A good/bad time to stop having babies

Here follows a bit of demographic speculation. It’s guesswork right now, but we’ll know in a year or two if I’m right.

Interesting Fact #1: birthrates tend to drop during recessions, and the drop tends to correlate with both the severity of the recession and the speed of its onset. The current recession is looking to be a bad one, and it happened pretty quickly, so we can reasonably expect a sharp drop in birth rates. I say “expect” because it hasn’t happened yet — human biology being what it is, we won’t see the first effects until nine months after most people became aware of the recession. This summer, more or less.

— Makes sense, right? Babies are expensive; more to the point, babies limit your options. They make it harder to move to a different city, change careers, stop working for a while. When times are hard and uncertain, babies become a luxury. For individuals and families, a recession is a good time to put childbearing on hold.

However…

Interesting Fact #2: all across Communist Eastern Europe, birth rates declined slowly through the 1970s and ’80s… and then crashed after 1990, dropping to very low levels and staying there through most of the decade. In some countries they bounced back a bit, in others not, but in almost all cases there’s a big “birth gap” from about 1991 until at least 1997, and often later. This is in contrast to, say, Germany or Italy or Greece, where birthrates declined more smoothly.

Put these two facts together, and there’s a problem. Continue reading

Qatar: It’s Where the Money Comes From

Karl Marx said that ideology is part of the social superstructure, merely a decorative overlay on the brutal truth of the economic base. Millian liberalism was really just an expression of the pounding steam engines, Jacquard looms and downtrodden apprentices of 1840s Manchester, just as absolutism had been built on the assumption that society would always consist of peasants and landlords.

But what does it tell us about the chief proponents of “Eurabia” that a healthy chunk of their money comes from, well, Arabia? We don’t need to spend too much time flogging this sack of horseshit; Randy McDonald has already debunked it with rapier sharpness in this post at Demography Matters, following up on his classic 2004-vintage spanking of Mark Steyn. The short version is that there are not enough Muslims, the ones who are in Europe are progressively exhibiting more European demography, the countries whose demography is most worrying attract large numbers of non-Muslim immigrants, and not all European countries’ demography is anything like the same.

The Nation‘s Kathryn Joyce takes a look at the politics of Eurabia; nobody should be surprised that it’s pretty ugly. Essentially, there’s a gaggle of thinktanks/campaign groups/whatever closely connected to the Mormons and Senator Sam Brownback, and specifically to their extreme “quiverfull” wing, which advocates having absurdly (8+ kids) large families. It looks a lot like an effort both to find a new market for their politics in central Europe (Kazcynski’s Poland was Target One) and also to gin up a foreign-policy scare that would energise their base in support of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. Well, that went well.

It’s also amusing that Joyce describes their view of Poland as “the anti-Sweden”. I don’t know to what extent this is a true misrepresentation, but it’s worth pointing out that they’ve placed their strategic bridgehead on the wrong side of the Baltic. It’s as if the Normandy landings had taken place somewhere on the coast of Portugal or Ireland. In yet another cracking DM post, this time by “AFOE Principal Investigator” Edward Hugh, we learn that Sweden is the last place in Europe that needs to worry. Well, except for France. Poland, on the other hand, is solidly in their problem group of countries with very low total-fertility rates (the data is here (XLS)). France? Sweden? You can almost hear the authoritarian personalities creak and groan with the cognitive dissonance. Of course, there’s a very good reason why they didn’t go to either France or Sweden, which is that they would have been laughed out of town.

But what especially amuses me is this:

The result is the spread of US culture-war tactics across the globe, from the Czech Republic to Qatar–where right-wing Mormon activist and WCF co-founder Richard Wilkins has found enough common cause with Muslim fundamentalists to build the Doha International Institute for Family Studies and Development.

Doha? As in Qatar? Yes. Unless you’re in the oil or natural gas business, there’s one reason to locate a new institution – especially a profoundly subsidy-dependent one like a thinktank – in Qatar, which is that the sheikh is probably paying for it. Marx would have understood what’s going on here – nothing happens without the means of production, after all. Money, not Coke – it’s the real thing. But what would he have made of the World Council of Families?

Frozen conflicts: Transnistria

Spent a weekend in Nagorno-Karabakh last month.

If you don’t know what or where Nagorno-Karabakh is… well, that’s healthy and normal. Most people don’t. But it’s pretty interesting, in a depressing sort of way.

When the Soviet Union broke up, it left a number of unresolved ethnic and territorial conflicts around its old frontiers. Four of these still survive today. In ascending order of nastiness, they are Trans-Dnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Would anyone be interested in an occasional series on these? Here’s one on Trans-Dnistria below the cut.
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Spain’s postnational local election?

Richard Corbett MEP directs us to this BBC report on Spain’s rash of political parties dominated by immigrants from other European countries, especially Germany and Britain. In one municipality, San Fulgencio, there are some three such parties, including one run by a former policeman that declares its opposition to immigration.

