A Ponzi or pyramid scheme works by adding more and more people to the scheme, creating the appearance of revenue where there is none. The benefits accrue to the originator, at the top, and the costs are placed on the last entrants who will lose their money. In the middle of the Twentieth Century world leaders came to understand that nations and their economies had become reliant on a comparable process – using population growth to, per one Nobel Laureate, pump up systems in an unsustainable scheme. A variety of norm-changing events interceded, with advances in birth control and women’s empowerment facilitating family planning, events that over decades halved—on average worldwide— the number of children women have in their lifetimes. The arc of world population, despite vast regional differences, reflects this.
But while this defusing of the population bomb helped avert feared crises like world famine—costs the pyramid was heaping on generations down the line—humanity still outpaced the atmospheric carrying capacity for carbon dioxide and methane, the ability of the world to replenish fresh water, and our demand for the products of fisheries and forests. Moreover, reducing population growth did not change the globalized economy’s fundamental power relations.
That system continued to treat future generations as economic inputs to drive gross domestic product, and their birth position – rich or poor – as something that was a matter of fate. It treated nature or the nonhuman environment as resources to be used or be pushed aside. And in treating future children as economic inputs, it lowered the high levels of education, development, and commonality that would have been required to equip new people for democracy – or town halls – rather than the less demanding factories and shopping malls that typify economies. Families throughout the latter half of the Twentieth Century pushed billions of people into the world through turnstiles of developmental and educational standards that every nation was struggling to improve.
Today we live in a world defined by the error of this arc. It is characterized by crashing ecologies, massive inequity, abysmal levels of literacy and education, failing democracies, and with political and economic power highly concentrated in the tops of pyramidic structures. This is not a liberal or conservative thing—the editor of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos—they all sit atop the pyramid now but as such people come and go the Ponzi scheme remains. We pay the costs while still worrying ourselves to keep the scheme going with growing demand for policies—including bans on abortion—that might reverse the choices that have tamed fertility. (Lower fertility may yet spell the end of the scheme, but for reasons having more to do with the hormone disrupting industrial chemicals and impaired sperm in human bodies than policies or choices.)
The pyramid scheme was built on a lie: that the act of having children is a private matter. The claims that new generations could have to distributions of wealth that would bring them equity of opportunities in life—a precondition for democracy that would have ruined the scheme—were kept outside the scheme. Your child is your problem. Those who insist that a human life begins at conception often act and vote as though it ends at birth.
But many people who might be having children today are thinking about the lives those children will face, and are choosing to not to have them. A sizeable minority of these people worry mainly about the conditions into which their children would be born, and find the conditions lacking. They understand that creating another is a private choice with societal implications, and they are not going to pay their own progeny into the scheme. And a small group of people are demanding that the living beneficiaries of the scheme pay back some of the wealth their labor had generated. And they want to be paid for the costs that were heaped upon them, and especially for the monumental costs that will be heaped on future generations, their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren down the line.
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Their argument is this: Those future children represent the majority, hence their interests outweigh ours. They certainly outweigh the interests of the scheme’s beneficiaries. They have a strong argument for clawing back that wealth and using it to create the most resilient, cooperative and prosocial populace of future children possible. What claim could precede an obligation to change from a shopping mall/consuming scheme to one designed to ensure democracy? What could override an obligation to use intergenerational justice to replace the top-down systems of coercion that make our pyramid scheme the antithesis of people participating in deciding their own path?
The greater good of the majority—inescapably the most fundamental fairness we can imagine—is the overriding concern in any just system. Future generations themselves, as defined by the United Nations Children’s Convention, would be the first baseline against which all costs and benefits would be justly—not in a scheming way—measured.
Empowering people equally through family planning reforms can be promoted through fairly simple measures: incentivizing parental readiness, child spacing, and smaller families that point toward the optimal world population that a slew of Nobel Laureates recently recognized.
This approach would take into account the generationally inherited gulf of economic inequity. This is doable, by altering things like Senator Corey Booker’s baby bonds proposals to ensure steep redistributions to level the playing field for all kids while incentivizing more sustainable and equitable family planning for all. It would mean, in essence, putting a lien on the great concentrations of wealth at the top to pay the costs they have already externalized on the poor and future generations, and pay them in the most effective way.
This act of liberation, by starting at the actual beginning of each human life, captures all forms of justice—restorative, environmental, intergenerational, distributive, reproductive, and democratically procedural—in one blow. We can take the necessary resources because we are constantly constituting fairly and bottom-up, not constituted in the past top down. Why not take this road?