HomeAbout Think TankAbout Ben WattenbergPrevious ShowsWhere to WatchSpecials


Watch Videos and Listen to Podcasts at ThinkTankTV.com

  « Back to Fewer People, Part One main page
TranscriptsGuestsRelated ProgramsFeedback

Transcript for:

Fewer People, Part One

Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg
TTBW 1227 Fewer People, Part One

Funding is provided by

At Pfizer we’re spending over five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have 12,000 scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer. Life is our life’s work.

Additional funding is provided by the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

WATTENBERG: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. We have all heard about the population explosion. Indeed, global population is still going up much more slowly than expected. But something is going on that is quite unexpected. In the last half century the number of children born per woman fell from 5 to 2.7. Now, it takes just 2.1 children to keep a population stable over time but the United Nations is now projecting that women will only bear 1.85 children per woman. That means fewer people in the future and not only in the modern western nations, but in the poor, less developed countries as well. What’s going on? What does it mean? To find out, Think Tank is joined by the men who head the agencies that gather and tend the data from which we make our judgments; Joseph Chamie, Director of the U.N. Population Division which produces World Population Prospects and the author of Religion and Fertility and Peter Way, Chief of the International Program Center at the U.S. Bureau of the Census in Washington, D.C. which produces the Global Population Profile. And, me; author of a new book entitled Fewer: How the New Demography of Depopulation Will Shape our Future. The topic before the house, Fewer People, Part One this week on Think Tank.

(musical break)

Wattenberg: What we just saw were official United Nations projections. Fewer people in the world in this century. That’s the macro trend. Beneath that are some others. In the first fifty years of this century, America is slated to grow by about 125 million people. Why? More births per woman and mostly robust immigration. The other modern well to do nations, particularly Japan and the European countries will lose population rapidly down almost 100 million people in Europe and 17 million in Japan. Fertility rates in the less developed, poor countries have already fallen from about 6 children per woman to about 2.8 and are still declining. Most interestingly for the United States is what is happening in Mexico where fertility has fallen from 6.8 children per woman to 2.5 children today with many important Mexican demographers maintaining that the next set of U.N. figures will show Mexico at or below the 2.1 rate of replacement. Won’t that alter the American immigration picture over time?

Joe Chamie, Peter Way; you guys put these numbers together. Thank you very much for joining us. For 650 years, since the Black Death, population in the world has been going up. Now the U.N. figures and I guess your figures as well show that some time in this century they’re going to start going down. How unexpected were these numbers? And Joe, let’s start with you.

CHAMIE: Well, in the previous century we were estimating a growth of world population which we’ve seen in the second half of some 6 billion.

WATTENBERG: The previous century means the 20th century.

CHAMIE: Right. The 20th.

WATTENBERG: Because some of us are still living back in that century. Okay.

CHAMIE: So in the 20th century we saw rapid growth occurring in which we actually experienced. In 1950 the world’s population was about 2.5 billion and we ended up around 6 billion at the end of the 20th century.

WATTENBERG: Very sharp increase very quickly.

CHAMIE: And that growth’s not over. We’re going to add another couple billion people. But after that, by mid-century where we hit around 9, our long range projections show us several options. One: we could stabilize around that or if people decide to have fewer children as they’re deciding now, we could see it taper off and actually see some declines. And we’re seeing that in some countries.

WATTENBERG: Your original report when you changed your projection base from 2.1 children to 1.85 actually states as a sentence in the report - and I based a lot of my book on it - that world population will decline in the latter part of the century. I just want to hold your feet to your own fire.

CHAMIE: 'Will' is a bit strong. I would say our projections indicate we anticipate, we expect based on that and as you know, our track record’s pretty good.

WATTENBERG: Now Peter, have you seen any indication that this trend toward lower fertility or the existing low fertility has turned around, or we’re still on this strange track?

WAY: Well, we think that they are - many countries - are continuing to have falling fertility. Some European countries are having - women are having as few as 1.2 births during their lifetime. Some of that effect...

WATTENBERG: Which is an astonishingly low number.

WAY: Which is certainly historically and practically is a very low number.

WATTENBERG:I mean the phrase I’ve heard used sort of in demography speak is those countries are quotes 'going out of business'. I mean, if you multiply that out, if you’re that much below the replacement level over an extended period of time, you’re out of here. As these numbers came in did they shock you? They sort of shocked me. I’ve been covering this for awhile.

CHAMIE: Well, the conventional wisdom with regard to the demographic transition - this is the movement from high rates of births and deaths, to low rates of births and deaths...

WATTENBERG: But this is a key - the key thing...

