Middle East facts of the day

…according to the United States Census Bureau, Iran now has a similar birth rate to New England — which is the least fertile region in the U.S.

The speed of the change is breathtaking. A woman in Oman today has 5.6 fewer babies than a woman in Oman 30 years ago. Morocco, Syria and Saudi Arabia have seen fertility-rate declines of nearly 60 percent, and in Iran it’s more than 70 percent. These are among the fastest declines in recorded history.

That is from David Brooks.  These societies will be old before they will be wealthy.  Which means perhaps they will never be wealthy.


That worries me as well. Not only will they be old before they're wealthy, but many of them will be old before they can diversify away from reliance on resource-dependent economies. It's a recipe for economic stagnation and emigration.

As for Iran, I've heard that it's a development expert's dream once you get past the dysfunctional government system. Relatively young population with a declining birth rate, large number of college-educated people, and a few decent universities IIRC.

Fertility rates in Iran began descending around 1984. But they really only fell sharply starting around 1989, when the Islamic Republic began pushing family planning in a concerted campaign. In the years 1988 to 1996, total fertility rate plummeted from 5.5 to 2.8. Brooks makes this out to be a cultural issue, but the periodicity of it corresponds with Iran's shift from a natalist position in the most revolutionary period and during the Iran-Iraq war, to a more developmentalist policy after Khomeini's death.

Iran may not become wealthy, but it has become fairly healthy with governments in the later Shah and post-revolutionary periods expanding access to basic health care and lowering infant and child mortality drastically. This is the flip side to dark forcecasts for the Middle East. India may be growing rapidly, but Middle Eastern nations have much better health indicators, not to mention rates of education.

>>>These societies will be old before they will be wealthy. Which means perhaps they will never be wealthy.<<<

So if a society finds itself in a state where it is poor and highly fertile; should it wait to get wealthy before it embarks on population control? Is that the lesson Tyler's hinting?

If the current state is very high population isn't it possible that the path to wealth lies through lower fertility, even if this might bring the ageing demographic burden?

"India may be growing rapidly, but Middle Eastern nations have much better health indicators, not to mention rates of education."

What sort of a statement is that? Middle eastern countries are wealthier due to oil, have much higher per capita income (even Iran is way better off than India is), so they naturally have higher rates of education and better health indicators.

So what exactly is the point of your bringing India into the discussion?

Wealth does not necessarily lead to better health care or education. Perhaps it is a given for the elites, but not overall. See England's trailing education system relative to the Western World in the 19th century. Comparing India to Middle Eastern countries is just a difficult proposition for many reasons.

I don't think it's difficult. Western observers, particularly the business press and those in thrall to investors, frequently portray India as a burgeoning success story, albeit flawed, whereas the Middle East is presented, with a couple of exceptions like Dubai, as a disaster area. I disagree that it's that simple. In terms of life expectancy, infant mortality, maternal mortality, literacy, university education, etc., countries like non-oil producing Egypt and oil producing Iran, do fairly well and certainly have done better than South Asia, with the exception of Sri Lanka, which is a remarkable story in its own right.

Why emigration? Young people emigrate from crowded places where they can't get jobs. If a country's problem is that there are too many olds, that gets fixed relatively shortly on its own. The other generations can wait it out.

To be pedantic, S.Arabia and Oman are pretty wealthy -- in the 70s and 80s they had among the highest per capita incomes in the world, and are still not poor (per Wiki, they both have GDP per capita at PPP of about 25k, which is not far off southern Europe). Having said that, the wealth was rentier/extraction wealth which hasn't brought development (they both have low HDI levels relative to income). As long as the oil lasts, they will get by. The real demographic disasters are looming in countries like Bangladesh, that are seeing a similarly rapid fall in fertility but have far lower incomes.

Well, that's a very different (and less grave) disaster than the demographic fate people were predicting for Bangladesh only yesterday: that a population explosion would lead to a Malthusian nightmare.

This worry seems a classic case of ignoring the positive first order effect and worrying about a negative second order effect.

The real demographic disasters are looming in countries like Bangladesh, that are seeing a similarly rapid fall in fertility but have far lower incomes.

Why is this a "disaster?" If a place is too crowded and desperate, the population needs to shrink.

A smaller population might give people an opportunity to invest something in terms of human capital whereas that isn't possible when you have 6 children. Further I don't see an impending demographic disaster in a place that doesn't have a large social welfare system to benefit the elderly. If you get pneumonia at age 65, you die. You don't become a burden due to long term care costs.

Fine, it's a disaster in the sense that we are interested in ameliorating human suffering.

What--growing old and dying?

No- dying earlier, and while living enduring poorer health and less comfort than would be possible in a wealthier society.

