I don't really buy the "can't put the toothpaste back in the bottle" argument. I think that's more a preference for avoiding difficult work than a true statement. It seems to me a pro-marriage pro-natal strategy isn't that hard to come up with (more below).

Can government change behavior? Easily!

Let me give you an example. In 1900 cigarette sales were very low. And women very rarely smoked. By 1960 cigarettes sold per day had reached 11 per US adult. By 2010 that had fallen to 3 per adult and has fallen much further since.


So what draconian government measures did it take to achieve that?

1) It taxed cigarettes.

2) It banned certain kinds of advertising.

3) It sponsored public health awareness campaigns (many of which were lame, but it still worked).

Imagine in 1960 someone saying "everyone smokes, there is no way to put the toothpaste back in the bottle!"

It really wasn't that hard a thing to do. You just had to change the incentive structure.

And of course much of the TFR shortfall is due to current anti-natal anti-marriage incentives:


Let me lay out how you easily solve TFR issues.

1) End marriage penalties in both taxation and government benefits provision.

2) Pay families much bigger child allowances (provide double child allowance if married to a male who earns at least the equivalent of full time minimum wage in a year).

3) Make each child dependent increase the standard deduction in a scalar manner.

4) Re-jigger SS and Medicare taxes so that childless pay more and people with children pay less (this is a very fair way of doing it).

5) Stop subsidizing daycare over SAHM.

6) Provide total school choice, including paying cash directly to homeschool parents.

7) Stop subsidizing higher education and make alternative paths to career success more viable.

8) Some stuff about making housing cheaper.

9) Some stuff about making neighborhoods safer.

10) Vaguely, work from home seems to help with TFR for professionals so nudge in that direction.

The money for dramatically higher support for parents and marriage is there. Just think of what we spend per pupil on K-12 alone and imagine giving it directly to parents. Some of these suggestions help everyone equally and some scale to help the Middle/UMC more (where a lot of the shortfall in TFR is).

The blocks are cultural and political. Low natality women and other childless groups would lose out. Perhaps most importantly the K-12 educational establishment would lose out.

It's fear of taking these groups on at the ballot box, as well as a general elite fear of being "judgmental" about what is and isn't a superior lifestyle choice that is the problem. As a result we HIGHLY SUBSIDIZE childlessness and as a result we get more of it.

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What is TFR?

Before you advocate policies to promote marriage, what do you mean by marriage? (I'm not kidding, as you'll see below).

I agree with much of what you say: governments can indeed change behavior. In fact, they changed mine.

As a young man I was drifting along the expected path: I would fall in love with a woman, we would get married because that's what you do, and we would have children because that's what you do.

Then I encountered the Nolo Press book on family law, which explained government policy on marriage and children, and my reaction was a visceral, emphatic "this is wrong!" The legal skew favoring the lower-earning partner over the higher-earning partner - enforced in practice usually only if the lower-earning partner is the woman and the higher-earning partner is the man - was utterly astonishing. In marriage, the lower-earning partner has essentially no enforceable obligations to the higher-earning partner at all and can walk away at any time for any reason or for no reason (generally taking the children); while the higher-earning partner has onerous, enforceable obligations to the lower-earning partner that require absolutely no fair exchange of value and that long outlast the marriage. The government could hardly put up a bigger "don't do this!" sign: if I married - and especially if I had children - I faced punishment (financial punishment and loss of autonomy) comparable to having committed a serious crime.

Not surprisingly, I learned, marriages were predominantly ended by lower-earning partners.

As someone who was putting a lot of work into developing a career, I could see what this meant for me.

This was 30+ years ago, but the situation is the same today.

It was tough to overcome biological and emotional urges, but I did it. I rejected marriage, which had painful emotional consequences for me when I fell in love, and I have no children.

Government policies matter - a lot.

So, when I ask "what do you mean by marriage?" I'm serious. Because if you mean the current situation of "enslavement of an income-earning man to a woman in the hope that she'll have children" you lost me at "enslavement". I don't think I'm alone, and I think it's a major stealth reason for low marriage rates and low birth rates: policymakers forget that incentives matter to men too.

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People knew that smoking was bad for them for a long time and it didn't matter.

Today they also know that drugs, alcohol, gambling, overeating, etc are bad for them, but they are still with us, and some of those things are increasing quite quickly.

I agree there was a culture change but one ought to ask why smoking and why then? Why not these other things?

