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PAPER REVIEW

Whitley, Elise et al. – 2016 – Variations in cognitive abilities across the life course


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whitley-2016-age-sex-differences

New paper by Elise Whitley et al. on age and sex differences in IQ for n=~40,000 British sample.

  • Five tests: Word recall, verbal fluency, and subtraction (loading ~0.5 on g), and number sequence and numerical problem solving (loading ~0.7 on g).
  • Males score about 4 IQ points more on the derived g-factor of cognitive ability.
  • … though this result should be treated with caution on account of: (a) g having different structure across the sexes; (b) it is not an exception to a common problem in IQ and sex studies, namely, the undersampling of men with lower cognitive ability.
  • Better subjective health was associated with higher IQ.
  • The overall pattern across age was a plateau from the late teens to age 65, then a steep fall soon thereafter.

I would say that the ultimate and really the only reason we have mandatory retirement policies are cognitive ones.

EDIT: Emil Kirkegaard had a closer look at the results, including a nicer graph of the age/sex results:

My guess is that the intercept bias/invariance has to do with the composition of the battery. There were only 5 tests, and their breakdown was: 3 math, 1 verbal, 1 memory. Women had better memory but there was no difference in verbal fluency (this is a common finding despite what you have been told). So, the problem likely is that the g factor is colored because 60% of the tests were about math, and that men have an advantage on the math group factor.

kirkegaard-2016-uk-iq-study

 
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The two dunces.

The two dunces.

During the past two years, Russian “dissident” liberals Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov have produced a frankly maniacal quantity of so-called “Independent Expert Reports” (there are now seven of them) that purport to debunk the “persistent myths imposed by official [Kremlin] propaganda”. The authors say that their latest exegesis, melodramatically entitled “Putin. The Results. 10 Years” and at 48 pages one of their shorter works, will have a print run of one million copies and will be distributed throughout Russia’s regions. This latest iteration of Nemtsov’s anti-Putin screed differs little in substance from the first, which was pilloried by Sean Guillory in Nemtsov’s White Paper: Bombshell or Dud?

Though Sean castigated the “dynamic duo” for their middle-class chauvinism, neoliberal elitism and poverty of proposed solutions, even he was far too kind in granting them the benefit of the doubt on their “litany of statistics, examples, and facts” showing that Russia had been brought to the brink of collapse by Putin (of course Russia was pushed well past that brink under Yeltsin, when Nemtsov reached his political apogee; but I digress). Now I hadn’t previously read any of Nemtsov and Co.’s earlier scribblings, but their introduction to this latest report raised my suspicions. Apparently, one myth peddled by Kremlin propagandists is that under Putin, Russians began to “give birth more and die less”. Of course, anyone with the slightest familiarity with Russian demography knows this is either a howler or a mendacious lie. If these guys can’t be relied on to get simple facts right, facts which can be looked up on the Internet within seconds, what basis is there to trust them on anything else they have to say? So I decided to sneak a peek at Nemtsov’s chapter on Russia’s demography… and discovered a truly epic mountain of red herrings, statistical manipulation and outright lies worthy of a Brezhnev-era Goskomstat apparatchik.

Nemtsov’s Bomb Defused

The chapter in question is entitled “A Dying Country”… not only is it a kitschy trope, but one that is no longer really valid as Russia saw positive population growth in 2009. But whatever. The choice of title fades into irrelevance in comparison with what comes next.

1. According to the Gospel of Vlad and Boris, one of the main tenets of the “Putinist mythology” concerns Russia’s recent demographic progress, in stark contrast to the “1990′s national extinction”. The authors then invite us to look at the “facts”, which apparently look something like the graph below.

[My translation of Nemtsov's graph (the "Yeltsin" and "Putin" insertions were my own, but otherwise it is unchanged). Click to enlarge.]

Where to start? First, the giant elephant in the room that our democracy crusaders “forgot” to mention was that immigration into the Russian Federation was far higher in the 1990′s than it was during the Putin period. From 1992-1999, Russia received a one-off 3.6mn influx of net migrants, the vast majority of them ethnic Russians repatriating from the other former Soviet republics. During the 2000-2009 period, Russia received just 1.5mn net migrants. This single factor of declining net immigration would account for almost two thirds, or 2.1mn out of 3.4mn, of the “extra” population decline under Putin.

Second, drawing any conclusions just from a straightforward calculation of Russia’s average yearly population decline under Yeltsin and Putin is an exercise in complete absurdity, given that Yeltsin’s early years were influenced by the (relatively) low Soviet mortality rates and high fertility rates, while Putin’s were influenced by the (relatively) high mortality rates and “lowest-low” fertility rates of the Yeltsin legacy. A more nuanced analysis would:

  • Identify defining trends instead of using blanket averages: a transition to fullblown “hyper-mortality” by 1994, a series of peaks and dips under a Yeltsin and early Putin administration that couldn’t care less for the nation’s demography, and concrete improvements after 2005 when the state began to take these issues seriously.
  • Take into account Russia’s aging population (which places upwards pressure on mortality rates over time), and hence use a statistic that is independent of the population age structure: life expectancy, which at 69 years in 2009 was higher than at any time during the Yeltsin period, when it fell from 68 years in 1992 to 65 years by 2000.

Third, note that the vertical axis Nemtsov uses stretches from just 140mn to 150mn people, giving the impression (to the passing eye) that Russia’s population completely collapsed under Putin and most likely continues to retreat into oblivion (whereas a year by year graph would show population decline flattening out during the past 2 years). This is of course done on purpose to elicit a negative emotional reaction.

2. The next paragraph discusses “hyper-mortality” – the fact that Russia’s mortality rates are abnormally high for an industrialized country at peace. This is a major problem I have written about at length, though since it has been metastasizing since as far back as the mid-1960′s what it has to do with Putin must remain a mystery. Yet even here Nemtsov can’t refrain from “embellishing” an already depressing picture. He does this by citing Russia’s mortality and fertility statistics from the CIA, whose demographic stats on Russia paint a bleaker picture than those produced by Rosstat, the Russian statistical agency.

Let me explain. As a rule, only national statistics services have the manpower and regulatory resources to compile comprehensive demographic (economic, etc) statistics on their own countries. The stats you see from international institutions like the World Health Organization are mostly drawn and aggregated from them. Same goes for the CIA on demography, except that since it rarely brings its figures into “sync” with updated ones produced by the national statistics agencies, most of its demographic data is the result of inhouse projections of what the demographic situation might be given a set of increasingly obsolete past assumptions instead of current measures. Hence, whereas Nemtsov claims that Russia has a birth rate of 11/1000 and a death rate of 15/1000 based on July 2009 CIA figures, the real numbers for that year were a birth rate of 12.4/1000 and a death rate of 14.2/1000. Ultimately, this is a fairly minor point, but it does illustrate how Nemtsov is very selective about the data he uses (he has no problems with citing Rosstat on numerous other occasions).

3. The authors begin showing their reactionary colors when they come to dissing Russia’s rising natality. Granted, not quite as in your face as in their first Report, but the ass is still showing. This section is worth translating in full.

Excessively rapid fertility growth in a non-affluent country, especially amongst the lumpenized segment of the population (which are receiving pro-natality stimuli thanks to Putinist measures such as “maternal capital”[20]), could lead to negative consequences: a reduction in the standard of living, poor caretaking of the newborn, and high rates of illness amongst them.

In April 2008, the Health Minister Tatyana Golikova was forced to admit that this [fertility] increase was accompanied by an increase in infant mortality in 48 regions of the country.

[20] For “maternal capital” of 250,000 rubles [AK: today equivalent to $8,000], based on average housing costs it would have only been possible to buy 4-5 square meters of living space.

They’re really getting desperate, firing at every possible angle in the hope of hitting Putin, aren’t they?

