Beware, but pay attention to, long-term forecasts

We were reading this piece on the French riots by Jack Kelly, and came across a reference to the always provocative Asia Times commentator, Spengler; we thought we’d drop in for a visit. (You might also want to read the piece in Asia Times which might be called Tojo Family Values, about WWII revisionism being carried out by the General’s granddaughter.)

Spengler argues that Islam is undergoing a crisis because of the failure of the religion to accommodate to the realities of the modern world. Modern consumerist society is contrary to the rather ascetic, sharia-ruled, usury-forbidden societies favored by the Islamists. Unfortunately for them, consumerist societies are awfully rich, and the ones they favor are awfully poor — in part precisely as a consequence of their religious principles. He sees the crisis as coming to a head because of the ageing of the population:

Muslim countries face breakdown. America now has a per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of US$40,000 and a diversified economy. Iran has a per capita GDP of just $7,000 and depends on oil exports for the state subsidies that keep its population fed and clothed – and Iran will no longer be able to export oil after 2020, according to some estimates.

America can ameliorate the impact of an aging population by raising productivity (so that fewer workers produce more GDP), attracting more skilled immigrants (and increasing its tax base), and, in the worst of all cases, tightening its belt. American life will not come to an end if more people drive compact cars instead of SUVs, or go camping for vacation instead of to Disney World. But the Islamic world is so poor that any reduction in living standards from present levels will cause social breakdown.

In 2002, the United Nations’ Arab Development Report offered a widely-quoted summation of the misery of the present position of the Arab World, noting:
— The average growth rate of per capita income during the preceding 20 years in the Arab world was only one-half of 1% per annum, worse than anywhere but sub-Saharan Africa
— One in five Arabs lives on less than $2 per day
— Fifteen percent of the Arab workforce is unemployed, and this number could double by 2010
— Only 1% of the population has a personal computer, and only half of 1% use the Internet
— Half of Arab women cannot read.

Negotiating the demographic decline of the 21st century will be treacherous for countries that have proven their capacity to innovate and grow. For the Islamic world, it will be impossible. That is the root cause of Islamic radicalism, and there is nothing that the West can do to change it.

Among the Muslim states, Iran has seen the future most clearly, and drawn terrible conclusions. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad understands that life as Iranians know it is coming to an end, and has proposed drastic measures commensurate with the need.

In a program made public on August 15, Iran’s new president proposed a pre-emptive response to the inevitable depopulation of rural Iran. He plans to reduce the number of villages from 66,000 to only 10,000, relocating 30 million Iranians out of a population of 70 million. In relative terms, that would be the biggest population transfer in history, dwarfing Joseph Stalin’s collectivization campaign of the late 1920s. A generation hence, Iran will not have the resources to provide infrastructure for more than 50,000 rural villages inhabited mainly by elderly and infirm peasants. In response, Iran will undertake the biggest exercise in social engineering in recorded history, excepting perhaps Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.

Spengler, as might be expected, is a pessimist and practitioner of dark humor. (Check out his Dear Abby responses to letters from heads of state, for example; President Bush should be happy to be the “leper with the most fingers.”) What Spengler predicts could come to pass; none of us know. But these sorts of gloomy long-term predictions are more of use as indicators of which variables are important than as predictors of outcomes. Just ask Malthus.

Changes in worker productivity, longer working lives for people, disease, war, euthenasia programs, radical Islamic reform, or changes yet unimagined could set a far different course than the one Spengler charts. What struck us most in the piece were two points: (a) some radical changes will undoubtedly occur in the next two generations in order that the demographic trends be accommodated — we just don’t know what they are; and (b) we have nowhere seen until today any reference to the rather frightening program announced in Iran, which plan suggests a dangerous, meglomaniacal streak in Mahmud Ahmadinejad. That is a situation we should perhaps worry a lot more about than what will happen by 2100.

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