June 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Demographics and destiny, Euro English, remembering the Berlin Airlift, and other observations

With a tip of the sun visor to legendary columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

THE ROLE DEMOGRAPHICS WILL PLAY IN THE FUTURE SHAPE OF SOCIETIES AROUND the world can’t be understated, and two fascinating articles in June highlighted this reality. Russell Shorto’s Sunday New York Times Magazine piece “No Babies” considered Europe’s rapidly diminishing population, while Maria Hvistendahl’s New Republic article “No Country for Young Men” focused on China’s stunning gender imbalance crisis “with 37 million more men than women and almost 20 percent more newborn boys than girls nationwide.”

The European population situation is more complex, and more serious, than the Chinese problem. As Shorto recounts for the first time ever (absent a war or famine) birthrates have dipped below 1.3 in southern and Eastern Europe. That is well under the replacement rate of 2.1 (“the average number of births per woman that will maintain a country’s current population level.”) If the current fertility trends continue, Europeans will represent only 5% of the world’s population by 2050, down from 12.5% in 1960.

The Chinese have a different problem: the Communist government’s tough one-child policy and the desire by traditional Chinese families for a son has led to the country’s large gender imbalance. That may mean a future where 10% of Chinese men will be unable to find wives and, suggests, prove “a recipe for violent civil unrest.”

At least the reasons for the Chinese gender imbalance are understood. Why peace and prosperity would send Europe’s population into such a downward spiral isn’t clear. Shorto argues that social conservatives are wrong to indict feminism and waning religious belief as culprits in the trend. Instead, Shorto argues that the problem in countries like Greece, Italy, and Spain is linked to lagging gender equity. Northern European women with careers are having more children than stay-at-home Southern European women (“It’s about how much the man participates in child care,” one Italian demographer told him). Yet even the Scandinavian countries, with more “gender equality” and Europe’s highest birthrate at 1.8, fall short of replacement.

Shorto does consider another theory for flagging European fertility: that statist economies and rigid job markets make it harder for European mothers to juggle family and career than their counterparts in the United States, which has a birthrate of 2.1. That seems a more likely explanation for the gap, along with changed social attitudes toward family life fostered by education and affluence.

“THE SPINE,” A BLOG BY THE NEW REPUBLIC’S MARTY PERETZ IS OFTEN AMUSING and his recent post “A List of Buildings to Demolish in Cambridge, Massachusetts” is a case in point. Peretz fantasizes about the destruction of many of the modernist structures “gracing” the Harvard campus, including Minoru Yamasaki’s William James Hall, the horrid Peabody Terrace graduate apartment towers designed by Jose Luis Sert, Holyoke Center (another Sert project), and Norman Foster’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum. Peretz followed this with a post assessing the worth of the United Nations at…nothing; it’s clear that this one-time Harvard professor relishes challenging conventional progressive views on the value of both modern architecture and international organizations.

YOU WOULD HAVE THOUGHT GERMANY AND SPAIN WERE PLAYING THE EURO 2008 CHAMPIONSHIP SOCCER GAME IN CHICAGO, not Vienna, based on all the English in the air. The game announcements came in English; Enrique Iglesias performed the official tournament song “Can you hear me?” in English (not his native Spanish); and there were “signs saying ‘no to racism’ in English, and … stewards with the word ‘steward’ on their backs.” Those of us watching Spain’s 1-0 victory on television witnessed one more sign of emerging globalization (or globalisation, to use the Brit spelling)—the shift to a common global tongue (English).

WILL SUPERSIZED CARS SUCCEED McMANSIONS AS STATUS SYMBOLS for the nouveau riche? A Wall Street Journal article, “As Car Sales Slump, What’s Still Selling,” noted that a “handful of gas guzzlers,” including the Lexus LX sport-utility vehicle which gets only 14 miles to the gallon. One purchaser of the Lexus LX 570, a Karen Bean of Albany, N.Y., was quoted as saying: “If you’re buying an $80K+ car, you better be able to afford the gas that goes in it.” Ms. Bean, we can safely surmise, is not too concerned about reducing her carbon footprint. A more promising development is the concerted drive at General Motors to launch the Chevy Volt, its plug-in electric vehicle, by 2010, an effort outlined in a fascinating Atlantic Monthly piece, “Electro-Shock Therapy,” by Jonathan Rauch.

R.I.P., ACTOR-DIRECTOR MEL FERRER, WHO DIED AT 90 on June 2nd. My father, Stephen C. Flanders, befriended Ferrer during his early acting days in New York City, and always regarded him as the consummate gentleman.

IT HAS BEEN SIXTY YEARS SINCE THE BERLIN AIRLIFT COMMENCED on June 26, 1948. A Soviet blockade of ground routes into the divided and occupied city forced the British and American military to supply Berlin by air. The Western Allies met this first Cold War crisis with resolution, flying food, coal and other essentials into Berlin until the Soviets relented on May 12, 1949. There was a human price to the “Big Lift”—31 American and 39 British pilots were killed during the operation—but West Berlin remained a free city.

FROM DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER COMES THIS month’s closing words of wisdom: “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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