The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Friday, December 4, 2020

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Friday, December 4, 2020.

I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

One Reason the American Birth Rate Is Falling? Car Seats? The Research Is Serious and the Evidence is Compelling

The law of unintended consequences is one of the realities of living in a fallen world, there it is. Sometimes we simply do not know all of the consequences of acts we might take or policies we might establish, laws that a legislature might pass. The fact is that every single law is adopted, every single policy is put in place in a forward focused way, that is to say it is intended to have consequences. You put this law in place, you put this policy, this regulation in place because these are the specific consequences you’re looking for.

But here’s one of the realities that points to why, for example, socialism doesn’t work, central state planning doesn’t work, and that is that far more than we might like to admit of the consequences that come from actions, policies, laws, actually are unintended and for that matter, unexpected. They sometimes come as a radical surprise that often requires a recalibration.

But sometimes you’re looking at something that was not only unforeseen, it was a question no one was even asking. There was no anticipation whatsoever that A would be connected with B or that A and B would lead to C.

What am I talking about? I’m talking about car seats, ladies and gentlemen, and I’m talking about serious academic research that now has the United States government attention suggesting that the following American birth rate has something directly to do with the requirement concerning car seats in cars for not only children and toddlers, but also for children on average now approaching eight years of age. What are we talking about? We’re talking about the fact that the most missing element in the picture is the third child and one of the reasons why there are fewer third children in American families. Well, scholars are now suggesting it might very well have to do with the fact that the average American sedan, the average American car can accommodate two car seats, but not three or more.

The Economist, one of the most influential magazines published in Europe, in this case, the United Kingdom, begins its report with these words, “In the early 1970s, American women gave birth, on average, to 2.12 children each. By 2018 that figure had fallen to 1.73. By 2018, that figure had fallen to 1.73.” The Economist goes on to say, “Many alterations in people’s lives have been invoked to help explain this change, including the facts that women now are better educated, more likely to have jobs or run businesses, and have better access to contraception than their antecedents of five decades ago. Also, demand for children to work as extra pairs of hands on family farms has dropped. None of these explanations, though, overlaps neatly with birth rate curves. Other factors must be at work, too.”

Now here’s where it gets really interesting, “And Jordan Nickerson and David Solomon, professors of finance at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston College respectively, think they have found an intriguingly counterintuitive one: America’s increasingly protective child car-seat laws.”

Now I hold in my hands right now their actual academic research, and it looks exactly like you would think a statistical scientific report would look. The title of the report is, “Car Seats as Contraception, Jordan Nickerson, David Solomon.” It was dated July the 31st of the year, 2020, this present year. We’re looking at a professor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the most respected technological institutions on earth and a professor at Boston College. And together, they are suggesting that car seats now function, and here’s the irony, as a form of contraception.

Now actually, biologically, the car seat does not act as a contraceptive device, we understand that, but you understand the point they’re making, it might very well be a factor in the reproductive decisions made by parents and it might have something to do with the fact that many families are now deciding to stop at two rather than to move to the accustomed three children in the average American family. And the average American family, looking back just a matter of one generation, had more than two children, not so much now.

And as you’re looking at the mainstream media, and The Economist is about as mainstream as you can get, it’s fascinating to see that even in the United Kingdom, looking at this American report, there are people saying, you know, it’s hard to argue with these statistics. Looking at this particular mathematical curve, there’s obviously something to it. And I’ve looked at the report, every single page of it, and yes, there’s obviously something to it. These two researchers are indicating that based upon statistical analysis, approximately 8,000 babies weren’t born in the United States in 2017 because of the need for a third car seat that would have necessitated a different vehicle. They say that it amounts to 145,000 fewer births since 1980, 90% of the decline beginning since the year 2000.

Now, as you look at the background here you come to understand that it was in the 1970s, indeed it was basically 1977, that the United States by the 50 states passed laws that had mandated not only the use of car seats for infants, but by that time there was the requirement that children of increasing age be accommodated in a car seat device. And over time between 1977 and the end of the next decade, that age began to creep up. And right now, again, the average is about eight.

