XARK 3.0

  • Xark began as a group blog in June 2005 but continues today as founder Dan Conover's primary blog-home. Posts by longtime Xark authors Janet Edens and John Sloop may also appear alongside Dan's here from time to time, depending on whatever.

Xark media

  • ALIENS! SEX! MORE ALIENS! AND DUBYA, TOO! Handcrafted, xarky science fiction, lovingly typeset for your home printer!



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2005

Statcounter has my back

« Pick the winner in my latest contest | Main | Sports Rules »

Tuesday, May 29, 2007


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


Well, I am in favor of the basic premise here, but this is sticky stuff. For example, if you take away the birth rate among recent immigrants, U.S. birth rate is falling in the same way as European birth rates are--because we all know that what concerns policymakers when they lament low birth rates is low birth rate among white native born citizens. On the other hand, privileged people (and white native born citizens are more likely to be such) use way more resources than the economically disadvantaged (more likely to be non-white immigrants). Although class may be an indicator of your likelihood to recycle or use other small scale eco-friendly practices, it is also an indicator of likelihood to use more fossil fuels of all kinds through vehicle ownership, air travel, etc., not to mention buying more stuff that clogs landfills and takes energy to make. So the citizens most likely to respond to the kinds of incentives you list are already by and large limiting their children more then they used to, but are probably doing more damage than those groups that are having more children (generational upward mobility for those children may eventually be a factor, although upward mobility ain't what it used to be). I also wonder if there is any PR campaign that can make a dent in the U.S.'s relentless pro-natalism, which I find especially frightening, and which I think may be unique to us as a culture, an outcome of American exceptionalism.


This may shock you given our history (JOHN: "Good morning, Dan." DAN: "No it isn't."), but I don't want to refine this plan: I want to propose it as legislation and let the debate begin.

We have always used the tax code for social engineering, and while it would be nice if it were otherwise, I don't see that happening any time soon (and thank goodness: I'd be hosed without my mortgage interest deduction). So why not use tax law to encourage people to be more responsible about procreation? Very clever.


Mostly, I like this. It's not completely clear to me that the US needs zero poplulation growth. However, I do think that if the US does have positive population growth, it should probably come mostly through immigration, not procreation. So, assuming we do want to limit US growth, I want to look at two of your proposals in particular:

A) each individual may claim one child as a tax exemption (this provides couples with two children)

This seems reasonable. I have a cousin with thirteen -- yes, thirteen -- children. Now I'm no CPA, but let's say 10 of those children are minors: I think that's 12 tax ememptions (10 children plus my cousin and her husband) at $3,300 each for a total deduction of $39,600. Then they get to claim 10 child tax credits at $1000 each. If she stays home and her husband makes, say, $50,000, they probably do not pay any income tax, and they might get some of that tax credit back. Somehow, that does not seem fair to me.

C) if an individual chooses to do so, they may legally transfer his/her benefit to any other person (e.g., a person who chooses to not have children can have their “child credit” transferred to someone who wants more than one)

Now you're talking, if by "transfer" you mean "sell". If you have a child, for 17 years you get a $3,300 deduction every year, plus the $1,000 credit. That adds up to $73,100. As one half of a childless couple, I say pay up, breeders.

But these measures only address US growth while population growth needs to slow globally. Unfortunately, when an economy is based on subsistence farming and infant mortality is high, the rational choice for couples is to have many children. As economies develop and education increases, local population growth falls. Of course, figuring out how to grow economies in the developing world is probably best left to another thread.


Your own Catholic church will not be pleased, and neither will the Mormons. Both groups will complain that tax law discriminates against their religions - Catholics because they officially disapprove of birth control, Mormons because large numbers of offspring are seen as a moral good. Also, you would encourage abortions, which many people would find offensive, as it seems to devalue life. I think they'd have a point (though you would argue long-term survivability).

I don't have the economics background to argue far past that, but I'm not convinced that the sort of economic incentives you're describing will convince very low-income people to have fewer kids. Perhaps I am wrong about this, but it seems like the sorts of people who DO respond to tax incentives tend to be the sort of middle-class (and up) people who are already having fewer kids for career and lifestyle reasons.

Also, I do dislike the idea of government messing with my family, and I would resist that, as would many, many others. But you realize that.

My two cents.


