Streetwise Professor

December 1, 2011

Remind Me Again: Who Are the Russophobes?

Filed under: Politics,Russia,Sports — The Professor @ 8:45 pm

I know that a trip to any ER or trauma center in the US hardly a walk in the park, but when a Russian hospital makes a heavily tattooed mixed martial artist (or would that be “artiste”?), who has seen and shed his share of blood blanche, that’s saying something:

Primitive conditions and equipment in a Moscow policlinic alarmed mixed martial artist Jeff Monson after his bloody defeat and Putin’s booing, but doctors say the size of their tools scared him.

. . . .

When Monson was taken to hospital afterwards he was appalled by the battered and bloodied patients he saw wandering the wards and the rough and ready approach he encountered, while full of praise for the doctors’ bedside manner.

. . . .

Many of Monson’s fellow patients were in a bad way, Monson said afterwards, “The hallways were full of wandering patients that looked like they were just out of a civil war battle,” he told Mixed Martial Arts news portal MMA Mania.

But what’s actually more sobering (an ironic statement that will become clear in a minute) is that the doctors basically said, “so what’s the big deal?”  That, and the reason they considered it no big deal:

The doctors at City Hospital No. 36 on Fortunatovskaya Ulitsa said he was probably just alarmed as he came in when there were lots of drunks, “You can indeed see an influx of patients everyday at around 6:00 pm with beaten up faces,” doctors told Moskovsky Komsomolets.

“About 40 – 50 patients will be like that, they are all local drunks or have been injured in domestic fights. They wait their turn to see the doctor in the corridor and by all accounts this is what Monson saw,” medical staff told the paper.

Six o’clock.  The drinking starts early, apparently.  That, and the domestic abuse. That’s normal, isn’t it?  What’s this American getting all riled up about?

Monson was also appalled by the Frankenstein stitch-up on his bloodied lip:

“I got 16 stitches on the inside and outside of my lip with a material that could of passed for chicken wire. It was so sharp it was making my gums bleed so I took them out myself,” he said.

Again, the doctors were dismissive:

But the hospital say that everything was perfectly standard and speculate that maybe it was the size of their instruments that gave him a fright, “Maybe, he had been given short-term anesthesia on previous occasions, so he hadn’t seen what size they were,” surgeons suggested to MK.

Anesthesia?  MMF wussie.  Man up, dude.  You’re in Russia now, son.  When we aren’t using these big awls to stitch people up, we repair shoes with them.

If you’ve been following the news, you’ll recognize Monson as the fighter who lost in the fight that Putin attended.  There was booing after the fight, when Putin was in the ring with the fighters.  There’s been a raging controversy whether the booing was directed at VVP.

The problem is, that the excuses intended to refute claims that Putin was the object of the cat calls tend to make regular Russians look bad.  One excuse is that the Russians were booing the battered Monson: this insult to Russian sportsmanship was offered by none other than Putin’s press flack, Dmitry Peskov.  Another, advanced by the Nashi trolls, is that the crowd was, uhm, just pissed.  Figuratively and literally.  Or, maybe it would be more accurate to say that they wanted to be pissing because they were pissed (in another colloquial use of the term):

Soon after the incident Kristina Potupchik, press-secretary for Kremlin youth group Nashi, mocked anyone who thought Putin was being heckled by the angry crowd. “Don’t you recognize a greeting?” She wrote on her Live Journal page.

She later conceded that the calls were scornful ones, but denied they were directed at the prime minister. “The occasional cries of ‘foo’ were caused by the stupid entry and exit system…That’s why some of the 22,000 bladders filled with beer started protesting,” she wrote.

“Foo”?  Really?  She should have said that the audience actually thought that they’d seen Dave Grohl in the crowd.  At least that wouldn’t have made the crowd look like unsportsmanlike boors.

So, just as the emergency room was filled with drunken brawlers, the audience for the actual MMA brawl was another bunch of drunks.