First, forget the negative long-term consequences of the continuation of “lowest-low” fertility (seen up until 2006, hovering at 1.3 children per woman). Is Nemtsov really disconnected and foolish enough to believe that Russians will rally to his holier than thou middle-class chauvinism? Especially considering that most Russians have paternalistic views of government, believing that it should help the poorest members of society? Considering that many Russians complain that they want two children but can only afford one?

Second, the authors transparently try to give the (false) impression that Russia’s recent fertility spurt was accompanied by rising infant mortality through very selective quoting of Golikova. Was that really the case? Not at all. Data on infant deaths per 1,000 live births: in 1990 – 17.4; 2000 – 15.3; 2006 – 10.2; 2007 – 9.4; 2008 – 8.5; 2009 – 8.2; 2010 – still falling

4. Then we come to a rather banal history of Russia’s hypermortality with a generous serving of anti-Putin spin. I’ve translated a typical segment below and filled in what Nemtsov wants you to think on reading it.

The rise in Russia’s mortality began way back with Brezhnev, during the 1970′s [AK: actually from the mid-1960's but whatever], and continued up until the mid-1990′s [AK: hence Yeltsin and the reformers can't be blamed for any of this... according to the Gospel of Vlad and Boris]. In 1995, however, Russia’s mortality began to fall and in 1998 retreated below 2 million deaths per year [AK: 1) by "below 2 million deaths", he means 1.99 million deaths - not kidding!, 2) the inconvenient truth that death rates began to soar again in 1999 during the last year of the Yeltsin Presidency - in the aftermath of the 1998 financial crisis, which was enabled by the incessant stealing within Yeltsin's inner circle (and happening to coincide with Nemtsov being Deputy Prime Minister!) - naturally goes unsaid].

But under Putin, the tendency towards a rise in mortality rates acquired a new strength, and reached a new peak of 2.37mn deaths in 2003 [AK: this at a time when Putin was still surrounded by Yeltsin's "Family" cronies and occupied with consolidating a half-disintegrated state]. Lowering deaths back below 2 million still hasn’t been achieved [AK: but this is harder now that it was in 1998, since the Russian population in 2009 is now considerably older than it was back then!].

Look, if you really want to, it is just as easy to spin this the other way. Here’s an alternate narrative. The USSR was a healthy nation. Soviet mortality rates strongly increased under Gorbachev, thanks to the anti-alcohol campaign and the birthmark on his bald head (year: 1989, LE: 70 years). Then Yeltsin and his cabal of traitors undermined and collapsed the Soviet Union, resulting in a massive fall in life expectancy (year: 2003, LE: 65 years). However, heroic Putin rescued long-suffering Holy Rus’ from the Judeo-Dollar yoke in 2003 by attacking Khodorkovsky. Now everything is getting better because Putin kicks ass (year: 2010, LE: 70 years).

[Russia's life expectancy - closely tied *not* to politicians, "shock therapy", etc, but to alcohol affordability and consumption rates. In fact, perhaps one of the main healthcare achievements of the Putin era is that the correlation between (relatively) cheaper booze and higher mortality rates may have broken. Source: Rosstat data.]

Does the above sound kind of ridiculous? Not really any more so than Nemtsov’s narrative. His screed is the mirror image of what a fawning Kremlin sycophant would write.

5. Nemtsov proclaims in gloomy tones that Russia has a very high number of deaths from external causes, murders, suicides, alcohol poisoning, etc, the aim presumably being to present Putin as a bad ruler based on the ills of his kingdom. But what he doesn’t mention is that in recent years Russia’s mortality from “vices” (alcohol poisoning, homicides, suicide) has fallen back down to late Soviet levels and is now well below the peaks around 1994 and 2002-3.

[The drop in deaths from alcohol poisoning is probably the most encouraging indicator, because excessive alcohol consumption accounts for around a third of all Russian deaths (in the broad sense) and drives trends in homicides, accidents and suicides (in particular). Source: Rosstat.]

6. Nemtsov goes on to make another startling claim (to anyone remotely familiar with the situation on the ground).

Low quality healthcare remains a big problem [AK: certainly], and Putin didn’t manage to do anything about this during ten prosperous years [AK: wtf?]… Russia spends just 5.3% of its GDP on healthcare, like Morocco or Ecuador, in contrast to 9-11% in many countries of Western Europe.

Many, many people would disagree with him. E.g. the guys at The Lancet, a respected British medical journal.

A vigorous anti-alcohol campaign, new road safety measures, and a programme of health awareness workshops for teenagers are among the positive signs 6 months after the Kremlin introduced a new 12-year health-care blueprint which identified the “formation of health as a priority in the social and spiritual values of Russian society” as a key task.

Even Nemtsov’s fellow liberal reformer Yegor Gaidar (as translated by Mark Adomanis):

In 2009, despite the economic crisis, expenditures on healthcare from the Federal budget grew 25% in nominal terms from 231.4 billion rubles to 289.5 billion rubles. Expenditures from the budgets of the subjects of the Russian Federation remained practically at the previous level: 518.7 billion rubles against 520.1 billion in 2008. Taking into account investments to obligatory medical insurance of the working population, state financing of healthcare grew in 2009 by 5.6% (2.9% in real terms) having reached 1.06 trillion rubles. This differentiates the situation in 2009 from the crisis in 1998* when state expenditures on healthcare and spending by the population on medicines and medical services all declined.

At the beginning of 2009 the government made a decision to continue the realization of the national project “Health” until 2012. The project’s financing still comes out of funds of the federal budget as well as off-budget funds: the Federal fund of obligatory medical insurance and the Fund of social insurance. Despite the economic crisis and the significant reduction in government income, expenditures on the national project not only weren’t subject to reduction, but grew by 20.2% in comparison with 2008. This attests to the real priority of this project in the government’s budget policy.

*But Kathryn Stoner-Weiss told me that Yeltsin defended Russians’ welfare better than Putin!!

7. Then a big sprinkling of statistics and anecdotes about trends in consumption of alcohol and illegal drugs, and smoking. For once in this chapter I think Nemtsov makes a valid point about the Russian government’s overly cosy relations with the alcohol and cigarette lobbies, which have prevented or delayed the passage of needed legislation. Nonetheless, even here Nemtsov’s point is (politically) wrecked by the class hatred that he just can’t keep bottled in. Sean’s summary of Nemtsov’s position still applies:

The poor “drink more” and the wealthy live the “high life.” In contrast, the middle class is the archetype of healthy and productive living. “Moderate use of alcohol and a healthy lifestyle in general,” they write, “is the way of the middle class.”

Now there might well be research showing that this is the case, as Nemtsov claims. (He doesn’t provide a link or citation). But it certainly isn’t the kind of language that is going to get anything more than 5% of Russians fired up with puritanical bourgeois fervor.

Furthermore, Nemtsov’s comparison of Russia’s 30,000 annual drug-related deaths to its (lower) losses during ten years of war in Afghanistan will surely be viewed as offensive and asinine by most Russians. There is a fundamental difference between the two in that people (by and large) make the choice to become drug addicts, whereas Soviet conscripts had little to no choice about being sent to the graveyard of empires. Incidentally, one of the reasons for the increased flow of heroin into Russia in recent years that Nemtsov decries so much is the US inability or unwillingness to control the growth of opium production in Afghanistan**… (But don’t forget that in the Russian liberal universe America is always right and if it isn’t then suck on it).

8. Nemtsov miscomprehends the French Paradox, saying that the reason the French lead long lives despite a high alcohol consumption rate is because they drink fine wines. (The real paradox has to do with their low rates of heart disease and high rates of saturated fats consumption)*. However, he is correct in his (one-line) suggestion, a rather obvious one, that incomes have to improve if Russians are to afford more expensive drinks.

His suggestion for cutting smoking rates? “It is necessary to implement the successful experience of the US and Western European countries that was accumulated over decades”. You don’t say, Sherlock?! While it is valid to say that Russia’s progress on this front has been on the slow side, it is not fair to imply, like Nemtsov does, that nothing is being done.

