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Nick Eberstadt

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One of the standard memes about Russia’s demographic trajectory was the “Russian Cross.” While at the literal level it described the shape of the country’s birth rate and death rate trajectories, a major reason why it entered the discourse was surely because it also evoked the foreboding of the grave.

russian-cross

But this period now appears to have come to a definitive end. Russia’s population ceased falling around at about 2009; in the past year, it has increased by over 400,000 thanks to net immigration.

Meanwhile, against all general expectations, the birth rates and death rates have essentially equalized. Whereas in 2011 natural decrease was still at a substantial 131,000, preliminary figures indicate that it has subsided to a mere 2,573 for this year. It could just as easily turn positive once the figures are revised. For all intents and purposes, the “Russian Cross” has become the “Russian Hexagon.”

russian-hexagon

This is a momentous landmark in many ways.

(1) More than anything else, Russia’s demographic crisis during the past two decades has been advanced as a quintessential element of its decline. Phrases such as the aforementioned “Russian cross”, the “demographic death spiral”, and “”the dying bear” proliferated in respectable journals and books. Until a few years ago, some entirely serious demographic projections had Russia’s population falling to as low as 130 million by 2015. This “deathbed demography” imagery was in turn exploited by many journalists to implicit condemn the rottenness of the Russian state in general and Putin in particular. Will they now rush to trumpet Russia’s demographic recovery, which was only possible through directed state intervention to improve the population’s health, cut down on the alcohol epidemic, and provide generous benefits for families with second children? For some reason I suspect the amount of ink that will be spilt on this will be but a tiny, minuscule fraction of that used to herald Russia’s demographic apocalypse. They will predictably move on to other failures and inadequacies – both real or perceived.

(2) For many years there has existed the notion among some demographers that once a society’s total fertility falls to a “lowest-low” level, there can be no return. It was theorized that the social values of childlessness and small families would spread, and that the resultant rapid aging would make it impossible for young families to have many children anyway. Russia’s total fertility rate fell to a record low of 1.16 children per woman in 1999, but rose above 1.30 in 2006, reached 1.61 in 2011, and rose further to an estimated 1.70 in 2012. It is thus so far the biggest and most important exception to this “lowest-low fertility trap hypothesis.” In reality, what was actually happening was that many Russian women were postponing the formation of families – a process common to most nations that reach a certain level of development. This in turn laid the foundations for the mini-baby boom that were are now seeing.

(3) There was likewise widespread pessimism that Russia’s life expectancy would ever significantly improve for the better. In the best case, it was assumed it would creep upwards, reaching 70 years or so in another few decades. However, the experience of other regions with Russia’s mortality profile, such as North Karelia in the 1980′s or the Baltic states in the 2000′s – very high death rates among middle aged men who drank too much – suggested that rapid improvements are possible with the right mix of policy interventions. This has happened. Russia’s life expectancy in 2012 was about 71 years, still nothing to write home about; however, it was higher than it ever was in the USSR, where it reached a peak of 70.0 years at the height of Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign in 1987, and equal to Estonia’s in 2002, Hungary’s in 1998, and Finland’s in 1973. If it were now to follow in Estonia’s mortality trajectory – and this is not an unreasonable supposition, considering Russia is now passing the tough anti-alcohol and anti-smoking taxes and regulations typical of developed countries – it would be on track to reach a life expectancy of 75 years by 2020 (Putin’s goal of 2018 is however probably too optimistic).

russia-deaths-from-external-causes

In particular, it should be noted that the worst types of deaths – those from external causes – have been cut down the most radically. Though they only account for a small proportion of total deaths, they tend to happen at earlier ages and thus have a significant impact on the workforce and overall life expectancy out of proportion to their actual prevalence. A calculation from 2005 showed that the effect of a 40% decline in deaths from external causes would be as good as a 20% decline in deaths from all circulatory diseases at extending male life expectancy. This has been achieved; as of 2012 it was at 125/100,000, down from an average of about 250/100,000 during the “demographic crisis” period but still far, far short of the 40/100,000 rates more typical of developed countries with no alcoholism epidemics. But as I’ve said before and will say again, while Russia’s “hypermortality” crisis isn’t anywhere near as severe as it once was, it is nothing to write home about; a great deal remains to be done. But the trend-lines are pointing firmly down, and the economic crisis of 2009 had zero effect on the underlying processes. This is extremely encouraging, as it implies that Russia has now become a “normal country” in which improvements in health and mortality steadily advance regardless of economic fluctuations.

I have anticipated many of these developments, and indeed, ventured forth with projections of my own. Here are some predictions made on the basis of my research and analysis from 2008:

  1. Russia will see positive population growth starting from 2010 at the latest. CHECK.
  2. Natural population increase will occur starting from 2013 at the latest. CHECK.
  3. Russia’s total life expectancy will exceed 68 years by 2010 and reach 75 years by 2020. Looks increasingly LIKELY.

There is no need for false modesty. I put my neck on the line and came out best against most of the established expert opinion.

But this is no time to rest on laurels and reminsce on past glories. The 2010 Census is out. Demographic data up till 2012 is available. It’s been a long four years since I wrote that model. It is high time to update it. I’ve been planning to do that for my book anyway, but now that I think about it, why not publish a paper at the same time? I have long been a fan of open access anyway, especially as regards academia.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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Today I had the pleasure of meeting up with Nick Eberstadt, an analyst at the AEI who specializes in Korea and Russian demography. He was dropping by SF and we had drinks at the excellent Samovar Tea Lounge.

As readers will know, we do obviously have many disagreements on Russia demography, with Eberstadt representing the “pessimistic” side and myself, the more optimistic one; and his assumptions and methods have at times been objects of criticism at this blog. If I may be so bold, recent data – population growth since 2008, and perhaps even a natural increase this year – has, at least thus far, favored the “optimistic” variants more than the “pessimistic” ones (though one can validly argue that the “echo effect” of the 1990′s baby bust has yet to make its play).

Nonetheless, I should emphasize that he is a deeply knowledgeable and conscientious scholar, who is receptive to new data and convincing counter-arguments, and a very interesting and entertaining conversationalist in person. It would be good for Russia watchers in general to meet up more often, as online interaction just isn’t the same thing. If you’re ever passing by the Bay Area, feel free to drop me a line.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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I will have a much longer and detailed post on this in the future, with new projections, but this breaking news (at least as far as it comes with dry demographic statistics) so I can’t refrain from writing a preliminary post on the matter.

For all intents and purposes, Russia’s demographic crisis – the infamous “death spiral” afflicting it for much of the post-Soviet period – is at an end.

Here is a summary of the preliminary data for 2011:

1. The population increased by 189,000. The rate of natural decrease, deaths minus births, is now at a mere 131,000; for comparison, it was consistently within the 700,000 to 1,000,000 range from 1993 to 2006. This was more than balanced by an uptick in net immigration, which rose to 320,000 this year. (This has not stopped the hackish Western media from slobbering on about Russia’s “brain drain” at just the precise moment in time that it finally came to a complete halt).

2. Births continue to rise, with Total Fertility Rates reaching 1.57 in 2010 and 1.60 in 2011. This is marginally higher than the EU average (1.59 in 2009), and similar to Canada (1.67 in 2009) and to Estonia (1.62 in 2009), which was the majority-Christian nation least affected by the demographic crisis after the Soviet collapse. Life expectancy is still dismal by industrialized country standards but is immeasurably better than before, having increased to 70.3 years in 2011. Russians have never lived longer; the previous two peaks were in 1964, at 69.9 years, and in 1986-87, at 70.0 years.

3. The structure of mortality has improved a lot, with fewer Russians dying from external causes (the bulk of which, in its case, are caused by drunkenness). Suicides, homicides, and deaths from alcohol poisoning are all now below the levels of 1990, the last year of Soviet “normality.” They are still far above the levels they should be but I am confident they will continue to improve as the effects of excise taxes and regulations causes alcohol culture to transform into the more reasonable forms seen in the US and Western Europe.

4. Because the immigrant population was previously under-counted, the most recent Census revealed the population to be 142.9 million as opposed to the projected 141.9 million. With the growth this year, it is now at 143.0 million.

4. Let me take the opportunity to remind the reader that I predicted this all. Hardly anyone else did. Back in mid 2008 I wrote: “Russia will see positive population growth starting from 2010 at the latest” (back when all the agencies and Big Name Experts were expecting unrelenting decline). I was 100% correct. The population was already growing by 23,000 in 2009. It did dip by 48,000 in 2010, but this was due to the chaotic effect of the heatwave and an unexpected decline in net immigration; this year, it more than made up the difference by growing for 2010 (and even 2008). My models were if anything too conservative on life expectancy. Even the most optimistic only broke the (unprecedented) 70 years barrier by 2012-13, but as of 2011 it was already at 70.3 as mentioned above.

5. For those smart-ass commentators who are going to talk about the “echo effect” of declining birth rates as women from the diminished 1990′s cohort come of age, please note that:

(A) The purpose of this post is primarily to avail readers of the latest developments, which have barely even been covered by the Russian media let alone the likes of Eberstadt.