So Mr. Peskov and Ms. Potupchik: Congratulations for making ordinary Russians look so good!  I guess it’s better to slander your countrymen by the gross as drunken bad sports than admit even the possibility that people do not worship unconditionally the New Tsar.

I ask again: just who are the Russophobes?  Here, in one story, Russians in positions of authority–doctors, presidential shills, and “youth group” spokesgal–reflexively slag their fellow Russians as drunken, violent, louts.  Well done!

PS. But apparently some realize that this story hardly makes Russians look good.  I originally saw the story on RiaNovosti.  Then, a couple of hours later, the story wasn’t there.  Now it’s back.

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December 4, 2010

So Long From Wrigley Field, Ron

Filed under: Sports — The Professor @ 5:10 pm

Ron Santo passed away yesterday at age 70.  He was an excellent ballplayer and an inspirational man.

My memories of Santo are anchored in the magical yet ultimately painful 1969 season.  I was at opening day at Wrigley in ’69, and followed the team to the bitter–very bitter–end.  The opening day game seemed an omen.  Ernie Banks hit two homers for the Cubs, only to be answered by two from the Phillies’ Don Money.   The game went into extra innings (the 12th, if memory serves): in the bottom of the last frame, pinch hitter Willie Smith drove a ball to the opposite field–left field.  I was sitting with my mom in the box seats near the Cubs’ bullpen, and watched Smith’s ball sail right past me into the left field bleachers.  This was a feat, because Smith never, ever, hit the ball the other way.  That seemed to portend something special.

Many of my other vivid visual memories of 1969 revolve around Santo.  As the Cubs won in May, June, and July, Santo was ecstatic.  He would click his heels while returning to the clubhouse after every Cubs win.  He was in the on deck circle when the Mets’ fan loosed the black cat onto the field at Shea Stadium.  I remember clearly him screaming in the dugout at hapless Cub centerfielder (there was no other kind in that era) Don Young after Young dropped a routine fly ball in a crucial game–again at Shea Stadium.

Santo should have made the Hall of Fame, but he was denied, year after year.  He was a perennial All Star.  He was a four tool player.  He hit for decent average, he hit for power (averaging 26 homers and 100 RBIs in an eight season stretch during which pitching was dominant), and he was a sparkling fielder with good range and an excellent arm: he won five Gold Gloves.  He lacked speed, to be sure: whenever  any two of Cub players Santo, Banks, or Hickman were on base together, my dad would say, ironically: “Thunder and lightning on the basepaths.”  But third base is a power position, not a speed position.

Yeah, I know the rap against Santo: he didn’t perform at a high level for long enough.  But please, the reason that he didn’t is all the more cause to admit him to the Hall.  Santo suffered from diabetes, diagnosed in 1959.  This at a time when the treatment of diabetes was not highly advanced.  For a guy to perform at such a high level for a decade with such a serious disease–a disease that cost him both his legs later in life–is admirable, and should have been taken into account by Hall voters.

This was also a time when physical conditioning was not nearly as advanced as today.  Now players making huge dollars have their own trainers and nutritionists; and a few years back,  in the cases of sleazes like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire and all the rest, their own performance enhancing chemists.

That wasn’t the case in Santo’s day.  Not by a long shot.  When I was a kid I saw Santo during the offseason working out in an exercise class with ordinary hoi polloi at the Leaning Tower YMCA on Touhy Avenue in Chicago.   There was Santo, in a white t-shirt and baggy gray gym shorts, doing jumping jacks and leg lifts with the usual assortment of Y members.  Yeah, like you’d see that today.

Despite his chronic and devastating physical problems (he had bladder cancer, which eventually killed him, in addition to his diabetes), Santo was an incurable optimist.  If you ever feel sorry for yourself, think of Ron Santo and how he dealt with his adversity and you’ll be a better person.