9. Now Nemtsov talks about depopulation and labor force decline without trying to distinguish between them.

Population decline has a long-term character. In the last few years and in the near future Russia will lose one million people of working age annually due to the high mortality rates and natural population aging. The loss of one million workers is equivalent to a fall in GDP of 1.5%, and a loss of revenues to the budget, which will lead to problems with paying for pensions and as a result to social stresses. Therefore, chronic depopulation threatens economic development and puts into question the future territorial integrity of the country.

First, Russia’s population has already returned to growth (or more accurately “stabilization”) in 2009, thanks to rising fertility and life expectancy. Second, declines in the working population are now inevitable, but Nemtsov curiously neglects to mention that this was made inevitable by the fertility collapse of the early 1990′s during the Yeltsin period! Nonetheless, he need not worry too much. According to the Rosstat medium scenario, the labor force will fall from 62% of the total population now… to a truly apocalyptic rather unremarkable 55% by 2030.

Furthermore, Nemtsov’s mixing of depopulation and labor force decline is particularly disingenuous because each counteracts the other. If Russia’s population falls, this means it will have failed to raise its life expectancy or fertility rate, and hence its labor force will be higher as a percentage of the population. Paradoxically, if Russia sustainably stabilizes its population by improving people’s health and getting them to have more children, its labor force will shrink much faster as a share of the population for the very reason that this population will have more children and pensioners! (To illustrate this, the labor force in 2030 is at 57% of the population in Rosstat’s low scenario and at 54% in its high scenario).

10. Finally Nemtsov talks the talk about migration.

Instead of [pursuing an effective immigration policy], in 2002 the Putin regime passed repressive [AK: sic!] immigration legislation, which increased illegal immigration while reducing the flow of law-abiding and hard-working citizens into the country. In the 1990′s near 8 million Russophones arrived into Russia from the post-Soviet republics [AK: just to clarify, this is *not* net immigration; during the period, many Russians also left Russia]. With Putin’s arrival this process came to an abrupt halt.

The sudden reduction in the numbers of immigrants became the main cause of the plummeting Russian population during the Putin years relative to the 1990′s.

Look, while I’m not a huge fan of said 2002 law, calling it “repressive” is well beyond the pale – especially for any politician the least concerned about his popularity! It is also interesting to note that Nemtsov puts this section on immigration at the end of the demography chapter, well away the graphs showing population decline under Yeltsin and Putin. One can only assume that Russians wouldn’t be so moved by Russia’s almost-stable population under Yeltsin had they known that it was only being sustained by an unsustainable inflow of ethnic Russians repatriating from the Near Abroad!

[Would an honest observer interpret the above graph as a "sudden reduction in the numbers of immigrants" under Putin? Source: from Rosstat. Click to enlarge.]

Which brings us to a much bigger misrepresentation by Nemtsov. He essentially claims that thanks to Putin’s mismanagement of migration policy (the 2002 law is cited), ethnic Russian immigration came to a halt. Yet as we can see from the graph above, Russia received by far the biggest numbers of migrants during the early to mid-1990′s. By 2000, most ethnic Russians who would ever immigrate back to Russia from the Near Abroad had already done so. This process was always due to come an end, regardless of who was President, and had already mostly petered out by the late 1990′s. (The new uptick in immigration from 2006 mostly consists of Central Asian, Caucasian, and Ukrainian Gastarbeiter drawn to Russia’s rising affluence).

Conclusions

This chapter “A Dying Country” constituted about 20% of Nemtsov’s paper by word count, so it is a valid gauge by which to judge the rest of it. Now demography is a pretty easy subject, especially when it comes to checking up on straightforward factual claims. For this post I didn’t need much else other than Rosstat, Wikipedia, and my sick googling skills. ;) In contrast, making accurate statements on the economy, an entity that can be measured and interpreted in any number of ways, is much harder. And assessing levels of corruption is an order of magnitude harder still, since it relates to the quantity of that economy that people take so many pains to hide away from view. So if one finds so much blatant ignorance or deceit in a big chunk of work dealing with demography – practically on every paragraph – chances are the overall opus isn’t worth anyone’s time.

The pattern of simplification and misrepresentation appears to be repeated throughout the entire paper. For instance, take Nemtsov’s graph of the structure of Russian exports in the chapter on the economy, which shows the share of hydrocarbons exports soaring from 44.9% in 1999 to 69.6% in 2009, while hi-tech exports fell from 10.9% to 4.9% during the same period. But only a hack like Nemtsov would say that this proves that Russia under Putin became more resource dependent “than ever before in its history”. For a start consider that the price of oil rose from $16.56 in 1999 to $91.48 in 2008! If there is a sixfold increase in oil prices over a decade, then its share of total exports was practically bound to increase too, barring Russia blowing up all its pipelines! (Besides, that would be “energy imperialism”). But even all this neglects a more fundamental fact: while Russian exports remain dominated by resources because they constitute its comparative advantage, Russia’s domestic economy has, in real terms, become substantially more productive, more services-centered and less extraction-heavy since the late 1990′s (in relative terms).

Now a defender of this Report may accuse me of missing its entire point – isn’t Nemtsov politicking against equally nefarious Kremlin propaganda? Isn’t it perfectly normal and acceptable for politicians to play fast and loose with the facts? While this may normally be an argument, this is not the case here. First, Nemtsov and Milov portray themselves as paragons of accountability and integrity (as opposed to the kleptocratic Kremlin regime) – if they want to demand their bed they have to lie in it too. Second, these ass-clowns entitle their work an “Independent Expert Report” for crying out loud! I am approaching Nemtsov’s writings on his own terms – as an analytical work. It is on its own analytical merit that it either stands or falls under the weight of its lies and contradictions.

But what about its impact as a political statement? Nemtsov’s only natural constituency, as evidenced by his classist rhetoric, is “the urban, semi-intellectual, semi-politically engaged class” who now make up around 25% of the Russian population. A not inconsiderable potential base, true, but they more than most in Russian society owe their allegiance to Putin; it was under his system that they made – or made off with – their wealth. No amount of one-sided paens to the glory Yeltsin years delivered by Nemtsov is going to change that. And although Nemtsov does make some faux populist overtures, they are hardly going to win him any supporters from amongst the lumpen-proletariat whom he wants to breed out into extinction! (Assuming they even bother reading the 12,000 words of what is really a very dull paper). No, the Gospel of Vlad and Boris is only going to be treated as such by the 50,000 odd signers of the Putin Must Go petition, at least in Russia. As for abroad…

In an interesting twist to the story – and ironically what made me aware of Nemtsov’s report in the first place – Russian police confiscated 100,000 of the one million copies of the Report and sent them to the MVD’s “extremism” department for analysis. Coming as it does on the eve of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, where “Medvedev is set to hobnob with businessmen from around the world”, Nemtsov and Milov could not have hoped for a better source of publicity. Tinpot dictatorship here we come! Once again, the idiotic zeal of Russian officialdom elicits outraged editorials in the Western (and Russian) press, snickers from the suave and sophisticated, and delivers further confirmation of Russia’s impending slide into totalitarianism to the typical Westerner.

Not to mention endless frustration for people like myself. I am even coming to think that the deaf Russian state might just deserve its blind liberals.

* Though I do agree with Nemtsov that getting Russians to switch from samogon to vodka to wine or beer is a good strategy as far as these things go. Me from two years back: ;)

Convert wine production into a strategic industry and massively fund its expansion. Try to remake Russia into a wine-drinking nation. Aim to turn vodka into an exclusively export industry.

** That said, I’m very skeptical about the (self-interested?) arguments, or alarmism, of Russia’s anti-narcotics department. To test if this is a major, rapidly-spreading drug epidemic, it is logical to look at death rates for the most-affected demographic groups. Say, 20-25 year old males, among whom death rates are low and mostly due to external causes and poisonings.