(B) This effect is implicitly addressed in my models. I’m not going to argue with you on this until or unless you first read this post (which describes my models) and this discussion.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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It is now increasingly evident that Russia’s population has settled on a small but decidedly firm upwards growth trend. I have been vindicated.

According to the latest data, in the first eight months of the year births fell by 1.4% (12.5/1000 to 12.3/1000) and deaths fell by 6.2% (from 14.6/1000 to 13.7/1000) relative to the same period last year. The rate of natural population decrease eased from -198,3000 to -128,800. The big fall in the death rate is due to two factors: (1) the continuing secular increase in life expectancy, due to decreasing alcohol consumption and more healthcare spending; (2) specific to 2011, the “high base” effect of the mortality spike during the Great Russian Heatwave last year.

This natural decrease was more than compensated for by 200,255 net migrants during the same period, making for a population increase of 71,500 this year to August. This more than cancels out the population decrease of 48,300 for the whole of 2010, and let it be reminded that it rose by 23,300 in 2009. In other words, in stark contrast to the avalanche of doom-mongering articles that continue to be written in the Western press about “dying Russia” – of which two of the most egregious examples are this and this – the reality is that today in net terms Russia’s population is now larger than it was in 2009.

At this point an important methodological point has to be made. This year, Rosstat switched to only accounting for immigrants who “register at the place of residence” in their population updates, as opposed to the previous method of accounting for anyone who enters the country with a permit to stay for a year or more. The former number is much smaller than the latter: whereas there were the aforementioned 200,255 net immigrants by the old method, Rosstat’s registration method only shows 68,822 (with the result that Rosstat says that Russia’s population actually decreased by 60,000 in the first eight months of this year). However, as Sergey Slobodyan (a frequent guest blogger here) noted at the JRL, this was an opaque and rather bizarre switch. For a start, even using the first method in the years before 2011, which gives far more emigrants than the by residency method, Rosstat still under-counted the numbers of migrants in Russia by one million – the 2010 Census showed there to be 142.9 million Russians, as opposed to the 142.0 million estimated by Rosstat on the basis of projections from the 2002 Census. And even on an intuitive level, doesn’t it seem obvious that far from every migrant to Russia will immediately bother (or be able to afford!) registering at a place of residence? Slobodyan speculates that the reason the new methodology was adopted was because of nationalist tensions over immigration levels in the run-up to the upcoming elections, which may have pressed the Kremlin into pressuring Rosstat, at least for the time being, into purposefully under-counting immigrants; hence the unexplained switch in methodology.

Particularly encouraging in the statistics for this year is that “mortality from vices” continues to fall very rapidly – things such as homicides, suicides, poisonings, etc., that have a much higher than average negative impact on life expectancy (because people who die those deaths tend to be younger) and the social problems they are typically associated with. Note that all of these figures are already lower than in 1990, the last year of Soviet normality (more or less). The same trend can be seen for deaths from accidents. Now to be accurate these death rates are still very high by global standards: whereas Russia’s total numbers of deaths from “external causes” (suicides, homicides, accidents, etc.) was 134 / 100,000, thus dipping below the levels of 1990, it is still far from the 40 / 100,000 types of figures in countries like Australia. No-one doubts that there is still a lot of work to be done on the health and safety front.

Predictably, none of this gets mentioned in the Western media, which is still replete with tropes about the mass emigration of Russia’s middle classes (debunked here multiple times), non-existent population collapse, and citations of outdated CIA World Factbook figures which are cited in lieu of official Rosstat ones. To the contrary, the population has stabilized, and the “brain drain” is now a mere trickle (only 400 Russian R&D specialists emigrated abroad for an undefined amount of time in the first half of 2011, which is a drop in the ocean besides its population of 143 million). Meanwhile, they have missed the true demographic apocalypse that is occurring not in Russia itself, but in one of its neighbors, Latvia, long lauded as a pro-Western and economically liberal “Baltic tiger”: almost as many people are now leaving Latvia every year as leaving Russia. But Latvia’s population is 75 times lower!

S/O, vindicated

Three years ago, based on my own demographic models, I predicted that Russia’s demographic future will be either one of stabilization, or slow population growth. In late 2009, I wrote that even under undemanding assumptions, “the population size will remain basically stagnant, going from 142mn to 143mn by 2023 before slowly slipping down to 138mn by 2050.” This was highly counter-consensus, even scandalous, at the time, given that the debate was dominated by the likes of Nick Eberstadt and most of the main demographics agencies believed a decline to the low 130 millions was likely by 2025. For instance, in the professionally titled Spring 09 article Drunken Nation, Dr. Eberstadt wrote: “UNPD projections for the year 2025 range from a high of about 136 million to a low of about 121 million… The Census Bureau’s projections for the Russian Federation’s population in 2025 are 128 million.”

Now the big demographics agencies are recognizing that things have fundamentally turned around. For instance, in its most recent 2011 World Population Data Sheet, the PRB’s Medium forecast for Russia’s population in 2025 is now 139.0 million. In the 2010 Revision of the World Population Prospects by the UN Population Division has Russia’s population falling to 139.0mn in 2025, with the High forecast being 144.5mn in 2025. Russian statistics agency Rosstat forecasts 140.9 million in 2025, the High version being 146.7 million (note that they still use the base population of 142.0 million for this estimate, not the 142.9 million revealed by the recent Census; in reality, once this is accounted for, their 2025 would logically be by a million bigger).

Whither now? I believe the current Low scenarios, envisaging a drop to the low 130 millions by 2025, have become very unlikely – they assume that many of the trends we see today, such as falling mortality, and net emigration, almost completely stall. In the light of the government’s campaign against excessive alcohol drinking – the primary cause of Russia’s high mortality rates – and the historical successes that tend to accompany such campaigns (e.g. Karelian Finland in the 1970′s and 1980′s), not to mention the more recent Baltic experience; as well as continued economic growth that will enable more resources to be diverted to healthcare and for consumers to pursue healthier lifestyle choices; means that life expectancy will continue rising relatively quickly. Meanwhile, as long as there remains a substantial income gap between Russia and the Caucasus and Central Asia, immigrants will continue to come. Some commentators have argued that fertility convergence in those regions will reduce the number of potential migrants to Russia in the years to come. Perhaps. On the other hand, as Moldova and the Baltic nations show, even being in demographic straits of their own does not necessarily lead to diminishing supplies of emigrants from economically-behind countries.

The above graph is a set of Low, Medium and High projections from Rosstat in 2000, with the High version (green) being a stabilization at 142.7 million people in 2011. As one can see, the mere fact that Russia’s population is at 142.9 million is a surprise to the upside as viewed from a decade ago. If things go well – the economy continues growing, mortality rates keep falling, etc. – then it is entirely possible that Russia’s population will follow today’s mainstream High projections (144-147 million) or even surpass 150 million (as in my original High projection) by 2025.

EDIT: This article has been translated into Russian at Inosmi.ru (Российская демография: развенчивая мифы).

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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After peaking in 2007 at the height of its oil boom, the Russian economy slid off the rails, with GDP collapsing by 25% from peak to trough. Attempts to stem the decline by arresting pessimistic economists failed. Its image as a tiger economy, heavily promoted by Kremlin ideologues, was revealed to be a sham. Though anemic, growth returned this year; but little of it trickles down to ordinary Russians. Unemployment is over 16%, birth rates have collapsed, and millions of citizens are voting with their feet and migrating to work as laborers in affluent Western Europe.

This demographic free fall threatens to dash any remaining hopes of Russia ever converging to European living standards. Birth rates have fallen by 25% since the post-Soviet era peak in 2008, and the total fertility rate – the average number of children a woman can be expected to have over her lifetime – is now one of the lowest in the world, surpassed only by a few small, rich Asian states like Taiwan and Singapore. And with young professionals rushing for the exits, this situation is unlikely to be reversed any time soon. Last year, half a million people out of Russia’s 143 million population left for greener pastures; this figure has already been exceeded in the first half of this year. Already falling at an alarming 840,000 in 2009, population decrease further rose to 1,220,000 in 2010 and on current trends will approach 2 million this year. This demographic death spiral is the epitome of Putinism’s failure. The Leon Arons and Nicholas Eberstadts of this world were correct all along. Having been a Russophile shill all these years, it is time for me, like Johann Hari, to admit to my failures, apologize to the readers I misled, and go back to journalism school.

Oh wait, I almost forgot. I was actually talking about Latvia.

That is, Latvia adjusted for Russia’s population, and replacing “oil” with “cheap European credit” and taking out the arrested economist story and a few other details. All figures are from the Latvian statistics agency.