He also suffered insults with grace.  I remember watching a Fox baseball broadcast of a Cubs-Cards game a few years back.  Santo did a brief appearance with the appalling and annoying Joe Buck, who needled and insulted Santo and the Cubs repeatedly.  Classy performance there, putz.  (Did I mention I despise Joe Buck?  Can you tell?)  But Santo graciously overlooked Buck’s barbs, and focused on the positives of his career and the Cubs’ history.  (Yes, Santo had a temper: he once choked Leo Durocher in an argument in the Cubs’ clubhouse.  Knowing Leo, he probably asked for it.  Buck certainly did, but a mellower Santo restrained himself.)

Santo also endured the annual disappointment of failing election to the Hall of Fame with class.

It’s always sad to see the passing of someone who evokes such vivid memories from one’s youth.  It’s especially sad when that person is a true mensch, which Santo was.  Not to sound all old and curmudgeonly and like one of the Four Yorkshiremen, but there were few of his like in professional sports in his day, and even fewer today.  Santo gave all he had to baseball; would that Major League Baseball had done the same in return.

* After finishing this post, I came across this Chicago Tribune article listing the top 10 Santo memories–which include all of the ones I related above; the heel clicking, the black cat, Don Young, and the Leo choking incident.

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July 9, 2010

Trading Places*

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia,Sports — The Professor @ 1:40 pm

Two major trades took place yesterday: the Russian-US spy exchange, and Lebron James’s trading Cleveland for Miami.

The haste with which the Russian spy episode ended is unsettling.  The rapidity with which the swap was arranged was a clear exception to historical practice.

Merely from an intelligence angle, it would be desirable to squeeze as much information from the ten individuals as possible.  That can’t happen overnight.  Reports are that the FBI is confident that they know all there is to know about this group and its connections.  But you don’t know what you don’t know; prudence would recommend a more thorough probing.  You have to ask questions.  Do the spadework to see if the answers add up.  If not, keep at it.  But it takes time to ask enough questions and investigate enough answers to determine whether you’ve squeezed out all the information you can.  And it may take a while in incarceration to convince people that their best interests are to cooperate completely.

Moreover, just keeping these people awhile would make some folks in Moscow nervous.   That could lead them to back off on other heretofore undiscovered operations out of fear that they have been compromised, or make a move that could lead to the disclosure of such an operation.  Not likely, but a possibility.

Moreover, the trade ratio–10 for 4, where the 4 includes one guy who is arguably innocent of espionage, and is certainly completely different from the illegals captured in the US–looks imbalanced.  The haste, the imbalance, and the palpable embarrassment of the administration (especially the State Department) that has been evident since the story broke, make the release look all too much like an apology.  This validates the Russian whines that they are the injured party.  I’ll bet dimes to donuts that that’s the way it is portrayed in Russia as soon as the 10 hit the Motherland.

You can bet that Putin in particular is snickering.  You know what he would do if he had been in our position.  He would have squeezed it for all it was worth.  He certainly wouldn’t be taking actions to let us save face, as we are clearly doing with the Russians.  He wouldn’t trying to get this “behind us” quickly: he’d be milking it.  This will only enhance the disdain he has for Obama.

It is evident that the “Reset” trumps all.  But if this is supposed to be a two way street, there should be some reciprocity in behavior.  The continued operation of an aggressive group of illegals hardly screams a changed Russian attitude.  And the “no harm, no foul” attitude taken by the US, and the clear anxiousness in the US to brush aside the episode will no doubt convince some Russian decision makers to conclude “if they let us get away with this in order to preserve the reset, what else can we get away with?”  The US approach communicates a certain neediness, a certain desperation to improve relations.  That’s how chumps negotiate.  And the Russians are nothing if not ruthless in exploiting chumps.

I’m not suggesting that a hysterical public campaign (a la Russia after the British spy rock in the park episode) is necessary; an extended period of public silence on the issue while the individuals remain in custody would communicate that although improved relations are desired, not everything will be tolerated to achieve that end.  That would make a true improvement of relations more likely than indulging the bad behavior of your desired interlocutor.