You can PLAN children?! OHMIGAWD.


I really don't think we're going to have the option to "choose" population growth much longer. "Carrying capacity" is such a complex sum of so many complex systems that our ideas about it are practically faith-based, so I don't want to predict what the planet's carrying capacity for human being is... but I will say that:

1. In terms of growth curves, we've passed the singularity point, so we'll reach the various projected planetary carrying capacities within this generation, not sometime vaguely down the road;

2. Malthus is still enforced;

3. Some kind of disaster is almost a certainty. Could be climate. Could be some other flavor of environmental collapse. Could be war, or disease, yada yada yada. Most likely it will be some combination of bad things that overtax a society's ability to adapt to disruption, followed by some ugly lurch.

4. The question, then, is whether it is possible to mitigate these disasters -- if not for the world, then for our continent, our nation, our town, our neighborhood. If engineering a change in U.S. attitudes via a PR campaign and a set of tax incentives could reduce population pressure here, might that make us more adaptable to coming changes? Maybe. Might it help send a message around the world? It might. Never underestimate the persuasive power of our culture around the globe.

Finally, if people can take seriously the idea of carbon offsets, why not the transfer of population offsets? Why not give a young person with no interest in procreation the opportunity to cash out some share of his or her allotted government benefits for offspring? That's where I think the idea gets truly brilliant.


As nearly as I can tell, the religious argument against John's proposals is something like "God says it's bad, so we oopose it." However, I think we should examine the proposals and try to figure out if they have a positive or negative impact on the lives of most people (including those yet to be born). If Catholics and Mormons want to give me an explanation of why large families are better for society, that's fine, but they shouldn't rely on their interpretation of revealed truth.

And it should be noted that nothing in John's proposals forces Catholics or Mormons to practice birth control, or even self restraint. He is simply suggesting the state should subsidize two children, and after that you're on your on.


We do this now with the mortgage rule. We decided back in the mid-20th century that using the tax code to encourage home ownership would be a good thing. But we also decided that one home was enough for our largesse -- anything beyond that and you're on your own, Rockefeller.

Again, this is why I love this idea: It doesn't prohibit the behavior. It doesn't even directly demand a penalty for behaviors we don't endorse. It simply limits the public benefit for people who choose to be fruitful and multiply.

Right now the government transfers a bit of my wealth to large Mormon families because there's no cap on those tax deductions for children. So if God tells them to do that, and they do, and they don't get a big tax write off, tough shit, Mormons. This isn't about restricting your freedoms, it's about restricting your entitlements to something that's more reflective of the public good.


I remember similar discussions to influence the decisions/behavior of women receiving welfare to prevent them from having more children ("family caps").


Interesting that Tim should mention the "family caps" on welfare, because this is immediately what came to mind when I read the original post.

I have back and forth feelings on the idea, but if our population growth is truly coming from our lower economic classes and our immigrants (read illegal here), then incentives (or de-incentives - I don't think that's a word, but it works for me)should be aimed at these groups.

When working in Charleston years ago, I had a gig where I was involved in the hiring and training of many minimum wage employees. I remember one conversation vaguely, where I was astounded by the number of children a woman had who was younger than me (I at 28, she at 26 - I had one plus a step child, she had 7) and I said something to her like - HOW do you do it? (I was commenting on the day to day stuff, it was tough enough with the two in my household.) Her comment back was that she got more money each month from her welfare check with the more children she had.

While I'm not asking to turn this thread into a welfare reform discussion, that comment seems to suggest that right now the welfare code is giving people incentives to HAVE more children, and if we want to change that tide, then the code needs to give people incentives to have LESS children.

By the way, our population has been on basically the same exponential curve for many many years. It's just been recently that we've reached a point on that curve that seems scary to people looking toward the future population levels. It is scary. I remember one article I read that spelled it out quite nicely, unfortunately, I can't remember the particulars.


Tinkering with US population trends seems low ROI, whereas trying to reduce mortality and fertility rates in developing countries would have more of an impact and also be more difficult.

