Think Again

Think Again: Iraq

It's not over yet.

"Iraq Is a Democracy."

In theory, but it doesn't work like one. Yes, it has had three, free national elections and a constitutional referendum and there are elements of democracy. I started covering Iraq in 1998, living there from the start of the war until late 2009, and it certainly feels freer than before. Saddam Hussein held his last election, a plebiscite in 2002, and claimed 100 percent of the vote (and maybe it was true -- who would risk voting against him?). Under the old regime, even when I could slip away from government minders, people were usually too scared of informants among their family and friends to speak openly. You weren't even allowed to keep your mouth shut. Failure to join the chanting crowds at pro-government rallies -- watched closely by neighborhood-level Baathists -- could cost you your job, admission to university, or worse. Now there's lots of open talk, government criticism, and widespread Internet access.

But Iraq is not democratic in a reliable or deep sense, where people can expect equal rights, legal protections, or access to their leaders. Free speech is still a dangerous pursuit. At least seven reporters or their staff have been killed this year in what appear to be direct attacks on news agencies, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Most others are afraid to get too specific in their criticisms of the leadership. Regulations are tightening, and the track record of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has just maneuvered himself into another term in office, is getting darker. The government has started requiring that news agencies register their staff and equipment. Media regulations ban quotations from anonymous sources. Human Rights Watch recently documented government efforts to ban public demonstrations and encourage security forces to violently disperse attempts at peaceful protest.

Despite vast U.S. training efforts, rule of law is still mostly an abstract concept. Criminals can regularly buy their way out of jail and the falsely accused, or those thousands held for months without charges, often have to resort to buying their freedom as well. Secret prisons have been found where inmates face torture by beating, electric shock, and rape. Maliki -- along with other leaders -- has used arrest as a tactic to neutralize political opponents. It's most apparent in the still-dangerous and fluid Diyala province, where several Sunni politicians have been jailed. A leader of the Sunni Sons of Iraq -- the militias that helped the United States fight al Qaeda -- was also arrested by Maliki's forces in what one U.S. colonel told me was a case of "collateral political damage." One of the real concerns among opponents and some U.S. officials now is whether, given another term, Maliki's Dawa Party will consolidate so much power -- such as by taking direct control over some military units -- that it prevents any future opposition.

Among the many laws held over from the old regime is one that allows the prime minister and cabinet ministers to block investigations into their subordinates, thereby stifling attempts to prosecute corrupt officials. The big money these days is in kickbacks for government contracts. But any business owner can also expect to pay steady handouts to predatory cops and bureaucrats who threaten to yank their permits. Government payrolls -- including in the military -- are bloated with employees who show up only part time and kick back some of their salaries to their bosses. In July, someone told me about one midlevel ministry official who was finally busted for requiring bribes of people he hired. He apparently got caught only because some who had paid him off complained that he hadn't put them on the payroll as promised.

As violence continues and the country remains in a state of emergency, most areas, including Baghdad, are under the de facto command of the Iraqi Army, with all local security forces answering to a military strongman who decides who gets arrested, what roads stay open, and when curfews are imposed.

"Maliki Is Iran's Man."

Not quite. Iraq's prime minister, stubbornly independent and impetuous, probably causes as many headaches in Tehran as he does in Washington.

True, Maliki lived in Iran for eight years after escaping Iraq in 1979, when the regime wanted him and tens of thousands of other Islamic Dawa Party supporters for arrest and execution. He helped run a military camp in southern Iran where Dawa men trained for their guerrilla war against Saddam. But they constantly clashed with their Iranian hosts over issues of ideology (for one thing, Dawa refused to accept velayat al-faqih, the Iranian model that places government under clerical rule) and tactics. After about a year, Iran evicted Dawa from the camp and gave the compound, as well as money and training, to a more reliable militia under direct Iranian control, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, now a political party known as ISCI. That group became Iran's malleable proxy against Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War and grew strong while Dawa foundered. The double cross still irks Maliki and others within the tight-knit Dawa cadres, people close to the party have told me.