Moving to the other (more trivial) trade of places, I should say at the outset that my once intense interest in pro basketball waned, and dramatically, after Jordan’s retirement.  As a result, I really couldn’t care less about Lebron James.  Indeed, at the risk of sounding like a sports curmudgeon, the whole James phenomenon is emblematic of the reasons why I can’t take most pro sports that seriously anymore.

The one thing that did catch my interest (while watching Sports Center on the elliptical this morning) was Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert’s outraged reaction to the James departure.  His response screams cognitive dissonance.   He considers James’s bolting for Miami a betrayal, and he clearly was willing to pay James as much as allowed under the rules to keep him.  But at the same time, he blasted James for his narcissism.  (A narcissistic NBA player?  What IS the world coming to?)  He also made the rather inflammatory charge that James was a cancer (my word but a fair summary of how Gilbert described him) who quit in all but one game of the Conference Finals against the Celtics.  So, if he’s a cancer, and a quitter who fails during the critical games (something that could never be said of Jordan, or Kobe Bryant, for that matter), why would you want him on your team? Why would you offer him huge money?  Why would you consider it a betrayal for him to go elsewhere?  Why not celebrate the selfish decision of someone you consider a jerk to take his “curse” somewhere else, and say “good riddance”?

In a way, Gilbert’s reaction is symptomatic of why the NBA has devolved in the way it has.  Marquee players are necessary to win, but not sufficient.  Marquee players are, for the most part, insufferable jerks.  Understandably so, but insufferable jerks nonetheless.  So, no doubt Gilbert is not alone in having a love-hate attitude towards superstars.  It’s just rather interesting to see the show-the-love-show-the-hate sides of this attitude in such close proximity–and in public.

* H/T Renee for her idea to pair these stories in a single post under this title.

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May 18, 2010

What Do You Expect for $7 Mil? Hustle? Are You Kidding Me? Hustle is for Chumps.

Filed under: Sports — The Professor @ 5:48 pm

Florida shortstop Hanley Ramirez booted a blooper into the left field corner yesterday, and then ambled after it while three Philadelphia runners were definitely not ambling around the basepath.  (Video here.)

Ramirez’s manager, Fredi Gonzalez yanked him, and chewed him out in the dugout.  Unbelievably, Ramirez is fuming.  He refuses to admit he was dogging it, and refuses to apologize.  He takes the “N wrongs make a right” approach, claiming that since other players don’t apologize for not running out grounders, why should he apologize?  Great to see your “star” players (Ramirez led the league in batting last year) lead by example.

What I wouldn’t pay to have seen Leo Durocher come back to life, and greet Ramirez when he came back to the dugout–if he even waited for Ramirez to get to the dugout.  Leo would have unscrewed Ramirez’s head.  I leave it to your imagination as to what Leo would have done next.  Probably something like this (forward to about the 1:08 mark).  (WARNING! Extreme language.  And I mean extreme.)

Billy Martin, too.  That would be good.

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April 18, 2010

Throwing Like a Girl: An Update

Filed under: Politics,Sports — The Professor @ 9:16 pm

I was watching the tube with one eye a couple of days back, when an Obama PSA came on.  He was exhorting men to “be a dad.”  I’m all for that.  No arguments here.  But what I found humorous and interesting, in light of his pitching performance, was the first item in his exempli gratia: “Play catch.”  That was either ironic, or Freudian.

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April 7, 2010

A Poser Who “Throws Like a Girl”* (Updated)

Filed under: Politics,Sports — The Professor @ 1:50 pm

After doing his Rip Sewell/Bill “Spaceman” Lee imitation at the Washington National’s home opener while wearing a White Sox cap, Obama was asked about his favorite White Sox players:

BHO: You know, uh… I… thought that, uh… you know, the truth is that a lot of the Cubs I like too. But I did not become a Sox fan until I moved to Chicago. Because I, uh… I was growin’ up in Hawaii. So I’ve actually been an Oakland As fan. But, when I moved to Chicago, I was livin’ close to what was then Kaminsky Park, right? And went to a couple of games, and fell in love, and the nice thing about the Sox is it’s real blue-collar baseball. You know, we always tease about the Cubs, they, you know they’re up at Wrigley… sippin’ wine, playin’ those day games, they’re havin’ a good time…

Note he couldn’t actually name any White Sox players, any “blue collar” heroes, past or present.  What’s more, note the rationale for claiming allegiance to the Sox. This simultaneously pegs the lame-o-meter and the pose-o-meter.