Take the death rate for 25 year old males in Russia, a demographic group that would be one of the most exposed to drug abuse (Nemtsov cites the average age of death of Russia’s druggies as being 28). In 2000, i.e. before the Afghanistan campaign, it was 0.0060, and it stayed above 0.0050 until 2007 when it fell to 0.0047, and in 2008 fell further to 0.0041. These improvements, one would think, would have been exceedingly unlikely had there been a big jump in Russian heroin consumption.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Though hard to imagine, the Washington Post – or Pravda on the Potomac, as Eugene Ivanov quite rightly labels it – surpassed even its own sordid standards for Russia coverage, in the form of the latest op-ed from George F. Will in Potemkin Country. Time to go grenade fishing again, I guess.

America’s “progressive” president has some peculiarly retro policies. Domestically, his reactionary liberalism is exemplified by his policy of No Auto Company Left Behind, with its intimated hope that depopulated Detroit, where cattle could graze, can somehow return to something like the 1950s. Abroad, he seems to yearn for the 1970s, when the Soviet Union was rampant and coping with it supposedly depended on arms control.

I suppose turning the US into a deindustrialized failed empire and possibly post-nuclear wasteland is a great idea. Maybe not.

Actually, what was needed was not the chimera of arms control but Ronald Reagan’s renewal of the arms race that helped break the Soviet regime. The stately minuet of arms negotiations helped sustain U.S. public support for the parallel weapons spending.

The Soviet Union broke because of the internal failures of its planned economy and stymied social and national aspirations. He is right that the arms race helped tip it over, but so did many other factors such as rising social obligations, collapsing oil prices and technological stagnation. However, with the US budget deficit soaring into banana republic territory of 10%+ of GDP, conceivably for years to come, now is no time to start a new arms race – not unless George F. Will is a traitor who wants to see the US go the way of the USSR.

Significant arms agreements are generally impossible until they are unimportant. Significant agreements are those that substantially alter an adversarial dynamic between rival powers. But arms agreements never do. During the Cold War, for example, arms negotiations were another arena of great-power competition rather than an amelioration of that competition.

Since both the US and the USSR accumulated more than enough nuclear weapons to guarantee destruction of each other in a full exchange by the 1970′s, there was no point to further expansion – might as well use the resources for other purposes. Another aim was to strike up a rapport to create trust and lower the chances of an accidental nuclear war, which ever since the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) era has been a much greater risk than a planned Armageddon. No agreements on conventional forces were signed during the Cold War that I know of, and they entailed much greater expenditure than nukes.

The Soviet Union was a Third World nation with First World missiles. It had, as Russia still has, an essentially hunter-gatherer economy, based on extraction industries — oil, gas, minerals, furs. Other than vodka, for what manufactured good would you look to Russia? Caviar? It is extracted from the fish that manufacture it.

The smarmy attitude aside, the reason Russia exports few manufactured goods is that its comparative economic advantage lies in exporting hydrocarbons, which appreciates the ruble and makes its manufactured goods unattractive; currently, its industrial base is focused on import substitution, i.e. manufacturing in Russia what is currently imported. Nonetheless, it is the world’s joint-first (with the US) exporter of military hardware and is currently introducing products like the Sukhoi SuperJet which enjoy high chances of international success.

Today, in a world bristling with new threats, the president suggests addressing an old one — Russia’s nuclear arsenal. It remains potentially dangerous, particularly if a portion of it falls into nonstate hands. But what is the future of the backward and backsliding kleptocratic thugocracy that is Vladimir Putin’s Russia?

Props for “kleptocratic thugocracy” – a great new addition to the Russophobe rhetorical arsenal, though granted much less dangerous than Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Even in the 1990′s the fear of loose nukes from the Soviet Union was a largely phantom one, and now it’s just ridiculous.

Putin — ignore the human Potemkin village (Dmitry Medvedev) who currently occupies the presidential office — must be amazed and amused that America’s president wants to treat Russia as a great power. Obama should instead study pertinent demographic trends.

Nicholas Eberstadt’s essay “Drunken Nation” in the current World Affairs quarterly notes that Russia is experiencing “a relentless, unremitting, and perhaps unstoppable depopulation.” Previous episodes of depopulation — 1917-23, 1933-34, 1941-46 — were the results of civil war, Stalin’s war on the “kulaks” and collectivization of agriculture, and World War II, respectively. But today’s depopulation is occurring in normal — for Russia — social and political circumstances. Normal conditions include a subreplacement fertility rate, sharply declining enrollment rates for primary school pupils, perhaps more than 7 percent of children abandoned by their parents to orphanages or government care or life as “street children.” Furthermore, “mind-numbing, stupefying binge drinking of hard spirits” — including poisonously impure home brews — “is an accepted norm in Russia and greatly increases the danger of fatal injury through falls, traffic accidents, violent confrontations, homicide, suicide, and so on.” Male life expectancy is lower under Putin than it was a half-century ago under Khrushchev.

I refuted Eberstadt and demonstrated the bankruptcy of most current “thinking” on Russian demographic trends multiple times in this blog. First, low working-age male life expectancy is tragic but not crippling – it has no direct effect on fertility, disproportionately affects poorer, badly-educated people and partially relieves pressure on pensions. It may lower productivity, but cannot check the growth of a vital civilization – America was known as the Alcoholic Republic in the great early days of its founding.

Second, he ignores that the total fertility rate has been steadily creeping up from 1.3 children per woman in 2006, to around 1.5 as of 2008 – and there is plenty of evidence this is a sustainable trend. Similarly, no mention is made of the mortality decline from 2005 and of its ambitious health plans to 2020.

Third, Russia’s net primary school enrollment stands at 90.9%, compared with 91.6% in the US and similar figures in most eastern European nations like Lithuania (89.4%) or the Czech Republic (92.5%). That the likes of Bolivia (94.9%) and Indonesia (95.5%) claim to have significantly better numbers than any of these obviously far-better educated nations should give us an insight into the usefulness of this indicator as a gauge of human capital.

Martin Walker of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, writing in the Wilson Quarterly (“The World’s New Numbers”), notes that Russia’s declining fertility is magnified by “a phenomenon so extreme that it has given rise to an ominous new term — hypermortality.” Because of rampant HIV/AIDS, extreme drug-resistant tuberculosis, alcoholism and the deteriorating health-care system, a U.N. report says “mortality in Russia is three to five times higher for men and twice as high for women” as in other countries at a comparable stage of development. The report, Walker says, “predicts that within little more than a decade the working-age population will be shrinking by up to 1 million people annually.” Be that as it may, “Russia is suffering a demographic decline on a scale that is normally associated with the effects of a major war.”

The main concern Walker cites in The World’s New Numbers is that it would be hard to maintain economic growth in a country “whose young male work force looks set to decrease by ­half”, and as such voices a familiar argument that Russia does not belong in the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) quartet of key emerging markets. Yet according to the World Bank, the proportion of the population aged 65+ will increase from 12% to 18% in Russia by 2025, and the latter figure is actually equal to Estonia’s percentage today! – whose current problems are certainly not centered around entitlements spending.

As Walker himself agrees in his article, this is “more of a labor-market challenge than a demographic crisis”. My own dependency ratio projections are far from cataclysmic. The notion of a Russian AIDS Apocalypse is a myth, because according to the international research program Knowledge for Action in HIV/AIDS in Russia, all the pessimistic models assume “the epidemic would be essentially heterosexual in nature and follow trends observed in sub-Saharan Africa”, which is “not borne out by current surveillance data from Russia” or indeed basic common sense.

According to projections by the United Nations Population Division, Russia’s population, which was around 143 million four years ago, might be as high as 136 million or as low as 121 million in 2025, and as low as 115 million in 2030.

