sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

February 5, 2013

No Country for R&B

Filed under: parenting, politics, Russia — Tags: , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 2:16 pm

Leslie Loftis requested “that heaping scorn” on account of Vladimir Putin’s hiring of Boyz II Men to combat Russia’s sub-European birth rates.  I’ll try to not disappoint.

The R’n’B band is to play some sort of a part in Russian state’s ongoing effort to convince ordinary men and women to be fruitful and multiply:

The story comes from the Moscow Times, which writes: “The stylish trio of Boyz II Men, the most successful R&B group of all time, is coming to Moscow on Feb 6. The group will perform a selection of their classic and new romantic ballads, hopefully giving Russian men some inspiration ahead of St. Valentine’s Day.” The Times insists that the band will be lending their “powerful voices” to Putin’s fertility campaign. Whether or not the Russian kingpin personally got on the phone, tracked down their agent and demanded that they “do the show right here” is pure speculation on the newspaper’s part. It’s a little hard to believe … but it’s also not impossible to imagine. [My guess is Boyz have no clue about Europe's demographic woes.  Russian newspapers, however, are prone to overstatements. -- ed.]

For Putin has declared war on empty cots with classic Putin bravado. He’s often insisted that having lots of babies is key to Russia’s internal security, to Russia becoming more “influential” on the world state. Why have a great democracy or a flourishing economy when you can simply outnumber everyone else? Putin puts the desirable figure at three babies per household and, in 2007, one province helped things along by declaring a Day of Conception. The idea was that if Russians got the day off work then they might stay at home, put on some Boyz II Men, close the curtains and help bring back the good old days of Soviet hegemony. Women who gave birth 9 months later could win a refrigerator.

Which makes sense.   I can’t think of another top 40 band that’s all soft light and kitchen counters.

Boyz’s 1994 hit “I’ll Make Love to You”

If you, my reader, are a snob like me, you probably spend countless Friday nights complaining about the current sorry state of American popular music.  I hope you realize that much of today’s American pop sells very well abroad, and that even if Americans suddenly abandoned their music idols, many performers would do just fine.  Truth be told, American pop in decline does not sound that bad compare to what musicians around the world have to offer.

Russia one horrid example of horrid taste in horrid popular music.  The country’s President is a noted connoisseur of “popsa” (Russian slang for particularly annoying tunes).  Remember his inspirationally sexed-up 2012 Presidential campaign?  Well, in 2007/2008 it was Putin copying Obama, not the other way around.  Shortly after Obama girl went viral, Putin lent his likeness to a video with two babes who singing ditties about him:

A few years ago I went on a facebook-like Russian site where I found some old friends and made a few new ones.  Most of them were Russian-speaking Ukrainian women, about my age, college educated, either gainfully employed or with a husband providing for the family, and with a kid or two.  Often times our conversation turned to the little ones; specifically they wanted to know how much does the United States government pay to have a baby.  I got the impression that their sole reason for striking a conversation with an American woman was to pose that particular question.

Turns out, all Ukrainian women are promised a one-time stipend for each child — “promised” is the operative word here because in their experience the money doesn’t always materialize.  They were bitter, which was understandable.  I’m not sure how much sense it makes for the state to beguile its citizens short term.  Our government is also making promises on which it’s not going to deliver (think Social Security), but those are long term promises.  By the time the the populace realizes that its been had, the politicians who designed the system are long dead and buried.  Anyhow, Russia touts fertility measures similar to Ukraine’s, with second baby currently worth 9K.  Russian women find it equally easy to discuss such prizes.

Now, I’m all for people being practical about breeding.  People other than myself that is (I got pregnant with my first while on our honeymoon).  It’s just that on the surface of it, at least, the women in Russia and Ukraine do not appear to be practical enough.  I had to explained that in the US children are seen mainly as expenses.  It costs upwards of a half a mil to raise a child, which dwarfs any tax write off a middle class American family can possibly take advantage of.  Kitchen appliances are a sorry compensation when you have another mouth to feed.

What is interesting is when middle class American women think “how can I afford it”, their Russian speaking counterparts think “who pays better”.  That’s the difference between freedom and personal responsibility on the one hand and slavery and hand outs on the other.  Arguably, American fertility subsidies are obscured through our tax code.  We still have subsidies (as we should as long as the government provides for retirement), they are just not obvious.  Yet I don’t know a single family that would calculate exemptions prior to trying to conceive.

The fertility rate in Russia is up from under 1.2 child per woman at its 1999 low to about one and a half child for each woman of childbearing age.  The rate of population decline is down, and Putin is claiming victory.  I remember Russians here, in Cali, being surprised by that Russian style baby boom, and quipping that maybe it’s caused by mothers too drunk to get themselves to abortion clinics.  They were not too far off.  Then there is the argument that the uptake in fertility is partially caused by the increase in the number of ethnic minorities and the calls for awarding “maternal capital” to ethnic Russians only.  Still, the current fertility uptake is partially caused by the women born during the 1980s mini-boom now reaching peak childbearing age.  Once they age, Russia is due for another bust.

From Putin’s point of view it must be now or never.  He really does need to get as many children as he can out of Russian women today because, he must realize, there is no tomorrow.  The generous sums of money offered to moms at the time when state revenues are declining are really a sign of desperation.  Putin bought off Russia’s middle class with petroleum money, but with development of new technologies of oil and gas extraction, the world is not willing to pay top dollar for Russia’s resources.  Russian mothers might be looking for another owner.

Putin’s goal is to encourage every Russian woman to have three children, and this billboard, photographed in Moscow metro, is a part of the state’s natalist campaign. “Your country needs your heroic achievements,” reads the top. “Every minute, three people are born in Russia”. I don’t see Russians reacting to this poster with anything but laughter.  The talk of “heroic accomplishments” is reminiscent of the Soviet era mythical mother-heroines who gave birth to a large number of children.  Ordinary Soviet people didn’t know anyone like that.

And Putin might do better if he had a whole different population of women to work with.  Russian-speaking women are just not that into large families.  I personally know of five Russian-speaking women of my generation who had more than two kids, and by more than two I mean three.  Two of them live in Israel (one is an ethnic Russian), one is in New Jersey, but spent several years in Israel.  Another is in the Bay Area, and her third child was an accident.  And, by the way, had she stayed in Belarus, the boy would had been summarily aborted, and so would had been several of his siblings.  Only one lives (and has always lived) in Ukraine, but she was always a bit odd. Not that there is anything wrong with being odd.

It’s not just that tough economic times drove families to postpone parenting.  Russians have an easy attitude about divorce and out-of-wedlock birth.  A sizable number of Russian women would rather stay single than marry Russian bachelors.  Even those who marry and stay married simply don’t want large families.  One or two kids were a norm for generations, and it’s hard to imagine that this norm can change in the near future.

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