As a third-generation Cubs fan, I can say that yes, particularly beginning in the 1980s, the Cubs were widely perceived as the team of the upscale, the yuppies, the corporate crowd.  This reputation is deserved: when I went with my Dad to a Cubs game a couple of years ago (a loss, of course) it bugged both of us no end that (a) the tickets were extremely expensive, (b) most of the fans who paid these prices weren’t paying the slightest attention to the game, and (c) those that were had no clue as to what was going on (e.g., yelling on routine fly balls as if they were about to rocket onto Waveland or Sheffield).  For most of the crowd, it was a social event, conspicuous consumption, rather than an athletic contest.  (Yes, I am becoming a sports curmudgeon.)

The Sox are the anti-Cubs.  Just as there are legit Cubs fans, there are legit Sox fans whose allegiance is not chosen as a social statement.  But those who want to identify themselves as more urban, more hip, will sometimes choose to become Sox fans–or affect being Sox fans.  For such people, wearing Sox gear is an affectation, an advertisement, a statement (“I’m an edgy urbanite, not a gauche suburbanite”). (The Sox have consciously played to this, e.g., the black caps/uniforms.)

Obama is quite clearly such a person, and he all but admits it in what I quoted above.  The whole Obama White Sox thing is just another piece of a persona, deliberately chosen to convey an image, a perception.  It is, in other words, quintessential Obama.

As is his rationalization for his performance:

The president suggested his accuracy would have improved with a longer outing.“If I had a whole inning, I’m telling you, I would have cleaned up,” he quipped.

Would it kill him to admit “Well, I just suck at baseball”?  Is he so invested in his own ego that he has to be great at everything? I know that politicians are narcissists, but this guy is off the charts.

Update.  John Kass at the Tribune takes a few gentle whacks.

* This is the characterization of my elder daughter, a pretty good softball pitcher (wicked drop, especially), who quite definitely does not throw like a Barack Obama (as demonstrated by the swollen index finger on my glove hand, every spring and summer, from about the time she was 11.)

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January 11, 2010

I Went to a Fight, and a Hockey Game Broke Out

Filed under: Russia,Sports — The Professor @ 8:50 pm

That was a gag from the ’70s, when fighting–and bench clearing brawls–were common sights at NHL games.  That was the decade of the Broad Street Bullies, and goon squads.

Things have sure changed.  The third man in rule, rule and rule enforcement changes designed to make the game faster and more exciting, and perhaps most importantly, the influx of European, and most especially, Russian players into the NHL have transformed the game.  Yes, there are still fights, but you go to a NHL hockey game now to see end-to-end action, finesse, and speed (the hallmarks of Soviet hockey at its zenith) rather than fisticuffs.

It is more than a little ironic, then, to read this (3 pix at the link):

Ice hockey-Russian clubs handed heavy fines after mass brawl

. . . .

Officials had no choice but to cancel the contest because the teams did not have enough players left to continue the game.

It was the first time a Russian hockey game has been called off due to a mass brawl.

Vityaz were fined four million rubles ($133,300) and warned they would be thrown out of the league if there were a similar incident while Siberian team Avangard escaped with a one-million ruble fine, the KHL said on their website (www.khl.ru).

The league also fined four players, Canadians Darsy Verot and Brandon Sugden from Vityaz and Avangard’s Russian pair Alexander Svitov and Dmitry Vlasenkov, 150,000 rubles each.

