Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The Freedom To Move

Here is what David Brooks said in a recent article in the New York Times (January 15, 2005):

”Over the past 30 years, the fraction of women over 40 who have no children has nearly doubled, to about a fifth. According to the Gallup Organization, 70 percent of these women regret that they have no kids.

It's possible that some of these women regret not having children in the way they regret not taking more time off after college. But for others, this longing for the kids they did not have is a profound, soul-encompassing sadness.

And it is part of a large pattern. Most American still tell pollsters that the ideal family has two or three children. But fewer and fewer Americans get to live in that kind of family.

Why?

For some, it's a question of never finding the right person to have kids with. Others thought they'd found the right mates, but the relationships didn't work out. Others became occupied with careers, and the child-rearing part of their lives never got put together.

But there is also one big problem that stretches across these possibilities: Women now have more choices over what kind of lives they want to lead, but they do not have more choices over how they want to sequence their lives.

For example, consider a common life sequence for an educated woman. She grows up and goes to college. Perhaps she goes to graduate school. Then, during her most fertile years, when she has the most energy for child-rearing, she gets a job. Then, sometime after age 30, she marries. Then, in her mid-30's, when she has acquired the maturity and character to make intelligent career choices, she takes time off to raise her kids.

Several years hence, she seeks to re-enter the labor force. She may or may not be still interested in the field she was trained for (two decades earlier). Nonetheless, she finds a job, works for 15 years or so, then spends her final 20 years in retirement.

This is not necessarily the sequence she would choose if she were starting from scratch. For example, it might make more sense to go to college, make a greater effort to marry early and have children. Then, if she, rather than her spouse, wants to stay home, she could raise children from age 25 to 35. Then at 35 (now that she knows herself better) she could select a flexible graduate program specifically designed for parents. Then she could work in one uninterrupted stint from, say, 40 to 70.

This option would allow her to raise kids during her most fertile years and work during her mature ones, and the trade-off between family and career might be less onerous.

But the fact is that right now, there are few social institutions that are friendly to this way of living. Social custom flows in the opposite direction.

Neil Gilbert observes in the current issue of The Public Interest that as women have entered the work force, they have adopted the male model, jumping directly into careers. Instead, he suggests, it would be better to make decisions based on what he calls the "life-course perspective." It's possible that women should sequence their lives differently from men, and that women may need a broader diversity of sequence options.

Gilbert, who is a professor of social welfare at Berkeley, points out that right now our social policies are friendly toward this straight-to-work sequence and discourage other options. Programs like day care and flexible leave help parents work and raise kids simultaneously. That's fine for some, but others may prefer policies that help them do these things sequentially.

It might make sense, for example, to give means-tested tax credits or tuition credits to stay-at-home parents. That would subsidize child-rearing, but in a way that leaves it up to families to figure out how to use it. The government spends trillions on retirees, but very little on young families.

I suspect that if more people had the chance to focus exclusively on child-rearing before training for and launching a career, fertility rates would rise. That would be good for the country, for as Phillip Longman, author of "The Empty Cradle," has argued, we are consuming more human capital than we are producing - or to put it another way, we don't have enough young people to support our old people. (That's what the current Social Security debate and the coming Medicare debate are all about.)

It would also be good for those many millions of Americans who hit their mid-40's and regret not having kids, or not having as many as they would like. As it says somewhere, to everything, there is a season.”

* * *

What David Brooks didn’t do was look at the declining American birth rate from a global viewpoint. If he had, he would have seen that too many children are being born throughout the world, and that more American babies just makes the problem worse.

But even were David Brooks’s suggested changes to social policies to be implemented, it still wouldn’t persuade the women of America to have more children since, by using excuses like damage to career and financial hardship, they are simply rationalizing that they don’t want children, but wish not to say so straight out. If they really want children they will have them, no matter what.

But David Brooks needn’t worry that there won’t be enough workers to keep the aging Baby Boomers in the manner to which they are accustomed, since the needed help will simply be imported. There are, after all, millions of workers beyond the borders of the USA who would give their eyeteeth to be able come in and partake of the riches Americans wallow in.

Those of you who don’t like what I’ve said, and so are grinding your teeth, should see the importing of workers in terms of the importing of goods. Just as Americans are producing less goods, and so have to import more and more of them, so are Americans producing less people, and so have to import more and more of them. Just as producing goods in the USA is now more expensive than importing them, so is producing people now more expensive than importing them.

Think what it costs a woman in time, lost wages, aborted career, and plain aggravation and worry to raise a child, and what it costs the American taxpayer to educate each child from when it starts kindergarten to when it graduates from Yale. Isn’t it cheaper and more efficient simply to import workers ready-made, the costs of whose education and training have been borne by the taxpayers of India, China, Russia, Mexico, the Philippines, or wherever?

It is the current conventional wisdom that goods and capital be free to move unhindered around the world. Why, then, is no-one advocating that this freedom to move also be accorded to people who, after all, as workers, are the third essential element, alongside goods and capital, in the economic equation? This is something those who complain that too many people are entering the USA to work and improve their lives, should think about.

Security, especially since 9/11, has become another fig leaf behind which those who don’t like immigrants can hide. But, by invoking security, the immigration-bashers are rationalizing that they simply don’t like immigrants - particularly the “non-white” ones - just as women who, by invoking careers and hardship, are rationalizing that they simply don’t want children.

Apart from its humanity, allowing people to move to wherever they want makes economic sense, since migration has been shown historically to be the most effective means of eliminating poverty and creating wealth.

It is not generally known that until World War One, there were almost no barriers hindering worldwide migration. Those set in authority over us, wherever we are, have steadily eroded our freedom to move over the past eighty years.

