The best political book published recently in the English-speaking world has one of the worst titles: U.K. Tory MP David Willetts‘ The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future—And Why They Should Give it Back.
By this point, American Baby Boomers have so endlessly (and insufferably) navel-gazed that it’s almost impossible to force yourself to read further once you reach the words “Baby Boomers” in a title. The smaller U.K. baby boom hasn’t been so relentlessly rehashed—but that’s not the reason to read this book by the Universities and Science minister in the new coalition British government.
Willetts, who is known to Fleet Street as “Two Brains” for his encyclopedic brilliance (and for his giant, Charles Murray-sized forehead), is an expert on the pressing actuarial questions of how the British will (or, perhaps, won’t) pay back the huge debts run up by the current generation of Baby Boomers. Americans, though, can skim those parts of the book because they are relatively unimportant compared to his true accomplishment.
This is a book by a politician with almost no topical politics or ideology in it, yet it may be the most profound conservative book of recent years. Willetts has started over by reconsidering Anglo-American culture from the fundamentals of family structure and life stages.
His simple moral is that the essence of statesmanship is stewarding a partnership between generations. He takes as a given Edmund Burke’s description of the state as “partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born“.
Willetts’s battle cry is “intergenerational fairness”. But mass immigration raises questions about whose offspring we are talking about—questions that Willetts leaves tactfully vague.
(Isn’t it bizarre that it has become politically dangerous for an Anglosphere statesman to make clear that his concern about future generations is primarily focused on the descendants of his own constituents—as opposed to those of people who are currently foreigners but might choose at some point to move to England?)
Willetts concludes, however:
“There are two places above all where these obligations across the generations are discharged: the family and the nation state. … Both family and nation-state are by and large hereditary.”
In other words, “intergenerational fairness” is a more politically fraught and interesting concept than he, an active politician, is ready to come out and express bluntly. So I’ll endeavor to tease out some of the implications of this way of thinking below.
The Pinch provides an intellectual framework for thinking about far more than just the debt-related issues raised in Willetts’s lengthy subtitle—timely as those are in this era when the debts piled up during the Bush-Blair “in hock to the world” era are rapidly coming come due. For example, without Willetts spelling it out much, his analysis of the foundations of Anglo-Saxon culture helps explain why the same tendencies that make our societiessuccessful also make them peculiarly vulnerable toimmigration.
What made possible the Anglo-American heritage of self-governing liberty under law?
Although The Pinch is about England, it’s eminently relevant to American readers. As Willetts says: “England and America share a similar civil society because we share the same (rather unusual) family structure.”
To Willetts, the key to Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism is the nuclear family structure. “When it comes to families, England was the first nuclear power”, Willetts quips.
In his important first chapter, to which he gives the unapologetic title “Who We Are”, Willetts explains the “deep features” that have distinguished England, and its overseas offshoots, from the rest of the world.
England has been “not just different from Papua New Guinea or Pakistan; it is also quite different from France and Italy and most of Continental Europe”, except for Holland and Denmark.
And this difference dates to at least 1250—and perhaps back to (or beyond) the Dark Age days of King Canute.
Following Cambridge anthropologist Alan Macfarlane,Willetts attributes this northwestern European model to the folkways of the ancient Germanic tribes. As Ben Franklin noted, “Britain was formerly the America of the Germans”.
The Anglo-Saxons managed to hit the sweet spot between the kind of cut-throat individualism seen in a handful of cultures (most notoriously the Pushtuns of Afghanistan, who subscribe to the extraordinary proverb “When the floodwaters reach your chin, put your son beneath your feet”) and the more workable extended family cultures seen in, say, Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.
These broad and loyal extended families do make for cultures of good restaurants. But they aren’t so good at paying their honest share of taxes, as the Greek government’s tax evasion-driven financial crisis is pointing out once again.
In his engaging non-academic style, Willetts outlines thedeep structure of Englishness:
“Instead, think of England as being like this for at least 750 years. We live in smallfamilies. We buy and sell houses. … Our parents expect us to leave home for paid work …You try to save up some money from yourwages so that you can afford to get married. … You can choose your spouse … It takes a long time to build up some savings from your work and find the right person with whom to settle down, so marriage comes quite lately, possibly in your late twenties. “
The long-standing English aversion to arranged marriagesreflects this distinction. It’s noteworthy that Shakespeareand his English audience sided with Romeo and Juliet against their kinfolk. Willetts theorizes:
“A small, simple family structure not driven by the need to pass on an inheritance or to sustain ties with brothers and cousins in a clan can be more personal, intense, and emotional—a clue to England’s Romantic tradition.”
Willetts points out that most other languages have “specific words for particular types of uncles, grandparents, and cousins”, but the English apparently never needed to develop these terms. As far back as 1014, he says, Bishop Wulfstan of London “expressed regretthat vendettas were not what they used to be as familymembers just would not join in”. (In contrast, the more clannish Scots kept alive kin-spirit, transmitting it down to their Scots-Irish descendants, such as the Hatfields and McCoy s who waged a famous feud in Appalachia.)