Maliki plays the United States and Iran against each other for what he sees as Iraq's or his own interests. Associates say Maliki believes, rightly, that the fighters affiliated with militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that took up arms against his government got their weapons from Iran. The prime minister personally led Iraqi forces in fierce battles against them in the spring of 2008 (his security chief was killed when a rocket struck their command center), aided by U.S. troops. Last year, in the approach to the elections, the Iranians pressured Maliki not to split from the main Shiite grouping (with ISCI) and form his own coalition. He did so anyway. Maliki also resisted Iranian arm-twisting in signing the Status of Forces Agreement with the United States in 2008. And, in turn, he used the pretense of Iranian pressure on his cabinet and parliament to get the Americans to agree to tighter deadlines and limits on their troop presence. I wouldn't be surprised if he eventually turns and decides to tolerate a longer U.S. presence just as a counterweight to Iran.

This year, Iran ended up supporting Maliki for prime minister again -- and brokered his latest alliance with Sadr -- probably for the same reason U.S. President Barack Obama's administration belatedly backed Maliki: There weren't any better alternatives. Iran's old ally, ISCI, faired too poorly at the polls to contend for the top spot, and Maliki was better for Iran than secular contender and American friend Ayad Allawi. But when Allawi failed to form a viable coalition, the United States eventually aided the formation of a new Maliki government and thus forestalled the prospect of a potentially destabilizing ninth month of government gridlock.

The Iranians will continue to influence Maliki. They've got close ties with lawmakers around him, some of whom are probably even some on their payroll. They supply weapons to renegade insurgent groups that can still fire rockets at the Green Zone or throw a city into havoc. And they'll use the same soft power that Turkey and other neighbors employ through vast commercial contacts, strong-arm diplomacy, subsidies to some of Iraq's Shiite religious networks, and their shared geography and heritage. But, in general, they use their overall clout in Iraq to control Maliki to a greater extent than they can use Maliki to control Iraq.

"Sadr Calls the Shots."

In his dreams. It was, as widely noted, a disappointment for the United States and a win for Iran that Maliki's new government includes an alliance with Sadr. The radical anti-American cleric has been living in Iran since 2007, and Tehran funds and arms elements of his militias. Now his movement has helped put Maliki over the top and will hold at least a few cabinet seats. When they were in government before, the Sadrists nearly destroyed the Ministry of Health as they used hospitals for secret prisons or as places from which to hunt down Sunnis. They made a mess of the Ministry of Transportation and the national airlines, and diverted public money to build their party.

But none of that means Sadr can run roughshod over the new government. Remember, Sadr was instrumental in making Maliki prime minister last time, too. But once in office, Maliki turned the tables. Amid their abuses of the ministries they controlled, the Sadrists also demanded more power and then dropped out of the government when Maliki refused them. That's when Maliki, in the spring of 2008, turned the Iraqi Army loose on the Sadrist gangs in Basra and several other cities. The offensive didn't crush the movement -- many of the militants melted away into hiding while a cease fire was negotiated. But that set back the Sadrists and their leaders vowed never to back Maliki again. (Some militants who Maliki's found and captured were among those he recently released in exchange for the movement's renewed support.)

The back-and-forth is a good example of what historian Phebe Marr describes as the age-old pattern for Iraqi politics -- "fight and negotiate, fight and negotiate."


"Kirkuk Is a Time Bomb."

Prove it. The prospects of a major conflict between Arabs and Kurds over the northern city of Kirkuk merit concern, as we've been warned ad nauseum for the last seven years, but they aren't any greater than the chances of violence in a lot of other places in Iraq. The good thing about a city constantly being labeled a "potential flashpoint" is that it draws a lot of attention to keep it from erupting. As long as that tendency continues, there are several factors that could keep Kirkuk calm.

