Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Mad Social Scientist Caused Baby Boom, Sank Economy?

Yesterday, I attended the commencement ceremony at the College of Wooster in Ohio. My nephew, Ross Buchanan, graduated magna cum laude with a degree in history. Other than affording me the opportunity to play the role of proud uncle, being on the Wooster campus for only the second time in my life brought to mind a fascinating story that my mother (Wooster '47) told me many years ago. The story, oddly enough, has some relevance to current issues of fiscal policy. Or maybe not.

At the beginning of the 1946-47 academic year, the women of Wooster's Senior class were called to an assembly in the college chapel. The chairman of the Sociology Department addressed the assembled soon-to-be graduates, and he announced that he had been studying world population statistics in the immediate aftermath of the massive carnage of World War II. His conclusion: So many men and women had died in the war that the human race was in danger of dying out. (Note: Upon hearing this for the first time, my immediate comment was that the professor really had to mean "the white race" and not "the human race." My mother replied quite honestly that she did not know what he meant and that the listeners -- almost all of whom were white Anglo-Saxon protestants -- probably did not stop to think about the distinction, either. This was pre-Civil Rights era, among other things.) Having announced such a shocking conclusion based on his scientific inquiry, the professor then declared that there was but one thing that could be done: Every woman in the room had to give birth to four children, or the human race would, indeed, die out.

I am not an historian, so I readily confess that I am simply uninformed about the competing explanations for why the Baby Boom happened (or even whether there are competing explanations). We do know that the official dates of the Baby Boom are 1946-64. As a teenager, I came up with my own theory: the returning soldiers were so deprived of sex that they had immediately gotten down to it upon their return, unleashing a population explosion the likes of which the country had never seen. The holes in that theory are, of course, legion -- most obviously the preposterous implications that millions of U.S. soldiers, sailors, and Marines had gone without sex for four years and, even more incredibly, that it took them eighteen years to make up for lost time. So as a thirteen-year-old, I was not showing much promise as a demographer (or perhaps much else).

Still, my mother's story is thought-provoking, if for no other reason than its implication that the paradigmatic shift in public attitudes about family size following the war might have been at least in part driven by conscious public exhortation to procreate, procreate, procreate. To the extent that such efforts played any part in the subsequent boom, this suggests that the era of ever larger families was at least partly driven by conscious public spiritedness, not merely (if at all) by spontaneous and autonomous personal decisions to double family sizes. Population growth would thus have been the result of people's decisions to be responsible to future generations, first and foremost to make sure that there would be future generations.

As many readers of this blog know, I am currently working on a book to be titled What Do We Owe Future Generations? (See here and here for short discussions of that topic on this blog. A pre-publication version of a forthcoming law review article on this subject is downloadable here.) In the current policy climate, the concern is that the aging of the Baby Boomers (currently aged 45-63) will put too much of a strain on the public treasury and thus will force us to reduce promised retirement and health benefits to retirees in the very near future. As it happens, my reading of the evidence indicates that those doomsday scenarios are wildly overblown, which (if I am right) is obviously good news. As many economists and budget analysts have known for quite some time, the issue is not that there will be too many retirees but that health care costs (for young and old alike) are rising too rapidly and must be brought down or at least slowed down. In future columns, I will offer some thoughts on the Obama proposals to do just that.

For present purposes, however, I will just offer this idle thought. Suppose that the Baby Boom really does turn out to be an overwhelming burden on the post-Boom generations. Would that mean that the (probably) well-meaning ravings of one or more bad (or mad) social scientists more than 60 years ago will have ultimately destroyed the U.S. economy? In one of his more famous turns of phrase, John Maynard Keynes once said that "[p]ractical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist." Are today's younger generations fated to be the victims of some defunct sociologist(s)?

Of course, I do not mean to take this point too seriously. Still, my mother's story is one of my favorites -- but probably not because of its implicit indictment of social science gone awry. The next part of the story is best told by my mother: "My best friend and I were so shaken by what we heard at that assembly that we said to each other, 'Well, we'd better be safe and have five kids each.'" I am her fifth child. Blame that defunct sociologist.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan


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