Streetwise Professor

October 28, 2008

Nick Eberstadt is Not a Long Wolf*

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:24 pm

DR was quite critical of Nicholas Eberstadt’s objectivity in one of his comments on Human Capital. DR has a detailed rebuttal to demographic doomsaying at his blog, and I encourage those interested to take a look at that, and make up their own minds.

But Eberstadt is not alone. As if on cue, Paul Goble summarizes several articles from Russian sources quoting Russian experts’ gloomy demographic predictions:

The financial crisis in the Russian Federation has pushed up the already high rates of mortality from heart and circulatory diseases there to third world levels, according to medical experts. And that development combined with other trends likely makes the demographic future of Russia even bleaker than had been thought.

Yevgeny Chazov, one of Russia’s senior specialists on heart disease, told a Duma hearing that “as a result of the difficult psycho-social circumstances” and “stress” from “instability in the country, ” 1.3 million people – 56 percent of the total number of deaths there – now die from heart disease (www.newizv.ru/news/2008-10-28/100653/).

At the hearing, other experts pointed out that Russia now has a mortality rate – 14.6 per thousand per year – that puts it “in one rank with the countries of Central Africa,” a situation that means “one in every three” Russians will die before reaching pension age and that both the size of the workforce and the overall population of the country will continue to decline.
But if many speakers blamed the financial crisis or personal behavioral choices like smoking or alcohol consumption, one, Aleksandr Baranov, the vice president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, was prepared to blame the Russian government. Medical science knows “how to lower mortality,” he said, “but we haven’t received an order from the powers that be.”

In a survey of expert opinion on this subject in advance of the Duma hearing, the Moscow newspaper “Trud” concluded that “the demographic situation [in Russia] over the next few years will only get worse,” although it cautioned that no one should blame the financial crisis for falling birthrates (www.trud.ru/issue/article.php?id=200810242010802).

Sergey Sakharov, the deputy director of the Moscow Institute of Demography at the Higher School of Economics, said that the small positive gains in fertility over the last few years are going to slow or even be reversed soon. And Igor Beloborodov said that the situation will become “worse.”

The recent small improvement in the birthrate “is not connected with economic stimuli,” Kirill Danishevsky of the Open Health Institute said. And any decline will not be entirely the result of such stimuli in the opposite direction because decisions about having children are made over a longer period of time.

But neither he nor the other experts with whom “Trud” spoke were prepared to “exclude the influence of the [current financial and economic] crisis on fertility,” although all of them insisted that it was unlikely to be “decisive” in changing the basic downward trend lines observed over most of the last two decades.

There is one thing that could help improve both fertility and mortality rates, Danishevsky said. If Russians were to drink less as a result of the crisis, even cutting consumption by one liter of pure alcohol per year, that alone would reduce mortality by three to five percent, a more significant achievement than any the Russian government has had since Soviet times.

The one paragraph that stands out in my mind is this one:

But if many speakers blamed the financial crisis or personal behavioral choices like smoking or alcohol consumption, one, Aleksandr Baranov, the vice president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, was prepared to blame the Russian government. Medical science knows “how to lower mortality,” he said, “but we haven’t received an order from the powers that be.”

One can see the essential role of “the powers that be” in implementing public health measures to control communicable diseases (e.g., TB, HIV/AIDS). But for lifestyle diseases like heart disease, and those associated with smoking and alcohol consumption, beyond education the potential contribution of government is minimal. These are effectively diseases of personal choice, and people have to make different choices to reduce mortality from them. With respect to alcohol in particular, Russian experience with government intervention has usually been disastrous and counterproductive, (as, I would argue, has been the war on drugs in the US.) (As an aside, Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign had little effect on alcohol consumption, mainly inducing substitution to far more dangerous forms of the stuff, and putting a major crimp in the state budget at the same time due to a fall in profits from state vodka sales. Anybody have ready access to data on the RF’s current revenues from alcohol sales and taxes?)

The waiting for a signal from on high is a telling cultural detail.

I should say that any attribution of mortality trends to the financial crisis at this time is highly speculative and premature. Hell, the crisis is a couple of months old, at best. Methinks that it is a convenient smokescreen behind which concerned demographers can deliver their bad news. These trends have been developing for years. Certainly the prospect of economic difficulty does not bode well for reversing these trends, and may worsen them, but they were widely recognized even during a period of substantial growth, and indeed were stubbornly persistent during that period.

But, another country heard from. And in this case, that country is the one in question. Can’t pin this one on the AEI.

* This is a reference to an unintentionally hilarious comment to Misery Loves Company. The initial comment from David accuses me of being bought-and-paid-for by a cabal of Russophobes (including demonic oil companies). My old buddy Dave then accuses me of lying after I responded to his first comment, then after my subsequent reply relents and concedes that I might be a “Long wolf.” Whatever that is. Is English not your first language, David, or are you just another living testament to American public education?

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3 Comments »

  1. I can only describe Goble’s article as a pile of verbal diarrhea.

    “The financial crisis in the Russian Federation has pushed up the already high rates of mortality from heart and circulatory diseases there to third world levels, according to medical experts.”

    This sentence is wrong on so many levels. Let’s try to count them.