Yes, major disputes continue over areas where the Kurdish leadership of the north and the Arabs in Baghdad vie for control. And the downside to any friction is steep. Small skirmishes could escalate into a war between conventional forces with tanks and artillery capable of destroying cities in their path. Another dire scenario could see pockets of ethnic cleansing of whichever side -- usually Arabs, where Kirkuk is concerned -- is the minority group in the areas in question.

But the combatants here, unlike al Qaeda or the Sadrist militias, answer to formal authorities -- like the Baghdad government and the Kurdish political leadership. The United Nations has been deeply engaged in proposing solutions and trying to build trust between the two sides. After a series of near skirmishes along the seams between the two sides, U.S. soldiers now patrol several areas with Arab and Kurdish troops to protect against any accidental friction. Yes, last year Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and Maliki feuded. But this month it was Barzani's mediation, endorsed by the United States, that helped pave the way for Maliki's new term in office.

Neither side has an incentive for all-out war. The Kurds have the clear upper hand in Kirkuk and already de facto control over other disputed areas that are predominantly Kurdish. They've been getting away with steady and often effective intimidation to drive Arabs away from some areas since 2003. It's horrific for the victims. This summer, near Baquba, a town northeast of Baghdad, I visited an old Iraqi Army garage complex where 600 Arab families have lived in squalor since Kurds displaced them from a northern area within days of the U.S. invasion in 2003. But as ugly as the expulsions are, they haven't come with the kind of above board violence that would draw a forceful Baghdad response. Nor does it make sense for Baghdad to start a new conflict while it's still dealing with violence in several other provinces.

But the biggest test yet is on the way. A nationwide census scheduled for the end of this year will likely aggravate ethnic tensions. It could prompt Kurds to push more Arabs out -- to run up the Kurdish numbers -- or lead to a defensive outburst of violence from minority Arabs. It could provoke either side to overreach. The census was originally scheduled for 2007, then pushed ahead to this October and then again to December. The International Crisis Group has called for the census to be delayed further until the big issues can be resolved by the leadership.


"The Iraq War Is Over."

Which one? What Americans call "the Iraq war" has really been a series of conflicts, sometimes overlapping. There was the U.S. invasion, then the Sunni insurgency and al Qaeda-type mayhem, followed by the sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites that led to the U.S. troop surge in 2007. There was also the war in which mainstream Sunnis fought, with U.S. help, against al Qaeda-linked extremists. And there has been sporadic but fierce fighting among Shiite groups. This is partly what makes it so hellish for average Iraqis who are trying to work, keep their kids in school, and just survive: Front lines, threats, and enemies keep changing without notice.

The killing sure hasn't stopped, though it's much less frequent than the all-out mayhem of 2007. While 3,000 people died in a few months in 2007, now the number of deaths usually ranges anywhere from a couple of hundred to a few hundred a month. And it's worth noting that the violence has remained around those lower levels even as the United States has pulled out nearly 100,000 troops since early last year. Only around 20 Americans have been killed by hostile fire this year. But there are multiple bombings weekly and still frequent horrors -- such as the attack on a church last month that killed about 60 congregants. Iraqis in that tortuous middle ground where it's not coming apart in geopolitical terms but is still traumatically violent for those who have to live there.

Most of the bloodshed is still caused by groups loosely affiliated with al Qaeda-type extremists (more local than linked to the international al Qaeda). Former Baathists also carry out attacks and there is still a trickle of foreign bombers coming in from Syria -- about five to 10 a month, according to a U.S. military official I interviewed in late September.

The point is that several groups still apparently believe that Iraq can be destabilized to their advantage and it probably can. Looking ahead, there are the major Kurdish-Arab issues still to be settled. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose revered and patient guidance has cooled off several crises, is in his late 70s and ailing: Any successor will need years to accumulate influence matching his. Sadr is ambitious and unpredictable. Neighboring Sunni Arab regimes remain hostile to the idea of a Shiite-led government controlling Baghdad for the first time in centuries. It will take concerted diplomacy, economic development, and probably thousands of U.S. troops on the ground -- even if they're just in bases -- to make sure all these tensions don't pull the country and the region into chaos. The last thing Americans want is to have to return to Iraq and stitch it back together.

