By Kevin Meyer
Mara Hvistendahl is worried about girls. Not in any political, moral or cultural sense but as an existential matter. She is right to be. In China, India and numerous other countries (both developing and developed), there are many more men than women, the result of systematic campaigns against baby girls. In "Unnatural Selection," Ms. Hvistendahl reports on this gender imbalance: what it is, how it came to be and what it means for the future.
I'll warn you – the first three-quarters of the review are great, but the last quarter wades into some political swamps that I dare not enter. But if you're interested in a discussion of "choice" and "gendercide" and how some very surprising activities of organizations like Planned Parenthood helped create this global problem, dive right into it. I know better so I won't – and as a libertarian I really don't care that much.
So here's the fundamental problem:
In nature, 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. This ratio is biologically ironclad. Between 104 and 106 is the normal range, and that's as far as the natural window goes. Any other number is the result of unnatural events.
Yet today in India there are 112 boys born for every 100 girls. In China, the number is 121—though plenty of Chinese towns are over the 150 mark. China's and India's populations are mammoth enough that their outlying sex ratios have skewed the global average to a biologically impossible 107. But the imbalance is not only in Asia. Azerbaijan stands at 115, Georgia at 118 and Armenia at 120.
For second births [in South Korea], the male number climbed to 113; for third, to 185. Among fourth-born children, it was a mind-boggling 209. Even more alarming is that people maintain their cultural assumptions even in the diaspora; research shows a similar birth-preference pattern among couples of Chinese, Indian and Korean descent right here in America.
Our intuition as to why this happens is probably correct – boys are more valuable in developing societies as they can contribute more immediately to the income and welfare of the family. So here comes surprising fact number one:
But oddly enough, Ms. Hvistendahl notes, it is usually a country's rich, not its poor, who lead the way in choosing against girls. "Sex selection typically starts with the urban, well-educated stratum of society," she writes. "Elites are the first to gain access to a new technology, whether MRI scanners, smart phones—or ultrasound machines." The behavior of elites then filters down until it becomes part of the broader culture. Even more unexpectedly, the decision to abort baby girls is usually made by women—either by the mother or, sometimes, the mother-in-law.
Lopsided gender ratios are not exactly a good thing.
Ms. Hvistendahl argues that such imbalances are portents of Very Bad Things to come. "Historically, societies in which men substantially outnumber women are not nice places to live," she writes. "Often they are unstable. Sometimes they are violent." As examples she notes that high sex ratios were at play as far back as the fourth century B.C. in Athens—a particularly bloody time in Greek history—and during China's Taiping Rebellion in the mid-19th century. (Both eras featured widespread female infanticide.) She also notes that the dearth of women along the frontier in the American West probably had a lot to do with its being wild. In 1870, for instance, the sex ratio west of the Mississippi was 125 to 100. In California it was 166 to 100. In Nevada it was 320. In western Kansas, it was 768.
So now we have not-so-surprising fact number two:
Unmarried men with limited incomes tend to make trouble. In Chinese provinces where the sex ratio has spiked, a crime wave has followed. Today in India, the best predictor of violence and crime for any given area is not income but sex ratio.
You would think that a shortage of women would then increase the value of women and eventually create a rebalancing. It does – but not necessarily in a positive way.
And to beat the "marriage squeeze" caused by skewed sex ratios, men in wealthier imbalanced countries poach women from poorer ones. Ms. Hvistendahl reports from Vietnam, where the mail-order-bride business is booming thanks to the demand for women in China. Prostitution booms, too—and not the sex-positive kind that Western feminists are so fond of.
The economist Gary Becker has noted that when women become scarce, their value increases, and he sees this as a positive development. But as Ms. Hvistendahl demonstrates, "this assessment is true only in the crudest sense." A 17-year-old girl in a developing country is in no position to capture her own value. Instead, a young woman may well become chattel, providing income either for their families or for pimps.
But here comes suprising fact number three – and what really grabbed my attention:
A high level of male births has other, far-reaching, effects. It becomes harder to secure a bride, and men can find themselves buying or bidding for them. This, Ms. Hvistendahl notes, contributes to China's astronomical household savings rate; parents know they must save up in order to secure brides for their sons. (An ironic reflection of the Indian ad campaigns suggesting parents save money by aborting girls.) This savings rate, in turn, drives the Chinese demand for U.S. Treasury bills.
So there you have it – the real reason for China's growth and thirst for stable securities to invest in. Compliments of Planned Parenthood (if you read the part of the article I warned you about…).