Over the years, I’ve been pretty worshipful of the New Yorker. David Grann, who’s one of my favorite writers on the planet, hangs his hat there. Plenty of other good writers, too. David Remnick’s politics are not my politics, but I am very much a fan of his writing and have always thought that the book he puts together is, on the whole, as good as you could want for a middle-brow, general-interest magazine.
Well. In the latest issue, Elizabeth Kolbert does a roundup review of books on demographics, including What to Expect. Here are the two paragraphs she devotes to my book:
In the United States, the fertility rate is currently estimated at 2.06. This figure puts the U.S. ahead of all European nations except France, and right about at replacement level. Nevertheless, according to Jonathan Last, a senior writer at The Weekly Standard, the country is facing doom by depopulation. At the start of “What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster” (Encounter), he breaks the number down by race, income, and education. Black women have what Last terms a “healthy” fertility rate of 1.96. Hispanic women are “doing most of the heavy lifting,” with a rate of 2.35. White women, by contrast, are slackers. Their rate is 1.79, which makes them about as productive or, if you prefer, unproductive as the Dutch and the Norwegians. Poor women generally have more kids than middle-class women, while women who drop out of high school have more than those who graduate, and way more than those who earn advanced degrees. All this adds up, Last writes, to a “kind of reverse Darwinism where the traditional markers of success make one less likely to reproduce.”
Last has aimed his book at the same sort of readers who subscribe to The Weekly Standard. He describes himself as an “anti-abortion nut job,” lampoons the “feminist-industrial complex,” and laments a decline in marriage rates among the “lower classes.” Those who find Last’s politics less than congenial are likely to be less than convinced by his arguments. Among the problems he attributes to low fertility rates is that they tend to make countries reluctant to fight wars. Among the solutions he advocates is cutting back on higher education, thereby reducing its depressing influence on American fertility.
This is like one of those moments in the movies when the masked slasher taunts his victim: “Go ahead and pray to the New Yorker! Where is your god now?”
It’s hard to know quite where to start because in the space of 281 words, Kolbert moves briskly from being confused, to uncharitable, to dishonest. For example, I wrote an entire book about the challenges low fertility rates pose for societies and what does Kolbert take away? That I think one of the “problems” with low fertility rates are that they makes countries “reluctant to fight wars.”
How could Kolbert possibly come away with that interpretation? I suspect she’s looking at this paragraph, from page 28 of WTE:
[A]n older society with fewer children will find it difficult to project power in the wider world. America’s military spending is already loaded down by retirement benefits. The Pentagon now spends 84 cents on pensions for every dollar it spends on basic pay. And whatever form our future military does take, families with just one child will be less willing to accept military casualties. The loss of a child will represent not just a tragedy, but in most cases, the end of the family line. As David Goldman ruefully notes, “A people without progeny will not accept a single military casualty.”
This paragraph, however, is about the specific problem for global stability caused by America’s inability to project power. Or, if you’d rather Kolbert’s formulation, America’s reluctance to fight wars.
However, in the next two paragraphs, I explain how we might also see the possibility of a geriatric peace as one of the benefits of low fertility. Here they are:
There is reason to believe that low fertility has had a pacifying effect on Europe, and although it is a complicated question, the general pattern holds when one glances across the globe. Countries frequently at war tend to have high fertility rates. Perpetually war-torn Rwanda, for instance, has a fertility rate of 5.43, one of the highest in Africa. Afghanistan, home to three generations of near-continuous conflict, has a fertility rate of 6.8, the highest in Asia. The Palestinian territories, a hotbed of violence, have a fertility rate of 4.7, one of the highest in the Middle East.
By contrast, even in unstable regions, the countries with relatively low fertility rates tend to be more peaceable. Mauritius, South Africa, and Gabon have the lowest fertility rates in Africa, and are among the continent’s most stable nations. Israel and Qatar have the lowest fertility rates in the Middle East and are two of the least belligerent states in the neighborhood. In volatile South Central Asia, the lowest fertility rate is claimed by Kazakhstan, a stable, modernizing country.
I’ll let readers decide if they think Kolbert’s characterization of my view of fertility rates, war, and peace is either accurate or fair.
To pick another example, Kolbert writes that “Last has aimed his book at the same sort of readers who subscribe to The Weekly Standard. He describes himself as an ‘anti-abortion nut job’ . . .” Again, the context here suggests something very different from what Kolbert is presenting to readers. Here’s the actual passage from page 59:
Before you start flipping ahead, let me make a promise. Yes, I’m one of those anti-abortion nut jobs who thinks that every embryo is sacred life and abortion is killing an innocent and blah-blah-blah. But when it comes to abortion, most Americans aren’t crazies like me—they think abortion should be, in essence, legal, but somewhat restricted, and rare. So without my pushing judgments of any kind, let me just give you the brief demographic tour as to how abortion has affected American fertility. . . .
Then there’s Kolbert’s use of “scare quotes” in the passage on how I lament “a decline in marriage rates among the ‘lower classes.’” As if the implosion of the marriage culture among the less-educated and less-wealthy isn’t true because a conservative is saying it. Perhaps she wouldn’t have felt the need for scare quotes if the information was coming from a fellow liberal, such as Isabel Sawhill at Brookings. So here’s Sawhill on the subject, just in case it makes Kolbert feel more comfortable: “marriage is displacing both income and race as the great class divide in America.”
One gets the sense that for Kolbert the only part of What to Expect that actually registered with her was the information that I work at The Weekly Standard. That was the cue she needed to know what to think.