Friday, August 25, 2006

Dependency Ratios for Countries and Corporations

The always interesting Malcolm Gladwell has a new article in The New Yorker: Fact, concerning dependency ratios (the ratio of workers to dependent children, aged, and disabled). A quote:
"But, as the Harvard economists David Bloom and David Canning suggest in their study of the “Celtic Tiger,” of greater importance may have been a singular demographic fact. In 1979, restrictions on contraception that had been in place since Ireland’s founding were lifted, and the birth rate began to fall. In 1970, the average Irishwoman had 3.9 children. By the mid-nineteen-nineties, that number was less than two. As a result, when the Irish children born in the nineteen-sixties hit the workforce, there weren’t a lot of children in the generation just behind them."
Gladwell argues that dependency ratios explain why Bethlehem Steel went bankrupt, why GM and Ford are headed there and why Ireland is booming. It further explains [much of] the differential between development rates in Asia, where birth rates in China and elsewhere have declined sharply, and those in Africa, where rates are still high.

I found it, as is often the case with Gladwell, a bit stretched but provocative. He rides the idea too far, particularly when he ignores any discussion of why differences in birth rates, as between China and the Congo say. Was it the case that the communist state of China provided cradle to grave security, hence was able to enforce its one-baby policy while the Congo essentially has a kleptocratic state providing no security and therefore the greatest of encouragements to have many children? But how about Taiwan or South Korea?

But to push the idea farther--how about classes--should we take more seriously than we do the differences in birth rates between classes in the U.S.?

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