What is the role of the United States in the
future? There is much talk today as there was a few decades ago
that America is in big trouble.
It is said America is too powerful the sole superpower and
consequently arrogant and unpopular. We hear the war in Iraq has been
lost, our political system is both bizarre and broke, we are flooded
with immigrants, especially illegals, we pay little heed to the rest of
the world, the dollar is cheap, the gap between rich and poor is
growing, and so on.
Accordingly, so it is said, we are headed for a grand fall.
This is not just garden-variety anti-Americanism. We need only listen
to the rhetoric coming from our primary elections.
Surely, America is powerful. Never has there been a nation as
economically potent, geopolitically influential, culturally dominant,
scientifically important, and with a language that has become universal
American, or if you prefer, English.
I have worked more than 40 years examining and interpreting
American and international social and economic data. To me the evidence
seems clear. There is no collapse in sight. The United States will become vastly
more powerful in the decades to come.
My primary reason concerns demographics. The first U.S. Census counted 3.9 million
Americans. The Census of 2000 counted roughly 300 million Americans, an increase of
7,500 percent. Just over the course of the 20th century, the population grew by 400
percent. Careful projections by both the U.S. Census Bureau and the United Nations
Population Division now show a growth path to 400 million by 2050 and 500 million
by 2100. But that is an increase of 67 percent not close to 7,500
percent or 400 percent. Relatively, growth is slowing down but a half
a billion people is a big number. Population yields influence.
The astonishing point of this sequence of numbers is that
almost every other nation developed or less-developed is on a path
toward, or has already started decline. The exceptions I can think of
are Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Israel.
In 2004 I wrote a book titled "Fewer." Its operative
sentence was "Never have birth and fertility rates fallen so far, so
fast, so low, for so long, in so many places, so surprisingly."
I think the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is the most meaningful
way of measuring what is going on demographically. It reflects the
average total number of children born per woman over the course of her
childbearing years. It takes 2.1 children per woman to "replace" a
population over time. Sooner or later the two parents die and the .1
represents those children who do not live to the reproductive age.
Today, the TFR in Western Europe is about 1.6 children per
woman. Southern Europe is lower. In Italy, once famous as the land of
the bouncing bambino the rate is about 1.3. Not long ago that was the
lowest in the world. Today the TFR as low or lower in Eastern Europe.
Japan and South Korea have rates near 1.1 children per woman. China's
coercive one-child family policy has left them with a massive
demographic shortfall. Who will pay the health and retirement bills
when small cohorts of Chinese have to pay for huge numbers of elderly
people who need health care and living expenses?
Already more than 25 Less Developed Nations (formerly called "Third World") have TFR
below replacement fertility rates. These include Cuba, Costa Rica, Tunisia, Iran,
probably Turkey, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and North Korea.
Russia is in a particularly perilous demographic situation. Its
TFR is about 1.2 children per woman but exacerbated by out-migration
and low longevity, particularly among men, due to alcoholism. That's
not the portrait of a super-power: a fleet of rusting nuclear weapons,
a sea of oil and ever-fewer people.
"Ever-fewer" is the root of the demographic situation. The
horror stories about the "population explosion" concerned how
population growth moved in a geometric progression. One
scientist testified to Congress that if trends continued the radius of
the human flesh would expand at the speed of light.
Other alarmists, like Paul Ehrlich had somewhat more modest
projections. (My late colleague at the American Enterprise Institute,
Herbert Stein wisely noted that "a trend that can't continue won't.")
But when the TFR goes below the replacement level - the depopulation
also proceeds geometrically. The Europeans, Russians, Chinese and their
East Asian neighbors will have starkly fewer people. India is still
above replacement, but on a steep path toward decline accelerated by
Therefore what? Commercially powerful nations will be less so
as markets and workers diminish unless they accept huge numbers of
immigrants from the Muslim world or from Sub-Saharan Africa, a trend
depopulating nations resist with passion.