UN World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision

According to the 2006 Revision, the world population will likely increase by 2.5 billion over the next 43 years, passing from the current 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion in 2050. This increase is equivalent to the size the world population had in 1950 and it will be absorbed mostly by the less developed regions, whose population is projected to rise from 5.4 billion in 2007 to 7.9 billion in 2050. In contrast, the population of the more developed regions is expected to remain largely unchanged at 1.2 billion and would have declined were it not for the projected net migration from developing to developed countries, which is expected to average 2.3 million persons annually.
Is there a Carrying Capacity for Homo sapiens?
Joel Cohen's recent book on human carrying capacity summarizes the continuing lack of scientific consensus on the subject. Estimates of the number still vary widely according to the specific assumptions used. In fact, the estimates are more scattered than before - indicating a quantitative field still very much in its infancy. One strand of thought, represented by the author Julian Simon discards the notion of a human carrying capacity altogether, claiming that the additional people will provide sufficient creativity and innovation to break through any possible natural barriers to human population growth. Most of the serious estimates of K for humans, however,
lie in the range 10 - 20 billion people.
Global Population at a Glance: 2002 and Beyond


Perhaps an official government stance that supports contraception by something other than abstinence would help. We could simply start with sex education that teaches people about sex in a way that isn't shame-based, and, I dunno, maybe includes something about condoms and the pill.

We could throw in a legitimate health-care system that gives people information and help in preventing unwanted pregnancies. Hey! Maybe they could even get some assistance in paying for them.

Without some medical help, I'm sure I'd have about 10 kids. Given my abortion beliefs, I'd be raising 10 kids. Lucky me. I had insurance.


OK maybe I'm the only one who experienced this. Well myself and the 30 odd kids in class with me, but we learned about contraceptives in school. I can't remember 5th grade too clearly, I think that was more of "this is a what a period is blah blah blah" we looked at pictures of a growing baby, etc.

I remember the packets we were given in 8th and 9th grade though. They had the same information on contraceptives that is posted in OB/GYN's office. What it is, how it works, the effectiveness rating when used properly. We had question and answer sessions where birth control was discussed with our science teachers.

We were also told that abstinence was the only guaranteed way to prevent pregnancy, that "fooling around" resulting in ejaculation had the remote chance of causing pregnancy, but that it was possible.

Again, this was Berkeley County, I graduated in 1995. Did they eliminate what we had from the curriculum?


I'm not sure there's much value in slowing the population rate in this country.

As already noted, our increase is mostly coming from immigration, not reproduction. In reproductive terms we're hoving just above replacement level and are set to dip below that bar just like several European countries have already done.

Second, the U.S. isn't overcrowded. The UK has 246 people per square kilometer. France has 110. The US has 31, which is below the world density of 48 people per square km (land mass only). The US has entire states that are practically uninhabited, and most of those states are bigger than European countries.

Furthermore, I'm not convinced that reducing population on a global scale would help much either. The densest populated countries are generally already curbing reproduction either voluntarily through culture changes (Europe) on through governmental encouragement and controls (China, India)

I don't believe there's a critical mass set in stone. Some people have said that the world can only support 2 billion people and we're already 4 billion over. So, in previous centuries everything was hunky dory all over the world? The places were people are living in the most abject poverty have generally been suffering poverty for a very long time. In fact, the fact of the matter is that for most of human history, most people have lived in poverty.

In many cases population disasters stem from global economy more than numbers of kids. Traditionally, everywhere people used to have piles of kids. Traditionally (as in before about 1850 even in industrialized nations) only half of your kids reached adulthood, so you needed four kids just to break even, plus more people to help on the farm or bring in income was generally beneficial. In industrial nations, that culture changed gradually as breakthroughs in medicine, sanitation, etc let people live longer and drove child mortality down. But when we export these advances to Africa, suddenly more people are surviving but without time for culture to catch up. Yeah, you could say that their population is increasing because of high birth rates, but they've always had high birth rates. Population growth is more directly affected by the fact that more of those kids are suddenly living.

For some reason its policatally correct to blame these people's ignorance of condoms and birth control for their problems, but politically incorrect to suggest that if we stopped applying so many external "fixes" nature would sort itself out in Africa: the population would either adapt (either by moving or developing sustaining technologies) or die. The numbers would indeed be catastrophic. Millions would die, but it would be millions that are being artificially supported. We're encouraging people to continue living in the middle of frelling deserts, when it seems pretty clear that humans are not meant to survive in that environment in any substantial numbers.


The comments to this entry are closed.