CHAMIE: Key demographic transition was that we would reach some kind of equilibrium, harmony, in terms of the births and the deaths. It is somewhat surprising to see so many countries at such low levels of fertility. We were anticipating some three, four decades ago, that we’d end up with about two children per woman and that would be leading to a stabilized...

WATTENBERG: All those charts had a certain elegance to them. They were either above 2.1 or below 2.1 and the high ones came down to 2.1 and leveled off and the low ones came up to 2.1 and leveled off and everybody seemed to be happy with that except that these were decisions not made by demographers but by people in their bedroom or wherever they do what you do to have children.

CHAMIE: Well the difficulty is if you stay at a rate of one child per woman or you stay at a rate of three children per woman for a long period, neither are sustainable in the long term.


CHAMIE: You either get extraordinary large populations or you go down to extremely small, older populations. So neither. So demographers have tended to think about the replacement level and it has some kind of balance of harmony where you’ve got to stabilize a population and age structure.

WATTENBERG: At the time when the population explosion was really a big scare thing, one demographer or physicist testified to a Congressional subcommittee and talked about the rate of the increase of human flesh reaching the speed of light, expanding into the universe. That if you carry - if you punched in the right numbers you can... that’s not going to happen.

CHAMIE: Well this growth period is exceptional, as you well know. The second half of the 20th century was one of the most rapidly growing if not the most rapidly growing half century in the world’s history. We’ll never see that again.

WATTENBERG: When you took the base rate and said that instead of it leveling off so harmoniously at 2.1, what you see now is going to be 1.85, - again, a number - did you face opposition from either some of your colleagues in the U.N. or from some of the people in the various population movement and the environmental movement? Because environmentalism has often been keyed to more population growth.

CHAMIE: People had different views about what’s likely to happen in the future and there were some that felt that going down to 1.85 was not an appropriate assumption for the future and they were arguing that we should stay at 2.1. We argued that based on the evidence that we’ve seen through these countries, not only in Europe but also in Asia and elsewhere, that it seemed very reasonable that the developing countries should follow a pattern similar to what’s been experienced by the wealthier countries in the 20th century. And what we’re seeing right now, countries such as of course Republic of Korea, now Iran, Tunisia and other countries, in Latin America, the rates coming down. There’s no reason to feel that they’re going to stop magically at 2.1. So we did assume that it would go below the replacement level and go to 1.85.

WATTENBERG: I was at one of your meetings, which thank you for inviting me to several of your meetings, and the Iranian demographers said here’s a theocracy, a member of the so-called axis of evil that they are below replacement; the Mexicans said they are below replacement; the Brazilians said they are below replacement. How many less developed poor countries are there now below replacement rate?

CHAMIE: Well, we estimate there’s about sixty countries. One out of three countries are at or below replacement.

WATTENBERG: In the world.

CHAMIE:In the world total. And a good number of them now are coming from the developing world. Of course most are in the...

WATTENBERG: Developing world meaning the poor countries.

CHAMIE: Yes. And one of the myths that you’ve witnessed, I mean we had one some years ago, that catholic fertility would be higher than non-catholic fertility in Europe. That’s been dispelled. And I think now we’re going to be dispelling the myth that Muslim fertility will be higher than non-Muslim fertility. I think we’re going to see a convergence of all the groups down to low fertility.

WATTENBERG: Peter, why don’t you run through for us what are the basic reasons that have been offered by demographers over the past and now for why we are seeing this drop in fertility?

WAY: Well I think most of the discussion has centered around the fact that large families are no longer the advantage that they once were in largely agrarian societies, where children could be useful around the house, around the farm doing - doing various work and contributing to production.

WATTENBERG: Actually work the fields.

WAY: That’s right.

WATTENBERG: The paddy fields or whatever.

WAY: Or care for the chickens and ducks. As the world has moved to a more urban and more metropolitan situation, I think the reality of the cost of large families is being reflected...

WATTENBERG: And the advent of cheaper food, be it the new fertilizers and new machinery making it cheaper and easier with less manpower to stay on the farm so they go to the cities. Is that sort of the way it works?

WAY: That’s certainly part of it.

CHAMIE: And if I could add one important factor that Peter knows quite well, lower mortality. We had a very drastic decrease in mortality in the developing world after World War II, therefore you don’t have to have as many births in order for a few number to survive.

WATTENBERG: Joe’s shop did long-range projections out to 2,300 which is very long as these things go, but they’re good indicators. And it showed this below replacement fertility rate and then it - on its medium variance it goes back up to 2.1 and then you end up at 2,300 when the world is a perfect place at about nine billion people.

WAY: Demographic harmony.

