Those ghosts in the empty Italian cribs

There are, of course, no references to religious faith in the recent Atlantic Monthly business section report that ran under this promising headline: "Europe’s Real Crisis -- The Continent’s problems are as much demographic as financial. They won’t go away soon." It would be very easy for religious issues to show up in this story, blended in with its discussions of pensions, budget deficits, worker productivity and the current economic crisis in the euro zone.

However, this is not The Atlantic Monthly of 2000 and thereabouts, during the tenure of the late, great Michael Kelly.

This is not, alas, The Atlantic Monthly that spotted crucial religious trends in America and around the world before everybody else was paying attention and defined those trends in balanced, accurate and often stunning cover stories and essays.

This is a business story -- alone. That means it has to deal with real forces that are shaping Europe and its future and that, I am afraid, leaves the power of religion on the journalistic sidelines. Thus, we have a religion ghost in this important story.

The key is demographics, which means, of course, birth rates. Thus, in the center of this lengthy report, readers are introduced to the crisis in Italy. As Italy goes, so goes Europe.

Italy, you see, is a symbolic nation -- kind of like Greece. That leads us to this lengthy passage:

Strong growth by Europe’s troubled debtor nations would of course offer a different, and less painful, way out. After all, if you make $30,000 a year, a $10,000 credit-card balance is crippling; but if you make $300,000 a year, it’s fairly trivial. The faster Italy’s economy expands, the more manageable Italy’s debt becomes.

But that’s where the dearth of workers comes into play. Everyone agrees that rapid growth would be much nicer than higher taxes and slashed pension payments. The hitch is that over the past five years, growth in the Italian economy hasn’t averaged even 1 percent a year. Soaring growth will be tough to achieve, because more and more Italians are getting too old to work—and fewer and fewer Italians have been having the babies needed to replace them.

Italy’s fertility rate has actually been inching up from its 1995 low of 1.19 children for every woman, but it is still only about 1.4—well below the number needed to replenish its population (2.1). As a result, even with some immigration, Italy’s population growth has been very slow. It will soon stall, and eventually go into reverse. And then, one by one, the rest of Europe’s nations will follow. Not one country on the Continent has a fertility rate high enough to replace its current population. Heavy debt and a shrinking population are a very bad combination.

Since the invention of birth control and antibiotics, country after country has gone through a fairly standard shift. First, the mortality rate drops, especially among the young and the aging, and that quickly translates into a bigger workforce. Then, birthrates drop, as families realize that they no longer need to birth a basketball team to ensure that a couple members will survive to adulthood. A falling birthrate means that parents can invest more in each child; with fewer mouths to feed, more and better food can nourish each of them, and children can spend more years in school, causing worker productivity to rise from one generation to the next. As the burden of bearing and rearing children lightens, mothers can do more work outside the home, boosting both household resources and the national economy.

And so forth and so on. At this point, we are left with some interesting questions: Why is the birth rate so low in Italy? Might this have something to do with changing norms among Catholics? What is the birth rate for Italian Catholics, these days?

This leads to another question or two: If Italy's birth rate has ticked up a bit in the wake of recent waves of immigration, where precisely are these immigrants coming from? Would Morocco be a likely source?

To answer either of those questions, journalists will need to ask some religious questions. The answers to those questions will lead to a final pair of questions: Is there a connection between high birth rates (or even normal, sustaining birth rates) and religious faith? What is this connection?

I know that this would be hard to work into a business report, even one that pivots on the reality of falling birth rates in post-Christian Europe. That's a big story. It's the kind of story that would require the in-depth reporting that, in the past, during a certain period of time, could be found on the cover of The Atlantic Monthly.

Will there ever be another Michael Kelly?

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