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Think Again

Think Again: Global Aging

A gray tsunami is sweeping the planet -- and not just in the places you expect. How did the world get so old, so fast?

View a photo essay of The Grayest Generation.

"The World Faces a Population Bomb."

Yes, but of old people. Not so long ago, we were warned that rising global population would inevitably bring world famine. As Paul Ehrlich wrote apocalyptically in his 1968 worldwide bestseller, The Population Bomb, "In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date, nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate." Obviously, Ehrlich's predicted holocaust, which assumed that the 1960s global baby boom would continue until the world faced mass famine, didn't happen. Instead, the global growth rate dropped from 2 percent in the mid-1960s to roughly half that today, with many countries no longer producing enough babies to avoid falling populations. Having too many people on the planet is no longer demographers' chief worry; now, having too few is.

It's true that the world's population overall will increase by roughly one-third over the next 40 years, from 6.9 to 9.1 billion, according to the U.N. Population Division. But this will be a very different kind of population growth than ever before -- driven not by birth rates, which have plummeted around the world, but primarily by an increase in the number of elderly people. Indeed, the global population of children under 5 is expected to fall by 49 million as of midcentury, while the number of people over 60 will grow by 1.2 billion. How did the world grow so gray, so quickly?

One reason is that more people are living to advanced old age. But just as significant is the enormous bulge of people born in the first few decades after World War II. Both the United States and Western Europe saw particularly dramatic increases in birth rates during the late 1940s and 1950s, as returning veterans made up for lost time. In the 1960s and 1970s, much of the developing world also experienced a baby boom, but for a different reason: striking declines in infant and child mortality. As these global baby boomers age, they will create a population explosion of seniors. Today in the West, we are seeing a sharp uptick in people turning 60; in another 20 years, we'll see an explosion in the numbers turning 80. Most of the rest of the world will follow the same course in the next few decades.

Eventually, the last echoes of the global baby boomers will fade away. Then, because of the continuing fall in birth rates, humans will face the very real prospect that our numbers will fall as fast -- if not faster -- than the rate at which they once grew. Russia's population is already 7 million below what it was in 1991. As for Japan, one expert has calculated that the very last Japanese baby will be born in the year 2959, assuming the country's low fertility rate of 1.25 children per woman continues unchanged. Young Austrian women now tell pollsters their ideal family size is less than two children, enough to replace themselves but not their partners. Worldwide, there is a 50 percent chance that the population will be falling by 2070, according to a recent study published in Nature. By 2150, according to one U.N. projection, the global population could be half what it is today.

That might sound like an appealing prospect: less traffic, more room at the beach, easier college admissions. But be careful what you wish for.

"Aging Is a Rich-Country Problem."

NO. Once, demographers believed, following a long line of ancient thinkers from Tacitus and Cicero in late Rome to Ibn Khaldun in the medieval Arab world, that population aging and decline were particular traits of "civilized" countries that had obtained a high degree of luxury. Reflecting on the fate of Rome, Charles Darwin's grandson bemoaned a pattern he saw throughout history: "Must civilization always lead to the limitation of families and consequent decay and then replacement from barbaric sources, which in turn will go through the same experience?"

Today, however, we see that birth rates are dipping below replacement levels even in countries hardly known for luxury. Emerging first in Scandinavia in the 1970s, what the experts call "subreplacement fertility" quickly spread to the rest of Europe, Russia, most of Asia, much of South America, the Caribbean, Southern India, and even Middle Eastern countries like Lebanon, Morocco, and Iran. Of the 59 countries now producing fewer children than needed to sustain their populations, 18 are characterized by the United Nations as "developing," i.e., not rich.