I would think the Bengalis would have a chance for a better life with less people competing for finite resources and concurrently fewer vectors for infectious disease.

@The Anti-Gnostic
The rest of us are considering the fate of those who will die poor,hungry, and destitute, not those who will live through it and have a better live once enough people die. Any situation that relies on enough people dying is a disaster. Whether said disaster is currently unstoppable is irrelevant.

If you believe that people rationally respond to real interest rates in deciding intertemporal consumption vs. saving, a shrinking population before industrial takeoff implies even lower incentives to save and drive investment. Your return on saving falls even more, since there will be fewer future people to make use of your deferred consumption and sell you future consumption.

I seriously doubt the Bengalis are breaking out spreadsheets on this issue. They could be finally getting productive enough that they don't have to worry about having a dozen kids to pick rice and account for half of them dying from dysentery, or that there just aren't enough jobs for so many people, so they're foregoing childbearing.

Also, didn't somebody get a Nobel prize for showing that what raises living standards is capital investment per worker, not raw numbers of workers? It seems odd that the goal should be to keep Bangladesh crowded.

The goal isn't to keep Bangladesh crowded (nice strawman, though) -- it's to avoid a decline in fertility rates so fast that an extremely poor country -- per capita GDP of c. US $700 -- cannot possibly handle without massive misery.

@kiwi dave

Why are we assuming that a fast fall in fertility is necessarily misery. Especially when starting from a very-high-population initial state.

Maybe we could parachute in enlightened New Zealanders so they could tell Bengali women the minimum number of children they must have.

@ Rahul:

the speed is important, otherwise you end up with funny-looking bulges in the age distribution. When that bulge is in the 15-39 range, great; when it's in the 65+ range, you have a pretty big strain on an already poor populace.

@ Anti-Gnostic:

Nice snark. I don't want to tell anyone what to do, doesn't mean I'm forbiden from noting trainwrecks when they are coming.

Again, I don't see how Bangladesh is a trainwreck, because so far as I know they don't burden their young people with taxes for old strangers. So the young they are still having (still a 3.3 TFR) are likely to see higher inputs per worker and thus higher living standards in the future.

Bangladesh may not burden it's young people with taxes to look after strangers, but those old people get looked after as happens in practically all societies prior to the advent of welfare states -- old people are looked after by their families, pursuant to societal and affective imperatives as old as the human race. So the burden will be there, it just won't be abstracted via the state. And when the ratio of elderly dependents to children increases, that will negatively affect the standard of living, as well as labour market flexibility.

Here's what will happen: geriatric Bengalis will die from pneumonia in their elderly 60's instead of their decrepit 70's--that's not a 'trainwreck.' And it will probably be a more dignified ending than the ones that will be meted out once the demographically-doomed Western social democracies go belly up.

Really, Bangladesh's numbers look pretty damn good for a country just crawling out of the dirt. This appears to bug you for some reason.

This is what Iran is trying to do against this trend: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2010/12/21/emancipation-of-women-in-iran/

David Goldman has been writing about this for years and published a well-reviewed book last year:

David P. Goldman aka "Spengler" is a Jewish supremacist and propagandist. This is a good article about him: http://majorityrights.com/weblog/comments/spenglers_denouement_world_historical_judaeo_supremacy

He's misleading and unreliable:



Yes, but he is interesting. And he was the first person to note this fact. A long time ago. He has been good on the Egyptian revolution as well.

As for being a "Jewish supremacist", well, good for him. No one is forced to agree with him. I happen to like Taki's Magazine, but I don't take much he says about Jews seriously. The other links are worse.

So credit where it is due.

That Taki's Magazine article isn't by Taki.

The other links are good expositions of Goldman's shell games.

Goldman is either ignorant or mendacious. I think mendacious. People who find him awesomely insightful are either stupid or ignorant.

It's not an "either", he simply is mendacious. His false claim about what a supporting document said was not him simply not knowing something, but flat out misrepresentation.

This is an old debate. Razib Kahn called this one right but is otherwise someone who does not refrain from unethical practices, so enough about that.

David Goldman is an investor and investment advisor who is just putting his mouth where his money is. HIs track record on these calls is pretty good over the last 10 years, whether you agree with the fine points of his analysis or not.
Show us, what smart analyses have you been publishing recently that will hold up as investment advice?

Right now he is explaining why he is short on Turkey and Egypt. We should know this year whether he was right or wrong.

Calling someone a Jewish supremacist becasue he continues to put forward theories why Jews have been so succesful notwithstanding the extreme hate they tend to generate in every generation and every century is beyond me.
I agree with Greg Cochran in the 10,000 year explosion that a large part of this is Jewish genes. But Goldman is right that good genes do not a succesful society make.

