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Monday, May 15, 2006

Putin's Barren Population Plan

Remember that image of Michael Jackson dangling his baby out of a hotel window? Here we have a group of Russian "walruses" who are "seasoning" their little sprite for the tough life that lies ahead of him in Russia. The little muzhik will be lucky if he makes it to age 60.

According to the New York Times: "The Russian people are deeply unhealthy, so much so that there is no demographic group in the industrial world as ailing and prone to fatal injury as the Russian male, whose average age at death is about 59." The Times explains how bizarrely inapposite (that is, typically Russian and neo-Soviet) is Tsar Vladimir's plan to relieve Russia's population crunch, bribing mommies:

In a speech reminiscent of Soviet pledges of the state helping the masses so that the masses might help the state, Mr. Putin chose the familiar Soviet solution of encouraging stalwart reproduction, telling his obedient Parliament to enact programs of financial incentives to women to have more children. The Kremlin-friendly news media here, a place that often feels like the land of the family with a single child, crowed in approval. The president had spoken: Here is the money, he had essentially said; Russian mothers, fulfill your role. Beneath the enthusiasm was a question Mr. Putin did not address. Will cash incentives work? The data would say: Not quite.There is little doubt that for Russia to be a power through the 21st century its demographic trends must be reversed. There also seems to be no question that Russian mothers, short of feats of fertility unseen in the industrialized world, cannot save Russia alone."You have to do this in a variety of ways," said Dr. Murray Feshbach, a demographer who studies the Russian population and its health. The problems can be found in the numbers. Russia has roughly 143 million people, and the population drops an average of 700,000 each year, largely because of the wide gap between the number of those born and the number who die. More babies will help. But as the population shrinks, Dr. Feshbach said, it risks an accelerating collapse that fertility itself cannot reverse. This is in part because the low birthrate is more than two decades old, and the number of women ages 20 to 29, the most fecund segment of the population, has already fallen to 12 million, he said. In the next several years, women that age will fall to eight million or fewer — a small contingent to bear the next generation. Abysmal mortality trends separate Russia from other industrial nations that offer incentives to stimulate population growth, including Japan and Australia. Moreover, pernicious infections have entered the population since Soviet times, making the country a growing reservoir of people recently infected with tuberculosis, H.I.V. and hepatitis C.
So Russia's problem isn't simply too little desire to have babies among young women, it's too few young women to have babies. How can a man who has devoted his life to the service of an organization, the KGB, whose main business has always been killing Russians possibly be expected to come up with viable plans to save their lives? Moreover, how can a man whose power is fundamentally illegitimate possibly be expected to seriously consider creating a thriving, healthy population that could much more readily challenge Kremlin authority? Aren't the sick and feeble much easier to govern? Thus:
Dr. Ivan Safranchuk, a middle-class father of two and director of the Moscow office of the World Security Institute, an international think tank, said money-for motherhood incentives would not work. Russian parents, he said, opt for few children not just because of financial worries but because infrastructure — parks, schools, hospitals, entertainment centers, transportation — is strained. He pointed to surging rates of car ownership to make a point."The message of the president, that people cannot afford kids, is not true," he said. "Look at the rate of new cars in the country, especially of imported cars. All of these people can afford to give birth to kids, but they do not."This is also because attitudes have become unwelcome to child-rearing, he said. "When you go to a restaurant or a social setting, the whole social infrastructure is unfriendly to your kids." Dr. Safranchuk suggested that Russia ought not offer cash incentives, but tax breaks. There are no child deductions on personal income taxes, except a small one for education costs.Rather than create a well-raised new generation, he said, the subsidies could encourage the poorest and least-educated women to have children, while having little influence on the family decisions in the middle class. Mr. Putin, he said, "has created a system which converts oil and gas into money; now he is creating a system that converts money into nothing, or that converts money into problems."
The Times concludes: "Mr. Putin did not go as far as past Kremlin leaders, like Stalin, who encouraged women to repopulate a nation thinned by repression and war by offering Medals of Maternal Glory to mothers who brought forth seven, eight or nine children. The medals bore the words Mother-Heroine." (A photo of one of the medals appears above.) Maybe he didn't because he can't? What does it say about Russia if the only way the President of the country, who supposedly enjoys "rock solid" popular support of 70% or better, can only get the country to make babies by bribing the citizens?

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