Yet another fallacy of linear extrapolation, of which some folks never tire. In 1914, France had a population of 40mn to Germany’s 65mn, had much lower fertility rates and its General Staff looked with trepidation at the future. Today, it has a population of 61mn and is one of the few European countries with replacement-level fertility levels, whereas Germany has a population of 82m which is projected to fall to 70mn by 2050.

Marx envisioned the “withering away” of the state under mature communism. Instead, Eberstadt writes, the world may be witnessing the withering away of Russia, where Marxism was supposed to be the future that works. Russia, he writes, “has pioneered a unique new profile of mass debilitation and foreshortened life previously unknown in all of human history.”

“History,” he concludes, “offers no examples of a society that has demonstrated sustained material advance in the face of long-term population decline.” Demography is not by itself destiny, but it is more real than an arms control “process” that merely expresses the liberal hope of taming the world by wrapping it snugly in parchment.

Not only is this article profoundly ignorant and bigoted, but it also very poorly written – I’ve pretty much lost track of what George F. Will is supposed to be arguing about. Oh yeah, the arms control thing. Then again, you can’t expect much in the way of reason and logic from a global warming denier.

As for myself, I’m just happy I spent less time writing this up than my Kasparov the Bolshevik article. A popular Russian proverb has it that a fool can ask more questions than ten wise men could answer, so no wonder this is a favored strategy of Russophobes everywhere, as pointed out by Patrick Armstrong. Now if only somebody could invent the computer AI version of a grenade-launcher…

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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As we covered in the previous instalment, Demographics I: The Russian Cross Reversed?, fertility rates are not abnormally low by European standards and are likely to rise further in the future. The same cannot be said of mortality rates – a ‘quiet crisis‘ that has been a ‘catastrophe of historic proportions’.

Take life expectancy. As of 2007, the average age of death in Russia was 65.9 years. This is way below First World levels (United States – 78.0; EU – 78.7; Japan – 82.0) and even many developing country standards (Mexico – 75.6; China – 72.9; Egypt – 71.6; India – 68.6). Note: this figure was actually 67.7 years in 2007 (the CIA relies on its own projections to estimate demographic data), but the general point stands.

Even compared to other post-Soviet countries, Russia’s mortality stats are far from impressive – as you can see from the graphs in that link, total life expectancy, male life expectancy and death rates for both sexes all hovered near the worst levels. Nor is so-called healthy life expectancy anything to write home about (in 2002, it stood at 53 years and 64 years for men and women respectively, compared with 55/64 for Ukraine, 63/68 in Poland and 67/71 in the US).

Russia’s infant mortality rate, at 10.8 / 1000 people in 2008, is respectable compared to countries of roughly similar income levels (Mexico – 19.0; Latvia – 9.0; Poland – 6.9) and far better than most developing countries. Nor is Russia’s female life expectancy all that bad compared with the typical Asian or Latin American country. The same cannot be said of male life expectancy. According to CIA estimates, in 2008 it stands at a meagre 59.2 years – the US (75.3), Poland (71.4), India (66.9), Ukraine (62.2) and even Bangladesh (63.2) score higher, while Russia’s neighbors in this area are the likes of Madagascar (60.6) and Ghana (58.7). The main reason is amazingly high mortality rates for middle-aged Russian men, which by Rosstat calculations are somewhat higher today than they were in 1897.

Age specific mortality rates / 1000
Left: men; right: women.

As you can see from the graph above, by far the biggest change between 1897 and 2005 occured in a massive reduction in infant mortality, from 233 / 1000 to just 12.5, as well as in children and teens. This was in large part due to basic and fairly cheap to implement advances in vaccinations and basic obstetrics (the latter of which has practically eliminated maternal mortality as a major cause of death amongst women). Female mortality has improved all around, although not to the same extent as in European countries. Yet male mortality has remained stagnant, comparable to old Tsarist and modern African levels.

This is best illustrated by a measure called “Probability of dying (per 1 000 population) between 15 and 60 years”. For Russian women in 2005, this was 17% – not much worse than, say, Egypt. Yet almost half of Russian men, at 47%, died before reaching retirement age. This compared with 9% in Japan, 14% in Finland and the US, 16% in China, 21% in Poland, 28-33% in the Baltic countries and 40% in the Ukraine. In fact, it was worse than in many African countries, e.g. Ghana (36%) and Ethiopia (41%). The only states to have the dubious distinction of beating Russia in this sphere were those with mass AIDS epidemics, like South Africa (60%) and Botswana (76%).

Eberstadt’s Russia: Too Sick to Matter? is as relevant to mortality today as when it was written in 1999. To quote it in extenso:

For every subsidiary age group from 15 to 65, death rates for Russian men today are frighteningly high. Youth may be the prime of life — but Russian men in their late teens and early 20s currently suffer higher death rates than American men 20 years their senior.13 For their part, Russian men in their 40s and 50s are dying at a pace that may never have been witnessed during peacetime in a society distinguished by urbanization and mass education. Death rates for men in their late 40s and early 50s, for example, are over three times higher today in Russia than in Mexico. To approximate the current mortality schedule for Russian middle-aged men, one has to look to India — the India, that is, of the early 1970s, rather than the much healthier India that we know today.14

It is beyond doubt that Russia’s healthcare system has improved in the last one hundred years, and despite its flaws, it is light-years ahead of countries like Ethipia or India, as measured by infant mortality rates, health spending per capita or immunization rates. So how come mortality, especially amongst middle-aged men, is so astoundingly high? To answer the question, it is instructive to look at the historical trends.

Russia life expectancy 1890-2000
Note how overall improvements in life expectancy for men were exclusively
due to the removal of childhood illnesses as a major cause of death.

In 1897, life expectancy in the Russian Empire was extremely low (31 years for males, 33 for females), lagging behind Western Europe and the US by around 15 years. The 1920′s and the period from 1945 to 1965 saw the introduction of mass elementary healthcare, raising life expectancy to 64 years for men and 72 years for women. Since then, the latter has stagnated while the latter went into slow but steady decline, in constrast to First World nations where life expectancy continued rising (see graphs below).

Life expectancy in Russia and other countries 1950-2000
Note how Russia trailed Japan up until 1965.

From the first graph on my Demographics I post, we can see that from the mid-1960′s mortality in Russia embarked on its merciless upwards trajectory (thus reflecting life expectancy trends). Notice how despite the dips (late 1980′s, late 1990′s, 2007?) and troughs (early 1990′s, early 2000′s), it follows a remarkably straight line. Rapid improvements, in which Russia followed Japan’s trajectory, stalled in the mid 1960′s and have been in stagnation ever since. (The Soviet Slavic and Baltic states followed a similar pattern, e.g. see stats and discussion on Ukrainian historical mortality here).

As of 2006, the vast majority of Russians died from cardio-vascular diseases (CVD’s) and injuries/violence. Some 8.6 / 1000 Russians passed away due to CVD’s, which is more than the America’s entire death rate (8.3 / 1000). In contrast, 2.8 / 1000 of Americans died from CVD’s. Russia’s deaths from external causes (DEC’s) were 2.0 / 1000, about four times higher than in the US. Of these, 23 / 100,000 were from alcohol poisoning, 30 / 100,000 from suicide and 20 / 100,000 from murder. On the other hand, cancers did not kill a significantly higher amount of people than in the West, while deaths from infectitious diseases are quantitavely insignificant. So it is clear than any solution of the mortality crisis will have to focus on reducing deaths from CVD’s and injuries / violence.

Historically, it can be seen below that deaths from diseases of the circulatory system have almost doubled since 1970. Forty years ago about an equal percentage of people died from circulatory diseases in both Russia and Europe (although even then, we should point out that this was not a good indicator, since Russians were substantially younger than Europeans then); today, they are separated by a factor of 4, as can be seen in the graph below. Deaths from injuries / violence have followed roughly similar trends.