Above is a graph of the number of births per month in Latvia; note the collapse in the past three years, which shows no signs of abating. Even at its peak in 2008, the Total Fertility Rate – the number of children a woman can be expected to have – was at 1.44, which is well below replacement level rates (but nothing out of the ordinary for East-Central Europe). It fell to 1.31 in 2009, and according to my rough calculations, to about 1.17 in 2010. If the further decline observed in the first seven months of this year continues, then Latvia’s TFR will approach 1.1 in 2011. That would return Latvia to its post-Soviet nadir reached in 1998-99, and if prolonged will put its chances of convergence to West European living standards under serious question. Especially since…

Many more Latvians are leaving the country! As shown above, net emigration is soaring – almost 2,000 are now leaving per month, which is not insignificant out of a total population of 2.2 million. Many of these migrants are young professionals, the people who would otherwise be at the head of modernizing Latvia’s economy. In the past three months, more Latvians have left than were even born!

The contrast with Russia, a frequent object of scorn and ridicule among the Western commentariat, is far-reaching. Russia’s population stabilized in 2009, and has remained flat since. In the first half of this year, it received an influx of 143,000 net immigrants (of whom 498 happen to be from Latvia, incidentally). The migration balance has turned positive even with some rich countries that traditionally took in many Russians, such as Germany and Israel. The only major countries to which Russia is still sending more people than taking in are the US, Canada, and Finland. Not that one would could glean any of this from reading the Western media’s awful Russia coverage.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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As we’re now approaching mid-2011, I suppose its time to give my traditional update on Russia’s demography. So here’s the lay-down:

1. In February, I predicted a population decline of c. 50,000 in 2010 (after a 23,000 rise in 2009). This was due to the excess deaths of the Great Russian Heatwave of 2010, and a substantial fall in immigration. The latest figures confirm it: population declined by 48,300. As of January 2011, it stood at 142,914,136 people (this is by the new Census estimates).

2. Three years ago, I predicted – going against 90%+ of “experts” – that the medium-term future of Russia’s demography is stagnation or small increase. In late 2009, I wrote that even under undemanding assumptions, “the population size will remain basically stagnant, going from 142mn to 143mn by 2023 before slowly slipping down to 138mn by 2050.” To give an example, the 2008 World Population Prospects of the UN Population Division predicted Russia’s population would fall to 132.3mn in 2025 and 116.1mn in 2050. As of their 2010 Revision, Russia’s population is projected to be 139.0mn in 2025 and 126.2mn in 2050 (High: 144.5mn in 2025; 145.3mn in 2050). What a difference two years make! In any case, “official” predictions are now beginning to converge with my own (not to mention Rosstat’s).

2010 UN population projection for Russia.

2010 UN population projection for Russia.

In large part, the pessimism of the earlier projections had a lot to do with the fact that the “experts” were slow to react to real-life trends, such as the improving healthcare and rising confidence that began reversing Russia’s demographic decline. For instance, going back to that same 2008 UN Population Division report – I’m not even going to talk of professional doomers such as Nick Eberstadt – note that they assumed a TFR of 1.47 for 2010-15 and 1.53 for 2015-20 (when it was already 1.49 in 2008, and 1.54 in 2009), and a life expectancy of 67.9 for 2010-15 (when it was already at that point in 2008, rising to 68.7 in 2009 and 69.0 in 2010). Though its effect was pretty minor, their assumptions for infant mortality were truly hilarious: they predicted it would only drop to 7.3/1000 by 2045-50, whereas in fact it is already below that level at 7.1/1000 for Q1 2011.

3. Speaking of 2011, the outlook is mixed. Net immigration in the first quarter slightly increased from 52,000 in 2010 to 61,000 in 2011 (but below 2009). According to the latest data for January-April, births fell from 572,000 to 557,900 (-2.5%) but deaths fell from 679,000 to 658,700 (-3.4%). This carries a number of implications. First, is the fall in births a blip or a trend? Quite possibly, it’s now the latter. The effects of the big post-Soviet fertility fall-off are now being felt in rapidly decreasing numbers of women entering their childbearing years – in 2010, there were 1.68mn 17-year olds, 1.84mn 18-year olds, 2.23mn 20-year olds, and 2.56mn 22-year olds which means that there will be a growing downward pressure on birth rates (though to some extent this is dampened by the rising average age of motherhood). OTOH, the continuing fall in mortality is encouraging; in fact, it will in all likelihood – barring a repeat of last year’s apocalyptic drought with its 44,700 excess deaths – accelerate in summer due to the effects of a higher base. According to my back of the envelope projections, it is basically a coin flip as to whether Russia will see slightly positive or slightly negative population growth this year.

4. A roundup of demography news from the rest of the former USSR (use this post as reference). Reflecting its economic crisis, births fell and deaths increased in Belarus for Jan-Apr. In Ukraine for Jan-Mar, deaths fell slightly and births remained stagnant (after falling in 2010). Those pundits who keep focusing on Russia’s imminent demographic apocalypse may find better targets elsewhere. The recent Lithuania Census indicated that the Baltic country’s population declined by about 10% in the past decade. But even that’s normal news compared to Latvia…

In the wake of its economic crisis, Latvia has seen a faster collapse in its demographic indicators than even in the years following the Soviet Union. In the first four months of 2011, a quarter fewer Latvians were born relative to the same period in 2008. That year marked the post-Soviet peak of its TFR at 1.45 children per woman, meaning that it is now at around 1.1 children per woman. In the meantime, deaths only fell by 5%. As a result, the rate of natural decrease rose from 7,100 in 2008 to 10,000 in 2010, and may register a small rise again this year. And that’s not all. Net emigration rose from 4,700 in 2009 to 7,900 in 2010, and has already reached 4,400 as of this April. From this February, more than a thousand Latvians have been leaving their country each month.

5. Check out Russian Demographics – Something Stirring in the East by Claus Vistesen at demography.matters and related discussion.

6. The past two years have been good ones for censuses. India’s population rose to 1.21bn in 2011 (181mn increase since 2001), with a worsening in the child sex ratio to 109 boys per 100 girls and a rise in literacy from 65% to 74%.

China’s population rose to 1.34bn in 2010 (74mn increase since 2000), a less than expected increase that implies its fertility rate has shrank to about 1.4 children per woman in the last decade. Furthermore, the continually big child sex disparity – there are 118 boys to 100 girls – means that the effective fertility rate is even lower. Literacy is now practically universal at 96%, the share of the population with a college degree doubled to 8.5%, and there is now an even divide between rural and urban inhabitants.

The 2010 US Census had no surprises or matters of particular interest, you can read about it here.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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The recent sinking of a South Korean (ROK) corvette, with the probable deaths of several dozen sailors, brings to focus the fraught situation on the Korean peninsula. Now the cause of this incident – North Korean (DPRK) torpedo or tragic accident – is not yet clear. Moreover, the two sides have a long history of border clashes – the current hot-spot over the Northern Limit Line, claimed by the ROK but disputed by the DPRK, has already seen three armed clashes in 1999, 2002, and 2009. The Korean War never really ended (the DPRK actually withdrew from the 1953 Armistice in 2009), and the North has pursued a strategy of periodically ratcheting up tensions to extract concessions from South Korea and the US. So this latest near-crisis is neither unexpected nor exceptionally destabilizing. As with the Cold War nuclear standoff, though the chances of any one trigger setting off an escalation to all-out war are small, they do accumulate over time.

Welcome to North Korea!

The Democratic People’s Republic is, as is well known, neither democratic (elections are fixed), popular (it is run by a small clique), or even a republic (Kim Jong-il succeeded his father Kim Il-sung to become “Supreme Leader”, and his son Kim Jong-un is slated to take over in 2012). Its political economy is essentialy based on the Asiatic mode of production – “held in thrall by a despotic ruling clique, residing in central cities and directly expropriating surplus from largely autarkic and generally undifferentiated village communities” (Martin & Wigen, 1997). These surpluses are used to buy the loyalties of the ruling elites who plan the DPRK’s self-sufficient economy (Juche) and uphold the “military first” (Songun) policy, as a result of which the DPRK is by far the most militarized state in the world – around 5% of its population are in the Korean People’s Army, on which the state has lavished a third of its entire gross product since the 1970′s. What emerges is an apotheosis of industrial totalitarianism, a “hermit kingdom” that manages to develop ballistic missiles and nukes, but can’t even feed its people – permanent dearth occasionally dips into outright famine, such as in 1995-98 when around 12% of its population starved to death.

Nonetheless, this does not mean that the DPRK is weak or unstable. Though its system of personal rule is brittle, a combination of coercion and legitimizing propaganda suppresses popular uprisings from below and open struggles amongst the elites. Consumer poverty has not preempted the sustenance of a 1.1mn-strong military, with some NBC capabilities, that is nearly twice the size of its southern adversary (not only in manpower, but also tanks, artillery pieces, warships, and fighters). This military buildup serves two complementing imperatives of the regime – 1) preserve the political dominance of the ruling elites centered around the Kim dynasty and upper echelons of the Party and military-industrial complex, and 2) pursue Kim Il-sung’s policy of “reunification through military force under DPRK conditions” that consitutes the legitimizing basis of the regime’s permanent war economy.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FJ6E3cShcVU

["Welcome to North Korea" documentary about the extent to which the Kim family's personality cult has taken over society].