In addition, seven players — Vlasenkov and six from Vityaz, including both Verot and Sugden — received one-game suspensions and each club was awarded a 5-0 defeat.

Verot instigated the mass brawl after three minutes of play by firing the puck at an opposing player. The referees restarted the match after handing appropriate penalties but were forced to stop it again when another fight erupted a few seconds later.

This time, the match had to be abandoned after officials handed a record 691 penalty minutes to both sides.

691 penalty minutes.  Takes me back.  Dave “The Hammer” Schultz must be smiling.

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October 2, 2009

Punked

Filed under: Politics,Sports — The Professor @ 12:04 pm

On the Olympic announcement, I’ll let Lexington Green at Chicago Boyz speak for me: I can only second virtually everything he says.  And besides, I don’t have time to write much ‘cuz I have to run to the airport–for a flight to Chicago, ironically, to see the Smoking Popes in concert with #1 daughter.

It will be interesting to observe the mood.  My guess is that it will be like the GNP Financial Trading room the day of the Crash, 19 October, 1987–half the people despondent, half overjoyed.

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July 3, 2008

National Pride–Built on a Foundation of Quicksand

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia,Sports — The Professor @ 12:52 am

Russians can indeed be proud of their recent sports accomplishments, with their victory in the World Hockey Championship and their stellar performance in Euro 2008; a friend tells me that the latter was a unifying experience, with the nation cheering in unison–literally–during and after the early-morning victory over Holland.

The achievements on the ice and the football field are feeding an already burgeoning sense of national accomplishment; a sense that the humiliations of the past are over, and that the future is Russia’s for the taking. This sentiment manifests itself in myriad ways, most notably in geopolitics. Russia is putting extreme pressure on some neighbors, notably the Baltic states and Georgia, and more subtle (but intense nonetheless) pressure on others, notably Ukraine, the Central Asian states, and even Mongolia. Medvedev and Lavrov are also pronouncing on the need for a new international political and economic architecture that will raise Russia’s profile and diminish that of the US, and to a lesser degree, the EU. (This can be seen as just another Russian divide-and-conquer/disaggregation play.) Russia is also taking a bold line with the Europeans, who are never very solid in the best of times, and who are distracted and perhaps even teetering on the brink of chaos in the aftermath of the Irish vote on the Madrid Treaty. The US is constrained by the disarray of its European allies, the continuing (though dramatically improving) situation in Iraq; economic woes; divisive partisanship; and the upcoming elections. As a result, Russian aggressiveness and revanchism are facing only feeble opposition. No wonder that Putin and the siloviki feel emboldened.

But it is necessary to take the longer view. When one does so, it is evident that Russia’s current advances are powered by high energy prices and built on a foundation of quicksand, and hence are unlikely to persist long into the future. Russia suffers from several debilitating structural weaknesses, some of which I have touched on in SWP before, but which are worth remembering.

Three such weaknesses are readily apparent: institutions, demographics, and infrastructure.

Russia’s weak institutions are well known. Headline events, such as Yukos, or Sakhalin, or as of late, BP-TNK provide spectacular illustrations of the precarious state of property rights. It is widely acknowledged–by Russians and outsiders both–that corruption is worse today than even during the 90s–perhaps by an order of magnitude. Even President Medvedev acknowledges the “legal nihilism” of his country.

But this article describing a Levada Center poll shows how deep the institutional rot is in Russia, and how it affects not just foreigners or out-of-favor oligarchs, but every Russian. According to the poll, about half of the Russian middle class contemplates emigration, primarily because of their palpable sense of vulnerability to the predations of the state:

Only 13 percent of those polled by Levada Center agreed with the statement that Russia had entered a period of protracted stability, while 59 percent said the situation could change for the worse at any moment. Around 76 percent of those polled said that they could not protect themselves from the arbitrary actions of the authorities, in particular the police, and around 65 percent said they were not sure that they could protect their rights and interests in court.