1970-80 linear projection is mine by Rosstat data

Finally, life expectancy and mortality rates vary by geographical region and socio-economic factors. Siberia, the Far East and the North fare worse in relation to the Volga and the South – in particular, regions like Daghestan and Ingushetia with burgeoning populations of young Muslims were completely immune to the soaring post-1965 mortality rates in Russia proper. In Russia proper, the poor report worse health than the rich (see p.68) and rising mortality has mostly affected those who are poorly-educated (‘The well-documented mortality increases seen in Russia after 1990 have predominantly affected less-educated men and women, whereas the mortality of persons with university education has improved, resulting in a sharp increase in educational-level mortality differentials’).

Having outlined the situation, we can now ask ourselves several questions.

Why have Russia’s mortality rates, especially amongst less well-educated ethnic Russian men, soared since 1965 in such stark contrast to trends in the First World?

Веселие Руси есть пити [The joy of Russia is to drink]. – attr. Vladimir the Great, 988 AD, upon rejecting Islam as Russia’s future religion.

At its core, the mortality crisis is an alcohol crisis. Russia has had a long and rich relationship with alcohol from the times of Kievan Rus. From the earliest days excessive drinking was remarked upon in foreign travellers’ accounts. Ownership or regulation of vodka production has been a major source of state revenue since Ivan IV created a chain of taverns in all major cities through to the USSR, when in the 1970′s receipts from alcohol constituted a third of government revenue. Furthermore, Russian drinking is characterized by the zapoi, long binge sessions involving hard spirits. Nonetheless, until the country became industrialized, excessive regular drinking was circumscribed both by limited incomes (in the 17th century, a keg (12 liters) of bread wine was estimated to cost as much as one and a half or two cows) as well as traditionalist mores and folk wisdom.

Perhaps it was the beginning of the breakdown in social morale that had become endemic by the 1980′s. Perhaps it was linked to a tipping point in the level of development (half of Russians were living in cities by the 1950′s). Perhaps it was the after-effects of Red Army soldiers who had been given daily 100ml vodka rations during the Great Patriotic War (1941-45), became alcoholics and started dying in ever increasing numbers 20 years later. In any case, mortality rates began to increase dramatically since 1965, reaching epidemic proportions by the 1980′s. To quote Alcohol in Russia by Martin McKee in extenso:

Potentially more reliable figures have been generated outside the USSR by, for example, surveys of emigrants, especially to Israel, although these are problematic as there is evidence that Soviet Jews drank rather less than their Slavic neighbours. Nonetheless, one of the most rigorous studies, although again likely to be an underestimate because it did not include that large volume of alcohol now known to be stolen each year, suggests that consumption more than doubled between 1955 and 1979 to 15.2 litres per person (Treml, 1975). This figure is higher than that recorded for any OECD country (France was highest at 12.7 litres in 1990, although most other countries were in the range 5–9 litres), where data are largely derived from validated surveys of consumption (World Drink Trends, 1992). Also note that Russians tend to binge on hard spirits, while the French consume red wine in frequent moderate doses. Of course, this figure relates to the entire USSR and, for religious and other reasons, there are marked regional variations so levels in the Russian heartland are likely to have been much higher. Other studies of emigré families suggested that alcohol consumption accounted for 15–20% of disposable household incomes. Studies by dissidents and others supported the impression that alcohol consumption was increasing at alarming levels, suggesting, for example, that alcohol accounted for 15% of total retail trade (Krasikov, 1981).

Under Gorbachev, official statistics on a wide variety of topics slowly reappeared, although it was still not possible to undertake or publish research on topics such as alcoholism and social breakdown (Korolenko et al., 1994). The available data included figures on official production of absolute alcohol equivalent which was reported to have increased from 2.2 litres per capita in 1940 to 7.2 in 1985, a rather greater increase than had been assumed in the earlier estimates by Western observers.

However, the level of consumption is only one part of the picture. It is also important to know whether the frequency of drinking and the social context within which it takes place are different from those in other countries. Here, the information is even more fragmentary. Various reports suggest that, by the 1980s, the age at which people began to drink had fallen, that increasing numbers of women and children were heavy drinkers, and in some cities the average consumption among working adults was a bottle of vodka each day (White, 1996).

This pattern is reflected in the extensive evidence, reviewed by White (1996), from newspapers and from local surveys that alcohol consumption was becoming a major social problem. This included reports from a chemical plant that 3.5% of the workforce were confirmed alcoholics, 2.2% showed early signs of addiction, and a further 18.8% were alcohol ‘abusers’, with only 1.4% abstainers. Between 75% and 90% of absences from work were attributed to alcohol. It was suggested that loss of productivity associated with alcohol was the main reason for the failure to achieve the Soviet Union’s 5-year plan in the early 1980s, with estimates that the loss of productiv-ity due to alcohol was up to 20%. There were many letters to newspapers complaining of a lack of government action to tackle excessive consumption.

Refer to the male life expectancy chart above. Notice the slight uptick around 1982, and the much larger improvement from 1985-89? It is not a coincidence. In 1982 ‘action was initiated under Andropov and Chernenko under the general heading of reducing anti-social behaviour’, and three years later a wide range of specific action against alcohol abuse was undertaken – the banning of drinking at workplaces, banning sales before 2pm and in trains and restricting sales to off-licenses and over 21′s. Vodka production was cut and alcohol was banned at official functions (interestingly enough, today, there is noise but no action). Alas, initial successes were undermined by black market moonshine (read: more dangerous) production, while the new climate of perestroika decreased the risks of minor lawbreaking. The project was abandoned in 1988. From 1990 to 1994, the price of alcohol in relation to food fell by a factor of more than 3.
Predictably enough, alcohol consumption soared. Life expectancy plummeted.

Alcohol consumption estimates in litres per year
Look at the mortality trends of the first graph here and notice the remarkable
correlation between alcohol consumption and mortality rates.

Furthermore, we noted in this post that mortality rates were 1) geographically not uniform (lowest in the South and Volga) and were worst amongst 2) less well-educated 3) men. Guess what?

Nine per cent of men and 35% of women reported not drinking alcohol at all. Only 10% of men and 2% of women reported drinking several times per week, but 31% of men and 3% of women would drink at least 25 cl of vodka at one go at least once a month, and 3) 11% of men and 1% of women would drink at least 50 cl of vodka in one session at least once per month. There were large geographical differences, 1) with lowest rates of heavy drinking in the Volga and Caucasus regions and highest in the Urals….Unemployment was strongly associated with heavy drinking.

According to a NOBUS survey in 2003 (see pg.68), more than 50% amongst the poorest quintile of Russians consumed hard alcohol daily, compared with little more than 10% of the richest quintile. Since the poor tend to be less well educated, that’s 2) met.

Since 2002, alcohol consumption has remained extremely high. In 2006, it was an ‘estimated 15.2 litres of pure alcohol per capita each year for over-15s’ (no difference from 2002). Another study found that 44% of male deaths and 20% of female deaths can be attributed to alcohol in those aged 25 to 54, including 72% of homicides, 42% of suicides and 23% of CVD’s – in total, 32% of aggregate mortality, compared with 1-4% in all sampled West European countries. Even in Finland, well known as a nation of hard drinkers, the figure was just 4%.

On the other hand, there have been some positive developments, especially since 2005. The mortality rate fell from 16.1 / 1000 to 14.7 / 1000 by 2007. Death rates from CVD’s fell from 9.1%% to 8.3%% and death from external caused tumbled from 2.2 / 1000 to 1.8 / 1000. Perhaps most crucially, deaths from alcohol poisonings halved, while homicides fell by 30%.