There are likely a lot of reasons but the consistent campaign against smokers wasn't all spontaneous. Government allows insurance to overcharge and deny smokers, not fat people. We literally have non smoking sections and regulations, while where and when you can gamble has greatly expanded. Etc. Etc.

"The reason people should start having kids en masse again is based on what science exactly? "

Individuals should have kids because they are good for them. If we stopped penalizing parents so much I think they would have more.

Societies are interested in their own perpetuation so it makes sense for society to respond to falling birthrates by trying to increase the birthrate. Nobody thinks "Children of Men" is anything but a dystopia.

"The happiness literature on this (even if Caplan serves as the chief marketing officer of such literature) is pretty mixed or negative."

While I would argue my kids make me happy, it's really not happiness I'm after and I don't doubt I'm unhappy when I have to help a sick kid throw up at 3am. It's something more like joy or a purposeful life you get from kids.

In any event I think you are actually right about the childless being happier in a maximum dopamine during middle age sense. Being childless is a kind of free rider effect. You get more freedom and higher disposable income (which make you happy) while the negative externalities (loneliness, existential dread, economic collapse, literal human extinction) are made up for by those that have kids and you can vicariously live though (and who will take care of you in old age).

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I feel like your making a wrong choice (mostly, I've met some people who shouldn't be parents because they are incapable, but I'm talking mostly about normal people), but that isn't really the center of my argument.

There are benefits to a society having children that are shared by everyone, even those that don't have children. Bearing children has costs. Forcing all those costs onto a minority of child bearers while allowing others to share in the benefits is a classic free rider problem. Lower TFR is the result of this subsidization scheme.

Let us take a simple example. We are all worried that SS and Medicare will go bankrupt because there are not enough young people to pay in. Obviously, those that have kids contributed not just their taxes but also their children's taxes to make that sustainable. Those that didn't have kids want benefits but didn't want to create the next generation to pay for it.

It seems obvious to me that the childless should have to pay more to make up for the future tax revenue they didn't create when they didn't have children.

And I think that is letting them off easy. We can imagine a world your SS tax rate was 100%, and it didn't matter because people had zero children and there was nobody around to accept your money in exchange for services in your old age.

"imprisoning ourselves to a life of misery"

I mostly think its a life of bland meaningless tedium rather then misery.

"This sounds a lot like special pleading."

It's basic math, you're just a selfish cheapskate. Probably why you are childless.

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His example was that your neighbor’s children will be providing your social security checks someday,, and your response is that you’re happy to keep social security solvent by retiring in El Salvador?

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This is just one step removed. If people in another country don't have kids then its the same problem. TFR is a global issue.

And besides, do you really wish a future for humanity of some last generation of low IQ third world peasants wiping your ass before the entire thing collapses. Maybe you do (you seem like a small man) but most find it a sad idea.

Lastly, are Guatemalan peasants going to provide your specialized medical care or keep your power plants running? Are they going to invent your COVID vaccine? Who will provide the high end services that the Guatemalans are entitled to under Medicaid and Obamacare? Who keeps the planes in the air or the supply chain running? Barely literate third world peasants? There is more to running a civilization then wiping your ass while you dribble on yourself alone in a nursing home.

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One of the factors that distinguishes the current generation of teenagers from those of three decades ago is their level of exposure to adults. When I was a teenager (a long time ago, I must confess), most of us had to work, either part-time during school or full-time during summer. This gave us the opportunity to interact with adults other than our parents and learn from their experiences and perspectives. However, many of today’s teens do not get a job until they finish their education. I think that working with and negotiating with a variety of adults at an early age is essential for developing maturity and independence.

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‘... the labor left’s support for higher wages instead of more welfare.’ In what universe? The Left IS welfare. According to the Left the State should pay everyone a National wage. Then nobody need work. The solution is get rid of welfare particularly that which makes the State/taxpayer surrogate husbands; stop affirmative action otherwise known by its proper name as discrimination in the work place to meet political aims to buy votes from select groups.

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On driving and dating: Driving: Law enforcement sets up gauntlets for young drivers who drink and drive. If you have one beer at a large party, and want to drive to away, there is a good chance law enforcement has a lock on the get together and will stop you for driving while young. You are risking the total destruction of your life through state punishments. Dating: young men are horrified of young women who they deem always ready to pounce for the wrong word or insensitive remark. Both of these activities have become truly high risk for the average teenage boy. Incentives say: Uber and hook up.