And in most cases it has to do with the weight of the child, so you’re looking at the average age that the average child would reach that specific weight. But the reality is the golden number right now is about eight and many children are avidly looking forward to their eighth birthday when they no longer have to sit in a car seat. And if they don’t weigh enough, well, they’re going to have to wait a little bit longer. But the point is not that the children are waiting, but that their little brothers and sisters aren’t coming precisely because of the car seats.

Now, when you think about this, you recognize that all of the attention given to child safety that resulted in the rules, laws and regulations about car seats that had everything to do with the effort to try to save the lives of children, especially infants and young children as you were looking at the fact that so many had died in car crashes, the car seats do demonstrably make the car ride experience safer for the youngest of those children.

These researchers argue that the efficacy of the car seat itself decreases over time as the child gets older, that also probably makes sense, but nonetheless, right now you’re looking at the fact that if indeed you have to wait until the older child is about eight, then you are actually looking at the situation in which many families have moved on from the decision about whether to have a third child. And these two researchers, one at MIT, one at Boston College, say, look at the curve. The one correlation that makes the most sense is the car seat, the inability of the average car to accommodate a third car seat.

If you think it sounds strange, well, perhaps you need to look at the data yourself, it is actually very compelling. Now looking at the actual research, it’s interesting that the correlation came down to 0.73, if you’re fascinated with statistics. But that has to be compared not with 100%, but with the 9.36% of women who did become third time mothers. So if you’re looking at this, you’re looking at very, very careful research. You’re looking at a small shift, less than 1%, and the percentage points of the number of women giving birth to a third while the first two children were young enough to need safety seats. But again, you’re only looking at the fact that at any given time, in any given year, and the same situation in life, only 9.36% of women did become third time mothers in the same time span. So a fall of even 0.73% turns out to be thousands of babies a year in the United States.

As I said, this has also reached the attention of government. Republicans, led by Senator Mike Lee, chairman of the United States Congress Joint Economic Committee released a report, a matter of weeks ago, entitled, “Car’s, Kids and Unintended Consequences.” And unsurprisingly, the Congressional Joint Economic Committee points to the research by these two academics and what appears to be a largely irrefutable curve, an explanatory factor about the unintended consequence of now limiting the number of children that many American families will ever have.

But in their analysis of the data, they point to another very interesting aspect, and it comes down to, again, underlining the fact that something’s really going on here. For example, if you look at the decision to have a second child in the same circumstance, you will note that there is no particular change, the change comes between the second and the third child. When correlated with previous decades of American experience, that’s where the change is happening. No doubt there are other factors involved, but the one thing that actually matches the curve is the third car seat issue.

Looking back at the data, the report from the Joint Economic Committee of Congress says, “Given that a woman age 18 to 35 with two children has 9.36% chance of giving birth in a given year, that is a considerable decline. But in contrast, car-seat laws don’t appear to have any effect on families with only one child of car-seat age or on families without access to a car, suggesting that the car-seat laws are the culprit.” Now there are several dimensions of worldview analysis we could look at here. For example, I started with that law of unintended consequences, a part of our humbling as human beings is the recognition of the fact that we really aren’t very competent at predicting what will be the eventual consequences of our own laws, policies, plans, or for that matter individual decisions. There is some predictability, but there is also a vast area of unpredictability, we are clearly not in control of the universe.

The second issue is the fact that we are looking at the reality that even governments, even the government of the United States of America is beginning to recognize the fact that we have a deep interest in the future birth rate in the United States of America. We also understand that just speaking politically, economically in terms of our employment base, in terms of entitlements like social security, if we do not have more children than we are in big economic trouble.

