Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig – Israel’s (Not So) Professional Population Predictions
Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics recently published its demographic predictions for 2065. You might wonder why anyone would try to predict that far into the future, but there is a good reason: whoever is entering the army today will start getting Social Security in 2065, so we do have to “plan” economically ahead of time for any demographic surprises. Unfortunately and surprisingly, these predictions are based on no “surprises” – and if there’s anything certain about the future, it’s that there will be surprises (I highly recommend reading Nassim Taleb’s book The Black Swan).
To illustrate what I mean (before I actually explain the problem here), a personal vignette. 30 years ago, I was doing some research on “future (social) prediction”, and went to Washington DC to interview every head of planning/prediction in the 13 Federal Departments + the Social Security Administration. The latter’s interview was most interesting. Here’s a concise version:
Sam: How far in advance do you predict the future?
SocSec Head: 75 years – we have to know how to plan payments for those being born today.
Sam: Who does the planning?
SocSec Head: Economists and demographers.
Sam (surprised): That’s all? What about sociologists, scientists, international relations experts?
SocSec Head (surprised): Why would I need them to predict population growth?
Sam: Because demographic change is highly influenced by social and technological forces. After the large-family 1950s, the new “Pill” dropped the number of kids per U.S. family by dozens of percentage points; the feminine movement (women working) did likewise; on the other hand, international strife leads to massive immigration to the U.S.; and so on.
SocSec Head: Gee, we never thought of that!
Hard to believe, but that conversation is absolutely true. So back we go to the Israeli Bureau of Statistics (frankly, I have no idea if they hire sociologists etc).
They offer two main predictions: the percentage of Israeli Arabs relative to Israeli Jews will stay about the same by 2065, perhaps even decline a bit; the proportion of ultra-Orthodox (haredi) Jews will triple from today’s 11% to 32%!
Indirectly, the first datum shows the fallacy of the second. In 1948, Israeli Arabs had about 9 children per family; today they have about 3.5. Why the “collapse”? Increasing education (especially for the women) and general modernization. Had the Bureau in 1948 predicted their numbers for 2018, based on the Israeli-Arab childbirth situation of 1948, they would have come up with Israeli Arabs as a majority in 2018 (what used to be called the “demographic threat”), and not the 20% of today!
Today, Israel’s haredi world is sociologically in precisely the same situation as Israeli Arabs were back then – a major shift is occurring regarding gradual modernization in their community: more higher education, far more workers (75% of the women; 50% among the men), greater openness to Israeli society (including more and more of them each year serving in the army), increased use of modern technology (especially social media and the internet, that has basically collapsed the “cultural ghetto” their rabbis have tried to build over the years). The result will be increasingly clear in the coming years and decades: a large drop in their birthrate as well.
The Bureau has fallen into the “extrapolation fallacy”: take the population trend of the past few years and simply shoot a statistical arrow in the same direction moving forward. But as history has shown, the only bullseye to be hit this way is the arm of the shooter.