Contrary to popular opinion, the North Korean regime is essentially stable. It survived its baptism of fire in 1950-53, the collapse of the Soviet Union (and of its subsidies) in the early 1990′s, and a devastating famine in 1995-98. It is merely authoritarian regimes, like Iran or China, which tend to be the most unstable. On the other hand, North Korea is a throughly totalitarian society, in which all information about the outside world is limited and dissenting voices are sent off to vast political prisons. Though hardship, dearth, and black markets may undermine the DPRK, there is always China to provide a last bulwark against disintegration. China has no interest in seeing the DPRK collapse, since doing so 1) may unleash a destabilizing flood of refugees and 2) much more importantly, its successor state will probably align with, or be absorbed by, South Korea, which is a regional rival and a firm ally of the US. The Chinese will do everything in their power to avoid a scenario in which a united Korean peninsula points like a dagger into their heartlands. Hence, as long as the DPRK’s rulers are united in their will to perpetuate the system, it will not collapse of its own accord.

This simple equilibrium, however, is complicated by outside Powers and the DPRK’s strategic culture. As Nicholas Eberstadt notes, North Korea is “deeply dissatisfied with the current configuration of the international chessboard and fundamentally committed to transforming it”, and the pursuit of nuclear weapons is one way to further these objectives. First, they help the regime legitimize itself domestically. Second, they are believed to deter South Korea and the US from launching preemptive strikes (senior figures in the DPRK have acknowledged outright that the example of Iraq is a great incentive to acquire nuclear arms).

Third, some elements of the Korean leadership may believe that nukes would deter the US and Japan from interfering in a renewed Korean War. Though the DPRK must realize their technological inferiority before South Korea, they may believe that in the absence of US reinforcements and airpower, their own advantages in sheer mass, special forces and infiltration, and NBC weapons may enable them to break through the DMZ and overrun the South. Unlikely? Maybe. But North Korea’s penchant for brinkmanship and unclear level of rationality means that the possibility must not be discounted. Really, all it takes is one low-level hothead to unfreeze the Korean War.

There is no question that North Korea is, if not planning, at least actively preparing for war. Despite its permanent economic hyper-depression, military mobilization remains as high as ever. Nationalism is cultivated, the South portrayed as a “puppet” of American imperialism. North Korea’s side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) has 500-600 SCUD missiles, which can deliver chemical agents, and 11,000 artillery pieces in hardened dugouts, capable of firing up to 500,000 rounds per hour. This volume of fire is capable of leveling much of Seoul, potentially causing hundreds of thousands of casualties (millions if nuclear weapons are used), and severely damaging the first of the South’s three defensive lines. Whereas in 1994 some 45% of Korea’s military manpower was located at the DMZ, by 1998 it had grown to 65% (and 80% of firepower) and more than 70% today. Tunnels have been dug underneath South Korea fortifications and the North boasts a 100,000-strong special forces, the biggest in the world. At least in public, the DPRK unwaveringly believes in its own military superiority.

Preparing for War

Assume the recent naval incident spirals out of control in the next few weeks. I’m not saying it will – that’s very unlikely, based on past precedent – but let’s just assume it. Though North Korea is as opaque as ever, there are indications that domestic crisis is brewing. Recent attempts at currency reform have failed, triggering what may be imminent hyperinflation (the mastermind behind this reform is rumored to have been executed). Furthermore, there are the challenges of the upcoming leadership transition. An increasingly paranoid DPRK leadership, facing the specter of unrest and renewed famine, decides that a war may be the way out of their increasingly untenable predicament. They begin to prepare a blitzkrieg against the South.

Though the military balance on the Korean peninsula was tipped towards North Korea throughout the Cold War, the situation was reversed in the early 1990′s as the ROK acquired new, modern equipment that was no longer needed by NATO on the Central European Plain. Even as South Korea’s economy continued its relentless surge into a leading global position, the North’s collapsed into a hyper-depression from which it has not emerged twenty years later. By 1998 it was estimated that though North Korea had the equivalent of 5 heavy US divisions, compared to South Korea’s 3.75, this slight margin was more than closed when one accounted for the latter’s better logistics, support equipment, and prepared defensive positions (not to mention 37,000 US troops and aeronaval forces). The tables had turned and it is like that by then the South could have defended itself even without outside support.

Fast forward another ten years to today. The North is now slightly better off than it was in the crisis-wracked 1990′s, having transitioned from militarized Marxism-Leninism to militarized neo-feudalism (nowadays, the Party has withered away and it is the Army that runs the economy). The gap between North and South is greater than ever. The ROK is now an advanced industrial economy, with the region’s third most powerful economy and military (behind China and Japan). On the other hand, the DPRK is the apotheosis of the late Industrial Age national security state – it has plenty of tanks, schools, spies, radios, bunkers, patriotic songs, etc, but lacks the information infrastructure that is indispensable for remaining competitive in the Information Age. As long as it retains its Juche system, it will continue slipping ever further behind.

However, one (dis)advantage of being disconnected and living in a personality cult is that you become pretty confident about your own strength. So back to our scenario of North Korea’s war preparations in April 2010. They will conduct a campaign of strategic deception, or maskirovka, to conceal their true intentions. Even as stockpiles of fuel, munitions, and spare parts are built up on the DMZ, relations with the South will appear to be better than ever.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that the DPRK has the dubious distinction of being America’s “most watched” country. American reconaissance satellites keep a permanent watch on the hermit kingdom and target lists are continuously updated. The primary concern nowadays is to detect North Korean missiles being prepped and fueled, so that the US is capable of intercepting them before launch if it so chooses. But suspicious signs of the buildup will likely be detected, and confirmed for certain hours, if not days, in advance.

The DPRK’s air defense system is extremely dense, and many artillery positions are concealed and/or hardened. However, the system’s obsolesence makes it ineffective against stealth or high-flying warplanes, and it can be easily jammed by modern electronic countermeasures. Though hardened, the ensuing lack of mobility makes them easy game for the precision-guided bunker busters that the US has in abundance. And it is doubtful that concealment will do the North Koreans much good when any armchair general can identify hidden artillery positions on Google Earth!

Pyongyang has over 150 AAA positions, making it by far the most defended city in the world, though the guns and fire-control radar are of 1950′s/60′s Soviet vintage. Source.

What may happen is that an hour or two before North Korean tanks are slated to begin rolling south, on receiving confirmation of an imminent invasion, the USAF and Korean Air Force will launch massive spoiling attacks on North Korea’s DMZ artillery positions, C&C nodes, airfields, critical infrastructure, and supply depots. Below is one scenario of a “Surgical Air Strike” from the 2003 report Stand-Off with North Korea: War Scenarios and Consequences by two analysts from the Center for Defense Information that gives some idea of the immense significance of US air power.

Six B-2s each armed with 80 500-lb JDAMs sequentially launch from Guam. The strike is coordinated with several divisions of B1-s with 12 JDAMs per aircraft and F-117s with two laser-guided precision-guided weapons per aircraft, taking off from other bases in the region. These strikes would be deconflicted with the launch of more than 300 Tomahawk cruise missiles from the various cruisers and submarines positioned in the Pacific. Six additional B2s, flying out of their homebase in Missouri, time their arrival closely behind – loaded with 24 1,000lb JDAMs or 16 2,000lb JDAMs. One thousand targets could be destroyed prior to sunrise. This would prepare the battleground for ground forces to rapidly sweep to the North under a protective close air support umbrella of tactical aircraft from two carrier battle groups and other aircraft and assault helicopters in the South.

The F-117 was retired in 2008, but is now being replaced by the much more capable F-22 Raptor. The scenario remains valid. However, it actually referred to a long-planned surgical strike designed to take out the North’s nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and decapitate its means for artillery retaliation. Obviously, the overall damage will not be as crippling to the North if the US and ROK have advance notice of only a few hours. Nonetheless, America’s bomber forces are at permanent readiness, there is an uninterrupted carrier battle group (CVBG) presence near the Korean peninsula, and the their target lists are always up to date. The preemptive air strikes will substantially weaken the Northern assault given their poor air defense and logistics.

At this point, control of the Combined Forces Command (CFC) of the ROK and the US is transferred onto an American general from Korea. (Though there is an agreement to let South Korea have wartime control from 2012).

Korean War 2.0 – The Tanks roll South

It begins. As North Korean generals become aware that their adversaries have jumped the gun on them, they will order the DMZ artillery to immediately open fire on the South’s first defensive lines, which has 8 out of its 19 divisions, and on Seoul, so as to create a flood of panicked refugees that would clog nearby roads, hampering resupply efforts and reinforcements. There may be initial wave of poor-quality troops (e.g., perhaps conscripted from its 200,000 political prisoners) to clear the minefields and soften up the ROK’s defense lines. Special forces units begin infiltrating the enemy rear, with the help of incursion tunnels beneath the DMZ.