Now, from a Christian worldview, we come in and say, “Well you can’t start with the economic trouble, that’s just a sign of a more fundamental problem.” And it has to do with an anti-natalist worldview that has settled in much of the world. Anti-natalist, well, that’s just going back to say prenatal, just consider natal meaning birth, it means a prejudice against birth, and that is a worldview that has really settled in much of the United States. And you can blame all kinds of issues for it but the number one issue is the secularization of the culture. Because where you find deeply theistic cultures, you find a much higher birth rate.

You’re also looking at a Christian worldview perspective and the fact that an anti-natalist philosophy is actually been accepted within many religious circles. And that began with the Church of England in the European and North Atlantic world. It began with the so-called Lambeth Conference of the bishops of the Anglican Communion, who by the end of the second decade of the 20th century had become the first church in the history of all of Christianity to say a positive word about birth control. Up until that point, until that Lambeth Conference of the Church of England, the larger Anglican Communion, there had not been a single church in the history of Christianity for more than 19 centuries that had ever said anything other than that birth control was a sinful act.

All of that began basically to change, part of it because of a technological revolution, means of birth control and contraception that had never existed before. But we as Christians understand it can’t be merely the technology, there has to be a moral change, a worldview change, a theological change that had preceded the technological change.

But once the technology became available such as, The Pill, as it was known in the early 1960s, well, the birth rate began to plummet. There are other things as we now know, the moving away from an agrarian or a farm based economy to a technological or industrial economy meant that fewer children were needed as immediate economic units. You also had the reality that urbanization leads to smaller families, you have a pattern of larger families out on the farm, smaller families in the city. But you also have the rise of that expressive individualism and the cult of personal autonomy that says it is all about us, you have the delay of adulthood and the delay of marriage, you have the moral separation of sex from reproduction and reproduction from sex, and all of this adds up to a massively dangerous point for humanity.

And we as Christians understand why, it’s a basic revolt against the order of creation as the very first commandment that God gave humanity was to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. Even in many Christian circles that has become rather awkward for at least some people to say, we’re intending to have a fourth child, a fifth child, you go down the list, that used to be normative for Christianity. We have now reached the point where a secular worldview has so infected many Christian circles that these issues are difficult to discuss, they’re considered just private issues.

But of course the birth rate of the nation isn’t a private issue, the birth rate of the nation is a public issue of public consequence. And understanding of biblical worldview is not just a private issue, it is a congregational issue. And of course it’s an issue as parents teach their children, but how many children? Oddly enough, it turns out that the car seat may actually be a limiting factor for many families. Unintended consequences but birth rate consequences, economic consequences but moral consequences.

The experience of being a parent is an inherently maturing and conserving experience. That is to say that parents, just looking at electoral results, parents with children in the home vote considerably more conservatively than do other households. And again, we, as Christians can understand why. You look at those little faces, you look at that responsibility of parenthood, you look to the future, you’re going to make more conservative decisions.

Part II

Policies Have Consequences, and the Worst Policies Have the Worst Consequences: A Two-Child Limit for Welfare Benefits in Great Britain Led to More Abortions During Pandemic

But next in thinking about these issues and talking about unintended consequences, I have to turn to a headline from The Guardian in Britain. And this isn’t about unintended or unexpected consequences, you have to look at this and say, “Who could think that this would not be the consequence?” Again, it’s children. The headline from The Guardian, just yesterday, “Two child benefit cap influencing women’s decisions on abortion.” Now The Guardian tells us, “The controversial two child limit restricting the amount that larger families can receive in social security benefits was a key factor in many women’s decisions to terminate their pregnancy during the pandemic according to a leading abortion charity, that’s the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.”

Now, again, this isn’t a pro-life group. But it’s fascinating that the Guardian, which by the way, not only isn’t a pro-life newspaper, but is really the major newspaper of the left in London is talking about the fact that it is now the reality that the government limits, in the United Kingdom, what is called social security, we would call it welfare payments, to cover only two children. If a child above two children was born to a welfare dependent family in Great Britain after the 6th of April in 2017, that child had no additional welfare benefit to the family.