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I cannot agree more wholeheartedly with your comment about today's high schoolers. I have two boys, one a freshman in college and the other a senior in high school. They're great kids. But they're where I think my friends and I were when we were, as you say, 15 or 16 with respect to level of maturity. They don't take risks, they aren't self-reliant, they don't seem to have the same drive that we had back then. Maybe I can blame my parenting or their schooling, probably both.

I don't see the same pattern in my 14 year old daughter, who seems like a college senior.

I don't know that the world is a worse place for having more "tamed" young men. But I definitely think that the culture has shifted in a way that isn't conducive too them growing up.

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The population-decline problem will fix itself eventually- those not having children, and their culture, will simply not exist 4-5 generations hence. If it happens at a country-wide level, the newly emptied lands will be taken over by the people of the world who are still reproducing well above replacement rate today. It may be that the entire world starts looking like Africa and India of today.

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The primary economic approach to increasing the birth rate is going to be wildly unpopular- cutting back on education subsidies.

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"17 the new 15"? In many ways, immaturity has extended much further after Covid. More like 19 is the new 15, or 22 in the new 18, at least for those who go to college. Partial reason: "experience" is largely digital and few had dreary teen jobs?

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"17 is the new 15."

A new Klingism! ("Markets fail; use markets." etc.)

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The gov't is terrible at giving incentives for good behaviors, when those behaviors lead to more money already. While I oppose UBI and instead prefer a Job Guarantee to push more folk towards getting jobs, it is time for the gov't to do more support, carrots rather than sticks, for good behavior to change some folks into behaving better and getting better results.

More gov't rewards for marriage and having babies inside of marriage would help improve behavior, tho it won't solve the problem completely.

US counties and school districts should be tracking how many kids are in school whose parents are not married. Making the rewards for marriage higher for those living in school districts with fewer kids from married parents will be a bigger incentive for those who could use it the most.

Baby bust alarmism is overblown, tho not as much as climate alarmism. Climate alarmism is one of the reasons for fewer babies, tho educating women and getting them to join the rat race seem even bigger reasons.

The future will belong to those who show up - descendants of parents who had kids. Would be better if more of those parents were married. Religions that promote more kids, like Amish, Mormons, and Jewish Orthodox, will have more kids.

Tablet The Scroll talks about how the Jews who wanted Israel to be a "normal" state for Jews, are now protesting against a majority who want it to be a Jewish state.

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On the one-earner family: There is an assumption in Arnold's remarks that the one earner must be male. Problem: females are better suited than males to more jobs than decades ago, because jobs have drifted away from risk and physical strength toward social skills. My wife and I are closing in on 42 years of marriage, and I have earned more than her in exactly zero of those. She made a very practical career choice in nursing, and I was an academic idiot who spent the meat of my productive years in grad school in the humanities. But we worked it out. I used to drive our son to her job for breastfeeding during her break. We shared child care and household duties. I was more active with the schools and in the community. Role reversal. My reward from the conservative community? Loser! From the left? Oppressor! Fine. But we have two great kids, both married, one with children, the other planning to have them. And the women in both of those couples are the higher earners. Gotta give up the '50s, guys, they ain't coming back. And in a couple of weeks we will spend six weeks driving the Alaska Highway, unconcerned about finances.

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I noticed that assumption too and agree wholeheartedly, although I think you created straw man of both progressive and conservative attitudes towards your household arrangement.

It seems to me that parents almost always have a comparative advantage in raising their own children, and outsourcing that rather than encouraging parents to embrace a division of labor between them in work and rearing (regardless of which role the husband and wife take), has contributed to a lot of family problems.

I think a lot of that stress is probably self-initiated, though, with couples wanting two incomes to keep up with the Jones’s, rather than accepting a more modest life in a more affordable area.

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I am surprised that no-one mentioned the obvious solution to a declining US population. Immigration.

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"Not going to put the toothpaste back in the tube" - why not? This has happened repeatedly in the past. Off the top of my head: Norman vs Anglo-Saxon England, Meiji vs Tokugawa Japan, and the Baby Boom era West vs the 1910s-1930s. It's a difficult political problem, but not an unsolvable one.

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Immaturity is a self-fixing problem. Don't worry about other people being immature, just work on yourself to be a better person.