Soon after, the DPRK’s four pre-positioned Army corps begin to move south along the “two major avenues of approach that lead toward Seoul, via Kaesong and Munsan nearer the west coast, and Chor’won and Uijongbu further inland”, as well as smaller operations “along the east coast from Kansong to Sokch’o as well as the Taedong mountains further inland”. Heavily influenced by Soviet military philosophy of the 1970′s-80′s, the North Korean plan is to use infantry supported by armor – emphasizing strategic surprise, mobility, and concentration of firepower, in tandem with special forces operations in the enemy’s rear – to rapidly overrun the South’s defense lines and reunify the peninsula “under DPRK conditions” within 30 days, before the ROK can fully mobilize or bring in heavy American reinforcements.

North Korean attack plan. Source.

North Korean attack plan. Source.

The breakthrough will be very hard for the KPA to accomplish, since they will face multiple prepared, unbroken, and amply manned defense lines across the DMZ. They will be continuously reinforced by an allied operational reserve that includes the US 2nd Infantry Division and two of the three South Korean mechanized divisions. A rapid North Korea breakthrough is very unlikely – historically, “advance rates were rarely more than four to five kilometers a day… when armies in World War II tried to drive through prepared defenses”.

As noted previously, the war will be very costly, in both blood and dollars. In 1994, when war seemed imminent, senior US military leaders estimated that in the first ninety days there would be “52,000 US military personnel killed and wounded, along with 490,000 South Korean military casualties… as well as ‘enormous’ DPRK and civilian casualties”. Furthermore, up to 80,000-100,000 American citizens could be killed, the war would cost the US 100bn $, and “the destruction and interruption of businesswould cost a trillion dollars to the countries involved and their immediate neighbors”. And this assumed that North Korea didn’t go nuclear, in which case costs would rise by another order of magnitude.

This was back in 1994. Sixteen years later, South Korea and the US have greater potential for minimizing their casualties thanks to technological developments, such as the following:

The United States has been working upon this problem for some years, and an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD) was mounted on the Peninsula in 1996-97 for this very purpose. The Precision/Rapid Counter – Multiple Rocket Launch ACTD, completed in 1997, apparently successfully developed and demonstrated all weather, day/night “precision deepstrike capability” to neutralize the rocket launchers and heavy artillery deployed north of the DMZ.

Whatever the costs of the war, however, it is almost certain that North Korea will fail to attain its objectives. Given the much better equipment, training, surveillance assets, and battlespace knowledge of the Combined Forces, as well as the parlous state of the North Korean military (e.g. its fighter pilots only get 10 hours of training per year, as opposed to 200+ hours for American pilots), its antiquated weapon systems (e.g. the main North Korean battle tank is based on the Soviet T-62), and its economic base (only has enough fuel reserves to sustain operations for 2-3 months), there is little doubt that South Korea will hold its defensive lines. Perhaps a few vanguard KPA detachments will penetrate to within sight of Seoul’s suburbs – where they will be bewildered at the puppet state’s relative prosperity – but that is the best that North Korea can realistically expect.

What if North Korea uses tactical nukes to break through the South Korean defense lines, similar to some Warsaw Pact plans for the conquest of Western Europe? This is a possibility, though not a particularly high one. Both DPRK nuclear tests “fizzled”, i.e. they were unsuccessful, indicating that their nuclear devices are quite primitive and not properly weaponized. (Building a nuclear device is pretty easy, making it reliable and mating it to a robust delivery system is the hard bit). This does not bode well for them given that most estimates indicate that the North only possesses a dozen or so bombs. More importantly, any offensive use of nukes by the DPRK will likely be met by a devastating response from the US; certainly that is the case if they manage to strike Japan or Hawaii (though that is a very remote prospect given that DPRK missiles are liquid-fueled, easily-detectable, and take a few days to “prep”, making them sitting ducks for the USAF). So despite the rhetoric, the DPRK is only probably going to “go nuclear” when it begins to feel it is losing – for instance, in a last-ditch attempt to seize Seoul before the South launches a strong counter-offensive with American reinforcements, or by “nuclear mining” the road to Pyongyang .

“Given the mass of combat power the U.S. and South Korea have available, both in forward stationed forces and in reserve, exposed invasion forces that became slowed or halted would be in dire straits from the defense lines in front of them and to their flanks, as well as indirect fire from artillery”. The Combined Forces will rapidly achieve full air superiority over the North Koreans, and will be able to inflict a lot of damage with minimal interference. US reinforcements will pour in by sea and air, and advance elements of heavy divisions will appear by Day 30. This will set the ground for the third phase of the war – the conquest and destruction of the DPRK as a political entity.

Korean War 2.0 – The March to Pyongyang

The allied war plan, Operations Plan 5027, calls for a “regrouping phase after halting the initial invasion” (expected within 7-10 days of the start of the North Korean offensive), around the “layered defense lines north of and around Seoul”, to be followed by a full-scale counteroffensive whose ultimate objective is Pyongyang and the reunification of the peninsula under the Republic of Korea. This invasion will be preceded by heavy B-1 and B-52 bombardment before the allied advance and the use of amphibious Marine operations to “cut the DPRK’s narrow band in two”.

This advance is expected to encounter fierce resistance. Practically every adult in North Korea has military training and the country has been devoting the bulk of its resources to defense since the 1970′s. Finally, much of the North Korean terrain is mountainous and less favorable to America’s hi-tech assets than the flat deserts of Iraq. Below is a summary of the views of one Chinese military analyst, Zhen Xi, writing in the 1990′s, on how he believes North Korea can defend itself.

NORTH KOREA CAN DEFEAT AMERICA

Chinese military authors also appear to devalue the effectiveness of U.S. forces in a future Korean scenario. According to a colonel at AMS, several factors ensure U.S. defeat “if in the next few years a Korean War erupted.” His main points are:

  • The United States will not have 6 months to deploy and train forces. Instead, “the Korean People’s Army will surprise attack South Korean air bases, ports and communication lines.”
  • “U.S. casualties will not be as low as in the Gulf War. . . . On the Korean peninsula, the population is dense, with river networks and mountains, roads are few, unsuitable to armor . . . casualties will be extremely high.”
  • “North Korea’s mountains are wrapped in clouds and mist; it will be difficult for the U.S. Air Force and high-technology weaponry to give full play to their vast superiority.”
  • Temperatures of negative 40 degrees centigrade “provide excellent conditions” for guerilla warfare.
  • North Korea will not allow the United States to land in the rear.
  • U.S. forces lack numerical strength. During the Korean War, U.S. troops reached over 400,000, but the result was not victory. In the 1960s and 1970s, in the Vietnam War American forces were 663,000 and had great technical superiority, but the result also was defeat. U.S. forces in year 2000 will be 70 percent of today.

These are all more-or-less valid points, but there are a number of caveats that must be taken into account in such an analysis.

First, it should be borne in mind that the bulk of the military mass will now be provided by South Korea, which has around 5mn men in the reserves and a massive industrial base of its own. The most important US contribution will be its surveillance and reconaissance capabilities, air and naval power, and amphibious operations. Such a single-minded emphasis on the US is misplaced.

Second, whereas in the 1980′s the KPA was a motivated and able force, it is far from clear whether that is still the case. There are numerous reports of metastasizing corruption within the DPRK reaching to the highest levels of government. As happened in 2003 Iraq, it may even be possible to bribe some North Korean generals into non-interference or surrender.

Third, likewise it is not at all clear that the general North Korean population will willingly fight for the regime, at least not with the fanatic zeal one sees in DPRK propaganda. Yes, the hermit kingdom remains, by and large, a very closed society. However, hundreds of thousands have emigrated into China, and millions have now been exposed to videos of life in South Korea. Since the early 2000′s, VCR’s have become accessible to better-off North Koreans, along with black-market DVD’s of South Korean dramas and films. Observers report a (relative) relaxation of social controls – not for lack of effort, but simply because the resources available for surveillance have plummeted along with everything else – and increasing disillusionment with the government.

Fourth, another very important thing is that the DPRK’s fertility rate has been at or below the replacement level rate of 2.1 children per woman since the 1990′s. Historically, only high-fertility nations have been able to sustain intense guerilla campaigns or “people’s wars“, since the death of a son is far more tragic – and economically ruinous – when he is your only one. Moreover, most of the troops invading North Korea will be fellow Koreans – yet another disincentive for waging an uncompromising resistance struggle.

Fifth, the importance of the allied technological edge must not be underestimated. When you are losing five or ten soldiers for every one of the enemy’s, the will to fight becomes incredibly sapped. And those are the likely ratios when low-category North Korean units come up against the advancing Combined Forces.