And thus, here’s the predictable thing, who could have not seen this coming? This has limited the number of families in the United Kingdom that have that third child. But not only that, you have the British Pregnancy Advisory Service coming out and saying, there are actually more abortions, in the context of the pandemic, precisely because of that limitation upon what in Britain is called social security, what here we would call welfare benefits or aid for dependent children. What you’re looking at is something that is basically insidious.

Now, it was packaged as a way to save money and to change moral decision making. The moral decision making they wanted to change was people deciding to have a third child when they were dependent on welfare, the tax savings should be pretty clear and easy to understand. But there was a change in moral behavior, but it wasn’t so much the change not to get pregnant with a third pregnancy, the changes it turned out was for many of those third pregnancies to end up being aborted. One mother told the agency, “If there was no two-child limit, I would have kept the baby, but I couldn’t afford to feed and clothe it. I’ve really struggled to come to terms with my decision.”

Now that’s a warning to the United States as well. We have to recognize that if we try to limit government spending by telling people they can’t have more children, it doesn’t mean that there will not be more pregnancies, but it very well might mean that there is a significant uptick in abortion, actions do have consequences.

Part III

When Having Children is an Act of Defiance: China’s Draconian “One Child Only” Policy and its Continuing Effects

But third is we’re looking at this larger picture, we have to go from the United States to Britain and now to China. Headline in The Wall Street Journal, “Beijing’s Family Policy Quietly Tested.” The Wall Street Journal reporter tells us that there are many couples in China that are now attempting to have not just a second, but a third child. And they’re doing so without the government crackdown that many of them had expected.

Now what’s behind all of this. Well, there’s a lot behind this, every bit of it important. First of all, there’s the fact that in China, you’re looking at the totalitarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese Communist Party puts the total into totalitarian, seeking to orchestrate the very smallest details of what should be private life.

Here’s something that Christians also need to understand, we believe that there are certain spheres that God has created in the created order. Certain spheres that include the family, the community, government you could go on, and of course you would put the church in its proper sphere. Understanding this, you understand that every one of those spheres has a proper responsibility, and one of the responsibilities of Christians is to keep those spheres straight. For example, we do not want the government coming into the sphere of the church and telling the church anything about how we can or can’t worship, we don’t want the government deciding what is and is not right doctrine.

We don’t believe that the government should intrude upon the sphere of the family but rather the family should be respected for making the decisions that parents would rightly make for their children. And we would argue that the government is actually violating something that is sacred, not just unconstitutional, but sacred by invading either the church or the family.

But there are responsibilities given to the sphere of government, just think about Romans 13. But what’s really important is that in China, the totalitarian, dictatorial regime under the communist party has destroyed the proper understanding and operation of the spheres, and instead, the Chinese Communist Party draws one giant circle and everything in Chinese society is inside that circle they define as the sphere of government. The government has a right according to the Chinese Communist Party to tell you who you can and can’t marry, where you can and can’t go using facial recognition software to track your every move, and entering into the homes of Chinese couples and telling them they can only have one child, now by official policy, two children.

And add to that a second issue, which is some of the pressure from Western nations and groups like the United Nations, China was seen as a ticking time bomb for a population explosion. Now, again, Christians can never see a population explosion as the moral wrong. And nonetheless, the secular world looked that way, still looks that way on the left, but nonetheless, you’re looking at the fact that political pressure was brought on China. And China, under the Chinese Communist Party put the pressure on itself to seek to limit the number of children being born, and so they passed the draconian one-child only policy.

That was wrong, insidiously wrong, horribly immoral. But it led to a further expansion of immorality, into forced abortion, forced sterilization, and of course the punishment of parents for having a second child. It led to the imbalance between boys and girls because with the one-child only policy, there was a prejudice for boys. And so that led to the fact that there was female infanticide. But even with the advent of modern reproductive imaging, there was the targeted destruction of baby girls in the womb.

