Unnatural Selections

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No words meant to inspire thoughts of warmth and growth have ever brought such a chill. A person hearing them played on radio might ahve wondered if in fact he had heard correctly. President Bill Clinton's first inaugural address began with a metaphor that hopefully a speechwriter, in the long tradition of courtiers since King Canute, had written for him. Canute himself is credited with demonstrating to fawning sycophants around him that, King though he was, he was unable to command the forces of nature and hold back the tides.

Would that Bill Clinton had showed similar restraint. "My fellow citizens, today we celebrate the mystery of American renewal. This ceremony is held in the depth of winter, but by the words we speak and the faces we show the world, we force the spring." Of course, the only persons speaking were members of the Establishment, so "we" is what the rest of the "fellow citizens" would normally refer to as "they," unless one buys the idea that "we owe the debt to ourselves."

The idea that "they" force the spring is offensive on many levels. First of all, spring will arrive in any case; would the Federal government under Bill Clinton claim credit for the weather? Why use force at all to achieve an end that would obtain in any case? How many resources would be devoted to this banal achievement? The image brings to mind the idea of forcing paperwhite Narcissus to bloom in winter, an amusing and cheer-bringing activity that unfortunately exhausts the bulb, which is then discarded. In addition, the metaphor slights the position of winter in the calendar, winter whose killing frosts have long served as free pesticide, making temperate-zone agriculture, the modern division of labor, and the civilization based upon it possible. Finally, why didn't Al Gore object to this policy of accelerated warming?

The words were simply a rhetorical flourish in a speech filled with bland exhortations and political pabulum, and as such could have been overlooked. However, President Clinton went on to implicate the citizens in his folly: "You have raised your voices in an unmistakable chorus, you have cast your votes in historic numbers, and you have changed the face of Congress, the Presidency and the political process itself. Yes, you, my fellow Americans, have forced the spring." (The internal dissonance of the speech is shown by his later selection of a biblical quote to back his narrative: "And let us work until our work is done. The Scripture says, u2018And let us not be weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap if we faint not.'" One wonders why we could not wait until spring was "due.")

Surely Americans would never take part in an effort to "force the spring?" One can think of life divided into four metaphorical seasons, with youth placed firmly in the spring category; the example of Wagner springs immediately to mind, along with a host of writers too innumerable to mention. Two articles humorously temporally co-located last December seem to indicate that subjects of the State have embraced this rhetoric.

The New York Times presented an article on "National Birth Day," the day in the year when the largest number of births occurs:

"For decades and decades, the busiest day of the year in the nation's maternity wards fell sometime in mid-September. Americans evidently do a lot of baby-making during the cold, dark days of December, and once a baby has been made, the die for its birth date has largely been cast… In the last 15 years, there has been a huge increase in the number of births that are induced with drugs or come by Caesarean section. In either case, parents or doctors can often schedule a baby's arrival on a day of their choosing.

Not surprisingly, they tend to avoid weekends and holidays, when doctors have other plans, hospitals are short of staff and the possibility of an unfortunate birthday — Christmas Day, anyone? — looms. During holiday weeks, births have become increasingly crowded into the weekdays surrounding the holiday.

Over this same period — since the early 1990s — the federal government has been steadily increasing the tax breaks for having a child. For parents to claim the full amount of any of these breaks in a given year, a child must simply be born by 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31. If the baby arrives a few minutes later, the parents are often more than a thousand dollars poorer.

Unless you're a cynic, or an economist, I realize you might have trouble believing that the intricacies of the nation's tax code would impinge on something as sacred as the birth of a child. But it appears that you would be wrong.

In the last decade, September has lost its unchallenged status as the time for what we will call National Birth Day, the day with more births than any other. Instead, the big day fell between Christmas and New Year's Day in four of the last seven years — 1997 through 2003 — for which the government has released birth statistics. (The day was in September during the other years; conception still matters.) Based on this year's calendar, there is a good chance that National Birth Day will take place a week from tomorrow, on Thursday, Dec. 28."

Parents wouldn't really let tax policy set their child's birthday for life, would they? For some, sadly, the answer is yes:

"So to see if taxes were truly the culprit, Mr. Chandra and another economist, Stacy Dickert-Conlin of Michigan State, devised some clever tests. They found that people who stood to gain the most from the tax breaks were also the ones who gave birth in late December most frequently. When the gains were similar, high-income parents — who, presumably, are more likely to be paying for tax advice — produced more December babies than other parents…By my calculations, about 5,000 babies, of the 70,000 or so who would otherwise be born during the first week in January, may have their arrival dates accelerated partly for tax reasons."

The economics can be compelling. Calculations in TurboTax reveal that, if a couple in New York State each of whom earns $40,000 annually adds a dependent in a tax year, that couple can expect to see the combined taxes at the Federal and State levels drop by about $1550. If the couple earns $400,000, there is only a marginal $75 savings, and if the couple earns less, the "bonus" increases. To put the numbers in perspective, at a recent $800 for an ounce of gold, the couple would save 1.9375 gold ounces; using the old French bimetallic standard of 15.5 ounces of silver equaling one ounce of gold, this indicates that the State has induced parents to induce for thirty (one ounce) pieces of silver.

Economics in Germany, at the same time, were even more compelling. To encourage the childbearing that Bismarckian social security schemes naturally decrease, the German State promised "Elterngeld" to each child born in 2007; show up on December 31st, 2006, and your parents missed out on "67 per cent of their last net income tax free, or up to 1,800 (euros; about 2600 dollars) – more than 1,300 – a month, for the first 12, or in some cases 14, months after the birth." (One wonders what a benefit-milking couple with a German parent and an American parent would do: perhaps deliver in Germany between midnight and 6AM January 1st so as to claim the birth in the new year in Germany and the old one in the USA? This absurdity recalls Daniel Patrick Moynihan's exasperation with Federal policy on aid to religious schools: books were allowed, but not maps. Moynihan wondered what would happen in the case of atlases, which were in fact books of maps.)

The skeptic might ask WHY the State offers such inducements. Germany faces a crisis in paying for its social-welfare programs even larger than the approaching demographic waves overlapping the American Social Security system. Critical to receipt of the benefits in the USA is to submit a child for enumeration in the Social Security system, at an age before it can consent. Should the child not want a number, getting rid of it might be a challenge, for someone's good reason. The birthday, of course, is permanent.

At least the Germans' push led to better birthday selection. Unscientific surveys of people whose birthdays lie between Christmas and New Year's reveal that most would prefer a later or earlier date. The worst example was the man born December 31, 1959, whose 40th birthday celebrations were, let's say, a little bit overshadowed by larger events. So if you are in one of those 5000 couples thinking of moving a birth to 2007 from 2008, check the numbers first. Before you associate yourself with the political class' shenanigans, buy your child a $1550 present and deliver when nature and springtime would come without force.

November 14, 2007