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On economics and natalism: I do think that our unbalanced trade system has gutted domestic manufacturing jobs and promoted service work. It has also promoted wage suppression in manufacturing jobs in other countries. It would be interesting to see what impacts balancing these distortions would have. For example, Michael Pettis proposes a small tax on short term money coming into US capital markets that would adjust based on volume. I’m far from certain that adjustment would change the situation but more employable men at higher wages wouldn’t hurt. I’d also support more coverage for IVF and fertility treatments. So I guess I do support government intervention here.

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IVF and fertility treatments probably push towards fewer kids, not more. Having IVF as an options encourages women to defer child bearing for later in life, and having kids later in life is harder, not easier (well easier than as an unwed teen mother, but harder than in your mid 20s).

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to what do you attribute the slowing of maturity among teens? I can think of several possibilities ( e.g. overly protective parents; legal barriers to free-ranging children), but what are your suggestions?

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A linked pair of reasons: 1) there are so few many-child families. 2) almost all those who make it out of the womb live, and childhood diseases have mostly been conquered.

At one time, it was common for at least one child to die early. People were not surprised and were in some sense resigned to it. Besides, there were plenty of brothers and sisters who did survive. That is no longer the case and norms have changed (with a lag, as usually happens). It has come to be expected that every child will live for a long time. Worse, If a child dies, there may only one surviving sibling, or, increasingly, no one. The thought of death or injury becomes intolerable. So they are taught safety first, which often takes the form of "Be afraid."

I suggest that this is also a reason for the vogue for soft socialism among the young. They have been brought up in institutions (day care, K-16) that, however imperfectly, "provide for their needs"--which includes safety. They want a more comprehensive protection and provision.

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I would add to the other good responses here that we don't LET children have maturity much these days. We don't let them walk a short distance to school, and make the decision to go straight there or mess about a bit and maybe be late and get in trouble. We don't send 13 year olds to the corner store alone to buy milk and bread. People get arrested for leaving 12 year olds alone at home for a few hours.

A big part of developing maturity is just putting kids into situations they are only just able to handle and letting them do it, learning both that they can do it and that there are repercussions to failing to do it they will have to handle, too. Children aren't just small adults, but we as a society seem dead set against letting them handle a little adulthood at a time until they make the transition. It is just "You are a baby until you are an adult. We'll let you know when that is."

Edit: dropped a word or two...

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Welfare. Before welfare, school leaving age (UK) was 15 and children HAD to get a job as parents wouldn’t/couldn’t afford a hungry teen mouth. Children were part of the family economy. Getting a job for a young person, trading their juvenile life of play for an adult environment of responsibility, duty and where hard work was required to get reward, is a very effective maturing experience. When life is just an extension of kindergarten into adulthood with low expectations, video games, no responsibilities, no duties, everything provided for no effort by parents and community, why the surprise that we are breeding superannuated toddlers?

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It's funny, NOT having sex before marriage, refraining from knocking a girl up, NOT drinking before the legal age. In the 90s when I was a teen these would have been considered mature decisions.

Today the Maury Povich deadbeat dads are oddly more mature? Because say what you will, they're risk-taking and fecund.

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Not having pre-marital sex because you obey social norms and restrain yourself: maturity

Not having pre-marital sex because of an underdeveloped ability to form personal relationships: lack of maturity

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Reduction in (unmarried ) Teen pregnancy: lack of maturity.

But positive for society.

The willingness of some women to have promiscuous sex, for pleasure, is a signal of maturity of those women, who can also be called sluts, but is negative for society.

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I think you are on to something there, but the analogy might be missing a few layers. Learning sex ed is one thing, but actually going out and having sex has a LOT of steps beyond deciding to go do it. Getting up the nerve to ask someone out on a date is probably a big one, then developing the relationship, spending the time together, finding the time to be alone together... that all might be well outside the capabilities of the young today, to Kling's point about the lack of maturity being the driver.

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That's a good question. I would personally say it is in broad strokes the ability to function as an adult, which I would say is being able to be self reliant, functioning on your own, making good choices about costs/benefits when it comes to risks, and (eventually) being able to raise children yourself. I probably would add something about being able to face new challenges and situations instead of being limited to what you have done before, as the opposite strikes me as a feature of the immature, being limited to dealing with the known and familiar only. In that vein, plenty of adults are immature, and plenty of kids are remarkably mature for their age.

That's my rough definition off the top of my head. It definitely could use some refinement, and probably can't be perfectly pinned down, but it is roughly what I have in mind.

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