtual, I would expect) and social-service support for the many singletons left underemployed and unemployable, and everyone else finds work in the booming, ever-expanding elder-caregiver industry.
There’s a precedent, of course, for seeing technology as socio-economic liberation, as Philip Longman explains in his essential (and awesome) book on demographics, The Empty Cradle (page 114):
In the go-go year of 1966, the National Commission on Technology, Automation and Economic Progress issued a report warning of a “glut of productivity.” Juanita Kreps, who would late become Jimmy Carter’s secretary of commerce, coauthored part of the study which made bold predictions about what life in the United States would be like in the mid-1980s. Productivity was growing so rapidly, the study concluded, that by 1985 the economy would provide Americans with any one of the following three choices:
A universal twenty-hour workweek
A twenty-two week standard vacation
A standard retirement age of 38
Kreps was in good company in making these predictions. Policy intellectuals at the time were infatuated with the idea that America had become an “affluent society” and that the problems of economic scarcity has essentially been solved. In 1966, Time magazine surveyed leading futurists and reported their consensus view: “By 2000, the machines will be producing so much that everyone in the U.S. will, in effect, be independently wealthy.” So bountiful would the economy become by 2000 that only 10 percent of Americans would be needed in the labor force, and the rest, Time reported, would “have to be paid to be idle” with inflation-adjusted government benefits of up to $40,000 a year.
Longman goes into detail about the policy consequences of this worldview. Spoiler Alert: They didn’t turn out to be useful.