WATTENBERG: Demographic harmony. But if you take the current official U.N. number, 1.85 children per woman, it’s not a lot of difference. It’s a quarter of a child per woman. You end up not with nine billion people but with a little more than two billion people. Now you get into two billion people in the world instead of the nine billion, you are talking about a new world; about Copernicus, about Christopher Columbus. I mean, it’s really a new world. But with all the modern technology that goes in it...

CHAMIE: We’ve been able to decrease the death rates so now we have very low death rates with exception of the AIDS epidemic and now we’re getting in a situation where people, men and women, can choose the number and spacing of their children. This is a great stride forward.

WATTENBERG: Well, if I can take a scholarly answer on that, yes and no. There was just a conference in Bangkok about AIDS. Can you give us a brief picture of what’s going on with AIDS? What that conference showed and what the future looks like?

CHAMIE: AIDS still is destroying many families, killing many people; many people are still HIV positive. There’s no cure in sight and we see many areas - South Asia, Eastern Europe, Russia in particular, now being threatened by the spread of HIV.

WATTENBERG: But it’s particularly prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa.

CHAMIE: The highest levels of prevalence we are seeing are in Sub-Saharan Africa.

WAY: AIDS is having a huge impact on the world demography. There are nearly 40 million people currently infected with HIV. We estimate...

WATTENBERG: Wow. Forty million?

WAY: Forty million. We estimate that twenty million have already died from HIV around the world in the last twenty years. We talked earlier about the balance of births and deaths but in many of the Sub-Saharan African countries they’re getting closer to a balance but by changing the wrong part of the equation with the number of deaths increasing.

WATTENBERG: A balance of population?

WAY: That’s right.

WATTENBERG: Population stability but not due to longer life.

WAY: Not due to longer life; not due to reduced fertility, but by increasing the death rate which is a huge impact on the populations, on age distribution, on the future of these countries. We estimate that for some of the Sub-Saharan African countries the life expectancy is down in the 30s. Thirty years’ life expectancy at birth. Compared to Zimbabwe for example, which was 60 years or more just a couple of decades ago.

WATTENBERG: So life expectancy at birth has gone - say in that country in Zimbabwe - from 60 years per person at birth to 30 years per person at birth.

WAY: Something in the 30s. And so we’re going back 50 years or more in terms of demographic and public health and socioeconomic progress in these countries back to early 20th century or before in terms of the level of mortality.

WATTENBERG: And as you say the forecasts most recent data, no cure, dismal. We’re still in the soup.

CHAMIE: Well, you know, at the United Nations there are many things that they disagree and argue about. But there’s one thing that all the countries agree. In order to be developed you have to have low mortality and all the countries are trying to achieve this. This AIDS epidemic has basically stopped and reversed much of the progress we saw in the early 50s and 60s. You have to stop the HIV spreading and you have to bring back a low mortality for these countries to join the 21st century.

WATTENBERG: Okay. When I went through this world population prospects in your volumes as well, I mean, you look at this as a interested non-demographer and you say there are three big stories around - China, India and America. China and India are the only two countries that have so-called billionaire status - they have more than a billion people. Between the two of them, what, they have about a third of the population of the world? Something like that?

CHAMIE: Slightly more than a third. About 2.4 billion out of 6.4.

WATTENBERG: What’s the general story on China? I mean their policies and...

WAY: China has for a number of years had the so-called one-child family policy. The net result of that has been that fertility rates did drop quite sharply when that was instituted and have been below 2 for oh, about a couple of decades now.

WATTENBERG: Yes, I mean it went down from about five-and-a-half or 6 down to about 2 with the...

WAY: In the 1970s, I believe. And it’s been around 1.7, 1.8, 1.6 level since then. If you look at urban data it’s - they are very close to a one-child family with fertility rates much closer to 1.

WATTENBERG: And you have in China many more boys than girls because there is selected abortion by sex and some people say some infanticide of actually killing off infant girl babies when they’re one day old or something like that.

WAY: Latest data we have show that actually that was exaggerated. Sex ratios at birth are in fact returning more toward the normal level. Perhaps Chinese parents are realizing that there may be no little girls for their little boys to marry when they grow up.

WATTENBERG: Right. But this existed for awhile and now they’re kind of pulling ...

WAY: Yes. It’s still...sex ratios is still above what would be considered the normal.

CHAMIE:I think it’s important Ben, to point out that both the Chinese government and the Indian government, it’s illegal to have sex-selective abortions. Despite that, the public, many of them choose to - after they find out the sex of the fetus - to abort it if it’s a female fetus. The government’s trying to discourage that and they’re trying to set up programs to encourage daughters. Some setting up funds for college for daughters and also programs to educate the public.

