Streetwise Professor

May 11, 2006

Great Minds, Part Deux

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:09 am

I must have been channeling Vladimir Putin while writing my “Great Minds” post yesterday evening. Therein I mentioned two glaring Russian problems–demographics and military weakness. So what should I find in my morning stroll through my usual web news sites? Two stories reporting on Putin’s State of the Nation speech in which he emphasized that Russia had to address two major issues: its pressing demographic crisis and its perceived military weakness. Where have I heard that before?

Putin talked about “stimulat[ing] the birth of a second child” and noted that “concerns about housing, health care and education are prompting many families to stop at one.” Increasing the birth rate is clearly important, but as I noted parenthetically in the earlier post, there is room to doubt whether this is an easy thing to do in a post-modern world, especially one in which women are highly educated and have high paying professional careers.

Relatedly, Putin mentioned the high death rate in Russia–this is the thing that distinguishes his country’s demographic dilemma from that of Italy and Spain, for instance, where both birth rates and death rates are low. This also suggests a tension. The horrific rate of early male mortality increases economic opportunities and wages for women, thereby increasing the opportunity cost of childbearing. It also raises the uncertainty that women face; they must confront the significant probability that they will have to support their children on a single income, or that a premature death of a spouse (even after children are grown) will reduce future household income and raise the cost of interrupting a career to have several children. This is a further dis-incentive to have children. Therefore, these problems are linked: unless something is done about male mortality, it may be very difficult to raise the birthrate.

The press coverage I read did not indicate that Putin made any concrete proposals to bring down mortality. Since it is likely that it will be difficult to bring up the birth rate without bringing down the death rate, there is little reason to be sanguine about Russia’s prospects for addressing its demographic challenge. It is interesting, however, that Putin is so open about this and at least is attempting to do something about it. I doubt that the Soviets would have been similarly frank. As twelve-steppers say, the first step towards solving a problem is admitting it, and Putin deserves credit for doing so in such a forthright way.

With respect to the military dimension, Putin is also facing a difficult challenge. Russia is attempting to professionalize its armed forces through the creation of a volunteer force as was done with in the US in the 1970s. The current conscript-based force is plagued by low morale (exacerbated by brutal hazing of recruits by NCOs) and low investments in the human/military capital of conscripts. Changing the military culture and increasing the professionalism of the NCOs and private soldiers and sailors will not be easy. Moreover, Russian equipment and doctrine are obsolete. They have good designs for many weapons–and are selling them around the world, especially to China–but it will be quite expensive to bring the Russian military up to American standards. And American standards are a moving target; American technology and doctrine are advancing at a dizzying pace. Trying to keep up with the Americans ruined the Soviets, and could well ruin Russia too.

The WSJ story also contained a delicious quote regarding Gazprom. Putin touted the growth of the company’s market cap, and noted “[t]his didn’t happen by itself . . . but as the result of certain actions by the Russian government.” You don’t say. Or, more crudely, NSS (for No [synonym for jive], Sherlock.) Though it is certainly the case that this isn’t the only thing that drove up the company’s stock price–the spike in world energy prices had something to do with it too.

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