A Face That Launched A Thousand Ships

An unlikely Helen, Spain’s deputy prime minister, Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, that’s for sure. Yet outside a few thousand years difference in timing the two seem to have been cut out for one and the same the same historical role: urging the boats to go back. Indeed the only thing which really separates them might be the magnitude of the problem to hand, since Coalición Canaria president Paulino Rivero suggested this weekend that what might be involved were not a mere 1,000 ships, but anything between 10,000 and 15,000 currently being built along the Mauritanian and Senegalese coastlines.

Joking aside this post is about tragedy, a human tragedy. According to the NGOs who are involved some 3,000 people have already died in attempting to make the hazardous crossing, a crossing which was actually completed over this weekend by a record 1,200 people in 36 hours.

As well as tragedy the post is also about folly, the folly of those economists who think low fertility isn’t an important economic issue. This opinion was recently expressed by respected US economist Greg Mankiw, (on his blog) who described the very idea that it might be as ‘wrong headed’ and, to boot, suggested that a poll of the world’s top ten economists would draw a blank on names who thought that low fertility was among Europe’s major economic problems. I am sure Mankiw is right about the poll, and this is why I use the expression ‘folly’. So what do I mean?
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Wolfgang Lutz and the Low Fertility Trap

Back in July I published a post about Austrian demographer Wolfgang Lutz’s hypothesis that those countries which sustain total fertility rates below 1.5 for any length of time may have fallen into a self-reinforcing low-fertility trap. Old Rottenhat (Ray to his friends) argued in comments that I had explained the reasons for the existence of low fertility but that I had not justified the idea that this was a ‘trap’. Old Rottenhat was right, and taking advantage of the fact that Lutz himself has now given a fuller outline of the hypothesis at the recent Postponement of Childbearing in Europe Conference (see presentation) I will now try and remedy this lacuna.

So here finally Ray, is your reply: I hope it is something which indeed goes beyond the obvious.
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The Low-Fertility Trap

I suppose by-now every right thinking and reasonably well read adult knows what the ‘poverty-trap’ is, even if most of us aren’t too clear about what there is to do about it. Being stuck in one of these traps could be thought to be like being stuck in a (not necessarily very deep) well with a slimy surround wall. The more you struggle to get out, the harder it gets: your strength disippates, and the walls get to be even more slippery. This could also be called a negative feedback loop.

Well now there is the suggestion that something similar may exist in the world of fertility. As Wolfgang Lutz suggests in this power point presentation, the critical level may be 1.5. No society which has fallen below this level has -to date – returned above it. (Many thanks here to commenter CapTvK who sent me the link).
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