This distinction between extended and nuclear family structures has profound political implications according to Willetts. In the lands of extended families , “Helping relatives with contracts and jobs is not seen ascorruption but as a moral obligation”. Moreover, “Itmeans that voting is by clans: it is hard to have neutral contracts enforced by an independent judiciary when family obligations are so wide-ranging and so strong”.
England’s roots as a unified nation state are more than 1000 years old. The common law emerged as a national institution more than 800 years ago:
“But the Common Law is crucially not local law. You are bound by precedent, a body of case law that is consistent across the country. This what “common” means. … This makes it much harder to do special favors for kith and kin and so helps to ensure protection for the small nuclear family without extended networks of relatives.”
Although royal authority helped make the Common Law nationally consistent, it was not imposed from above by an autocrat, like the Code Napoleon: “The standardization … is achieved by lawyers meeting at their London Inns to compare notes and establish through these self-governing institutions a shared understanding of the law …”
Perhaps echoing my 2003 article on why the high incidence of arranged cousin marriages in Iraq made neoconservative goals of “nation-building” inherently implausible, Willetts writes:
“Their family structure may help explain why Western-style democratic government is so hard to establish in parts of the Muslim world. In Pakistan 50 per cent of marriages are to first cousins. … It weakens nationalgovernments and makes it hard for the neutral contractual arrangements of a modern market economy to be created.”
(Willetts judiciously omits mentioning that cousin marriage is also common among Pakistanis in England—they use arranged marriages to cheat immigration restrictions and bring in more members of their clans.)
There are clear advantages to extended families: “Big clan-stylefamilies are better than nuclear ones at spreading advantageand pooling risk …” Extended families serve as miniature welfare states. If one kinsman strikes it rich, he’ll employ his relatives whoneed jobs.
Without all this, the English had to dream up self-regulating institutions because “Small families need civil society more”:
“But it was not just voluntary societies which provided mutual support. … Instead of the mutual exchange of the extended family, small families must buy services. For example, insurance schemes, annuities, and savings help protect you when there is no wider family with such obligations.”
Thus, the English were among the pioneers of complexcapitalist contracts.
In turn, this early “capitalism without factories” prepared the British to make perhaps the greatest contribution to humanity or recent centuries: the Industrial Revolution, which freed humanity from theMalthusian Trap in which population grows as fast as the food supply, leaving the lower half of society hungry:
“That the Industrial Revolution began in England is a crucial piece of evidence in support of the argument that we have a distinctive economic and social structure.”
In Willetts’s depiction, the English resemble my 2006 description of white Americans:
“They believe on the whole in individualism rather than tribalism, national patriotism rather than ethnic loyalty, meritocracy rather than nepotism, nuclear families rather than extended clans, law and fair play rather thanprivilege, corporations of strangers rather than mafias of relatives, and true love rather than the arranged marriages necessary to keep ethnic categories clear-cut.”
The Anglo-Saxon nuclear family has greatly benefitedhumanity. Still, it has its disadvantages.
The nuclear family is expensive. Each small family wants its own place to live—ideally, a house with a garden. Notsurprisingly, the crowded British Isles were long theemigration capital of the world, as people headed out forthe emptier lands of America, Canada, Australia, and NewZealand.
Why don’t Anglo-Saxons like to live in large, noisy My Big Fat Greek Wedding-style homes? Unfortunately, Willetts doesn’t address this. Personally, I don’t see much evidence that people from other cultures get along better with their relatives. They just don’t seem to mindscreaming at their cousin-in-laws as much as Anglos would mind.
Perhaps the kind of civil personality cultivated by civilsociety (and the English became famously polite) is morepained by domestic discord. Civil society seems to breedmore polite personalities who can get along with strangers. You can shout abuse at your loved ones because they are stuck with you, but non-relatives have to want to deal with you.
(Or maybe civil personalities enable civil societies? What’s chicken and what’s egg is seldom clear in these virtuous circles of feedback.)
This relative lack of nepotism and ethnocentrism makes Anglossimultaneously both successful and at risk of being out-maneuvered by less idealistic groups.
The need for a separate home for each nuclear family can put Anglo-derived cultures at a disadvantage in newly cosmopolitan cities. For example, Los Angeles, strange as it may seem now, was largely built in the 20th Century by civil people from rather bland, trusting places such as Iowa, Illinois (where my father is from) and Minnesota (where mylate mother grew up).
This causes them and their descendents problems today, in a very expensive city increasingly dominated by newcomers from the more vibrant cultures of the ex-Soviet Union and the Middle East who don’t as much mind crowding in with their in-laws and cutting corners on their taxes.
My April 20, 2008 VDARE.com article on my experience as a juror in a trial over how two Iranian brothers-in-law in the used car business haddefrauded the state of California of $2 million in sales tax can provide you with a taste of the new LA.
One increasing problem with civil Anglo personalities isthat they tend to value fair play and neutrality so muchthat they can blind themselves to the interests of their own descendants.
They worry: I mean, are the words in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution about how “We the People of the United States” are creating the government to “secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” really sporting? How do we ethically justify not letting immigrate, say, a clan of Iranian used car dealers?
