I’ve written a little on Russian demographics in the past, usually drawing a retort from DR/Sublime Oblivion. DR (Anatoly Karlin) has written a long piece where he takes issue with the conventional wisdom that Russia is a dying nation in a downward demographic spiral. I’m not a demographer, so I can’t present a professional demographer’s review, but I am a social scientist, so can make a few reasoned points on DR’s analysis.
First, overall, what DR has written is a useful summary that emphasizes some things that deserve consideration. Reading it has raised some questions in my mind about the conventional wisdom (which I am always somewhat skeptical about, being especially dubious of consensus science.) The analysis of fertility is more thorough, and more convincing than that of mortality, by far, and does provide some reason to believe that the exceedingly black portrayal of Russian birth trends is overdone.
Second, that said, I come away mostly unconvinced. That is, I think that although DR’s argument that the pessimism is overdone is supportable, it’s a long way from there to any real optimism about Russia’s demographic future, especially in light of the economic crisis.
A few key points:
- A good deal of DR’s analysis involves pointing out that compared to European and Japanese fertility, Russia doesn’t look that bad. Well, since it is well understood that European and Japanese fertility are pretty appalling, that’s very cold comfort indeed. DR says “Russia is becoming part of the rest of Europe with respect to ideas about ideal family size.” That’s the good news? The European example is hardly worth emulation.
- Even by these comparisons, Russia doesn’t do that well. The total fertility rate is at the bottom of the list of countries included in his figures. Ditto for net female reproduction. (His discussion of NFR below the graph is very hard to follow, and doesn’t seem to match up with the evidence in the graph.)
- What DR touts as the most accurate measure of long term fertility, the average birth sequence (ABS) does not provide tremendous evidence that a corner has been turned, as DR suggests. The measure showed little variation, and certainly no systematic improvement in the post-1998 period. There is a noticeable uptick in 2007. But one year doth not a trend make. Especially given that underlying circumstances have changed dramatically for the worse in late-2008 and 2009. I also note that there is no comparison between this measure in Russia and other countries, whereas there is such a comparison for the other measures of fertility. This raises questions in my mind. Why compare TFR and NFR across countries, but not ABS?
- Not surprising to those who have read DR’s comments here on SWP, his treatment of Russia’s appalling adult male mortality is cavalier, not to say amoral. “Excessive mortality also disproportionately affects poorer, badly-educated people.” “It is true that poor health lowers productivity, although by curbing aging it also relieves pressure on pensions.” Gee, I thought the reason for pensions was so that people could live good lives into old age. That is, pensions are for people, but DR seems to argue that people are for pensions.
- These facts remain: (a) if people die at greater rates than they are born, population will decline; (b) Russian death rates are so much higher than the corresponding rates in Europe, Japan, the US and Canada that the “productivity effect” is large (gliding over whether the value of lives should be measured by production); (c) early death, poverty, and lack of education are all affected by individual choices, and nations in which far larger numbers of individuals choose behaviors that increase their odds of dying young and poor must be providing perverse incentives for people to engage in those behaviors–unless DR wants to make some cultural/racial based argument that it’s something inherently Russian.
- DR has to squint very hard to put Russian infant mortality of 8.5/1000 “close to developed world standards of 3-7/1000.” The latter is a very wide range, and the Russian rate is still 20 percent above the highest of that range. It would also be worthwhile to present statistics on mortality before 5, rates of abandonment/orphaning/fostering.
- DR asserts that high male death rates have “little direct effects on fertility” because “men don’t reproduce.” This is a very reductive analysis that elevates a biological fact into a demographic conclusion, thereby ignoring economic aspects of fertility. Women’s decisions to have children will depend in large part on their assessment of their future life prospects. A large risk that the father of their children will die prematurely, often of a behavioral choice that also tends to reduce earning potential, will affect decisions to marry, and decisions about fertility, and not for the better. Maybe DR is right, and playing Russian husband roulette doesn’t affect fertility. But it is only an unsupported assertion/hypothesis. He would be better served by investigating that hypothesis, or presenting evidence in support of it.
DR’s main basis for demographic optimism is based on a hopeful interpretation of survey evidence, and a projection of economic optimism about Russia’s future. In a nutshell, he argues that survey evidence shows that Russians would desire, under optimal economic circumstances, to have about 2.5 children per family. Actual birth rates have been lower, due to seriously suboptimal economic circumstances. But “after a long period of disillusionment, at the end of 2006 more people began to believe that Russia was moving in a positive than in a negative direction.” Economic circumstances are improving, and are expected to improve further. As a result (although DR caveats this linkage between the 2007 uptick in TFR/ABS and renewed optimism), it can be expected that Russian fertility will rise as economic conditions will allow the closing of the gap between actual and desired family size. This will lead to an avoidance of demographic implosion.
This is a conclusion based essentially on one year’s increase in TFR and ABS. Again, one year doth not a trend make. I would emphasize that the ABS numbers DR reports show no trend at all during the period of time when the Russian economy was growing rapidly. It declined even in 2006. In 2007 it did rise sharply. That is a very weak basis for a conclusion that improved economic circumstances will lead to substantial fertility changes.
DR dismisses the possibility that the current economic crisis will undermine this budding confidence, and slow or reverse the 2007 uptick. Although he acknowledges that the 2008-2009 collapse was sharper than the 1998 one, he takes comfort in the fact that “both state and society have much bigger surpluses to fall back on during the lean times. As a result, the probability that the crisis will have a significant longterm effect on Russian fertility is extremely low.”
Again an assertion, and a highly dubious one. The state surplus is being exhausted rapidly. Don’t believe me? Ask Kudrin. Moreover, the surplus is being used to support current consumption and social programs, not to mention the military, and desperately needed long term investments in things like infrastructure are being slashed. This will not provide the foundation for robust, organic growth not driven by resource rents.
More tellingly, the crisis is still in its very early stages. Unemployment is rising rapidly. Importantly, individual incomes and wages are falling rapidly after years of rather heady growth. There is an appreciable probability that, as Kudrin himself states, that the economic malaise will be severe and protracted. This would not be favorable for continued improvements in fertility.
Regardless, the crisis gives the lie to the very narrative of stability and a boundless future upon to which DR attributes the turning of the demographic corner in 2006-2007. Not to go all Gary Becker on you, but viewing childbearing as an investment, and recognizing that people tend to defer investment when uncertainty rises dramatically, I think it is overoptimistic of DR to dismiss so blithely the potential impact of the economic crisis on fertility (and on mortality, for that matter). Even if Kudrin’s forecast is unduly gloomy, people will now know that economic risk has not gone away, and even in good economic times, things can turn bad with a vengeance. We’re certainly learning that in the US. Given the much more tenuous basis of optimism in Russia, and its tumultuous social, economic, and political history, it would be understandable if the crisis has long term effects on fertility through (a) the persistence of the crisis itself, and (b) its effect on Russians’ perceptions of economic risk.
These are hypotheses, I grant. But that’s all DR can really offer in support of his optimism. Put differently, he has a story, and one data point (2007) to support it. That does not make an extremely convincing case.
That’s why I’m not convinced. Plausible economic scenarios–arguably more plausible than DR’s rosy one–the recognition of the possibility that 2007 may be an outlier, rather than a harbinger of a sea change in behavior, and a more thorough analysis of the economic underpinnings of fertility continue to make me far more skeptical of Russia’s demographic future.