What could have accounted for this? Recent times have seen a rise in national morale, documented here. Burgeoning economic growth has seen real incomes nearly triple in the last eight years and the poverty rate halved. The population, or at least its more connected members, has become more exposed to information on healthy lifestyles. During Putin’s second term, there have been more social investments, like the National Priority Projects (one of which is health), and this trend looks set to intensify under Medvedev. Finally, as we’ve noticed here, younger people are turning to beer – ‘beer consumption has risen from 20 litres per person a year to nearly 80 litres’. Considering that total alcohol consumption under Putin has remained about constant, this means that vodka’s 70% share of Russia’s alcohol consumption in 2001 must have fallen since.

In conclusion, it’s safe to say that alcohol is by far the biggest contributor to Russia’s mortality crisis. On the other hand, Russia, and more particularly working Russian men, pursue lifestyles that are practically optimized for ending them. In 2004, 61% of Russian men (and 15% of women) smoked – one of the highest rates in the world and little changed from Soviet times. (Mass smoking began during and immediately after the Second World War, while mortality began to rise 20 years later). Men smoked an average of 16 cigarettes per day. The Russian diet is ‘characterized by a diet high in animal fat and salt, and low in fruits and vegetables’ and many Russians suffer from high blood pressure and excessive blood cholesterol levels. Most Russians lead a sedentary lifestyle – ‘from 2000 to 2002, 73-81% of surveyed men and 73-86% of women aged 25-64 reported having low-levels of physical activity (CINDI 2004)’. Finally, the healthcare system suffers from a legacy of underfunding (real public health expenditure only overtook late Soviet figures in 2007) and inefficiency.

The general population is aware of the problems. Putin is not too impressed either, as he made clear in his state of the nation address in 2005.

I am deeply convinced that the success of our policy in all spheres of life is closely linked to the solution of our most acute demographic problems. We cannot reconcile ourselves to the fact that the life expectancy of Russian women is nearly 10 years and of men nearly 16 years shorter than in Western Europe. Many of the current mortality factors can be remedied, and without particular expense. In Russia nearly 100 people a day die in road accidents. The reasons are well known. And we should implement a whole range of measures to overcome this dreadful situation.

I would like to dwell on another subject which is difficult for our society – the consequences of alcoholism and drug addiction. Every year in Russia, about 40,000 people die from alcohol poisoning alone, caused first of all by alcohol substitutes. Mainly they are young men, breadwinners. However, this problem cannot be resolved through prohibition. Our work must result in the young generation recognizing the need for a healthy lifestyle and physical exercise. Each young person
must realize that a healthy lifestyle means success, his or her personal success.

Which is why the state has set itself the task of stopping negative natural population growth by 2011 and raising life expectancy to 75 by 2020. The billion dollar question is: will they succeed?

How and to what extent can Russia solve its mortality crisis?

The pessimistic demographers are skeptical of Russia’s ability to solve the mortality crisis any time soon. For instance, according to Eberstadt, achieving rapid improvements in mortality from CVD’s is unrealistic:

With heart disease, in a real sense, today’s “bills” cover “debts” accumulated over long periods in the past. For this reason, trends in deaths from heart disease in any country can never turn on a dime. Even with sensible, well-funded medical policies and wholesale popular embrace of a more “heart-healthy” lifestyle — none of which conditions obtain in today’s Russia — the control and reduction of CVD death rates tends to be a relatively gradual affair.

Furthermore, Russia suffers from ‘negative mometum’ in mortality. Working age life expectancy has been decreasing for forty years straight. In a sense, young Russians today are much ‘older’ than their peers of the same age a generation ago. Two assumptions are made. Firstly, as today’s young people are less healthy than their equivalents forty years back (who are now dying at already very high rates), this implies that when they reach their forties, fifties and sixties, their mortality will be even higher. Secondly, the population continues to get older, as the post-war boomers reach pension age. This creates the conditions for a demographic double wammy that, everything else remaining equal, will further depress life expectancy and massively inflate mortality levels even further. An example of these simplistic trend extrapolation can be seen in this model, according to which male life expectancy will fall to as low as 49 years by 2050. This is what we’d call a Stagnation scenario.

If this ‘debt model’ of national health is correct, and if societal attitudes remain stuck in the past, then Russia should indeed reconcile itself to continuing increases in the death rate and accelerating population decline. Fortunately, there is evidence that the first of the above assumptions is flawed.

Generational mortality for men 1981-2006
Indicates mortality levels for each age group for a given year. Lowest line
correspondsto the 40-44 age group, second lowest to the 45-49 age group in 2006, etc.
Colors track out a particular generation’s demographic history,
e.g. pink is the generation who were 60-64 years old as of 2006.

Take a look the above graph. Firstly, notice how mortality amongst all age groups rise and fall with each other. This implies that that in Russia, the factors leading to high mortality affect all age groups about equally. (If it hadn’t – if for example heavy drinking had only been increasing in the younger generations – then the lines above would have overlapped, or at least gotten closer together, as the younger generations started dying more relatively to the older). This puts into question Eberstadt’s whole ticking time-bomb thesis.

But more importantly, notice how mortality amongst all age groups declined from 2001 to 2006. Let us also note that this period came before the health National Priority Project. Nor did alcohol consumption decline, as we noted (although young people started drinking more beer – but we’re talking about middle-aged people here, and the fall in mortality amongst those in their sixties was if anything greater than in other age groups). There was a small drop in cigarette smoking rates, but benefits from that come with at least a few years’ lag. Yet a tipping point seems to have come at around 2005. Remember the 47% male “probability of dying” rates from 15-60 years in 2005? Well, according to Rosstat, in 2006 they fell to 43%, and fell further in 2007 (judging from the fact male life expectancy increased from 58.9 in 2005 to 60.4 in 2006 and 61.5 in 2007).

There is, however, a factor which explains flunctuations in Russia’s life expectancy much better than any other theory. That is the ratio of alcohol to food prices, as shown below. Notice how all price spikes and dips were associated with troughts and crests in life expectancy, especially pronounced amongst men.

Alcohol / food price ratios and life expectancy

Which takes us to the next part of the discussion. What is the government doing to promote healthy lifestyles, and what should it do?

For that, it is sufficient to look at a typical issue of the bi-weekly Russian demographic journal Demoscope Russia section – plans to raise pensions from 30-35% to 60-65% of wages, general increase in welfare, raising the alcohol-buying age to 21 and banning alcohol and tobacco adverts on transport. Increasing numbers of patients are getting access to hi-tech medical care. Even La Russophobe noticed these efforts, which must mean Russia is doing something right. In other words, all the things done in the West since the 1970′s and which the USSR tried to do in the 1980′s but gave up on.

In 1990, “probability of dying” rates for Russian and Estonian men were similar (32% and 30%, respectively), and both soared by 1995 (47% and 40%, respectively). In the next ten years, however, Estonia’s figure plummeted to 28%, while Russia in 2005 remained at 47%, falling only slightly in the interval. As we’ve noted, however, by 2007 this figure was probably already below 40%. Contrary to Eberstadt’s protestations to the contrary, rapid improvements in mortality stats are possible, and at no great expense if the ‘population-based and high-risk prevention strategies’ recommended here are pursued. The example of Karelia in Finland is illustrative:

The North Karelia Project in Finland shows that major changes in mortality from NCDs can be achieved through dietary changes, increased physical activity, and reduced smoking, serum cholesterol, and blood pressure. Coronary heart disease(CHD) in adults aged 65 years and less fell by about 73 percent between 1970 and 1995. In a recent 10-year period, mortality from coronary heart disease declined by about 8 percent a year. Mortality from lung cancer declined more than 70 percent, mostly due to consistent declines in the proportion of men who smoked (from 52 percent in 1972 to 31 percent in 1997). Data on the risk factors from ischemic heart disease and mortality in Finland suggest that the changes in the main coronary risk factors (serum cholesterol concentration, blood pressure, and smoking) can explain most of the decline in mortality from that disease.