Indeed, most developing countries are experiencing population aging at unprecedented rates. Consider Iran. As recently as the late 1970s, the average Iranian woman had nearly seven children. Today, for reasons not well understood, she has just 1.74, far below the average 2.1 children needed to sustain a population over time. Accordingly, between 2010 and 2050, the share of Iran's population 60 and older is expected to increase from 7.1 to 28.1 percent. This is well above the share of 60-plus people found in Western Europe today and about the same percentage that is expected for most Northern European countries in 2050. But unlike Western Europe, Iran and many other developing regions experiencing the same hyper-aging -- from Cuba to Croatia, Lebanon to the Wallis and Futuna Islands -- will not necessarily have a chance to get rich before they get old.

One contributing factor is urbanization; more than half the world's population now lives in cities, where children are an expensive economic liability, not another pair of hands to till fields or care for livestock. Two other oft-cited reasons are expanded work opportunities for women and the increasing prevalence of pensions and other old-age financial support that doesn't depend on having large numbers of children to finance retirement.

Surprisingly, this graying of the world is not by any means the exclusive result of programs deliberately aimed at population control. For though there are countries such as India, which embraced population control even to the point of forced sterilization programs during the 1970s and saw dramatic reduction in birth rates, there are also counterexamples such as Brazil, where the government never promoted family planning and yet its birth rate went down even more. Why? In both countries and elsewhere, changing cultural norms appear to be the primary force driving down birth rates -- think TV, not government decrees. In Brazil, television was introduced sequentially province by province, and in each new region the boob tube reached, birth rates plummeted soon after. (Discuss among yourselves whether this was because of what's on Brazilian television -- mostly soap operas depicting rich people living the high life -- or simply because a television was now on at night in many more bedrooms.)

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"The West Is Doomed by Demographics."

MAYBE. But the outlook is even worse for Asia. Those who predict a coming Asian Century have not come to terms with the region's approaching era of hyper-aging. Japan, whose "lost decade" began just as its labor force started to shrink in the late 1980s, now appears to be not an exception, but a vanguard of Asian demographics. South Korea and Taiwan, with some of the lowest birth rates of any major country, will be losing population within 15 years. Singapore's government is so worried about its birth dearth that it not only offers new mothers a "baby bonus" of up to about $3,000 each for the first or second child and about $4,500 for a third or fourth child, paid maternity leave, and other enticements to have children, it has even started sponsoring speed-dating events.

China, for now, continues to enjoy the economic benefits associated with the early phase of birth-rate decline, when a society has fewer children to support and more available female labor for the workforce. But with its stringent one-child policy and exceptionally low birth rate, China is rapidly evolving into what demographers call a "4-2-1" society, in which one child becomes responsible for supporting two parents and four grandparents.

Asia will also be plagued by a chronic shortage of women in the coming decades, which could leave the most populous region on Earth with the same skewed sex ratios as the early American West. Due to selective abortion, China has about 16 percent more boys than girls, which many predict will lead to instability as tens of millions of "unmarriageable" men find other outlets for their excess libido. India has nearly the same sex-ratio imbalance and also a substantial difference in birth rates between its southern (mostly Hindu) states and its northern (more heavily Muslim) states, which could contribute to ethnic tension.

No society has ever experienced the speed of population aging -- or the gender imbalance -- now seen throughout Asia. So we can't simply look to history to predict Asia's future. But we can say with confidence that no region on Earth is more demographically challenged.

"The U.S. Baby Boom Has Saved It
From an Old-Age Crisis."

For now. On its current course, the U.S. population of 310 million will continue to grow relative to that of the rest of the developed world, primarily because its birth rate, while barely at replacement level, is still higher than that of almost any other industrialized country. In purely geopolitical terms, this suggests American influence over Europe, Japan, South Korea, and other allies could grow. Yet the United States has no reason to be smug about its comparatively favorable demographics. As its allies age and even shrink in population, the United States could be forced to assume even more of the burden of policing the world's trouble spots. Like a person in middle age, the United States now has to worry not only about its own aging, but also about how to provide for other family members who are becoming too old to fend for themselves.