“Despite the fact that Russians are not delighted by this situation, it appears that they have resigned themselves to it,” wrote Nezavisimaya gazeta. “Many of the respondents believe that they cannot influence the political processes in the country and are prepared to use dishonest and unlawful means for the resolution of conflicts and problems. The readiness to give bribes and to use personal contacts is very high within the Russian middle class.” Indeed, around half of the respondents in Levada Center polls have said that if they were falsely accused of not paying taxes, it would be better to use bribes to resolve the problem than to take it to court. The respondents indicated that they were prepared to act similarly in more “neutral” situations. For example,
59 percent said that they would pay for medical services, which in theory are provided at no cost. . . .

Asked why they were considering leaving Russia, 86 percent cited the desire to get a greater guarantee for a stable and safe future; 79 percent cited a desire to live under conditions in which the rule of law, rights and freedom prevailed;
69 percent cited the desire to avoid governmental lawlessness; and 83 percent cited the desire to enjoy better and more comfortable living conditions.
According to Nezavisimaya gazeta, the Levada Center’s researchers believe that the high level of desire to leave Russia is evidence of serious social malaise.

“The central feature of the consciousness of the middle class is a feeling of the in-betweenness [sic] of its own existence and a radical collision of the way of life with the way of thinking,” Dubin told Nezavisimaya gazeta. He added that without radical changes in society, the prospects for Russia’s middle class to grow and transform into a wide and stable social stratum seem doubtful (Nezavisimaya gazeta, June 27).

By design, the poll focused on those most likely to have thrived as a result of Russia’s economic rebound. Even among this restricted sample, the effects of institutional weakness are manifest. This is hardly conducive to the formation of trust and social capital that facilitates exchange and investment in human or physical capital. This bodes ill for Russian growth.

The fears expressed in the poll are anything but groundless. This article from the Guardian details the practice of corporate raiding a la Russe, which puts a whole new meaning on the phrase “hostile takeover.” Through a combination of force and fraud, often abetted by–or committed by–corrupt state organs, the raiders confiscate the assets of successful firms that attract their attention, often leaving the firm’s owner in jail. This is a tax on success and capital (accumulate no capital–no risk of expropriation!), and it is well known that capital taxes are extremely detrimental to growth. Now, this tax is not paid with certainty; not all successful entrepreneurs are subjected to the tender mercies of these latter-day Mongol hordes. Instead, it is, well, a Russian Roulette tax; you lose everything with some non-trivial probability. Again, hardly conducive to encouraging small business growth. (Another reason, perhaps, that small business formation in Russia is notoriously low.)

Need more evidence? Consider this Business Week piece describing the results of a poll conducted by my friend Sergei Guriev and Igor Fayukin, his colleague at the New Economic School:

The study’s participants believe “the lack of political competition and restrictions on political, economic and personal freedoms” are “a serious problem for the country.” The vast majority are concerned about Russia’s declining population, but also see corruption, the lack of an independent and effective judiciary and a disregard for citizens’ rights by the authorities as the leading challenges in the near future.”

Executives think the solution to corruption and state inefficiency can be found through “broader political change in the country.” One respondent said that the situationrequires the “liberalization of civil society, a reduction of barriers for business, and the modernization of government institutions in accordance with the aspirations and business and civil society.”

“In the eyes of many, the current problems are connected with the low level of competition in the country,” the study’s authors write. Another of their respondents thought what is needed is “more competition, a fight against the fusion of government and business and against monopolization.”

