Streetwise Professor

September 26, 2007

Russian Demography Again

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 11:21 am

I’ve blogged a few times on Russia’s demographic implosion. A few interesting things along that line came to my attention in recent weeks.

Most recently, via Window on Eurasia a reasoned critique of the Russian government’s recent crowing over the 142,000 live births in June of this year. In essence, this is a consequence of the current relatively large cohort of 18-29 year old women. As these women age, the succeeding cohorts of women of peak child bearing age will decline, and absent increases in the fertility rate among these women, births will inexorably decline in succeeding years. Very interestingly, the demographers quoted in WindowOnEurasia state that the fertility rate has actually begun to decline again after its post-98 crisis rebound.

This suggests that the economic recovery has not boosted fertility rates. Indeed, Western European experience suggests that economic growth no longer leads to increased fertility rates, but quite the opposite. Spain is of particular interest in this regard. The Spanish economy has grown dramatically in the post-Franco years, but birth rates have plunged. As I’ll discuss more in a bit, this trend to one-and-done is likely to be even more pronounced in Russia. Put differently, Russia cannot count on renewed economic growth to increase its fertility rate, and given the impending decline in the number of women of childbearing age, the absolute number of births is almost certain to decline sharply in years to come.

Which brings me to the second article, an extensive interview with Nicholas Eberstadt. Eberstadt emphasizes the important point that what distinguishes Russia’s demographic crisis from demographic trends in other countries is not its birth rate, but its astronomical death rate. I think what is underemphasized is the link between the death rate, and likely future trends in fertility; specifically, the high death rate is likely to depress fertility.

I have touched on this point in earlier posts, but it deserves emphasis. The unprecedented high mortality (in what should be a developed country) among young and middle aged men raises women’s cost of having children. There are several causal connections at work here. Two are of particular importance. The first is that reductions in the supply of healthy men in what should be the peak of their productive years raises the wages of women, increasing the opportunity cost of having children. Rising productivity and work opportunities for women is one factor depressing fertility rates in Europe and the US, but the exceptional death rates among men in their working years should tend to strengthen this tendency in Russia. The second is that women who have children face a greater risk of widowhood while their children are still at home. This prospect also discourages having children.

At the risk of being repetitious, given these depressing facts, the actions of the Putin government seem detached from reality. Great Gamesmanship, military posturing, grandiose plans to spend trillions on new infrastructure and fantastical developments in Siberia are lunatic priorities for a nation facing demographic collapse. Perhaps Putin and his ilk are at a loss as to how to address Russia’s real problem, and find it more appealing to pursue chimera of glory. Or, alternatively, maybe they aren’t so lunatic after all. To echo another theme of SWP, perhaps the dismal demography is at the root of the short time horizons/heavy discounting of the future that is implicit in much of Russian politics. The future is so bleak that Putin et al feel compelled to grab as much as possible today.

Suffice it to say that given Russia’s daunting demographic prospects, it is the height of chutzpah for Russia’s ambassador to Georgia, Vyacheslav Kovalenko, to warn the Caucasian nation about its impending demographic “death.” People in glass houses . . .

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