And age America will. The main reason for its comparative youthfulness so far has been immigration, both legal and illegal. But according to a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center, the number of illegal immigrants thought to be entering the United States has plunged to just 300,000 people annually -- down from 850,000 in the early 2000s. More than a million immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America have returned home in the last two years. These falling numbers are largely driven by the soaring U.S. unemployment rate, which has at least temporarily reduced the economic rewards of moving to El Norte, but they could herald a permanent shift.

Demographics explain why. Birth rates are falling dramatically across Latin America, especially in Mexico, suggesting a tidal shift in migration patterns. Consider what happened with Puerto Rico, where birth rates have also plunged: Immigration to the mainland United States has all but stopped despite an open border and the lure of a considerably higher standard of living on the continent. In the not-so-distant future, the United States may well find itself competing for immigrants rather than building walls to keep them out.

"Old People Will Just Work Longer."

But only if older workers are healthy. And that's a big if. You might have noticed a lot more middle-age Americans using canes, walkers, and wheelchairs these days. So many of Walmart's customers are now physically impaired that the giant retailer has replaced many of its shopping carts with electric scooters that allow shoppers to remain seated as they cruise the aisles. Such sights are reflected in statistics showing that, for the first time since such record-keeping began, disability rates are no longer improving among middle-age Americans, but getting worse.

According to a recent Rand Corp. study published in Health Affairs, more than 40 percent of Americans ages 50 to 64 already have difficulties performing ordinary activities of daily life, such as walking a quarter mile or climbing 10 steps without resting -- a substantial rise from just 10 years ago. Because of this declining physical fitness among the middle-aged, we can expect the next generation of senior citizens to be much more impaired than the current one.

It isn't just Americans. Obesity and sedentary lifestyles are spreading globally. Between 1995 and 2000, the number of obese adults increased worldwide from 200 million to 300 million -- with 115 million of these living in developing countries. From Chile to China, McDonald's and KFC are opening franchises every day, even as people everywhere spend more and more of their time in automobiles and in front of flat-screen TVs and computer monitors. More than a billion people worldwide are now estimated to be overweight, creating a global pandemic of chronic conditions from heart disease to diabetes.

Sure, countries can and will do much more to help people age gracefully and to encourage older citizens to remain in the workforce. A recent report from the European Commission has pointed out, for example, that providing for more part-time jobs would not only encourage delayed retirement, but could also help boost birth rates by smoothing the tensions between work and family life for parents. Encouraging healthier diets would enormously lengthen productive life spans, as would building or preserving more walkable communities. But there are clear limits to how many seniors will be fit enough, mentally or physically, to compete in the global economy of the next 20 years.

These trends undermine the argument, now common around the world, that standard retirement ages must go up. Not only are improvements in life expectancy at older ages very modest and now trending toward zero, but disability rates are exploding to the point that it would be difficult for many older workers to perform in the workplace even if they had the job skills that a modern economy demands. This explains such paradoxes as the fact that U.S. employers report it is nearly impossible to find the engineering talent they need, while the unemployment rate among U.S. engineers remains extraordinarily high. The faster-evolving and more technologically sophisticated a society becomes, the more rapidly job skills -- and elderly workers, sadly -- become obsolete.

"An Elderly World Will Be More Peaceful."

Not necessarily. Some strategists, such as scholar Mark L. Haas, speak of a coming "geriatric peace." Here's the argument: In a world of single-child families, popular resistance to military conscription should grow, as tolerance of military casualties falls. The rising cost of pensions and health care should also make sustaining military buildups increasingly difficult. Societies dominated by middle-age and older citizens may also become more risk-averse, more preoccupied with practical, domestic concerns like crime and retirement security, and less driven by adherence to violent ideologies. Japan is often held up as an example of a country that has grown more stable and peaceful as it has aged. Western Europe was wracked by domestic unrest when its vaunted "Generation of '68" was still young, but as these postwar baby boomers aged and produced few children, the political and social agendas of Europe became far less radical.