WATTENBERG: In other words, pronatalism again and we’ll see if it works.

CHAMIE: Well, to try to balance out the sex ratio which has a very important consequence.

WATTENBERG: Now, what do you make of what’s going on in India? Here’s a country that suddenly in the last 10/15 years economically has sort of exploded. Fertility rates have come way down - not down as far as the Chinese - and all of a sudden a country that was at one point regarded as almost a basket case is suddenly a model. I mean, high-tech and all - you read all these stories.

CHAMIE: India’s more than just one country. It’s a billion people and a very, very diverse, many languages; very diverse ethnically and you have a divide between the north and the south.

WATTENBERG: With the fertility rates being higher in the rural north and in the more developed south?

CHAMIE: Right. The difficulty comes in as this difference between the northern higher fertility rates and the southern that are modernizing and it’s how you distribute the parliament. And what they’ve done is try to freeze representation in order not to reward or give additional balance to these largely, rapidly growing states such as Uttar Pradesh and Behar, at the expense of some of the southern states that have achieved relatively stable, low fertility.

WATTENBERG: And in India as elsewhere around the world, there is this movement toward the cities. Huge cities.

CHAMIE: Well, as our projections at the Population Division of the U.N. has shown, is that we’re moving from a rural world to an urban world. In about three years we’ll hit the magic 50% mark where half of the world’s population will be residing in urban areas and that’ll be the first time in history of the world where the majority will be residing in urban places. And that has enormous socioeconomic and political consequences.

WAY: One difference in India or in other places that you will note from compared to 500 years ago in the very rural villages, there often will be a community generator and a television set that provides I think an important linkage to the modernizing world.

WATTENBERG: In other words, people say if I can get all these good things if instead of having five children I have two children, that’s this diffusion theory. Is that right?


WATTENBERG: Now, let me ask another question. I go through Joe’s book and your book and the United States is different, period. They are different, obviously, from the poor countries and they’re very different from all of the well-to-do countries with the exception of the so-called settler nations, the immigrant-taking nations like Australia and Canada, I guess. Why is this? Why is, as in so many other areas of human affairs, America different? Do you all have some theories?

WAY: I think the fact that we have a lot of immigrants helps to keep our fertility somewhat above what many European countries have.

CHAMIE: And many people feel that child-friendly. And I think that may be one of the major reasons why its fertility is higher than some of the European and East Asian countries.

WATTENBERG: You say child-friendly, yet all the experiments in so-called pronatalism, which is to make a society child-friendly - the big experiments have happened in Europe. America now has tax credits for children but it’s a much lower rate of making it child-friendly. Now there seems to be a contradiction there.

CHAMIE: The child-friendly is not necessarily having a cash bonus, a monthly allowance for having a child or having other types of financial rewards. It’s much more friendly in terms of the atmosphere, the welcoming, the products for children, the amusements for children. Where did Disney World start? It started in the United States. Entertainment. It’s very, very focused and also it’s very optimistic. If you go to Europe there’s a bit of a dismal outlook there on the future but in the United States a rather optimistic outlook.

WATTENBERG: I mean I think this whole idea of optimism is right on the money. I mean having a child, just psychologically speaking, is the ultimate act of optimism, isn’t it? I mean it really says there is a tomorrow; it’s going to be better than today; I want to bring a child into this world. What role does immigration play in the world and in America specifically in terms of the population growth and population decline? Do you know?

CHAMIE: We have an estimate of around a little more than two million immigrants flowing from the developing world to the developed world and half of that two million is coming to the U.S.; about 1.1 million is the estimate.
So the U.S. overwhelmingly is the leader in terms of...

WATTENBERG: Is the target for - target for immigrants.
Okay. We will continue this discussion. So thank you very much for - Joe Chamie and Peter Way - for joining us on part one. Please join us in an upcoming program when we discuss the effects of low population trends and remember to send us your comments via email. It helps us make our program better. For Think Tank, I’m Ben Wattenberg.


We at Think Tank depend on your views to make our show better. Please send your questions and comments to New River Media, 1219 Connecticut Avenue, N.W.; Washington, D.C., 20036 or email us at thinktank@pbs.org.
To learn more about Think Tank, visit PBS online at PBS.org and please, let us know where you watch Think Tank.

Funding for Think Tank is provided by...

At Pfizer we’re spending over five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have 12,000 scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer. Life is our life’s work.

Additional funding is provided by the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

We are PBS.

Back to top

Think Tank is made possible by generous support from the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Donner Canadian Foundation, the Dodge Jones Foundation, and Pfizer, Inc.

©Copyright Think Tank. All rights reserved.
BJW, Inc.  New River Media 

Web development by Bean Creative.