This is the kind of moral reasoning that Anglos worry about—but few others in this world outside Northwestern Europe, That’s a major reason why, despite a not unreasonably low birth rate among the English, 23% of primary school students in England and Wales are now non-English, and the English are forecast to become a minority in their own country in 2073.
Willetts, a classic civil English good sport, is extremelyreticent about explaining bluntly exactly whose offspring he thinks English Baby Boomers should act more responsibly toward.
But, if you can read between the lines to figure out theanswer, his book serves as a very polite, suitablyunderstated warning to Anglo Baby Boomers to look out better for the welfare of their descendants.
For example, from an individualistic point of view, highhome prices might seem like a personal ATM. But, in the long view, we are hurting our descendants:
“We have not behaved with such wise self-control. Instead we have borrowed against the house or not saved as much as we would otherwise have done. … And where does this money that we thought we had come from? From our children. … So they have to pay more for their house out of their lifetime earnings. The flow of resources is from children to parents, not the other way around.”
High home prices make family formation less affordable:
“It is now much, much harder for the young generation to get started on the housing ladder … Twenty-somethings become trapped in a kind of semi-adulthood. For them modern life is not fast but actually very slow. The transitions into stable employment and a stable relationship take longer than at anytime since the War.”
Willetts labels his book a call for “intergenerational fairness”, but he could also make it appeal to the self-interest of Baby Boomers by pointing out that policies encouraging affordable family formation would make it more likely that they will someday have grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and soon enough that they will live to see them.
In his chapter “Houses and Jobs: Generation Crunch”, Willetts explains one reason why massive immigration works
“…better for the older baby boomers than it does for the younger generation coming on behind. Baby boomers had tight immigration controls when they were entering the jobs market but then relaxed them when they wanted more workers coming along behind. … [Immigration] increases returns to capital and holds wages down so it rewards property-owners. It is younger people who have lost out.”
Willetts nicely lays out one reason why the Blair-Brown Bubble in London did so little to alleviate unemployment among young Englishmen in blue collar cities like Liverpool (just as the Bush Bubble in Las Vegas didn’t help American workers in Cleveland, as I pointed out in VDARE.com on July 7, 2006). He writes: “Quite simply, high house prices were one factor sucking in immigrants.”
Willetts observes, “The young man from Liverpool does not see why he should live in more cramped conditions than his family back in Liverpool occupy”. In contrast, the immigrant crams into a house with many others from his country. “His willingness to be under-housed gives him a labour market advantage and it is greater if house prices are higher”. In turn, sucking in immigrants creates a vicious cycle, driving up housing prices, which drives out more natives.
Moreover, remittances sent home from London to Liverpool buy a lot less in Liverpool than remittances sent home to a poor country:
“So it is not that our Liverpudlian is somehow a bad person compared to our Pole. It is that he or she cannot capture similar benefits for their family by under-housing themselves in London.”
Willetts sums up:
“The crucial proposition therefore underlying the economics ofimmigration in Britain is as follows. The larger the proportion of earnings consumed by housing costs, the greater the benefits of under-housing and the greater the price advantage of immigrant labour. It was not despite the high cost of housing that immigrants came to the house price hotspots in Britain to make a living—it was because of them.”
He goes on to add:
“People are not willing to accept under-housing for ever. It may be bearable if you are single and in your twenties or early thirties. …But it is much harder having a baby in circumstances like that.”
Well, that depends greatly on your culture. Anglos don’t like to have babies under those conditions—hence, the falling white birthrate in, say, crowded Los Angeles. But people from many foreign countries don’t seem to mind as much. Thus immigrant Latinas in California were averaging 3.7 babies apiece in 2005, versus only 1.6 for American-born women.
Moreover, the boom and bust in the housing market seems to discourage prudent people from having children, but not the imprudent.
We can operationally define the prudent as those who have children when they are married and the imprudent as those who have children when they are unmarried.
The federal birth statistics show that the roller coaster economy of the Bush years played out like the opening scene in Idiocracy, in which the yuppie husband and wife fret, “We just can’t have a child in this market”, [Video]while Clevon is heedlessly impregnating every woman in his trailer park. [VDARE.COM note: Clevon is a white guy. We are only mentioning this as a favor to the SPLC, who would otherwise put "Clevon is heedlessly impregnating" on their list of “racist” VDARE.COM quotes.]
For example, from 2005 to 2007 during the Bush Bubble of rising home prices, the number of babies born in the United States to married women declined 0.3 percent. In contrast, the number born to unmarried women grew an astounding 12.3 percent.
Then, during the Bush Bust of 2008, the number of babies born to unmarried women still grew 0.7 percent—while the number born to married ladies dropped 3.0 percent.
Quite a world we’ll be leaving to our posterity.
The Pinch can help us understand it better.
[Steve Sailer (email him) is movie critic for The American Conservative.
His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog. His new book, AMERICA'S HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: BARACK OBAMA'S "STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE", is available here.]
(Republished from VDare
by permission of author or representative)