Saturday, January 28, 2006

Hardly something France should be proud of

Few things make me laugh in scorn as this article did:
Amour Rules in France but Weddings Don't

PARIS - France may still be the land of love. But the country's traditional tableau of marriage and the baby carriage has changed dramatically in three decades, according to a parliamentary report released Friday.

Nearly half of children are now born out of wedlock, and the marriage rate is down 27 percent compared to 1970 prompting calls for reform of France's widely used civil unions.

And yet, there's a baby boom. With 1.94 children born to the average woman, France has the highest birth rate in the European Union after Ireland's 1.99, according to 2005 demographic figures released last week. The European average is 1.5 babies per woman.

The glossy French magazine Paris Match devoted its cover this week to the high birth rate, with a photo of French actress Judith Godreche ("The Spanish Apartment") holding her diaper-clad baby under the headline "France, champion of births."
So France is actually second, but it still calls itself the "champion." Maybe that's a mindset left over from surrendering to Nazi Germany.

The article supplies no previous data, so how can it claim a "baby boom"? According to World Bank statistics, France's per-woman childbirth has been 1.9 since the year 2000. Is the French parliament really claiming an increase of 0.04 births (meaning one in every 25 French women has one more baby during her lifetime) as a "baby boom"?

What is far more significant is this report from INED, which states, "Chaque année, la France compte 200 000 naissances de plus que de décès, alors que le solde migratoire (la différence entre les entrées et les sorties de migrants) est estimé aux alentours de 65 000 personnes." Translated, if you can depend on my poor French and well-worn Putnam's dictionary: "Each year, France counts 200,000 more births than deaths, and in that time the balance of migration (the difference between the entries and the exits of migrants) is estimated at around 65,000 people."

A mere 200,000 births per year, compared to a population of over 60 million, is a meager 0.3% increase in the population. Compare that to the United States' 0.6% rate of natural population growth, and it's easy to see why France (and indeed much of Europe that also has low birthrates) has become so dependent on immigrants to supplement the ageing labor pool. It's expected that France, Germany, Russia (especially Russia) will have outright population declines by the first half of this century, so someone will have to do the work that there aren't enough French to do.

Ireland's fertility rate is only 1.94, not enough to replace the parents, but at least it has a far friendlier tax climate that's luring major multi-national corporations, like Intel. The jobs being created are top ones by the like of Intel and Dell, high-paying jobs in the manufacture of things like the latest CPUs and full, finished computers -- not the low-grade mass-production jobs that go to China and India.

As for the United States' fertility rate of 2.1, that's nothing to be proud of; it's just barely above population replacement. This country has a long way to go insofar as Social Security reform (preferably elimination) and tax reform, but when you look at French policies that stagnate its economy, like the 35-hour work week and subsidizing unprofitable winemakers, it's clearly in far deeper merde than the United States.

The rest of the article attempts to answer why France's marriage rate is declining, and I presume it's correct to point toward the ease of obtaining civil unions. However, the real issue is low birthrates, and not just in France. The average age of getting married is rising in many Western countries, even when counting only first trips down the aisle (so that multiple marriages don't skew things). More young people are choosing to postpone walking down the aisle in favor of more education, perhaps more freedom. Also, more women are choosing to work, rather than in antecedent decades when they would have exited the workforce (often permanently) to have children.

Note that I'm not advocating that women leave the workforce to bear children, or that younger people forsake other things to have children earlier. It's their freedom to do what they would like. I'm merely observing their preference and its effects on demographics and economy. Similarly, an economy in which people do not save "enough" will grow at a slower rate than one where people save an optimal amount for business investment -- but what is "enough" is something beyond the ability of government to calculate.

Ultimately, any government policies (like cash subsidies in Australia and parts of Italy) will fail, whether they attempt to encourage more births, higher savings, higher agricultural output, higher anything. Such policies are doomed because they skew what are fundamentally consumer preferences. As Friedrich Hayek pointed out in his essay "The Use of Knowledge in Society," bureaucrats do not have perfect information. They therefore cannot judge if (let alone the optimal levels) a population is saving "enough" for optimal growth, if people are having enough children, or if the economy is producing enough of a particular commodity. Only the free market can determine such things.

It is true that demographic shifts are hard for most people to perceive, because they're spread out over decades, rather than months or a couple of years (like the lag time of interest rates rising and falling naturally). Nonetheless, what can government do to alleviate population decline? With the vast amount of information available today, if people are not intelligent enough to listen to warnings, they will be encouraged by politicians but for all the wrong reasons. Bastiat would remind us that government spending necessarily deprives the private sector of that spending, so there is no increase. Thus when government pushes, it necessarily pulls something else at the same time. At best, an Italian town giving money for a woman to give birth means taxing -- depriving -- someone else of that money, which would have been spent in other ways (which also produces a disincentive for the taxed to earn as much money). At worst, it means inflation, if the central bank simply prints more money.

Something to consider is that many Western governments actually discourage childbirth by guaranteeing old age pensions. Before the paternalist state that blossomed in the early 20th century, a big reason for people to have more children was so they could depend on them in retirement. My father once questioned why children should feel at all obligated to support their aged parents. After he died, I learned he came to that because of his own father.

Well, children shouldn't feel like they have that responsibility, no matter what their parents do. My father, who was certainly not Judeo-Christian, nonetheless loved to tell me, "Honor thy father and thy mother." Yet, as St. Paul clarified in Ephesians 6:1-4, there is a mirror obligation:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right.

Honour thy father and mother; which is the first commandment with promise;

That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.

And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
I personally find it's a marvelous incentive to be good to your children, so that they won't become so embittered and abandon you in your old age. But today, children abandon even the best of parents -- abandon them to the state, which has promised the unsustainable Ponzi scheme of Social Security.

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