April 08, 2013

The undiscovered country

That line from Hamlet actually refers to death. And speaking of Star Trek titles, the year 2012 again had Japan boldly going where no man has gone before. Literally, as it turns out. Where it's going, there's nobody there. Because they died.

Japan's population fell by over 200,000 in absolute terms. Near-term projections have it falling from 127.5 million to 116.6 million in 2030 and 97 million in 2050.

As Spock would put it: "Fascinating." Though hardly catastrophic, not for overpopulated Japan. That doesn't stop the Chicken Littles. Over at The Diplomat, John Traphagan flips a coin between calling it "Japan's Demographic Nightmare" and "Japan's Demographic Disaster."

For some truly disastrous numbers, The Economist gets the heart of the matter with these projections of the net labor force demographics:

But they remain projections. After perusing popular projections about the shrinking length of the Mississippi River, Mark Twain calculated that

Seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen.

"There is something fascinating about science," Twain wryly concludes. "One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact."

A century later, apocalyptic group think, once the province of the crackpot right, has come to dominate the intellectual left: "If we don't do X right away we're doomed! Doomed! Take rising sea levels: it's not as if the ocean's going to save it all up and surprise us one morning.

In The Globe and Mail, Doug Saunders coined the appropriate term in this case: "We have entered the age of fertility panic."

Journalism long ago abandoned actual reporting and now functions as the official teller of ghost stories around the campfire. Except we're supposed to believe them. Hence the mindless repetition of the supposed solution to this supposed disaster: immigration!

In the case of Japan, that's a cure worse than the disease, which is why it's never going to happen. Besides, if labor availability is the problem, it's a lot easier to move to where the labor already is. That's why most Toyotas and Hondas come from factories here in the U.S.

Although some Japanese are choosing to retire to Thailand the same way Americans do to Mexico, the elderly can't be exported like cars. Here I think Michael Cucek has ferreted out the real reason for Japan's recent forays into government-sponsored daycare:

How then is the government to allocate resources in carrying out this project, where Japan has no models to follow because it in the vanguard, the leader because it has the most aged society on the planet? It turns out that the Japanese government has been running a pilot project for the coming eldercare explosion--its child daycare program.

People adapt and muddle through. Japan is the third richest country in the world. Sectors of its economy--agriculture, in particular--remain incredibly inefficient. There's a considerable amount of low-hanging economic fruit to be plucked before donning the sackcloth and ashes.

Already curious counter-trends can be observed. Coco Masters reports in Foreign Policy that

A poll conducted by the Japanese government last December shows that 51 percent of respondents think women should be stay-at-home mothers. That figure is up 10 percent since 2009--with the increase most notable among people in their 20s [emphasis added].

And in a New York Magazine article, Lisa Miller documents a similar trend in the U.S.:

The number of stay-at-home mothers rose incrementally between 2010 and 2011, for the first time since the downturn of 2008. While staying home with children remains largely a privilege of the affluent (incomes of $100,000 a year or more), some of the biggest increases have been among younger mothers, ages 25 to 35, and those whose family incomes range from $75,000 to $100,000 a year [emphasis added].

So maybe the problem is getting ready to correct itself, the same way the population was once going to explode us all out of existence--right up until it didn't.

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