Opinion | Elon Musk and the Baby Bust

Opinion | Elon Musk and the Baby Bust


Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Due to recent declines in stock prices,

Elon Musk

is now down to his last $200 billion. But despite all the sellers in today’s market, Mr. Musk is not letting those vast herds get him down. Instead, the Tesla CEO and SpaceX founder is once again offering compelling commentary on Twitter.

Today Mr. Musk is sharing a graphic from the Wall Street Journal and tweeting:

USA birth rate has been below min sustainable levels for ~50 years…

Contrary to what many think, the richer someone is, the fewer kids they have.

I am a rare exception. Most people I know have zero or one kid.

Perhaps Mr. Musk will consider broadening his social circle. According to a March story in People magazine, he has fathered eight children.

As a society’s wealth and income rise, people tend to have fewer children. As Mr. Musk notes, for virtually the entire period of the last 50 years, America’s total fertility rate has been running below the 2.1 kids per woman that is considered necessary for a generation to replace itself. The trend has been even more bleak in a number of other industrialized countries. Earlier this month Mr. Musk tweeted in reaction to news of the largest decline in Japan’s population since at least 1950:

At risk of stating the obvious, unless something changes to cause the birth rate to exceed the death rate, Japan will eventually cease to exist. This would be a great loss for the world.

It surely would and while things are not so dire in the U.S., today’s news shows only modest improvement in a dismal long-term trend. The Journal’s Janet Adamy and Anthony DeBarros report:

U.S. births increased last year for the first time in seven years, according to federal figures released Tuesday . . . 

American women had about 3.66 million babies in 2021, up 1% from the prior year, according to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. It was the first increase since 2014 . . .  

Births still remain at historically low levels after peaking in 2007 and then plummeting during the recession that began the end of that year. The total fertility rate—a snapshot of the average number of babies a woman would have over her lifetime—was 1.66 last year, up from 1.64 the prior year, when it fell to the lowest level since the government began tracking it in the 1930s.

“This minor blip up still leaves us on a long-term trajectory towards lower births,” said Phillip Levine, an economics professor at Wellesley College.

Perhaps we shouldn’t expect too much in the short term, either, as current conditions could further discourage potential parents from having children. The Journal reporters note that a “sharp rise in inflation and a shortage of baby formula could put pressure on births”.

Beyond the obvious point that it sure would be nice if the United States of America continued to exist, there’s also the need for creative human beings to solve tomorrow’s problems. To be crass, there’s also the not inconsequential need to service $30 trillion in federal debt. On Wednesday the Congressional Budget Office will issue its latest official guesses about the future of the U.S. economy and federal budgets. But we can already say with certainty that the massive challenges to be reported do not become easier to manage with an ever-shrinking population of workers.

Hmm. If only there were some way to enable and encourage more births in the U.S., and also perhaps some sort of mechanism to see if people who don’t currently live in the U.S. might wish to come here and become productive citizens.

This column appreciates the view of many Americans that the President seems to want to maintain the integrity of every national border except our own. But let’s not allow the lawlessness and misery that the White House is willing to tolerate to obscure the fact that America could benefit greatly from significant increases in all categories of legal migration. How many more immigrants like Elon Musk are ready, willing and able to create new enterprises in the U.S. if only we will give them a chance?

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently noted research conducted by one of its economists, along with colleagues at Northwestern, Penn, and the U.S. Census Bureau:

Immigrants to the U.S. are more likely to start businesses than native-born Americans are, according to a study that takes a wide-ranging look at registered businesses across the country . . . the study finds that, per capita, immigrants are about 80 percent more likely to found a firm, compared to U.S.-born citizens. Those firms also have about 1 percent more employees than those founded by U.S. natives, on average.

“Immigrants, relative to natives and relative to their share of the population, found more firms of every size,” says Pierre Azoulay, an economist at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-author of a published paper detailing the study’s results.

Taking firm creation into account, the results indicate that immigration to the U.S. is associated with a net gain in job availability, contrary to the common perception that immigrants fill jobs that U.S.-born workers would otherwise have.

“The findings suggest that immigrants act more as ‘job creators’ than ‘job takers’ and that non-U.S. born founders play outsized roles in U.S. high-growth entrepreneurship,” the authors write in the paper.

It’s important to note that the authors are not just talking about tech start-ups, but all types of businesses. Wouldn’t we prefer that tomorrow’s founders create jobs here rather than somewhere else? Not that the tech industry doesn’t have an especially acute need for people. The Journal’s Julie Bykowicz recently reported from Washington:

Tech-industry representatives are coming to Capitol Hill . . . to warn that the remote-work trend will lead to more offshoring of software developer and other technology jobs unless the U.S. admits more high-skilled immigrants.

Remote jobs in tech jumped by more than 420% between January 2020 and last month, growth that was intensified by the pandemic, according to a jobs data review by Tecna, a trade group for regional tech councils. In February, more than 22% of all tech jobs were listed as remote, compared with 4.4% in January 2020.

“The level of remote tech positions that are open is drastically higher than it was prepandemic,” said Jennifer Grundy Young, Tecna’s chief executive officer. “That means workers can live anywhere in the U.S., but it also unfortunately opens the door to more outsourcing—workers staying in India, in China, or moving to places like Canada that have more flexible immigration policies.”

The U.S. allows 65,000 skilled-worker visas annually under its H1-B program, plus another 20,000 for people who hold graduate degrees from American universities. Those numbers haven’t budged since 2005 despite the sharp rise in tech jobs.

In contrast, Canada, which has been courting tech workers for years, has no cap on visas for immigrating tech workers and entrepreneurs, making it an attractive destination for Indian, Chinese and Eastern European computer coders and software engineers who have had a hard time obtaining U.S. visas.

Born in South Africa, Elon Musk’s first North American address was in Canada. Fortunately he was allowed to move south.


James Freeman is the co-author of “The Cost: Trump, China and American Revival.”


Follow James Freeman on Twitter.

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