This immediately raises an interesting question of language. As Corbett points out, the BBC reporter refers throughout to “ex-pats”, who are apparently something quite different to “immigrants”. I am an expatriate, you are a local, he is an immigrant, they are bogus asylum seekers taking our jobs? I suppose it’s not surprising that these large, usually politically silent, communities should export their political preferences with them – one can well imagine people who fit into UKIP, the BNP, or the Tory hard right fitting into what Edward Hugh calls Spanish separatism.

Certainly, we can discern a progression through perhaps three phases. To begin with, these places were tourist resorts (hence the infrastructure problems that motivate much of this political activity, the lead times being long). Then they began to be retirement communities, with the demographic shift and the run-up of the property market. Now, interestingly, not only are the retirees living longer, but the expat (or immigrant!) population is getting younger, in a symbiotic process with the appearance of an expat economy.

Tourists are politically irrelevant, at least in the context of an open society. Retirement communities may have been thought to be so. If people have families and businesses, though, they can’t help but have interests that are affected by local politics. Corbett raises an interesting point when he postulates a British Polish Party. After all, they would be starting at stage three already, although the fact a lot of them intend to leave would be a countervailing force.

I wonder how many more extranational political parties the EU will see?

On the back of the drag curve

Jean-Marie Le Pen has, as per tradition, called for mass abstention in the second round. He always does this, but it’s likely to be significant this time round—obviously, if he was obeyed, the loss of 10.44 per cent would be a significant change in the rapport des forces indeed.

And you have to wonder why anyone who votes for a party that is little else than a cult of personality around him would not follow his advice. Still, most people seem to think his votes will go to Nicolas Sarkozy. I’m not so sure.

After all, you can rat but you can’t re-rat. If the pessimistic case is true—the FN didn’t do badly, its voters were stolen by Sarko—then they are already gone, leaving only the stahlhelmfraktion of diehards behind. Who are by definition unlikely to shift.

On the optimistic side, as previously noted, the pollsters placed Le Pen at between 10 and 14 per cent at the beginning of the campaign, and depending where they started, at the same value at the finish. Seeing as the trends, or rather trendlessness, all agree, it looks like he started off with 10 per cent and neither gained nor lost votes through the campaign.

That’s pretty dire for a third- or fourth-party insurgent, who you’d expect to benefit from campaigning, more coverage, and especially the last few days’ mandatory equal access. Me, I reckon AFOE’s demographic hobbyhorse is to blame, or credit. Very simply, Le Pen voters are old, like the man himself, and they are dying out. To achieve a positive rate-of-climb, the FN has not only to recruit new voters faster than it loses codgers, it has to find them from new demographics. (This can of course be overstated. The biggest voting block in the first round was composed of candidates who found it necessary to explicitly address people who are still pissed off about withdrawal from Algeria in 1962. And people say Britain hasn’t come to terms with the imperial past.)

Hence, no doubt, Le Pen’s stumping of the ‘hoods. It’s interesting that he has considerable support among the immigrants he railed against at the start of his career, but it’s observable that the FN is struggling to get off the back of the demographic drag curve. Presumably, Le Pen’s active life represents the remaining length of the runway—

In the short term, of course, he has to fend off the danger of being “Marchaised” by Nicolas Sarkozy—in 1981, the Socialists invited Georges Marchais’ Communists into a coalition, where they proceeded to nab much of their support. In the longer term, the chief challenge is to replace enough codgers to ensure a presence.

Easter Egg Vlogging: statistics and swords

Well, sort of. But don’t be scared, gentle readers, I’m not torturing you with a video of myself watching Edward Hugh watching Alex Harrowell watching me watching Edward, thus entirely disregarding the possible value of such a video for media theorists and social psychologists as well as the fact that all the cool kids are apparently engaging in such technically mediated low level chain-voyeurism these days

Last December, I saw the Swedish demographer Hans Rosling’s presentation about his project gapminder at the LeWeb3 conference in Paris. Professor Rosling and his team have developed the “Gapminder Trendalyzer”, recently purchased by Google (and now available on http://tools.google.com/gapminder/), a truly stunning tool to flexibly visualize and break down statistical time series, currently particularly relating to UN world development data.

Rosling’s presentation, in which he demonstrated beyond doubt that top Swedish students statistically know far less about the developing world than chimpanzees (who are on par with Nobel laureates), was one of the most interesting parts of the conference, and, as Loic LeMeur mentioned then, eye opening. Professor Rosling’s statistically derived world view is very different from the gloomy preconceptions most people are often mistaking for reality when talking about the state of the world’s development and demographic situation, particularly with respect to Africa, as Bruno Guissani remarks on Lunch Over IP

My experience in Africa, he says, is that the seemingly impossible is possible. Even bad governments have gone in the last 50 years from pre-medieval situation to sometimes decent infrastructure and conditions. … “You can believe statistics when you can relate them to your grandmother”, he says. By which he means that he has mapped his family history comparing the situation of Sweden in the different years in which his family members lived to that of different nations of the world today. His great-great mother born in the early 1800 lived in a country similar to today’s Sierra Leone; his g-g-mother in one that looked like Mozambique; his g-mother’s living conditions were close to that of Ghana today; his mother lived in the equivalent of Egypt. “And I am a Mexican”, he says, while his kids were born when Sweden was similar to today’s Chile and, in the case of the youngest one, like Singapore.