The freedom to move should be as inalienable a right as food and shelter. We should be as free to move and settle anywhere in the world as does a can of beans or a dollar bill.

It is an idea whose time has come.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Ian and James

Who of us hasn’t heard of James Bond? For most of us, he seems always to have been around. First he was Sean Connery, then George Lazenby, then Roger Moore, then Timothy Dalton, and now Pierce Brosnan.

We have always seen James Bond as the very essence of modernity, careening through mountain passes in the latest sports car equipped with the very latest in gadgetry, skiing at breakneck sped down the steepest of slopes in the Swiss Alps, escaping Houdini-like from impregnable fortress-like captivity while displaying insouciant derring-do, beating up villains against all odds after absorbing incredible punishment, then going off with the girl.

James Bond’s undiminished visceral appeal over the last few decades is doubtless because he is something of a mythical archetype, and not be out of place as one of Joseph Campbell’s Heroes with a Thousand Faces.

When slender narrow-shouldered Pierce Brosnan was chosen as the latest James Bond I was initially incredulous. Pierce Brosnan? C’mon. I could probably beat the guy up myself. But Sean Connery, I mean, there’s no way I would even think of fighting Sean Connery.

However, Pierce Brosnan was probably the perfect choice. When Sean Connery was Bond, Britain was still a power of some importance in the world, still having the remnants of its empire. Pierce Brosnan as Bond, on the other hand, perfectly reflects the Britain of Tony Blair, the obedient lapdog of the mighty George W Bush. And a further reflection of Bond’s diminished status is that his boss, “M”, is now a woman.

Despite James Bond appearing contemporary, he is in fact a somewhat historical character, seeing as the first James Bond book, Casino Royale, came out in 1953 – fifty-one years ago - and Bond’s car was a 1953 model sports car. Thus, if the James Bond films were to have verisimilitude, they would be set in the times the books were written – between 1953 and 1964. Instead, the James Bond of film has remained the same age – 35 or so – ever since 1962, when Dr No came out, and his escapades always take place in the present.

I am, incidentally, reminded of the “William” books I read omnivorously when a young boy. The protagonist, William Brown, an 11 year-old urchin, remained obstinately 11 from when he was created by Richmal Crompton in 1923, to when she wrote the last book in 1968.

James Bond has become so much a figure of the silver screen that we have to be reminded that he was the literary creation of Ian Fleming, who created a character who he would like to have been, but wasn’t quite. Even so, James Bond does contain a lot of his creator, who, as recounted in Andrew Lycett’s biography of Ian Fleming, spent much of his youth and early manhood gallivanting around Europe, skiing at resorts in Switzerland, gambling in the casinos of Monte Carlo, driving fast two-seater sports cars, and seducing scores of beautiful young women. In addition to his native English, Ian also spoke German and French fluently.

Ian began his working life as a journalist, and for a while was posted to Moscow where he engaged in lots of cloak and dagger stuff. These experiences propelled him into naval intelligence when World War 2 came. There was lots more cloak and dagger stuff during the war, at which Ian was most innovative and resourceful. At war’s end he had reached the rank of commander. After being demobilised he bought a mansion in Jamaica called “Goldeneye”, where he wrote the James Bond books.

Ian was over six feet tall and had the looks which women found attractive, and which he took advantage of. He had such a good time that he didn’t get married until forty, to a woman, Anne, with whom he’d had weekend trysts while her husband was out of town. Ian liked these trysts because they were exciting. But Anne wanted something more stable, and forced Ian to capitulate. So Anne, after divorcing her husband, dragged Ian kicking and screaming to the altar.

They stayed together for the rest of Ian’s somewhat short life. But at the end neither had been good for the other because they were so different. Anne was cerebral and had cerebral friends and they all looked down their noses at James Bond. Ian, on the other hand, was an outdoorsy convivial type who loved to play golf. He was a man’s man who, paradoxically, had homosexual friends like Noel Coward and William Plomer. Anne thought that, emotionally, Ian had not gone past the adolescent phase. Hence the James Bond books, which Ian admitted were adolescent fantasies.

For all the fame and wealth which James Bond brought him, Ian Fleming at the end of his life was a sick and unhappy man. His blood pressure was high and his arteries clogged. He and Anne quarrelled constantly and were not far off being divorced. And Ian was, for some years, involved in legal wrangles over the rights to some of the Bond books.

Ian died in 1964 at fifty-six. But his legacy continued, especially for his young son, Caspar, who developed a fascination for guns, and collected lots of them illegally, to Anne’s consternation. Friends thought Caspar had been excessively influenced by the James Bond books. He later developed severe mental problems which drugs failed to fix. He committed suicide at twenty-three.

The irony about Ian Fleming is that he was not innately a gifted writer, as his letters and other non-James Bond writings attest. It was Ian’s brother, Peter, who was the better writer, but it was Ian who discovered the formula for what sold, and he was a good publicist. Each Bond book took him only three months to write – from January to March at Goldeneye every year for the last fourteen years of his life.

The Bond books at first sold only moderately well, and it was many years before film directors took notice of them. The first Bond film, Dr No, came out in 1962 – two years before Ian died. And so another irony was that real fame and fortune came to Ian almost at the end of his life. By then he was too ill to enjoy them.

So then, what does the life of Ian Fleming have to teach us? Perhaps that someone with modest talent, but lots of chutzpah can make the world ring with his name, since the names of James Bond and his creator are known by most people in the world who watch films. So the the name of Ian Fleming has become famous, and may well still be famous a hundred years from now. And he has had several biographies written about him, something which happens to few.

Ian’s life shows us that lots of money and fame don’t necessarily bring happiness. But if even if we do have them, it should be when we still have the health and years to savour them.