    1. In Third World countries, mortality from heart/circulatory diseases is typically lower than in industrialized nations (since there are few older people and the population continues dying from infectious diseases, particularly in early ages).

    2. The RF has had one of the world’s highest levels of mortality from heart/circulatory diseases SINCE AT LEAST the 1980’s!

    3. How the financial crisis figures into this I have no idea, considering that it only became visible about a month ago, has not affected the vast majority of Russians and in any case is based purely on the author’s imagination or conjecture since the latest Rosstat stats are for August 2008 (incidentally, total mortality rates have remained about unchanged from 2007 in 2008. But the years 2005-2007 saw big improvements.)

    “Yevgeny Chazov, one of Russia’s senior specialists on heart disease, told a Duma hearing that “as a result of the difficult psycho-social circumstances” and “stress” from “instability in the country, “ 1.3 million people – 56 percent of the total number of deaths there – now die from heart disease”

    As has been the case for the past, well, 20 years. And the pattern of mortality (tilted towards heart disease) has been this way ever since the epidemiological revolution from 1930-50.

    “But if many speakers blamed the financial crisis or personal behavioral choices like smoking or alcohol consumption, one, Aleksandr Baranov, the vice president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, was prepared to blame the Russian government. Medical science knows “how to lower mortality,” he said, “but we haven’t received an order from the powers that be.””

    There is a lot of investment in newly-equipped hospitals and clinics. The health care situation while for obvious reasons not up to Western standards is a lot better than in virtually any developing country (e.g. the 8.9/1000 infant mortality rate which doesn’t compare badly with the US 7/1000). Baranov either lives under a rock or wants to score rhetorical points. The financial crisis is irrelevant. Excessive alcohol consumption contributes to around 1/3 of all deaths.

    “With respect to alcohol in particular, Russian experience with government intervention has usually been disastrous and counterproductive, (as, I would argue, has been the war on drugs in the US.)”

    Finally we agree on something :) Legalize all drugs.

    “(As an aside, Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign had little effect on alcohol consumption, mainly inducing substitution to far more dangerous forms of the stuff, and putting a major crimp in the state budget at the same time due to a fall in profits from state vodka sales. Anybody have ready access to data on the RF’s current revenues from alcohol sales and taxes?)”

    Since there is no vodka monopoly and vodka prices are very cheap, revenues from alcohol sales are going to be negligible.

    It’s not exactly accurate about Gorbachev, BTW. The program was quite effective in the first 2-3 years and things like public drunkenness declined greatly. And mortality rates fell very noticeable. Just because there were substitutes didn’t mean that everyone felt inclined to go the extra and riskier route of taking advantage of them. Unfortunately enforcement lightened and lapsed, and the main reason was popular anger.

    “I should say that any attribution of mortality trends to the financial crisis at this time is highly speculative and premature. Hell, the crisis is a couple of months old, at best. Methinks that it is a convenient smokescreen behind which concerned demographers can deliver their bad news. These trends have been developing for years. Certainly the prospect of economic difficulty does not bode well for reversing these trends, and may worsen them, but they were widely recognized even during a period of substantial growth, and indeed were stubbornly persistent during that period.”

    No, this is well known to the leadership. Putin mentions this in practically every new year resolutions speech. The smokescreen idea is a figment of Goble’s/your imagination.

    The main point is not the economy, but the food/alcohol price ratio. For instance, mortality rates improved substantially in the 1985-88 (stagnation) and 1994-97 periods (continuing collapse), which both saw alcohol becoming relatively less well affordable. Although, in recent years this correlation has lessened (probably due to greater incomes and switches to beer-drinking) – although 2008 has seen record food price inflation (and thus vodka became relatively much more affordable), mortality has remained unchanged from 2007.

    Comment by Da Russophile — October 30, 2008 @ 2:40 am

  2. Let’s try to count the source material citations given by “Da Russophile to document his claims: Zero.

    Well, that was easy.’

    Can diarrhea make a “pile” in DR’s world? Guess, stool makes a puddle then, huh? Seems like he lives in bizarroworld — or maybe it’s just Russia.

    Comment by La Russophobe — October 30, 2008 @ 5:16 pm

  3. LR,

    I do not see the point of citing sources for material which in its majority is confirmable by a quick Google search – should you want to dispute anyone of it instead of troll and smear, as is your usual style, you’re more than welcome to call me on it and I will provide the evidence (or be forced to retract the statement). If you look, SWP’s analysis of Paul Goble’s work does not have citations either, nor do the majority of his posts. And quite rightly so, because this is not academic research.

    Further, I would also conjecture that your pedantic insistence on citation shines some light on the nature of your own blog – so devoid of any rational, objective analysis, you try to hide your stark nudity behind a fig-leaf…nay, fig bushes…of sources, in a vain but deluded hope that no-one will see through them. A most neo-Soviet approach which will serve you ill when your neo-Soviet chickens come home to roost. (To put it into your vernacular).

    Oh and one more reason – most people, believe it or not, do have a life outside the blogosphere. And on that note, have a good day. :)

    Comment by Da Russophile — October 30, 2008 @ 9:02 pm

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