How about this article from January 9, 2007?

In the article, Goldman admits he was wrong on an earlier prediction that Western nations would attack Iran back in 2006 and then goes on to high-five the Bush Administration for the "more buoyant than ever" financial markets: "The same financial markets that swooned in July while Israel fought Hezbollah have forgotten the meaning of risk. The question the world should ask George W Bush is, "If you so dumb, how come you ain't poor"? The US economy and US markets are looking more buoyant than ever. As I wrote last week (Jeb Bush in 2008?, January 3), the whole Iraq debacle might disappear from the public's radar screen in time for America's next presidential election."

I don't know about Razib Khan's "unethical practices", but I don't see how they're relevant, since this isn't about his personality or how ethical he is, and since the two other links were by different authors.

I think Goldman is being described as a Jewish supremacist because, um, that's what he is. It's clear from his writing. And it's not about his theorizing of Jewish financial or academic success. Lots of people acknowledge Jewish talent and success without being Jewish supremacists.

These societies will be old before they will be wealthy. Which means perhaps they will never be wealthy.

I'd say the ability to invest far more time and money in each child might dramatically increase their productivity and wealth.

I cant believe Tyler Cowen is stupid enough to mouth a Friedmanesque shibboleth. Wealth is not the result of either a young labor force or even a higher proportion working age population. Wealth is the result of capital intensity, per capita investment, productivity growth, labor skill, etc.

Poverty will never be ameliorated by more warm bodies.

Poverty will never be ameliorated by more warm bodies.

True, but it can mean more economic rent for parasites. Which is why it's promoted.

Wealth is the result of creating things you or someone else wants. Stop trying to promote ideology at the expense of basic definitions.

Wealth, at least in the long term, is obviously not just a matter of capital intensity. Saudi Arabia has a lot of capital. It does not have a real economy outside of oil. Investment is not the be-all and end-all either. Saudi Arabia invests a lot in the education of its youth. A pity half their students (or is it Ph.D.s? I forget) are doing Religious Studies degrees. Investment has to be sensible. Productivity growth? By all means. What drives productivity growth? Innovation mostly. And like it or not, the innovators in any economy tend to be the young. And male but that probably does not matter. They take the risks. They start the new businesses. They come with the new ideas and products. Not the old.

A young population is not everything either, but if you want your economy to grow it is a pretty good place to start from. The world does not face a problem of too many people, it faces the tragedy of too few. Especially in First World countries. For countries like Iran that is going to be a problem.

"The division of labor is limited by the extent of the market. "

This does not always mean that more people are always better, particularly in a country, but it does counter the simple natural resource scarcity model.

Also with current levels of population is it possible for a country to be overpopulated if the world is not? A say, not really. Consider that Iran and even Bangladesh have a long way to go before that reach the population density of Hong Kong.

Then investors should be pouring wealth into Niger (Total Fertility Rate = 7.5) and Uganda (6.5). How about Afghanistan as a future demographic superpower?

Clearly, in our own hemisphere, Haiti has benefited from high fertility.

The more the merrier!


Indeed. I would wager that the recent reappraisal of high fertility rates in the developing world as a net positive rather than, as it was portrayed in the post-war era as a positive danger to global stability, is tied to the technological stagnation Cowen writes of. We're still looking for easy fixes and low hanging fruit - in this case more babies in the benighted hinterlands of the globe.

Why don't the benighted low-fertility hinterlands import the overpopulated youth from these other nations? Two birds, one stone.

Is there anyone who posts here with an opinion on that?

That's the plan: fecund Third Worlders will work on the tax farm to pay the nursing home bills for old white people. I'm sure it will work out fine because people are fungible, like Arabs and Jews. Also, Third Worlders pay lots of taxes and have vibrant auras. They never get old or sick either.

By the way, the nature of Iran's underlying economy is obvious from their exports. From Wikipedia:

"Pistachios, liquefied propane, methanol (methyl alcohol), hand-woven carpets and automobiles are the core items of Iran's non-oil exports."

So you have a basic agricultural crop, two by-products of the oil industry (although it is odd to see any form of alcohol so high in their exports) and their traditional form of labor-intensive handicraft. The exception is the automobile industry. The Iranian government has put a lot of effort into this. They have tie-ups with a huge number of foreign car companies. But their exports are about $500 million a year. Their automobile imports are over $1.5 billion.

Which comes down to the bottom line - Iran has the most sophisticated population and economy in the Middle East apart from Israel and maybe Turkey. But their economy is still what it was under the Qajars but with oil. And a car industry that may or may not survive without protectionist barriers. Not bad, but not much either.

