Last week, Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist, took an unspoken yet mainstream view and tweeted it out loud.
Responding to a growing interest (particularly among intellectual conservatives) in natalism, Krugman’s tweet thread initially seemed to be arguing that the economic case for natalism is weak. But he ended his thread on a more emotional note, critiquing the perceived real reason for the uptick in natalism, tweeting: “the economic case for pro-natalism is really weak — so you’re left with some kind of ‘family values’ argument (I mean, look at how fatherhood has mellowed and matured Donald Trump) or, not-so-hidden subtext, the need for more white Christians.”
Some kind of “family-values” argument, indeed.
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Krugman’s tweets set off a series of arguments and counterarguments online. While some reacted to his drive-by anti-Christian smear, most engaged with his economic argument. This tendency, to want to hash this debate out on economic grounds, reflects the biases with which elites generally approach birth rate questions, including in Canada.
The global fertility rate, and birth rates in each country, is evidently important to civilization as we know it. The subject is the very definition of existential. And yet, in polite society, natalism carries with it a reputation for eerie religiosity, a concerning nationalism and a patriarchal, barefoot-in-the-kitchen kind of vibe. For secular liberals who make up the vast majority of elite opinion in the west, natalism sounds downright creepy.
This means that for the few centrist economists, policy leaders and politicians who do want to acknowledge the clear downsides of a shrinking population, economic language is the solution to the ick factor. A shrinking and aging population means a shrinking economy with more expensive (older) people to take care of and not enough GDP-contributors to do it.
While anti-natalists counter that immigration is the solution, natalists counter that immigration isn’t enough and as the decline in birth rates remains gradual rather than sudden, the issue lingers on the periphery. But this public discussion skirts the core of the natalism debate: the cultural conflict Krugman so offensively concluded his thread with.
The economic analysis is wholly inadequate for capturing the value of increasing birth rates (and the downside of decreasing birth rates) and by opting out of the cultural argument, natalists sideline the most powerful point of all: Children are a common social good in and of themselves and making more of them is a good thing.
First, it’s important to understand the stakes. Birth rates have been gradually declining across the developed world for decades. There are occasionally precipitous declines and occasionally rates tick back up, and some countries are worse off (depending on your perspective) than others, but in general, the trend is consistent.
There is a community of demographers who study birth rates and intellectuals who write about them, but the issue is relatively niche in policy circles, except for when we see steeper circumstantial declines, like during the pandemic, or mini baby booms.
Lately, natalism is back in vogue, if temporarily. Birth rates declined at the beginning of the pandemic, but then U.S. President Joe Biden rolled out a cash benefit for families with kids at home, similar in some ways to the Canada Child Benefit. Now, American birth rates are ticking back up, something demographers are calling a “baby boomlet.”
Research indicates that economic circumstances impact birth rates at the margins and the most recent U.S. trends support this. As American families faced economic uncertainty (not just about their finances but about their home life and work life) at the start of the pandemic, many put pregnancy plans on pause. Then, as stimulus funds flowed from the government, and home and work life re-normalized (in some cases with the knowledge that work-from-home might remain an option for parents with fewer leave options), families opted back into growing.
But, this kind of circumstantial impact seems to only impact birth rates at the margins. Longer-term research is clear that the global trend in declining birth rates is not likely to be reversed by one-off economic policy levers like better parental leave or baby bonuses.
This is not to say these policies shouldn’t be pursued. Indeed, the way a society redistributes its tax revenue and what its laws ask of employers reflect what it values and as some have pointed out, it is unjust that parenthood has become a luxury good. However, given the existential nature of the bigger natalism question, it is worth better understanding why birth rates continue to decline in many countries despite financial support for families.
The latest research suggests two major factors which impact birth rates: religion and work. To my mind, the two are connected. Workism, described by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic, is the modern, western phenomenon whereby the the “college-educated elite” derive a sense of meaning, identity and community from work (rather than from home life, family and religion). Demographers have drawn a link between the rise in workism and the decrease in fertility.
Meanwhile, as these same westerners become less religious, the stubborn few who continue to practice are the exception to fertility decline. If religion and the thing that often takes the place of it for the non-religious (work), seem connected, it’s because they are. People who value family over the individual, home life over work life and community over self are more likely to have more kids.
It follows that a society that elevates those same value-based priorities will foster higher birth rates, a younger population, and stronger communities. This is the terrain on which to hash out the cultural debate around natalism. And as Krugman’s tweets make clear, the anti-natalists are already doing so.
Krugman and his peers are horrified by the notion that people who worship God have more kids. It’s more acceptable to outwardly express this horror towards white Christians, but it’s safe to assume he would find natalists of all faiths and races suspicious in their fondness for procreation.
On the one hand, those of us who value community, family and the common good are at a clear disadvantage because while our opponents fight a culture war, we politely make a series of highly-technocratic economic arguments. On the other hand, despite declining birth rates, the family as an organizing principle is stubbornly persistent. Natalists should be bold in this knowledge and seek to win over hearts and minds on the cultural battlefield, not just in policy journals.
This means leaders who believe natalism is important should talk about it, like JD Vance did in a speech last week at the Future of American Political Economy Conference. It means people who believe starting a family is a good way to go should pursue it for themselves and model it for their peer groups. And it means we should seek to ensure our pop culture (so often dominated by the cultural left) celebrates babies and families.
The cultural left talks about and signals their values all the time. Natalists could take inspiration from Canada’s Liberal government, which, in signalling virtue for its brand of feminism, applies a feminist “lens” to public policy decision making. Sam Duncan has suggested in this publication that a similar approach could be taken by the right in the form of a family-lens applied to government policy making to avoid inadvertent policy penalties for families and encourage the application of family values to government decision making in general.
Natalist demographers are doing good work tracking birth rates and analyzing how economic policy programs impact them. But their work will languish on the sidelines of public debate unless those of us who care about the issue ignite and lead the cultural conversation.
Ironically, the cultural elite who are the most uncomfortable talking about natalism (that ick factor again), are the ones with the financial means to have more children. Financial supports (such as means-tested benefits) can make up some of this gap and empower the less fortunate to pursue the bigger families they desire, but birth rates will continue to decline overall unless natalists overcome their discomfort and seek to win hearts and minds on the cultural battlefield.
I’ll start. People should have more kids. They should talk about how great it is and we should endeavour to depict that more in our popular culture, our politics and our public conversations. That might mean that we need to do a better job supporting the growth and flourishing of our religious communities and it might mean we should nurture sources of identity and meaning beyond work. Not because of the economics, but because of – yes, Paul Krugman – family values.