As a result of targeting important high-risk factors for NCDs, all causes of mortality in North Karelia declined by about 45 percent during 1970–95. In the 1980s, these favorable changes began to develop all over Finland, improving life expectancy by 7 years for men and 6 for women. The largest decline in age-specific mortality was reaped by the 35- to 44-year-olds: men in this age group saw an 87 percent decline in mortality from CHD between 1971 and 1995. Men 35–64 saw age-adjusted mortality rates decline from about 700 per 100,000 populationin 1971 to about 110 per 100,000 in 2001. This rate for all of Finland among men in the same age group was about 470 per 100,000 and fell 75 percent. These improvements in life expectancy are correlated with significant declines in the amount of saturated fats consumed, coming mainly from milk products and fatty meat (saturated fatconsumption dropped from about 50 gr/day in 1972 to about 15 gr/day in 1992) and significant reductions in blood cholesterol levels (from about 7mmol/L in 1972 to about 5.6 mmol/L in 1997).

…Data from North Karelia reveal that results from preventionefforts may appear in years rather thandecade—improvements occur some 2-7 years after the elimination of the exposure to a risk factor, and that they are beneficial even for people in older age groups.

This suggests that if the trends explained above continue and people continue jumping up income classes, health improvements are sustainable. There’s a handy chart below showing the effects of decreasing different types of mortality on life expectancy.

Even if the only Improvements were a 40% drop in deaths from circulatory diseases and external causes, average life expectancy in Russia would rise to a respectable 72 years (in line with what happened in Estonia, where life expectancy grew from 67.8 years in 1995 to 73.0 years in 2005). On the one hand, Karelia was just one region; on the other, today’s medical technology is much more advanced than even a decade ago. As such, I think the idea of raising life expectancy to 75 years by 2020 is fulfillable, and that is not even taking into account the emerging technologies of life extension – which should be zealously pursued for both its financial (acturial escape velocity) and more tangible everyday benefits (like being able to live as long as you want).

Talking of which, we now move on to the fun bit – the Transformation scenario. This is an event or series of events which would induce a demographic paradigm shift. In the previous post, we’ve identified the artificial womb as a revolutionary concept for supply-side demographics, which will make the ‘birth rate’ independent of sociological factors. What would be revolutionary for the demographic depreciation rate (death rates)? Continuous and exponential growth in life expectancy. How could that be achieved?

Well, to an extent that is the case already.

Life Expectancy in England & Wales, both sexes, 1541-1998
Life expectancy at birth of male landowners in England between 1200 and 1450 AD,
so not strictly comparable with later, more detailed stats.

As you can see, from a historical perspective life expectancy before the Industrial Revolution was essentially stagnant. There were macro-trends associated with pressure on the earth’s carrying capacity, which drove down life expectancy in the 1200′s and 1550-1750, as well as sudden dips due to chaotic factors (the Black Death in the middle of the 14th century, fluctuations from 1500-1800 due to random climate changes impacting on food production), but on the whole it stayed flat. However, around 1750, there was a turning point, coinciding in time with the Agricultural Revolution. The 19th century saw considerable improvement, while in the 20th century it shot upwards.

Granted, the 1900-1960 growth spurt was mainly due to massive reductions in infant mortality rather than adult longevity increases per se. On the other hand, the former stopped playing a substantial role by 1960, and improvements in life expectancy occured mainly through the lowering of adult mortality rates. Since then, the sum of Western lifestyle and healthcare changes decreased adult mortality and pushed life expectancy up. (In the USSR, as we’ve noticed, healthcare remained stagnant and lifestyles worsened, so life expectancy sloped down).

However, now Russia has rejoined the mainstream of world development and as we’ve pointed out here and here, rapid economic convergence with the First World is likely. In the latter, life expectancy has been rising by around 0.3% per annum since 1970. Serious interest and research is already under way, such as the Methuselah Mouse Prize and Aubrey de Grey’s work on strategies for engineered negligible senescence (SENS).

The seven sisters that Dr de Grey wishes to slaughter with SENS are cell loss, apoptosis-resistance (the tendency of cells to refuse to die when they are supposed to), gene mutations in the cell nucleus, gene mutations in the mitochondria (the cell’s power-packs), the accumulation of junk inside cells, the accumulation of junk outside cells and the accumulation of inappropriate chemical links in the material that supports cells.

For more information, read the above Economist article, the wiki entry and a related collection of articles. Unfortunately, however, these technologies are not going to be making a truly revolutionary impact demographically any sooner than in about three decades (10 years to perfect them in animal experiments; another 10 to conduct the necessary human experiments; the final 10 to bring them into mass usage).

Nonetheless, the potential already exists today to radically prolong life expectancy.

Improvements in lowering rates of mortality attributable to alcohol to decent levels will reduce them by maybe 25%. Lowering tobacco usage to normal Western levels of 20-25% and environmental measures could reduce it by another 10%, while better healthcare could account for another 20%. This would lower Russia’s mortality rate from 14.7 / 100,000 to 8.9 / 100,000, which is comparable to the US (a country whose median age is about the same as Russia’s).

The Myth of Economic Collapse due to Ageing Population

According to a Stagnation (extrapolation of today’s fertility and age-specific mortality trends, which sees Russia’s population falling by 12% to 2025), the proportion of population aged 65+ will increase from 12% to 18% – but the latter figure is actually equal to Estonia’s percentage today, whose main problems today are purely macroeconomic (big CA deficit) rather than entitlements. The World Bank’s 15th Russian Economy Report itself admits this:

But growing older does not have to mean growing slower. Aging is not a stop sign for growth – if Russia enacts policy reforms that sustain productivity growth. Changes in labor markets are not immutably determined by demographic legacies. Productivity improvements are the core predictor of growth, so measures to improve labor productivity would swamp any “quantity” effects of a smaller labor force. In fact, in recent years, growth decomposition exercises show that in Russia labor productivity growth has been the single greatest contributor to increases in per capita income.

Considering that the gap between (high) human capital and (low) GDP per capita is so great in Russia, productivity growth should continue to be buoyant for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, considering that in the future older Russians will be both healthier and more educated, an ageing workforce could be counteracted by increased labor participation of the older cohorts in the economy.

Is Russia facing an AIDS Catastrophe?

According to Eberstadt’s ‘Intermediate Epidemic’ scenario in The Future of AIDS, there will be a cumulative total of 13mn AIDS cases in Russia by 2025, 9mn would have died and life expectancy will be down to just 63 years. Other media have also homed in on the apocalyptic dimensions of Russia’s AIDS crisis.

According to government figures, the number of new cases peaked in 2001 at 87,000, but has since stabilized at around 40,000-50,000 per year from 2003 on. As of 2007, there were 402,000 cumulative AIDS cases. However, although Russia’s AIDS epidemic was at first concentrated amongst injecting drug users (IDU’s), ‘HIV-infection is starting to spread more intensively heterosexually’. The share of women diagnosed with HIV every year increased from 20% in 2001, to 38% in 2004 and 44% in 2006. However, other assessments of the share of Russia’s HIV prevalence are usually about three times higher than official figures. HIV prevalence among pregnant women in Russia was 0.3% in 2004 and 0.4% in 2005 and 2006.

But there are good points too. Since 2006, the federal government has started spending huge amounts on the problem. Syphilis and hepatitis B have fallen sharply from their respective 1997 and 1999 peaks. The incidence of tuberculosis peaked in 2001 at around 95 / 100,000, although the fall hasn’t been as dramatic (82 / 100,000 in 2007). According to official sources, AIDS monitoring coverage in Russia consists of 20% of the population, including all the high-risk groups, so perhaps official figures aren’t such big underestimates after all.

The reality is that I simply don’t know enough about this to make a judgement either way, but then again, it is not even known why AIDS exploded in sub-Saharan Africa but remained contained everywhere else. If readers can point to more concrete information on this topic (AIDS in Russia) it would be much appreciated.

Now for Demographics III – Face of the Future

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.