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Interview: Jonathan Last on America's Looming Demographic Crisis (with Transcript)

MR. DRISCOLL:  Jonathan, I watched your CBS Morning News segment, and I must say, they treated you surprisingly fairly, given that…it's CBS.  But the anchorwoman asked the question that you must be getting all the time from left-liberal interviewers:  Why should I care about   book when, for forty years, I've been hit over the head by the media that overpopulation was almost as big a concern as global warming?

MR. LAST:  Yeah, you know, and I say this to people, I say, you know, it's one of these weird situations where everything we think we know is wrong, and it's all wrong because of one guy, Paul Ehrlich.  Paul Ehrlich is not a professional demographer.  He only plays one on TV.  And he wrote what I think of as the most spectacularly wrong book ever written.

He was wrong in the particulars.  He said that within a couple years, hundreds of millions of people were going to starve to death, and that nothing could be done to stop this.  He said the population growth was going to increase asymptotically to the moon.  That -- neither of these things happened.

But more to the point, he was wrong at the moment when the exact opposite thing was happening.  He published his book in 1968.  In 1968, the fertility rates across the Western countries fell off of the table and went into steep, prolonged, sustained decline; decline which they are still experiencing today.  So he was exactly wrong.

And what's funny -- and also, you know, slightly frustrating -- but funny, is that again, in the world of professional demographers, like the people who do this for a living, the people who are tenured professors and who work at the United Nations, they all -- you know, for the last thirty-five, forty years, have basically ignored Ehrlich and viewed him as sort of a crank.  And they've been actually focusing the bulk of their research on exactly the opposite question.  Where has the global fertility decline come from?

And that's the big question that I tackle.  And I sort of focus on America, because I -- you know, we live here.  I'm interested in it.  But I would say, you know, again, and these people who are liberal, they would vote for, you know, whatever the liberal party is in their country; they all love Barack Obama.  But they all view Paul Ehrlich as a crank too.  It's just that his books, I think, really touched a spot with the sort of deeply anti-humanist strain of the environmental movement.

I mean, you scratch a lot of environmentalists like deep enough, and eventually you'll get them to say, like, people are cancer; that we must protect Mother Gaya.  And you know, at the end of the day, everybody's got to believe something.  You know, they don't believe in god, so they believe in that stuff.  And I say more power to 'em.  But you know, it's not really based on data or research or science, it's just theology.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Now, our current period of demographic decline isn't the first time that America has had a birth dearth.  What has caused them in the past?

MR. LAST:  Well, you know, we've been heading downward ever since the founding.  The total fertility rate -- that's the number of children born to the average woman -- was about seven around the time of the 1800 census.  And it was gradually declining from there clear on through the Great Depression.  The Great Depression helped push it down a little bit.  And we've only had one major moment of increase, and that was the baby boom.  And for about twenty years, we had significantly elevated fertility.  And then by 1968 it slumped back down and fell off the table.

Now, it's funny.  In America we think that we're okay because our fertility rate is about 1.9 right now.  And 1.9 is not bad at all.  If we could sustain 1.9, then I wouldn't have written the book and I would have thought that everything was fine.  But I think that's really misleading.  And it's misleading because that 1.9 is really a mathematic construct created by the immigration we've received over the last thirty years.

We've had thirty-eight million immigrants in the last thirty years.  That's the biggest sustained wave of immigration in our country's history.  And when you strip those numbers out, you strip out the actual warm bodies and you strip out the elevated fertility rate that they bring with them, America looks like Europe.  We look exactly like Europe in terms of our demographics.  And that's a much sterner, scarier proposition.

Now, again, I say if you strip them out we look like Europe.  And this worries me because a lot of demographers believe that we may not continue to receive this wave of immigration.  Whatever we think about it here, whether you think we should have a fence or Amnesty or DREAM Act or whatever, those are all demand side.  There's a supply side issue to it as well.  And the supply side is, countries with sub-replacement fertility historically do not send immigrants out into the world.

And all the fertility rates in Central and South America are headed south on an express elevator.  Many of those countries are already below the replacement rate, and none of the countries in Central and South America below the replacement rate send us any significant amount of immigrants.