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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Babies Booming in Dusseldorf?

A couple of weeks back Bertrand Benoit of the Financial Times Frankfurt Office had an article on what appeared to be a resurgence in natality in Germany:

A pregnant woman is a rare sight on German city streets. But sit at a café terrace on Düsseldorf’s Königsallee, the city’s main shopping artery, and you will probably spot several swollen bellies. Statisticians in this prosperous city have been scratching their heads lately over figures that suggest Germans, among the most barren of western Europeans, are rediscovering the joys of procreation. In the first quarter of 2007, nearly 15 per cent more babies were born in Düsseldorf than in the same period last year. The Kaiserwerther Diakonie, one of the city’s three large hospitals, reported a rise of more than 16 per cent in births in the first half of the year. This and increases seen in other large cities from affluent Munich to down-at-heel Berlin have triggered ecstatic reports, with newspaper Die Welt predicting “a new baby boom”.

I see. Well I'm not sure what exactly has been happening in Dusseldorf, but I think it is pretty clear that Die Welt (and by implication Bertrand Benoit) have been rather too quick of the mark here. So much so that the German Federal Statistics office had to explicity deny the press account when it recently published its Q1 2007 birth data:

WIESBADEN – As reported by the Federal Statistical Office on the basis of provisional results, the number of live births in the first quarter of 2007 (149,300 children) rose just slightly (+0.4%) on the same quarter of 2006 (148,700). The number of boys born was 76,700, that of girls 72,600. The high rates of increase as reported by some media were hence not achieved.

So the press pumped it up, and the statistical office then had to pump it down. In fairmess of course Benoit only talks about Dusseldorf (and there may of course have been, for reasons yet to be determined, a lot of extra births in Dusseldorf early this year. And, indeed, Benoit was not alone here, nor was Die Welt, this news even made it out to Australia.

What is strange about all this is how our thinking is so asymmetrical on the topic, we cast all kind and manner of doubt on assertions from demographers when they suggest that something new, and more or less unprecedented is happening (and if you don't believe this, just take a look at the data I put together earlier in the week on what has been going on in Ukraine in the last decade or so), but then, at the first sight of a little piece of what seems to be good news (even if in fact the news in question is based on misinformation) we quickly let ourselves come to the "there, I told you so" conclusion.

Even with or without an 0.4% increase in live births at the start of this year, what stands out about the German birth numbers is how they are enormously down on the volume of children being born even as recently as the mid 1990s.

Here's the Federal Statistics Office release for 2006 births:

In 2006, 673,000 live births were registered, that was 13,000 or 1.9% less than in 2005. The number of births has been declining since 1991, with the exception of 1996 and 1997. The number of deaths had fallen continuously from 1994 to 2001, before it increased in 2002, 2003 and 2005. In 2006, there were 822,000 deaths, which was a decrease by 8,000 or 1% on the previous year. This means that in 2006, there was an excess of deaths over births of about 149,000. In the previous year, the deficit of births was by about 5,000 persons smaller. On 31 December 2006, Germany had about 82,315,000 inhabitants. That was 123,000 or 0.1% less than at the end of 2005 (82,438,000)

The thing is, none of this is exactly a new phenomenon, as the graph for the Old East and West German fertility shown below makes clear:

But this doesn't seem to hold our Bertrand back:

"Demography experts warn that it could take months, even years, to determine whether the current uptick in childbirth is a statistical anomaly or if something more fundamental is happening. Yet this has not prevented them from speculating about the factors behind the surge."

In truth it would not seem to be the demographers who need to be prevented about speculating - since by and large they are pretty accustomed to this kind of phenomenon, and are normally by nature cautious people - but rather Benoit himself.

To give you some idea in 1990 - and remember that Germany was already on aggregate below replacement fertility already at that point, 904,930 children were born, so the 630,000 odd last year is about a 30% drop in roughly a decade and a half. At this rate by 2020 Germany would be having about 450,000 childen annually, that would be a drop of 50% in 30 years, or one current generation. Now this isn't bad if you think that German is overpopulated, people need more space, Germans consume too much energy etc. But you do need to start to think about where is the money is going to come from to keep all those older people in pensions. Where it won't be coming from is from the honest sweat of Ukranian migrants, since quite simply there won't be sufficient Ukranians left to come. What is it they say already in Serbia, will the last one out turn the lights off :).

And then I have to ask myself, are the only two possible responses to all of this either superficial haymaking, or dreadful gloom and doom. Well Bertrand Benoit, at least, seems to think so:

"Germany’s demographics have spawned their own branch of non-fiction literature specialising in doomsday predictions about the collapse of the country’s welfare state and medical system. Opinion polls show few young people think they can survive in old age on the basic state pension."

Now all of this is a pity, since in the second part of the article Benoit does take the trouble to give us a run around of a lot of the most interesting and influential ideas which are knocking around in the area of low fertility and its attendant problems. Low fertility trap theorist Wolfgang Lutz gets a look in:

German-speaking countries are unique in having a full generation that has come of age seeing childbearing as abnormal,” says Wolfgang Lutz, the director of the Vienna Institute of Demography. “This has affected the psychology, with a third of young men now saying they never want to have children.

As does US cohort driven fertility theorist Richard Easterlin:

One popular explanation lies in the country’s powerful economic recovery. The link between income expectation and fertility has been generally accepted since the 1980s, when Richard Easterlin, an economist at the University of Southern California, first highlighted the correlation.

Now much as Easterlin cohort work is of some interest in explaining what you could call the "proximate causes" of fertility outcomes (like bad economic conditions in the 1930s producing the first signs of below replacement fertility while improved prospects post-WWII saw the arrival of the baby booms) it is hard pressed to explain the long term structural drivers of the enduring low fertility we are now seeing increasingly spreading across the globe.

We also get a mention of Elterngelt, which may of course have been a factor in some timing decisions in the urban areas:

"Then there is Elterngeld, a new parental allowance. Introduced nationwide in January and modelled on Scandinavian policies, the benefit entitles every new parent to a state allowance worth 67 per cent of their salary if they stop working for a year after having a child."

So my beef here, yet one more time, is not that there aren't some sensible and interesting points in the article, it is that, just as in the case of the Economist, one or two unjustifiable statements are thrown out which then condition the context of everything else which follows. Yet when you look through the piece carefully, it is often hard to see what exactly is being said, or what conclusions we are actually left to draw. Like:

“Ask young mothers now and most will tell you they want to work part-time,” he says. “The ideology has gone now and we have a consensus that mothers – and fathers – should be given the choice as to how best to raise their children.

Doubtless again there is some truth in this, although it would be nice to see some evidence for the assertion. However, whether part time (or temporary Zeitarbeit) is what they want, it is increasingly what they are likely to find. As we will see in my next installment of the great Bertrand Benoit searching for a solid idea wild goose chase.

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