I Don’t Mean to Stare / We Don’t Have to Breed

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I have to say that I was really shocked to see David Brooks devote an entire column yesterday to the question what would happen if a freak solar event sterilized the entire Western Hemisphere? His answer: Nothing good! Kerry Howley, baby hater, tries to stand up for the view that immigrants could replace us. I mostly want to take issue with Brooks’ anti-materialist view of why society would collapse:

Even after the event, material conditions would be exactly the same. People would still have an incentive to go to work, pay off their bills and educate the children who were already with us. For 20 years, there would still be workers flowing into the labor force. Immigrants from the other side of the earth could eventually surge into the areas losing population. If anything, the mass-sterilization might reduce the environmental strain on the planet. People might focus on living for the moment, valuing the here and now.

But, of course, we don’t lead individualistic lives. Material conditions do not drive history. People live in a compact between the dead, the living and the unborn, and the value of the thought experiment is that it reminds us of the power posterity holds over our lives.

This is nuts. Material conditions would be radically and immediately altered by a mass sterilization event. You don’t need to believe any outlandish claims about the efficiency of financial markets to note that markets would very quickly adjust the price of a whole range of things in light of the drastic alteration of demographic trends. How’s the already depressed housing market looking? The stock of companies that make baby food and other stuff for infants? Kindergarden teachers won’t be out of work for a few years, but the smart ones will start looking for new jobs immediately. And then there would, of course, be massive uncertainty in both hemispheres about the future of immigration policy. That would unsettle expectations, disrupt investment decisions, etc.

You’d probably have a very severe financial crisis with quite real consequences. A “huge collapse” scenario doesn’t strike me as at all implausible. But the mechanism is as material as anything else you like.