I am not saying that the march to Pyongyang will be like a walk in the park. At least initially, the Korean People’s Army and its military reserves will put up a fight, and as mentioned above, facing the certainty of its own demise, the regime may not shy away from unleashing any nuclear capabilities they may have. Nor are the South Koreans going to be particularly restrained – one authority on the matter informs me that the South Korean officer class hates the Northern elites, and will probably “take no enemies, anyone associated with the party (which means all officers) will be eliminated”. However, there is no way that even a big guerrilla army – poorly trained, logistically-challenged, and armed with antiquated 1950′s/60′s-era Soviet weaponry – will be able to halt the advance of a modern military enjoying advanced space-based surveillance systems and complete air and naval superiority. An eventual Combined Forces victory is assured, unless…

The Specter of Escalation

Crossing the DMZ with the intention of toppling the DPRK and replacing it with a government allied with or integrated into South Korea will put a whole set of new dynamics into play. Though China has no intention of aiding North Korea in aggression, it views the establishment of an American bridgehead on its Manchurian border with trepidation and may intervene under extreme circumstances, such as an all-out American and South Korean drive for “regime change” in Pyongyang.

If this were to happen, all bets are off. China will probably be able to roll back the invasion forces to the DMZ. After all, it managed to do this in the 1950′s, when it was much more militarily backwards relative to the US. Now, it will have a big preponderance over land, while its new “carrier-killing” ballistic missiles, submarines, cruise missiles, and Flanker fighters are now, at some level, able to deny the seas off China to the US Navy, while its anti-satellite tests and cyberwar prowess means that the American dominance in space and information ought not be taken for granted either. Now I am not saying that the People’s Liberation Army comes anywhere close to matching the American military; however, it might well already have the ability to defeat it in a local war on China’s borders. If China is successful, it will re-establish North Korea as its own protectorate, although under someone more rational and reliable than Kim Jong-il (though needless to say this will also completely sever its economic relationship with the US and cause a severe, but temporary, economic contraction due to the collapse of its export sector).

There will be a cascade of consequences elsewhere. Taiwan may use the opportunity to declare independence, provoking a second war in the region. Though the US says that it will not come to Taiwan’s aid if it does this unilaterally, America will probably change its mind if it is simultaneously embroiled in an intense local war with China on the Korean peninsula! Other actors opposed to American hegemony may view this as a chance to undermine the overstretched superpower. For instance, Russia could orchestrate a new war against Georgia and China may even persuade Iran to mine the Strait of Hormuz in exchange for security guarantees and technology transfer. All these dominoes going down may even precipitate the collapse of the increasingly fragile Pax Americana.

But this is all speculation. I will end this article on something a lot more fundamental – the fact that North Korea is running out of time. Having abandoned the aptly-named “sunshine policy” (1998-2008) towards the DPRK, today’s South Korea has ambitious plans for a military modernization designed to achieve full-spectrum superiority over its northern neighbor by 2020. This involves making the ROK Army more network-centric, acquiring top-end ABM and space capabilities, and increasing automization (e.g. gun sentries). North Korea is digging underground to conceal its military assets, but these efforts are in a race against improving bunker-busting bombs and underground imaging technology. On current trends, it is quite likely that by the 2020′s, North Korea will even lose its ability to pose a credible threat to Seoul. Even if, against all odds, the DPRK manages to develop nuclear-tipped, solid-fuel ballistic missiles – i.e., which can be prepped for launch within a few minutes – they will be rendered irrelevant by the proliferation of advanced ABM systems in the Western Pacific. This means that North Korea’s “window of opportunity” to reunify the peninsula is closing fast (if it was ever open in the first place). If it is to have the smallest, non-zero chance of success, it has to strike very soon. Is North Korea’s recent bellicosity and abrogation of the 1953 Armistice mere coincidence?

Now I should stress again that the scenario I have painted is not likely to unfold as I predict. Quite simply, for all its bluster, the North Korean regime may well simply be too fearful of its domestic position, too satisfied with its creature comforts, too post-ideological and disillusioned, to risk undergoing the ultimate trial of its own strength and intelligence – war. But it is not impossible.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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This post tries to debunk some popular, but misguided, views on demographic trends in today’s Russia. These consist of the perception that Russia is in a demographic “death spiral” that dooms it to national decline (Biden, Eberstadt, NIC, CIA, Stratfor, etc). Some extreme pessimists even predict that ethnic Russians – ravaged by AIDS, infertility and alcoholism – will die out as an ethnicity, displaced by Islamist hordes and Chinese settlers (Steyn, Collard).

The Myth of Russia’s Demographic Apocalypse

Think again. While it is true that Russia’s current demographic situation is nothing to write home about, most of the demographic trends that matter are highly positive – and there is compelling evidence that Russia can still return to a healthy, longterm pattern of sustainable population replacement.

1

MYTH: Russia is losing 750,000 of its population per year and will become depopulated within decades.

REALITY: In 1992, for the first time since the Great Patriotic War, deaths exceeded births in Russia, forming the so-called “Russian Cross”. Since then the population fell from 149mn to 142mn souls. However, the rate of depopulation has slowed massively in recent years.

As of 2008, there were 362,000 more deaths than births in Russia, down from 847,000 in 2005. Furthermore, adding in migration would give a total population loss of just 105,000 people in 2008, equivalent to -0.07% of the population, which is a massive improvement from the 721,000 fall in 2005. The situation continued improving in 2009, despite the economic crisis, with Russia seeing positive natural increase in August and September for the first time in 15 years.

[Source: Rosstat; analyzed & published by Sergey Slobodyan @ Da Russophile].

Though this is still far from demographic salubrity, the situation today more resembles the stagnation seen in Central Europe than the catastrophic collapse of athe transition era, and the trends remain positive. As such, pessimistic predictions of imminent demographic apocalypse are becoming increasingly untenable.

2

MYTH: Granted, Russia’s crude birth rates have risen in recent years. But this was all due to the big size of the 1980′s female cohort, which reached childbearing age in the 2000′s; since the 1990′s cohort is about 40% smaller, birth rates will tumble again.

[Source: Rosstat; edited by Anatoly Karlin].

REALITY: From 1999-2007, only 37% of the increase in the crude birth rate was due to an increase in the size of the childbearing age segment of the population (only 10% in 2007 itself). The rest came from an increase in the total fertility rate (TFR), the average number of children a woman can be expected to have over a lifetime, irrespective of the structure of the age pyramid.

Speaking of which, Russia’s TFR has risen from a nadir of 1.16 children per women in 1999, to 1.49 children in 2008 (and thus also breaking the “lowest-low” fertility hypothesis that states that no society has ever recovered from a fertility collapse to below 1.30 children). The figures for 2009 will almost certainly show a TFR above 1.50.

This is not to say that the coming reduction in the fertility contribution of the 1980′s “youth bulge” will not exert a growing downwards pressure on Russian birth rates in the next two decades. However, a growing TFR will be able to partially, or even fully, counteract these adverse trends.

3

MYTH: The recent rise in fertility is small and fragile, based on the temporary effects of new maternity benefits and pro-natality propaganda. It will shatter as soon as the first economic crisis interrupts Russia’s petro-fueled swagger.

REALITY: It is true that Russia’s current TFR, at 1.5 children per woman, is well below the 2.1 needed for long-term population stability. That said, there are compelling reasons to believe that we seeing an incipient fertility reversal in Russia.

First, fertility expectations today are little different from those of the late Soviet era when the TFR was near replacement level. According to numerous surveys since the early 1990’s, Russians consistently say they want to have an average of 2.5 children. This is broadly similar to respondents from the British Isles, France and Scandinavia, who have relatively healthy TFR’s of around 1.7-2.1. This suggests Russia’s post-Soviet fertility collapse was caused by “transition shock” rather than a “values realignment” to middle-European norms, where people only want 1.7-1.8 children.

Second, a major problem with the TFR is that it ignores the effects of birth timing. A more accurate measure of long-term fertility is the average birth sequence (ABS), which gives the mean order of all newborn children. If in one fine year all women in a previously childless country decide to give birth for some reason, the TFR will soar to an absurdly high level but the ABS will equal exactly one.

[Source: Demoscope; edited by Anatoly Karlin].

In Russia the ABS remained steady at 1.6 children per woman from 1992-2006, little changed from the 1.8 of Soviet times, even though the TFR plummeted well below this number. This indicates that many women were postponing children until they settled into careers and improved their material wellbeing – a hypothesis attested to by the rising age of mothers at childbirth since 1993. As such, it is not unreasonable to expect a compensatory fertility boom in the 2010′s.

[Source: Demoscope; edited by Anatoly Karlin].

Though this may be a false positive if many women remain childless, the 2002 Census indicated that only 6-7% of women did not have any children by the end of their reproductive years. This indicates that childlessness is not in vogue and worries about widespread abortion-induced sterility are overblown.

Third, a new, confident conservatism has recently taken hold in Russian society. After two decades of disillusionment, at the end of 2006 consistently more Russians began to believe the nation was moving in a positive than in a negative direction. The state began to reconstruct an ideological basis for belief in Russia’s future, which included the aforementioned maternal benefits and pro-natality campaigns – and contrary to pessimist assertions, the examples of France and Sweden indicate that such efforts tend to be successful at incubating longterm improvements in TFR. Can it really be the case that the genesis of Russia’s rediscovery of belief in itself, and of consistent improvements in its demography, were a matter of mere coincidence?