But there are some problems with this rosy scenario. To start, even countries that are rapidly aging can, paradoxically, produce youth bulges with all the attendant social consequences, from more violence to economic dislocation. Consider Iran. By 2020, the number of 15- to 24-year-old Iranians will have shrunk by 34 percent since 2005, according to the U.N. Population Division. This largely reflects the sharp downturn in the Iranian economy that occurred after its 1979 revolution, as well as the clerical regime's embrace of contraception. But from 2020 to 2035, the number will again swell by 34 percent, even if birth rates continue to decline. Why? A very high proportion of Iranian women are now of childbearing age, which means that even though young Iranian women are having far fewer children than their mothers did -- indeed, not enough to sustain the population over time -- their numbers are still sufficient to create a temporary "echo boom."

Many other Muslim countries, from Libya to Pakistan, will experience similarly huge oscillations in their youth populations. Most of the Central Asian republics, too, will face large echo booms in the 2020s. Long a battlefield for larger powers from the Mongols and Persians to the Russians and British, these newly independent states are once again the object of geopolitical competition due to their natural gas and oil reserves. The same is true of two of Latin America's most volatile countries, Peru and Venezuela.

This isn't just a numbers game. As the darkest recent chapters of European history suggest, the point of transition from growth to demographic decline can be an unsettling and dangerous one. Fascist ideology in Europe was deeply informed by Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West, Lothrop Stoddard's The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, and the writings of other eugenicists obsessed with the demographic decline of "Aryans."

Now, just as the horrors of fascism are passing from living memory, a new generation of Europeans is again feeling demographically besieged, this time by the arrival of Muslim immigrants. Fear of demographic decline also fuels the resurgence of Hindu nationalism in India, and it contributes to the backlash in the United States against immigrants and the controversy around the building of the "Ground Zero mosque" near the site of the 9/11 tragedy.

Over the next few decades, not only will echo booms be producing youth bulges in many of the world's trouble spots, but much of the developed world's population will be passing into advanced old age. It's a recipe for maximum demographic danger, Neil Howe and Richard Jackson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies warn. If you think the teenies are looking ugly, watch out for the 2020s.

"A Gray World Will Be a Poorer World."

Only if we do nothing. The connection between a society's wealth and its demographics is cyclical. At first, with fertility declining and the workforce aging, there are proportionately fewer children to raise and educate. This is good: It frees up female labor to join the formal economy and allows for greater investment in the education of each remaining child. All else being equal, both factors stimulate economic development. Japan went through this phase in the 1960s and 1970s, with the other Asian countries following close behind. China is benefiting from it now.

Then, however, the outlook turns bleak. Over time, low birth rates lead not only to fewer children, but also to fewer working-age people just as the percentage of dependent elders explodes. This means that as population aging runs its course, it might well go from stimulating the economy to depressing it. Fewer young adults means fewer people needing to purchase new homes, new furniture, and the like, as well as fewer people likely to take entrepreneurial risks. Aging workers become more interested in protecting existing jobs than in creating new businesses. Last-ditch efforts to prop up consumption and home values may result in more and more capital flowing into expanded consumer credit, creating financial bubbles that inevitably burst (sound familiar?).

In other words, a planet that grays indefinitely is clearly asking for trouble. But birth rates don't have to plummet forever. One path forward might be characterized as the Swedish road: It involves massive state intervention designed to smooth the tensions between work and family life to enable women to have more children without steep financial setbacks. But so far, countries that have followed this approach have achieved only very modest success. At the other extreme is what might be called the Taliban road: This would mean a return to "traditional values," in which women have few economic and social options beyond the role of motherhood. This mindset may well maintain high birth rates, but with consequences that today are unacceptable to all but the most rigid fundamentalists.

So is there a third way? Yes, though we aren't quite sure how to get there. The trick will be restoring what, in the days of family-owned farms and small businesses, was once true: that babies are an asset rather than a burden. Imagine a society in which parents get to keep more of the human capital they form by investing in their children. Imagine a society in which the family is no longer just a consumer unit, but a productive enterprise. The society that figures out how to restore the economic foundation of the family will own the future. The alternative is poor and gray indeed.

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