Now, here’s the issue, the falling birth rate in China now endangers the future. It turns out that for China, it is not a growing birth rate that turns out to be the problem, it is a shrinking birth rate. And so the Chinese Communist Party, they didn’t say, “Oh, the lesson from this is that we invaded the sphere of the family where we had no business.” No, instead the central state planners then said, “Okay, you can have a second child under many circumstances.”

But the point is that that didn’t therefore work because it turns out that Chinese couples are accustomed to having one child, that culture had adjusted itself to a one child culture, again, policies have consequences and the worst policies have the worst consequences. As the Wall Street Journal tells us, “Abolishing the one-child policy in 2016 to let all couples have two children did next to nothing for China’s sagging birthrate. A once-a-decade census this year is likely to show that the number of babies being born is far from making up for the rapid aging of the workforce.”

Even so we’re told the communist party has given no indication of changing its policy, but what it apparently is doing is increasingly looking the other way. Now here’s something else that we are told in this article, it turns out that many Chinese couples, husbands and wives, are deciding they really do want a larger family, they’re willing to undertake political and economic risk to have a third and sometimes even a fourth child. But it’s now considered so unusual that you walk with that number of small children in a street of a Chinese village, not to mention a massive city like Beijing, and these families are receiving lots of stares, but some of those stares are envious stares.

But then that takes us back to the research in the United States about birth rates here, and there’s something else that turns out to be very interesting. There is a significant uptick in third and fourth children in some American homes. Where would that be found? Where would there be now a statistical uptick in the number of third children being born? The third being the interesting statistic in these studies. It turns out that the only significant uptick in American families having the third child and more is found among rather wealthy, very well educated American women where they are the mothers in the home. It turns out that there we see an uptick in the number of children, especially the number of third children born. Now, what does that tell us? It tells us that there is an aspiration on the part of many American couples to have more children.

There’s something very reassuring about that as the aspiration, but there’s also something of deep concern to us when we recognize that there evidently are reasons why many of those families are not actually moving ahead with that third child and perhaps even more. And this takes us back to the issue of worldview and the issue of worldview reminds us that if you start with the wrong worldview, you’re going to end up with a very bad picture. And in a fallen world, even some of the policies that have the best of intentions can have some very negative consequences, we have to take responsibility for those too.

Part IV

Flirty Won’t Be Flying Any Longer: U.S. Transportation Department Corrects a Policy that Had Unintended Consequences

But as we come to the end of this week’s edition of The Briefing, I want to point to the fact that the United States government, indeed the Transportation Department, has decided that it had to fix a policy that had also unintended consequences. And given those unintended consequences, the Transportation Department decided that it had to act, here’s how it acted. As of yesterday, the United States Department of Transportation has put a significant limit on the animals that can be brought onto passenger aircraft as companion or service animals. They’re limiting the species to one, dogs.

It turns out that the previous policy that was not so specific led to the fact, as again, The Guardian tells us that in 2018, a passenger attempted to take her emotional support peacock on a cross country flight. And it wasn’t just a peacock, it was also a dwarf horse, and in various cases, animals that were including but not limited to monkeys, cats, turtles, and pigs. The miniature service horse known as Flirty, made headlines back in 2019, as The Guardian tells us, after its owner took it on board a flight leaving Chicago.

Now this new policy is not saying that all of these animals can’t go, it simply says they can’t go in the passenger compartment of the plane. I have to say that I can fully understand this policy, again, unintended consequence, I was on one flight in which there was a service monkey, all I can tell you is it didn’t go particularly well. So, again, the government looking at the unintended consequences of its regulation sometimes has the wisdom to change it. Whether or not they made the right change, only time will tell. But for now it means that Fido can ride in the passenger compartment, at least under some circumstances, but not Flirty the miniature service horse. It turns out that Fido’s in Flirty’s out for now. One day we’ll find out the consequences of that rule, but not today.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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