Fourth, the cohort now entering the workforce will probably enjoy greater job opportunities and higher wages because of the imminent shrinking of Russia’s labor force. This may provide incentives to marry earlier and have more children, which would compensate for this cohort’s smaller size. Nor are they likely to be subjected to taxes high enough to discourage family formation; relative to continental Europe, Russia is still a younger nation and can be expected to enjoy high energy revenues in the post-peak oil age.

Finally, the economic crisis has come and gone – and in stark contrast to popular predictions of 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 September 2009. So the notion that Russia’s demographic recovery is built on quicksand has been objectively refuted.

4

MYTH: Russia’s main demographic problem is not the fertility rate, but a dismally low life expectancy, especially for middle-aged men.

REALITY: It is true that Russia’s life expectancy is exceptionally bad by industrialized-world standards. Death rates for middle-aged men today are, amazingly, no different from those of late Tsarism – a phenomenon Nicholas Eberstadt termed “hypermortality”. This tragic development is almost entirely attributable to the extreme prevalence of binge drinking of hard spirits, which accounts for 32% of Russia’s aggregate mortality (compared to 1-4% in West European nations)

However, not all demographic indicators are created equal. High mortality rates only have a direct impact on the replacement-level TFR when significant numbers of women die before or during childbearing age, as in Third World countries. Russia’s infant mortality rate of 8.5 / 1000 in 2008 is close to developed-country levels and not statistically significant. Though tragic and unnecessary, its “hypermortality” crisis mainly affects older men and as such has negligible direct effects on fertility.

That said, mortality rates must be curbed if Russia is to avoid significant population decline in the coming decades. Contrary to prevailing opinion, plans to raise life expectancy to 75 years by 2020 or 2025 are feasible if approached seriously. From 1970-1995 in Finnish Karelia, better healthcare and lifestyle reforms reduced incidences of heart disease, Russia’s main cause of death, by over 70%. Considering the sheer size of the gap between Russia and the advanced industrial world, even modest improvements will have a big impact.

These modest improvements are now coming about. Russia is now installing new equipment in oncology centers, aims to increase access to hi-tech medical services from 25% to 80% by 2012, and is becoming more serious about implementing anti-smoking, anti-alcohol and safety measures. In 2008, Russia’s life expectancy, as well as deaths from accidents (including alcohol poisoning, violence, and suicide), have improved past the (pre-transition) levels of 1992 – and the recovery continues into 2009.

5

MYTH: There is an unrivaled panoply of social ills in Russia, such as sky-high rates of abortion, alcoholism and accidents. These will induce Russians to disinvest in the future, which will result in low economic growth and a perpetuation of its death spiral into oblivion.

REALITY: Quite apart from this being a “mystical” explanation for national decline, and hence unscientific, this assertion is not backed up by the historical record. All these social ills first manifested themselves in the USSR from around 1965 (accompanied by sky-rocketing male mortality rates), yet nonetheless, that did not preclude Russia from maintaining a near replacement level TFR until the Soviet Union’s dissolution – and ultimately, that is all that matters for maintaining longterm population stability.

The Russian abortion rate was nearly twice as high during the Soviet period relative to today, but today’s prevalent fears of widespread infertility as a byproduct somehow never materialized – the 2002 Census indicated that only 6-7% of women did not have any children by the end of their reproductive years. Today, abortions continue on their longterm decline, even in the aftermath of the late-2008 economic crisis (and despite the hysterical predictions to the contrary).

[Source: Demoscope; edited by Anatoly Karlin].

Similarly, excessive alcohol consumption – the major cause of “hypermortality” amongst middle-aged Russian men – set in long before the post-Soviet demographic collapse. (Observe how closely Russia’s historical mortality trends correlate to Nemtsov’s estimates of alcohol consumption in the graph below). Yet as mentioned above, high middle-aged male mortality rates have no direct impact on fertility rates. Furthermore, since there is no major discrepancy between the numbers of men and women until the age of 40, women have no physical problem in finding mates (though it is true that high mortality and alcoholism amongst males has a suppressing effect on new couple formation, the late Soviet experience suggests that it does not altogether preclude a healthy TFR).

[Source: Rosstat, V. Treml & A. Nemtsov; note that the official Goskomstat (Rosstat) figures ought to be discarded because they do not account for moonshine, which may constitute as much as half of Russia's alcohol consumption].

The demographer Eberstadt asserts that Russia’s high mortality rates preclude human capital formation through education because men facing elevated mortality risks (supposedly) discount its future value; consequently, this dims the prospects for longterm economic growth. This hypothesis doesn’t stand up to the evidence. The late Soviet Union had one of the world’s highest tertiary enrollment rates, and more than 70% of today’s Russians get a higher education. This should not be surprising due to human psychological factors – “deaths from heart disease and accidents only happen to other people”; and besides, even if a Russian man assumes he’ll die in his 50′s or 60′s, he’d still rather live comfortably, avoid the military draft, etc, than sweep the streets. So this argument is flawed on many, many levels.

It is true that poor health lowers economic productivity. However, one should note the caveats that 1) hypermortality disproportionately effects poorer, lower-educated people, 2) in the post-agrarian society, the main driver of productivity improvements is education – not health, and 3) there is a silver lining in that by curbing aging, a low life expectancy also relieves pressure on pensions. Finally, drunkenness by itself cannot check the growth of a vital civilization – after all, America was known as the Alcoholic Republic during the early 19th century.

6

MYTH: The ruling elite’s criminal neglect of Russia’s growing AIDS crisis will soon result in hundreds of thousands of annual deaths, further accelerating its demographic collapse.

REALITY: Institutions like the World Bank were predicting hundreds of thousands of deaths by 2010, yet the death toll for 2008 was only 12,800. Further, the percentage of pregnant women testing HIV positive plateaued in 2002, suggesting the epidemic remains essentially contained among injecting drug users.

[Source: 2008 Russian AIDS Progress Report].

The problem with the “doomer” models used to predict apocalypse (Eberstadt, NIC, Ruhl et al, etc) is that their projections of imminent mass deaths from AIDS unrealistically assume heterosexual, sub-Saharan Africa transmission patterns, which is unbacked by sociological analysis or surveillance data. A more rigorous model by the Knowledge for Action in HIV/AIDS in Russia research program predicts a peak HIV prevalence rate of under 1% of the total Russian population by around 2020. Thus far, it correlates with reality.

Finally, following a period of real neglect of the problem until 2005, the Russian state has since ramped up spending on AIDS to an annual 0.5bn $. One can no longer speak of official negligence.

7

MYTH: Faster-breeding Muslims will constitute the majority of the Russian Federation’s citizens by 2050, placing the dwindling Orthodox Russians under a brutal dhimmitude.

REALITY: Ethnic Russians still make up nearly 80% of the population, whereas only 4-6% of the population consider themselves to be Muslim in opinion polls. The fertility rates of the biggest Muslim ethnicities, Tatars and Bashkirs, is little different from the national average.

Even the Caucasian Muslim republics experienced a drastic fertility transition in the last twenty years, as a result of which the only one to still have an above-replacement level TFR is Chechnya. However, Chechnya’s 1.2mn people constitute less than 1% of the Russian total.

So the fact of the matter is that Russian Muslims simply do not have the demographic base to become anywhere near the Federation’s majority ethnicity in the foreseeable future.

[Source: Rosstat; edited by Anatoly Karlin].

Furthermore, the main reason some people fear – or relish – the prospect of an Islamic Russia is because they associate Russian Muslims with their less progressive co-religionists in the Middle East. In reality, vodka has long since dissolved away the Koran in Russia. The vast majority of Muslim Russians are loyal citizens, having made their peace with the imperial Russian state long ago; imminent dhimmitude is a myth, the product of fevered imaginations.

8

MYTH: The Chinese are taking over the depopulating Russian Far East by a stealth demographic invasion; tempted by Siberian Lebensraum and vast mineral riches, they will eventually seize it outright from a weakening Russia.

REALITY: There are no more than 0.4-0.5mn Chinese in Russia (and probably a good deal less). The vast majority of them are temporary workers and seasonal traders who have no long-term plans of settling in Russia. Even though the Russia Far East depopulated much faster than the rest of Russia after the Soviet collapse, at more than 6mn today, Russian citizens remain ethnically dominant.

Furthermore, the average Manchurian has no objective desire to migrate to Siberia and squat illegally in a pre-industrial farm in a God-forsaken corner of the taiga. Alarmism on this issue is a trifecta of ignorance, Russophobia, and Sinophobia (the “Yellow Peril”).

Though the possibility that Malthusian pressures will eventually force China into aggressive expansionism cannot be discounted, it would be suicidal to intrude on Russia because of its vast nuclear arsenal.

9

MYTH: But all the demographic models indicate that Russia is going to depopulate rapidly!

REALITY: Not all of them. I give an alternate range of scenarios that see Russia’s population change from today’s 142mn, to 139mn-154mn by 2025, and 119mn-168mn (medium – 157mn) souls by 2050.