Luckily, for your Easter Vlogging pleasure, the TED blog has a video of Professor Rosling’s speech at the TED conference 2006, which is basically the one I saw in Paris. Unfortunately, there seems to be no video of his appearance at the TED conference 2007, where he demonstrated that demography and sword swallowing are two rather compatible activities. But there is a picture

Eurozone Economy: When Paradigms Collide

When scientific paradigms collide everyone should duck, at least that is the best advice I can offer at the present moment. The provisional German retail sales for January are now in, and they don’t make especially pleasant reading:

European retail sales dropped for the first time in 10 months in January as spending in Germany slumped, adding to signs economic growth is slowing, the Bloomberg purchasing managers index showed…..German retail sales had the biggest drop in two-and-a-half years, with its index declining to 43.9 from 55.2 in December

Now for those who have been following the German economy in recent months none of this should be particularly surprising, since as is reasonably well known Angela Merkel’s government has just upped VAT from 16% to 19% in an attempt to address the ongoing federal deficit problems. And of course, one months data never offer a complete picture. But this decline in retail consumption in Germany forms part of a much longer ongoing weakness in domestic consumption (and here), one which many were arguing had finally come to an end in 2006. Some of us, however, seriously doubted that this was the case, and hence the initial significance of today’s reading. In particular what we may be faced with are changing structural characteristics of economies as median population ages rise. In particular – and following the well-known life cycle pattern of saving and consumption – more elderly economies may have a higher rate of saving and a lower rate of consumption increase than their younger counterparts.

Some more evidence to back this point of view comes from Japan, where today we learn that household spending in December declined for a 12th straight month, dropping 1.9 percent from a year ago. Yet the Japanese economy is not in recession, and output is actually rising. As Bloomberg say:

Japan’s factory production rose to a record and household spending fell, underscoring the central bank’s concern that growth has bypassed consumers and left the economy dependent on exports.

So please note: growth appears to have by-passed consumers, and the economy is ever more dependent on exports. The same goes for Germany, and this is why I talk about paradigm collision, since the neo-classical theory of economic growth – with its core conception of ‘steady state’ growth – was never built to handle median age related changes in economic performance and structural characteristics. Something new is clearly needed.

Over the coming weeks I will undoubtedly have more to say about all this, as we get to see more of the 2007 Eurozone data, but for now let me point you in the direction of Claus Vistesen, who has been patiently toiling away trying to work through a hypothesis which, in terms of the data we are now seeing, certainly seems more in keeping with current economic realities than the view we currently see emanating from the ECB. His arguments on Japan can be found in depth here, and his latest piece on the eurozone is reproduced below the fold.
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Serbia: That Incredible Shrinking Country

This weekend’s election results in Serbia, and in particular the gridlock state of the political process and the resilience of the vote for the nationalist Serbian Radical Party (as ably explained by Doug in the previous post), pose new, and arguably reasonably urgent questions for all those who are concerned about the future of those European countries who currently find themselves locked outside the frontiers of the European Union. What follows below the fold is a cross-post of an entry I put up earlier this afternoon on the new global economy blog: Global Economy Matters. I don’t normally like cross-posting, since I would prefer to put up original Afoe content, but my time is a bit pressed at the moment, and I feel the issues raised are important enough to merit a separate airing on this site.
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La Febbre

A couple of weeks back I had the pleasure of seeing Alessandro D’Alatri’s recent film La Febbre (Fever). As the reviewer says (Italian link), this is a ‘normal’ (everyday) film, not a great one, even if it does include one or two memorable moments, like the scenes shot along the river bank, which were (and I imagine this is not entirely unintentional) rather reminiscent of some which are to be found in the unforgettable L’Albero Degli Zoccoli from that giant of Italian cinema Ermanno Olmi.

La Febbre è il classico film italiano, che vuol raccontare una storia normale, di tutti i giorni, e che per farlo non trascende dai canoni della buona creanza del plot, e da quel pizzico di amara critica sociale che lo rende molto politically correct.”

(La Febbre (the fever) is a typical Italian film, the kind of film which tries to tell a simple, ‘normal’ story – an everyday one – and which in order to do this stays well within the bounds of what is normally thought to be an acceptable plot structure, and then, following the recipe, there is added just enough social criticism to make the film a highly politically correct one.)

My point of interest in this post, however, is not really the film itself, but rather the film as a reflection of something else: the disenchantment and frustration that many young Italians seem to feel with contemporary Italian society, and the impact that the evident failure of Italian civil society to adjust to Italy’s contemporary social and demographic reality may have on the future evolution of Italian economy and society.
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