In America, too, there is some resistance to immigration, particularly to illegals. But
the United States has thrived on assimilating newcomers after hating
them. Benjamin Franklin denounced German immigrants. The Irish were
hated, so were Jews, Italians and Poles. There were immigration laws
against certain groups as in the "Asian Exclusion Acts." But most of
the descendants of those immigrants not only became productive
citizens, but presidents, corporate innovators and Nobel Prize winners.
Today many and grandchildren of the haters now celebrate the American
mosaic. The hate du jour has shifted to Mexicans.
Of course, depopulation will not continue indefinitely:
According to its leading demographers, Mexico already has a TFR below
the replacement level. In theory, if Mexicans keep emigrating
and Americans keep buying beachfront condos the indigenous population
of Mexico will disappear and the nation will be composed entirely of
There are dueling studies about whether the current
immigration to America will be economically positive or negative. But
none of them can take into account Rudy, the son of my housekeeper. His
mom, Iris, arrived in the United States as a teenager, stuffed into the
trunk of a car with 15 other people. Rudy is now almost 16. He goes to
an excellent public school. He gets fine grades. He speaks English
without an accent. He plays fullback on his school's football team. He
does not do drugs or smoke. His major complaint is that he can't yet
drive a car.
What will Rudy contribute to America? I doubt he will win a
Nobel Prize in science. He could become an engineer or the CEO of a
corporation. He can surely be the sales manager of an American company
with a territory in any Spanish-speaking country. No regression
analysis can predict what the Rudys will be worth to America, just as
none could foretell the role of immigrant Albert Einstein.
Will this global demographic free-fall continue? To halt it
to reflate fertility in order to re-instate current population levels
would require a TFR of 4 to 5 children per woman. That won't happen,
certainly not where the dominant mode of residence is the apartment,
rather than the American-style free-standing private home.
The central question is: Can global fertility go back up to
2.1 and stabilize at a lower level? I would assume so: I doubt the
world will be composed of the descendants of Mormons and Ultra-Orthodox
Jews. Demographers used to say, wryly "Oh, Latvia is 'going out of
business' " or Estonia, or Austria. Today you might include Russia,
Italy, Japan and scores of others. I doubt that will happen.
But when will world population restabilize? A
few years ago the United Nations ran projections out to the year 2300.
There are plenty of scenarios in that remarkable document: The one I
thought most realistic showed a total population of just a little more
than 2 billion people.
The current global population is about 6.5 billion people. The
medium variant projection a few years ago had world population growing
to 11.5 billion. The population projections related to global warming
were first based on that number and have now been reduced to 10
billion. But recent data shows population will reach about 7.5 billion
before beginning a long decline.
A large part of global warming induced by humans depends on
how many humans there will be. As the number of humans declines,
human-induced greenhouse gas emissions will fall, particularly so as
"green" technologies fall into place. Al Gore has not noticed.
I have been invited to attend small U.N. meetings of
demographers. I learned a great deal. But the most powerful statement
came from the man I was seated next to, the Italian demographer Antonio
Golini. He kept muttering one word: "unsustainable, unsustainable,
What sort of world will the birth dearth yield? Different. In
theory, immigrants will be prizes, not burdens. There will be labor
shortages. Whether humans can overcome their fear of strangers remains
to be seen. Commerce will change. Big and populous countries with big
markets will shrink. Power and influence will shift.
A Russia with a perilously low TFR, compounded by high death
rates due to alcoholism and substantial emigration will be a much
diminished power in the years to come. Europe will be a substantially
less important player than today.
Consider economics. We hear other nations will "pull" their
money from the United States because of the "cheap" dollar. But if you
are a pension plan manager looking for a large, stable, democratic,
nation with a relatively honest stock market there is only one. The
allegedly terrible housing situation is also a nonstarter. Either 40
million American will sleep on the streets in 2050 or there will be a
These facts are not graven in stone. It is hard to believe
that great and ancient nations will "go out of business." But, when
does the free-fall stop? We do not know that. For the moment it remains
very useful to know the terrain.