The Numbers Game

Larger, richer, more powerful than ever: that’s the forecast for the U.S. as its birth rate exceeds that of any other industrialized nation—and nearly doubles that of Canada

Illustration by R.O. Jones

Just hours after U.S. tanks rumbled into Baghdad, a marine climbed up a statue of Saddam Hussein in al-Fardos (Paradise) Square and draped an American flag over the glowering dictator’s face. A noose strung around the statue’s neck was tied to a tank and the hulking mass was slowly pulled over, its head snapping off as it landed in a cloud of dust at the feet of a frenzied mob. As things turned out, the toppling of the statue more than a year ago marked an almost singular celebration between Iraqi citizens and the invaders. Rather than being welcomed, nearly one thousand U.S. soldiers have been killed. And it has been expensive, adding $250 billion (U.S.) to the already swollen American deficit, which is expected to run at $500 billion (U.S.) annually into the future.

For Washington’s critics, the fiasco in the desert signals the beginning of the end of American global dominance. As with ancient Rome in its decline, they argue that the U.S. is fiscally and morally bankrupt and will be supplanted by China as the world’s dominant power. Are they correct? Who can say for sure? Auguste Comte, the nineteenth-century French sociologist, who once posited “demography is destiny,” would argue that Iraq, and stubborn economic problems such as America’s mushrooming deficit, are transitory. The country’s true “demographic destiny” is to grow far larger, richer, and more powerful.

As many of its rivals face sharply declining populations and global influence, America is in the midst of an expansion that might rival its post-World War II baby boom. To the surprise of many analysts, the 2000 census counted 281 million Americans, when according to the 1990 census forecasts, there should have been far fewer. The increase was attributed to a higher-than-expected birth rate among new immigrants. Based on the 2000 census numbers, the U.S. could have a fertility rate approaching 2.6 children per woman in the coming decades, resulting in a population of 550 million by 2050.

Fertility rates have been plummeting throughout the rest of the world since the late 1970s, and, with the exception of the U.S., most countries are well below the population replacement rate of 2.1. Canada is at 1.5 and, on average, Europe is at 1.4. In some key European countries, notably Germany, Spain, Italy, and Greece, the number has fallen to below 1.3. If the trend is not reversed, the population of Germany alone could drop from 80 million to 25 million by the end of the century. This has led some European Union politicians to warn that the EU could be facing a “slow but inexorable exit from history.”

While Europe continues to restrict immigration, the U.S. is welcoming more newcomers to its shores than any other country, at over one million per year. This almost singular ability to embrace immigration to augment an already higher fertility rate led Hania Zlotnik, of the United Nations Population Division, to recently describe America as the world’s “great demographic outlier.”

As populations decline, they inevitably age, and both consumption and gdp drop. A recent report by bca Research, a Montreal investment advisory firm, predicted that Europe’s gdp will tumble from the 2.2 percent annual gains it recorded in the 1990s to just 1.4 percent from 2000 to 2025. During the same period, Japan will grow by 0.6 percent annually, and the U.S. by a comparatively robust 2.4 percent.

Due to immigration levels of more than 250,000 people annually, Canada’s population, which is ageing rapidly, is expected to rise from 31 to 39 million by 2050. gdp will likely be in the 2 percent range, thanks primarily to the nation’s proximity to the U.S. and its vast markets. But Ottawa’s ability to influence Washington will decline as America gradually turns its back on the Atlantic alliance that Canada has historically been part of, and looks toward China and other rapidly emerging markets.

The technological gap between Canada, Europe, and the U.S. will also widen. America already spends $250 billion a year—compared to just over $1 billion (U.S.) spent in Canada—on research, which is double the amount spent by any other country in the G7.

America also spends twice as much on the military as the EU. Canada, in turn, is barely able to muster a single combat battalion and depends on Inuit Rangers armed with vintage rifles to demonstrate its claim to the Arctic—a claim that the U.S., with its ever-growing appetite for resources, ominously does not fully recognize.

And China? True, the Asian giant’s gdp has been growing quickly. But with its population expected to peak at 1.45 billion around 2030, China is also greying rapidly, with the number of people aged sixty estimated at a staggering 400 million by 2050. China, then, must now preoccupy itself with creating as much individual wealth as possible before it becomes a nation of senior citizens with little ability to care for themselves.

With few rivals to challenge the U.S. elsewhere, America will likely remain focused on the Middle East, where the population is expected to double to 649 million by 2050. That growth, Comte would no doubt argue, will ensure America’s strategic interest in the region for years to come.

Canada, too, stands in the shadow of Comte’s dictate. As the nation grows slowly, and the population and economic gaps with the U.S. widen, Canada will find itself defined by its role as a resource supplier to the great demographic outlier to the south.

Tom Fennell