Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

The demography of evil…


… or the evils of demography?

I wrote a while back about my concern, as a sometime demographer, about how the word “demographic” had been transmuted, by some offbeat associations, in the language of US electoral politics, into a euphemism for what might more plainly be called “ethnic or religious minorities”.

Max Blumenthal’s book Goliath, which I wrote about here and here, reminded me of another, even more disturbing abuse of the name of a perfectly respectable academic subject: Israel’s obsession with its “demographic time bomb”, what other people might call “Arab citizens”.

I just checked Google’s completions for a snapshot of the mass mind: Indeed, if you type “Israel demograph”, the first two completions that Google offers are “Israel demographic time bomb” and “Israel demographic threat”. (I’m not blaming anyone for this directly. There’s no way to know who did all those searches. But obviously they were inspired, directly or indirectly, by official Israeli messaging on the issue. “Demographic time bomb” is not a form of words that one would expect to arise spontaneously.)

But the third most popular search term alludes to the point that I would want to make: “Israel demographic transition”. If Blumenthal is to be believed — and while his account is certainly consistent with other reports I have read, I do not consider myself to be sufficiently informed to judge — respectable debate in Israel on the Arab question runs the gamut from “expel them all” to “pressure them to leave the country voluntarily”, with the reasonable compromise being to expel some, and pressure most of the rest to leave voluntarily. Only the radical fringe pushes extremist ideas like “kill them all” and “leave them in peace and allow them equality as citizens”.

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with demography knows that the best way to get a population to stop growing is… to make them prosperous. That’s the “demographic transition”, and there don’t seem to be any exceptions. So, if Israeli Jews were really worried that higher Arab birthrates will eventually make the Jews a minority, they might have chosen to desist from their policies of trying to impede Arab economic activity and make Arab life in Israel a misery — something I first learned about from the fascinating book Separate and Unequal: The Inside Story of Israeli Rule in East Jerusalem, by former insiders in the Jerusalem municipal government — and instead shower them with economic subsidies.

I suspect that there is some willful ignorance behind this promotion of the “demographic threat”. The Palestinians, in this view, aren’t like normal people, who would respond to prosperity with lowered birthrates.

Comments on: "The demography of evil…" (2)

  1. Pardon me for posing this question as a clarification inquiry. I’ve only had a few college Sociology courses. Doesn’t the cause-effect relationship go in the other direction, that lowering birth rates LEADS to wealth?

    The way I was taught was that the historical pattern is populations that acquire a higher level of education choose to raise fewer children, allowing them more time and resources with which to concentrate and expand professions and careers – their engine of capital production.

    • You’re right to point to the role of education. I think there’s considerable disagreement about the relative importance of wealth and education in pushing the demographic transition. But the standard model has causality running from an improvement in conditions — health, wealth, and education — leading to declining mortality, leading then (by a process not fully understood though increasing costs of childrearing in industrial societies is obviously an important factor, as you say) to declining birth rates. In between comes a population explosion.

      Obviously, it’s more complicated than I said, and culture and government policy also have an impact. But there don’t really seem to be any significant exceptions: Improving economic (and hence nutritional and sanitary) conditions seem to always eventually lead to declining birth rates.

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