Man Without Qualities

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Things Change And Yet Are Not The Same? II: "Ô Français, faites des enfants!"

As noted below (Things Change And Yet Are Not The Same?), France is cooing over its fertility rate reportedly rising to 2.0 with the media rather mindlessly repeating French politicians' claims that government economic incentives have made the difference. Maybe. Other analyses suggest that politically feasible benefit reforms can move fertility up or down by about 5% - far less than the French politicians and their silly media troops are claiming. In fact, the politicians' explanation seems about as likely as the theory that the French have taken to heart the Poulenc surrealist opera Les mamelles de Tirésias ("The Breasts of Tiresias"), which ends with the ringing and stern command "Ô Français, faites des enfants!" ("O Frenchmen, make babies!") And why not?

Whatever it is that drives the French fertility rate, it sure has changed a lot over time. Between 1950 and 1965, the total fertility rate in France remained above 2.7 children per woman, but later dropped by 40 per cent, from 2.85 in 1960-1965 to 1.72 in 1990-1995. Some claim the rate reached as low as 1.63 in 1998. A change from 1.72 to 2.00 is about a 16% change in fertility - or more than three times the 5% maximum that has been estimated to be obtainable from government economic incentives. Where did the other 11% (more, if one accepts the 1.63 rate) change come from?

Well, I don't know. But I'd like to posit a possible "Roe Effect" here.

Oral contraception became common just about the time the French fertility rate hit its 1960's peak. So it wouldn’t be too surprising if the availability of contraception allowed for a big new measure of control of pregnancy, and therefore fertility, than was previously available. In other words, it seems reasonable that many French births prior to the late 1960's were "unwanted" - and thereafter "avoided" -resulting in the drop in fertility to 1.72 by 1990.

It seems reasonable that children whose parents want to have children will themselves be more likely than the average person to want to have children. Of course, such "wants" mean little until one can separate sex from the possibility of children on the choice level. In other words, absent contraception and abortion, the decision to have sex will pretty much determine the question of whether there will be children. That means that prior to wide scale contraception and abortion (before, say, circa 1965), people became parents once they had sex regardless of whether they wanted to have children. After abortion and contraception became elective, only people who wanted to have children had children.

So what?

Well, after one post-1965 generation France should be populated only with the children of people who wanted to have children - and we've posited that such children will want to have children more than others. In other words, it seems reasonable that the availability of abortion and contraception will after one generation increase the percentage of people in the population who actually want to have children. That should boost the fertility rate - perhaps enough to account for the increased fertility rate.

Such effects are everywhere. It is said that such effects are making the United States more conservative and Republican, for example. Such "Roe Effects" have famously been charged with reducing the crime rate and many, many other things. Would it really be all that surprising if Roe Effects caused the French to rise to Mr. Poulenc's challenge and embrace Les mamelles de Tirésias?

I'm not asserting that Roe Effects are the best explanation for the recent apparent uptick in French fertility rate - only that such Effects are worth studying in this regard. Of course, all of this suggests that one ask about the fertility rates and histories of other countries. Indeed, the French fertility rate has attracted some rather curious criticism over the years. In 1990, for example, Herve Le Bras, one of the directors of research at France's national institute of demographic studies, was dropped from the editorial board of the institute's journal, Population and Society, and from his functions as a scientific adviser. He claimed that the institute had been "telling whoppers for the past 15 years" by using a method of calculation which leads to a figure of 1.8 births per woman, even though it admits that the total number of children born to women of one generation stands at 2.1.

Odd, that.

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