If you have been in New Zealand over the last few weeks (and months) you will have despaired at times at the severe lack of rational public discourse. Maybe nothing has really changed in that regard (our cousins across “the ditch” in Australia would probably say something on this point like: “mate, what are you talkin’ about? You sheep-shaggers could never hold an intelligent conversation. Not like us ‘strayans.” They may have a point; look at the state of Australian philosophy. They have world-renowned “ethicist” Peter Singer as well as this fine philosophical institution…) Anyway, what really brought this lack of public rational discourse home to me was the utter lack of debate in the public arena about the redefinition of marriage that was passed last week.

I don’t want to re-litigate that argument, (if you wish to, go here) but instead segue from New Zealand to the USA where there does seem to be a more robust public sphere to debate. Moreover, there seems to be media outlets that publish different lines of thought from both sides of the political spectrum. One of those media outlets is the New York Times, which published a piece last week by Derek S. Hoff who argued that the fears of a stagnating, ageing USA are “hogwash”. This is going against the grain of not only this blog, but more and more of the commentators who are waking up to our demographic problem in the West. So I was interested to read Hoff’s argument. But then I realised that he doesn’t have one. At least not an easily followed, consistent one. And that’s when I started lamenting the state of public debate.

Seriously, go and read the piece yourself. What is the argument?  One of its thrusts seems to be that the USA should not be using its declining birthrate as an argument for immigration. But why not? Apparently, because the fears of a “population implosion” like Japan are not going to eventuate.  Hoff argues that the USA has a birthrate of 1.9 children per woman which he acknowledges is “slightly below the ‘replacement rate’ of 2.1) is “still among the highest of rich countries”. Immediately before this though, he states that the US is going to grow by over 100 million people over the next 50 years. Therefore there is no “ageing crisis”, no “population implosion” and no need for immigration “to make up for its declining birthrate”.  But the numbers provided (growing population and below-replacement fertility rate) only computes if there are large numbers of immigrants. That is, if you are not replacing your population through birth rates, then you will need to rely on immigration. Therefore, the predicted growing population figures cited by Hoff must include future immigration. So, the only reason that the USA is not facing a Japanese-style population implosion is precisely because of immigration. And therefore, Hoff’s figures are only true if immigration continues, which is precisely what he is arguing against.

It appears that Hoff implicitly recognises this. In the second half of his piece we see that actually his problem with immigration is that it will swell the USA’s population and that this is bad for the environment. What we see is that Hoff secretely wishes that there was a “population implosion” in the USA because then there would be less air pollution, less water pollution, more “recreational access to open space”, more wilderness protection, less global warming and less air pollution in Hoff’s hometown: Salt Lake City. (Interestingly, Hoff’s support for anthropocentric global warming is opinion polls…have the scientific community moved on in its support?) Therefore, according to Hoff, there needs to be more debate about the “sustained large-scale legal immigration to one of the world’s most energy-hogging nations”.  That is, people should stay at home, where they consume less energy (because they generally come from poorer nations) and should not seek to emigrate to the USA to make a better life for themselves and their families.

Aside from the environmental angle, the USA doesn’t need a larger population to grow its economy because economists agreed (before the evil 1980s came along with “new laissez-faire economics”) that “what mattered was not the size of a population but its human capital and its savings, investment and consumer practices.” That is, we should aim for a smaller and more productive economy. Now, I’m not an economist. But the reason that China is the second largest economy in the world has an awful lot to do with its large population. While size isn’t everything, it certainly helps. Secondly, I agree that a more productive economy is great.  But if your productive working population is shrinking in relation to your dependant elderly population, then your productivity needs to expand to keep up with this. But if your working population shrinks too quickly, then there is no way that productivity can keep up and suddenly things like pensions become too expensive…and that’s when immigration starts to look more appealing…

But more immigration leads us back to environmental problems. Hoff makes his last point about the environmental impact of an expanding world population (a “crisis” in his words).  In it, he makes this interesting statement: “Neither the elderly nor the world’s rising middle class, who rationally choose to have fewer children as their economies become less labour-intensive and as women gain more control over their bodies and reproductive choices, are to blame.” First, no one blames the elderly for an ageing population – it is the generations coming under them that are having fewer children that are to blame. Secondly, so who is to blame? It sounds like the people to blame for this crisis are those poorer people who keep on having children. Mainly over in other countries with funny sounding names. Probably Africa. The irony of course is that when it comes to environmental impact, the middle classes are very much to blame! As Hoff mentioned earlier, the USA is one of the largest energy consumers in the world. The more affluent members of the world consume more and pollute more per capita than their slum-dwelling counterparts in the third world. I would bet that one middle-class Derek S. Hoff is a greater threat to this planet than your average African family.

The USA may not be in quite so bad a shape as the rest of the West (and China and Japan and the East Asian Tigers) when it comes to demography. But it is likely to face severe issues with its greying population in the years to come. Finally, Hoff should relax, hasn’t he read in the NYTimes that the world’s population is going to peak in 37 years? Oh right, I’m pretty sure that that news hasn’t been published there yet. Or in fact anywhere mainstream.

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...