Streetwise Professor

April 28, 2009

DR (or is it S-O?) on Russian Demographics

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:20 pm

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.

Perhaps.  But.  

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.  

But again.

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.  

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  1. Dear Da Russophile,

    Your true colors are showing. When one does not accept your false premises you start with the ad hominem attacks.


    Comment by Michel — May 9, 2009 @ 12:55 pm

  2. Michel, I’m not going to speak for DR here, but why would he leave behind his family, friends, job, girlfriend(?), education, and entire life to start from scratch in a country half-way across the world just for the simple fact that he was born there? I’ve never seen DR claim that Russia was a better country than where he lives. Your question is nonsensical and no better than an ad hominem attack. The fact that you keep harassing him about it every time you get defeated in an argument is annoying even for me. At least come up with something new.

    And why haven’t you responded to my previous post re AIDS? You were wrong again, at least man up and admit it.

    Comment by Bob From Canada — May 9, 2009 @ 4:20 pm

  3. Why should Da Russophile go live in Russia? Quite simply. It is some hypocritical to preach the coming glory of Russia when you do not want to live there yourself. As for your comment, I answered all issues. If there is anything that you thing that I overlooked, please ask again. I am not going to read through 169 posts to find something that I may have missed. Feel free to enlighten us once again.

    Comment by Michel — May 9, 2009 @ 7:44 pm

  4. Funny how you didn’t address any of my points. Just because I don’t move to Sweden doesn’t mean I don’t want to live in Sweden. It means I’m happy in Canada, because this is where my life is. And if I want to make a blog and argue about how amazing Sweden is, or more accurate to this situation, how Sweden isn’t the scum of the universe facing every known catastrophe to man, that would not make me a hypocrite.

    And just how hard is it to do a page search for “Bob From Canada”..? I told you it was my previous post. Maybe if you spent more time reading and fact checking and less time trying to think of ways to undermine people’s arguments with personal smears regarding their real life (while staying anonymous like a true coward) you wouldn’t constantly be coming off as a total simpleton by citing blatantly wrong statistics and botching simple grade school math (Ruble devaluation anyone?)

    Comment by Bob From Canada — May 9, 2009 @ 11:58 pm

  5. Bob, at the end of the day, the ruble was devalued, Russia’s GDP is being hit quite hard. As for personal smears, well you and DR are the experts in that department. I bow to your expertise.

    Comment by Michel — May 10, 2009 @ 1:18 am

  6. Listen to Russia experts discussing Russia’s population crisis here:

    Comment by La Russophobe — May 10, 2009 @ 7:11 am

  7. You read far too deeply into something I dashed off in a couple of minutes. As I said the main reason is that it is wholly irrelevant. You don’t give out anything other than your first name (?) and that you live in Canada, there’s no reason for me to divulge anything more than I deem necessary.

    And Bob has refuted the (factual) errors in the quoted Paul Goble article in a post above. I can understand his reasons for not bothering to retrieve it when it is so easy for you to just press Ctrl-F, type in “Bob from Canada” and find it yourself within one or two minutes.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — May 10, 2009 @ 2:13 pm

  8. Bob from Canada writes: “A better question is why an anonymous poster is so interested in the real lives of people he’s arguing with on the internet.”

    Quite simple: having a discussion about Russia with a Russophile who has never been to Russia is a pretty pointless exercise.

    As for Da Russophile, call it an exercise to better understand his psyche. What we write is shaped by our life experiences, and yes I am trying to probe into Da Russophile to know what makes him tick. Me bad LOL.

    But, given that I am always accused of “making personal attacks and smears” I will henceforth not reply to either of you. You and Da Russophile can go play in your little sandbox together and build ideal little Russias in the sand.

    Comment by Michel — May 10, 2009 @ 7:25 pm

  9. DR,Bob,Charles:

    Let me explain LR’s agenda:
    she is part of the neo-con greater Israel crowd. They percieve Russia as the only
    entity capable of sandbagging their agenda, henceforth the vitriol. She is a fanatic
    of the first degree and a pitiful person.