One might argue that other nations–notably China–have weak institutions as compared to the US and Europe, but have prospered in recent years. There appears to me to be a significant difference between China and Russia, however. China is ruled by what Mancur Olson called “stationary bandits.” Yeah, the Chinese bureaucrats and party elite steal, but they are sufficiently confident in the security of their positions that they take a relatively long view, and discipline their short run rapacity to increase their long run take; due to the security of their tenure, China’s new mandarins have an incentive to encourage growth. Russia in the 90s was beset by roving bandits, who knew that their long run prospects were dim, so they took everything they could, the future be damned. Things are a little better now (this is one of the wages of Putinesque “stability”), but as the raiding and confiscations and widespread sense of personal insecurity before the agents of the state demonstrate, roving banditry and short termism are still rife in Russia. (An example: it has been mooted that one source of conflict between BP and the Russian partners in TNK is that the latter want to maximize the short term revenues from the company’s properties, whereas the former wants to use techniques to conserve the oil reservoirs in order to maximize their long run potential.) Another potential difference is that Chinese businessmen have been more successful at organizing to advance their interests, whereas the atomization of Russian society has prevented the coalescence of any corporate resistance to the state’s predations.

With regards to demographics, although the government has crowed about increased birth rates, the overall picture is still grim. According to a recent report by the Russian State Statistical Service as reported in ITAR-TASS, Russia’s permanent population fell .07 percent in the first 4 months of 2008, corresponding to a .21 percent annual decrease. Although this figure is lower than the .5 percent decrease experienced throughout the 1990s and early-2000s, it is still hardly a sign of a healthy country. Indeed, immigration has cushioned the effect of continuing low birth rates and high death rates: “In the first four months of the year, the statistics service reported 547,100 births and 725,200 deaths, Prime Tass said.” Although the birth rate is up slightly, so is the death rate. And, as is widely understood, a good portion of the increased birthrate is a demographic fluke as the last large generation of Russian women is reaching childbearing age. Although the statistics do not say this explicitly, it should also be recognized that the educational and skill level of most of the immigrants and a disproportionate number of the childbearing families is below that of those dying–because immigrants and those having children are disproportionately from the more backward regions of the former-USSR and the more backward regions of Russia. Some baby boom. Some demographic rebound; more like a dead cat bounce.

Russia’s infrastructure woes are also widely acknowledged. I can’t find the cite (probably JRL), but I remember reading that the mileage (kilometerage?) of paved roads in Russia has actually declined in recent years. It is widely recognized that the railroad system is in desperate need of maintenance and expansion. In a country as large as Russia, infrastructure is crucial.

Of course, the government has announced grandiose plans to improve Russian infrastructure. The challenge is translating those airy promises into economically productive investment. The institutional deficit is one obstacle to achieving anything substantive; large infrastructure projects are especially vulnerable to corruption that inflates costs, not just in Russia, but in Russia the problem will be especially daunting. Moreover, the Edifice Complex and political considerations tend to divert too many resources to “prestige” projects and megadevelopments; the Sochi Olympics and the fantastical plans for a tunnel between Siberia and Alaska being conspicuous examples. Russian tendencies towards giganticism and the above-noted Russian desire to proclaim Russia’s resurgence in blingy ways will only exacerbate these problems. My prediction?: Infrastructure spending will indeed expand, but the social return on this investment will be very low. The private return–to those feeding at the trough–will be high indeed.

Other problems abound, but many fit comfortably in the categories just defined. Health care and public health are appalling in Russia, for instance, but this is really one of the sources of the demographic meltdown described above, and the intransigence of the problem reflects Russia’s institutional deficit.

So, to repeat old themes: Russia is never as strong as she looks, and her current strengths and successes are likely to be transitory as the institutional, demographic, and economic foundations for long run success are decrepit; the bleak long run prospects arguably contribute to the short term focus that characterizes Russian business and government; Russian aggressiveness is fueled by remarkable events in the commodities markets, the volatility of which make a very tenuous basis for long term success; and, in the end, no amount of chest thumping or prestige projects today will defer indefinitely a very painful future crash.

Russia would be much better served by a focus inwards on its pressing structural problems rather than by its current attempts to achieve some simulacrum of great power status. Not going to happen, unfortunately. And given that, Europe in particular should recognize Russia’s debilitating and deep seated weaknesses, and abandon its cringing and pusillanimous posture towards its eastern neighbor. This only feeds Russia’s presumptions and enables its dysfunctional political and economic culture.

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