Except that Iran under the Qajars - and in fact under the Shah - was a majority rural, agrarian society of peasants and landlords.

In the end, the economy of Iran under the Islamic Republic has seen massive urbanization, a decline in the rural population, a decline of fertility rates to match the industrialized world, a rise in education with more women going to college than men, massive improvements in health and well being, etc.

Sure. Funded by oil, not by actual economic development. Which means when they run out of oil, they will have a large number of people who have been paid to hang around the big cities but with no wages. And the Qajar's economy.

Not really a promising sign.

Bah, wealth is mostly a function of social capital. Lots of very young countries like the Philippines are also poor.

Provided they avoid extreme disasters, to me Iran seems to be one of those countries that has got it made. Life expectancy is now over 72 years and nominal GDP is over $6,000 per capita. It has a fair swack of natural resources. These include good wind resources and undeveloped hydroelectricity potential. Despite often being perceived as a dry country, rainfall is actually quite high. (Okay, high for an Australian - for everyone else, probably not nearly as bad as you think.) While an aging population certainly puts a decent rate of economic growth in the future in doubt, once a few problems are cleared up and a few other things improved - things that don't necessarily require a lot of wealth - then Iran should be a country where people can live long, enjoyable, and comfortable lives, even if it's not a wealthy place by rich country standards.

As an palo-anthorpolgist I've studied this the only reason why Africa is so poor is not because of their fertility rate, it's because of there abysmal IQ and they must be dealt with can anyone say VX gas?

Don't ever comment drunk again.

Does the statement of "Which means perhaps they will never be wealthy." imply that Tyler is pessimistic about lifespan/Healthspan extension ?

Which would be odd, considering most people consider improvements in health one of the paramount achievements of development.

Robots will save them.

Most of the comments in this thread are a great example of how to completely forget that economics relates to actual human beings. Wealth is a fucntion of human capital and productivity, blah blah blah. Just create some human capital and they'll be fine.

There have to be actual people who can be educated and trained. You're not going to grab a bunch of illiterate 40 year old pistachio farmers and turn them into rocket scientists overnight. Even if the next generation becomes well educated, which is unlikely to happen, it will be too little to turn Iran into a wealthy country.

It must be easier to develop human capital when there are fewer people right? I can imagine hipster Iranians having babies at 35, reading parenting books at Starbucks and taking their 2 year olds to preschool "interviews". No, it's not likely because the parents are uneducated themselves and they need children for labor, like the US did 100 years ago.

A best case for Iran is ending up like Saudi Arabia, importing labor from Asia.

If you look around the world, you see many other nations facing demographic headwinds. If the 20th century was the century of the population explosion, the 21st century, as Eberstadt notes, is looking like the century of the fertility implosion.

Interestingly, the the 21st century could be return to rapid population growth.

The Amish population doubles every 15 years
The Mennonite population doubles every 20 years
The Hasidic Jewish population doubles every 20 years
Throw in a few other Anabaptist groups doubling every 20 years or so

Combined they are about 800,000 now. Do the math.

According to my calculations the earth is now covered in a layer of Huguenots three miles deep.

Nah, just the Netherlands.

I think Floccina makes a good point, though -- we are selecting for groups who have some strong incentive to have children, and have been for some time. That's one reason why you don't see many Shakers around anymore.

Yes, but my group was selected for massive rates of childbirth but they stopped. My great great aunt had 23 children, great grandmother 11 children, grandmother 7 children, mother 3 children, and my sister 1 child. We stopped later than some groups - The French, English, Australians, etc. but earlier than some others - Argentinians, Turks, Chinese, and so on. My guess is that Amish are just a later stopping group. After all, the ones back in Europe stopped. The recent decline in Amish birth rates may indicate they are starting to stop now.

Of course I could be wrong and US Amish culture may have some uniqueness that allows them to maintain high birth rates that other groups seem to lack and in a thousand years the solar system might be packed full of space Amish.

Your great great grandmother, she had 14 kids
Your great grandmother had about as many
Then your grandmother had three, that was enough for her
Your mom didn’t want any, you were an accident
Mes Aieux - Degeneration

The thinking of Brooks is strangely one-dimensional.

The demographic implosion has a lot more effects then just ageing:
- women get empowered. Instead of being victim of their sexuality, they master it. They can study, go to university, join the workforce. All in all, this growing workforce could offset the problems of ageing.
- For the first 20 years there is a growing workforce, while the need to scale up social services is limited. A window of opportunity where BDP per head starts growing fast. This effect seems to have played an important role in the growth of the Asian tigers.
- Is this not just fear mongering from social conservatives and misogynists? The economical and social benefits of slower demographic growth are important, especially if it can be combined with higher schooling.

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