    Russia’s population:

    there are 2 outcomes possible

    1:) as Putin/Shuvalov/Kudrin et al continue the developement/diversification of Russia’s economy the population will bottom out and rise from there. Where it will bottom who knows.
    The decreasing population will not effect Russia’s GDP and growth prospects for the following reasons:
    1. Russia productivity still has not caught up to the west. Productivity per worker is anywhere from 2/3 to half of that in the west.
    2. Many towns founded during the Soviet era are economically unfeasible and thus depopulating.

    2:) As illustrated in this 1 minute video population growth has moved lockstep with the exploitation of fossil fuels. For millenia population barely creeped up but with
    the advent of the steam engine powered by coal pop began to explode reaching a frenzied pace with the exploitation of oil.

    the advent of peak oil will lead to a general population decline with Russia being the least affected due to its abundant resources:
    the best soil, most fresh water, most gas, and lots of oil. However Russia would probably have to deal with massive migration from Europe.
    The outcome of peak oil is murky for Russia.

    Comment by djp — May 10, 2009 @ 10:52 pm

  10. […] 14.5 / 1000 this year, changed from 12.1 / 1000 and 14.8 / 1000 in 2008″ were dismissed and ridiculed by some (not by everyone […]

    Pingback by Russia’s Demographic Resilience II | Sublime Oblivion — September 26, 2009 @ 7:46 pm

  11. Bob Post Nr177:

    “You mean those links that cite incorrect statistics, probably on purpose, for chumps like you to eat up like candy? Believe what you want (as you clearly do), but I won’t poison my own mind with that sort of manipulative propaganda.”

    Michel is an expert at this. S/He has attempted to calculate Russia’s reserves were like below $200bn and attempted to claim there were no forex reserves (at, can’t be bothered to find link). The most amazing thing that when confronted s/he insisted until me and someone else provided links from western media and institutions (Bloomberg included) that showed the reserves at over $300bn at the time (can’t remmmber exact amount) and then gave us the pleasure of disappearing in grace. S/He is a systematic and pathologica liar perhaps to a greater extent than LaRussophobe itself. Don’t be at all surprised.

    “And yes, I have been to Russia. Or maybe I haven’t. Then again maybe I live in Russia and my real name is Ivan. people have been known to lie on the internet. A better question is why an anonymous poster is so interested in the real lives of people he’s arguing with on the internet. Could it possibly be that you can’t argue without making personal attacks and smears?”

    No, s/he can’t. (S/he can’t even when s/he does make personal attacks but anyway.)


    “It’s a pity you seem to have missed my blog’s recent post on this subject”
    It is never a pity when anybody misses a post on your blog on any subject. It is luck.

    “Michel you and your fine Russian language skills…
    Since when were “fine” language skills evidence in favor of one’s argumentation? What do they have to do with the topic? It’s a pity Michel’s English “skills” are not so fine, after all it’s the language s/he predominatly gives his/ her performances in? E.g “Even women who had planned to their pregnancy are deciding to go for an abortion.” Most normal people plan something, michel is obviously a case that plans TO something. I’m

    are truly the bane of the insane Russophile.”
    Really, next thing you know they’ll all be jumping out of windows unable to cope Michel’s Shakesperean English….

    “It’s almost like you were put on earth just to drive them out of their “minds”. ”
    Well Michel might have a purpose in life (although it’s more likely he came out of the sea and was not placed upon earth), it’s indeed considerably more than what can be said of you.

    “But this silly little goat goes on bleeting,”
    The lattershould be meant self-referentially.

    “asking the world to ignore what is happening and consign the people of Russia once again to the dustbin of history.”

    Ignoring what is happening is what you do best Larussophobe and hopefully the blogosphere will consign you to the dustbin of history (more than a priviledge in your case)for it.

    My own relevant contribution:
    Those intelligent life forms that have posted comments may want to seek Russia’s demographics for August. It’s not much but it is probably quite a bane for Larussophobe and its followers.

    Comment by gdp — November 8, 2009 @ 1:09 pm

  12. […] a renewed fertility collapse and higher deaths from alcoholism (which I challenged in the face of heavy opposition), Russia saw its first two months of natural population growth for the last 15 years in August and […]

    Pingback by Official Russia | Ten Myths about Russia’s Demography — January 19, 2010 @ 1:04 pm

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