In the “Medium” scenario, life expectancy reaches 74 years by 2025 (today’s Poland) and 81 years in 2050 (today’s Canada); the TFR rises from 1.4 children per woman in 2006 to 2.0 by 2015, before gently descending to 1.7 from 2025 to 2050; and there is an annual influx of 300,000 net migrants. (These assumptions are plausible, based on a realistic knowledge of the current situation (see above), and a modest amount of confidence in Russia’s spiritual regeneration and capability to sustain economic modernization). The resulting population dynamics are reproduced below.

scen21

[Source: Anatoly Karlin @ Da Russophile].

But even assuming Russia’s TFR gets stuck at 1.5 children per woman in 2010 – i.e. slightly lower than its level today, while retaining the aforementioned mortality and migration trajectories, the population size will remain basically stagnant, going from 142mn to 143mn by 2023 before slowly slipping down to 138mn by 2050.

On the basis of this model, I made several falsifiable predictions back in July 2008, whose fulfillment will confirm its validity (or not). The three most important predictions are the following:

  • Russia’s population will start growing again by 2010.
  • Natural population increase will resume by 2013.
  • Total life expectancy will exceed 70 years by 2012.

My results are somewhat similar to Rosstat forecasts which see the population growing to 134mn-145mn (medium – 140mn) by 2025. Furthermore, both of them are, at least thus far, more in line with reality than the older “doomer” models, which by and large failed to predict the recent demographic improvements.

10

MYTH: Okay then, the vast majority of models by respectable institutions – i.e., not those of Kremlin mouthpieces like Rosstat or yourself – project that Russia’s population is going to plummet to 100mn or so people by 2050.

REALITY: First, appeal to authority & association fallacy. Second, you can check the reliability of my model because my source code is open and accessible for all, which is more than you can say for many of these “respectable institutions” [edit 2012: No longer, because of this; but I am going to do a new version soon anyway]. Third, the problem with the aforementioned “doomer” models is that they are all essentially based on linearly extrapolating Russia’s post-Soviet fertility and mortality situation into the far future, assuming negligible improvements or even a deterioration (as in the models including the imminent, but fortunately non-existent, African-style AIDS epidemic).

It is my belief that Russia’s demographic “doomers” ignore the importance of the post-Soviet resilience of Russia’s fertility expectations, the evidence that Russia’s post-Soviet demographic collapse was just an aberration caused by its wrenching transition to a new socio-political system, and the newly-emerging sociological trends that are returning Russia’s to its past-and-future Empire – trends that are restoring Russians’ faith in the future, reinforcing social conservatism, and creating the conditions, with the Kremlin’s active support, for a major demographic reversal out of the post-Soviet abyss.

I would be the first to admit that this interpretation of Russian society may be incorrect, and consequently so are my “optimistic” demographic projections. Feel free to disagree with my interpretation, but do note that 1) I accurately called the economic crisis as a non-event in relation to Russia’s demography and 2) made falsifiable, near-term predictions about Russia’s future demography, which few other crystal-ball gazers care to do.

Speaking of crystal balls, I would like to end this by noting that pretty much all demographic projections beyond 20 years into the future – the approximate time needed for a new cohort to reach reproductive age – are near-useless in practical terms. Any simplistic extrapolation will eventually founder on the discontinuities inevitably produced by complex human systems: for a past example, compare 20th century French and German demographic history; regarding the future, note the profoundly disruptive potential of two strong concurrent trends – limits to growth, and technological singularity – either of which could so radically transform human life in the 21st century, as to render modern demographic analysis meaningless as a scientific tool.

Russia Demography Sources

Here are some key resources for understanding Russia’s demography:

Demography Articles @ Da Rissp[ho;e

Finally, a list of articles on Russian demography published at Da Russophile.

  • The Russian Cross Reversed? – initial thoughts on Russia’s fertility.
  • Out of the Death Spiral – an indepth look at its mortality crisis and prospects for improvement.
  • Faces of the Future – my model of Russia’s demographic prospects to 2050, which I argue are not anywhere near as dire as commonly portrayed by the alarmists. This is because the “pessimistic” models that forecast a decline to around 100mn by that date make questionable assumptions about continuing low fertility and high mortality patterns.
  • Myth of Russian AIDS Apocalypse – prognoses of an AIDS mortality crisis are unwarranted because they rely on unsubstantiated assumptions that the epidemic would be essentially heterosexual in nature and follow trends observed in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Myth of the Yellow Peril – demolishes the myth that Chinese settlers are taking over the Russian Far East.
  • Rite of Spring: Russia Fertility Trends – most comprehensive versions of my demographic work to date, in which I argue Russia’s population will slowly increase or stagnate in the coming decades instead of plummeting as in most scenarios.Counter-intuitive and deeply contextualizing” – Thomas P.M. Barnett.
  • Russia’s Demographic Resilience – I predict the economic crisis will not have a major effect on Russian demography, especially in the longer term.
  • Through the Looking Glass at Russia’s Demography – in this summary of Rite of Spring, I note that Russian fertility expectations, average birth sequence figures and rising social confidence preclude a catastrophic fall in population over the next decades.
  • Russia’s Demographic Resilience II – this guest post by Sergei Slobodyan notes that contrary to the doomsayers, Russia’s demography continued improving in 2009 despite the economic crisis, with the population experiencing its first natural growth in August for the past 15 years.
  • Russia’s “Abortion Apocalypse”: А был ли мальчик? – a second guest post by Sergei Slobodyan unravels the media hysteria over a (non-existent) wave of crisis-induced abortions.
(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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This is a succinct summary of my views on Russian demography, written about 2 months ago.

Through the Looking Glass at Russia’s Demography
By Anatoly Karlin

In 1992, for the first time since the Great Patriotic War, deaths exceeded births, forming the so-called “Russian Cross”. Since then the population fell from 149mn to 142mn souls. Ravaged by AIDS, infertility and alcoholism, Russians are doomed to die out and be replaced by hordes of Islamist fanatics in the west and Chinese settlers in the east.

Or so one could conclude from reading many of the popular stories about Russian demography today. The total fertility rate (TFR), the average number of children a woman is expected to have, was 1.4 in 2007, well below the 2.1 needed for long-term population stability. Though current Russian birth rates per 1000 women are not exceptionally low, they will plummet once the 1980′s youth bulge leaves childbearing age after 2015.

Meanwhile, Russia’s life expectancy is exceptionally bad by industrialized-world standards. Death rates for middle-aged men today are, amazingly, no different from those of late Tsarism – a phenomenon Nicholas Eberstadt termed “hypermortality”. This tragic development is almost entirely attributable to the extreme prevalence of binge drinking of hard spirits.

No wonder then that the recent UN report on Russian demography forecasts its population will fall by 10mn-20mn people by 2025. Set against these gloomy trends, the projections made by the Russian government (145mn) and state statistical service Rosstat (137-150mn) for the same year seem laughably pollyannaish.

However, things aren’t as bad through the looking glass. First, fertility expectations today are little different from those of the late Soviet era, when the TFR was still relatively healthy. According to numerous surveys since the early 1990′s, Russians consistently say they want to have an average of 2.5 children. This is broadly similar to respondents from the British Isles, France and Scandinavia, who have relatively good TFR’s of around 1.7-2.1. This suggests Russia’s post-Soviet fertility collapse was caused by “transition shock” rather than a “values realignment” to middle-European norms, where people only want 1.7-1.8 children.

Second, a major problem with the TFR is that it ignores the effects of birth timing. A more accurate measure of long-term fertility is the average birth sequence (ABS), which gives the mean order of all newborn children. If in one fine year all women in a previously childless country decide to give birth for some reason, the TFR will soar to an absurdly high level but the ABS will equal exactly one.

In Russia the ABS remained steady at 1.6 children per woman from 1992-2006, little changed from Soviet times, even though the TFR plummeted well below this number. This indicates that many women were postponing children until they settled into careers and improved their material wellbeing – a hypothesis attested to by the rising age of mothers at childbirth since 1993.

Though this may be a false positive if many women remain childless, the 2002 Census indicated that only 6-7% of women did not have any children by the end of their reproductive years. This indicates that childlessness is not in vogue and worries about widespread sterility are overblown.

Third, a new confident conservatism has recently taken hold in Russian society. After two decades of disillusionment, at the end of 2006 consistently more Russians began to believe the nation was moving in a positive than in a negative direction. It is likely no coincidence that it the TFR began to consistently rise just then – from 1.3 in 2006 to about 1.5 in 2008, though generous new child benefits helped.

Many pessimists see this as empty petro-fueled swagger, prone to derailment by the first economic crisis. Yet marriage rates continued soaring in early 2009, mortality fell by 5% in Jan-Feb 2009 in comparison to the same period last year, and national morale remains high – notwithstanding the severity of the recent economic contraction.

High mortality rates only have a direct impact on replacement-level TFR when significant numbers of women die before or during childbearing age, as in Third World countries. Russia’s infant mortality rate of 8.5 / 1000 in 2008 is close to developed-country levels and not statistically significant. Though tragic and unnecessary, its “hypermortality” crisis mainly affects older men and as such has negligible direct effects on fertility.

However, mortality rates must be curbed if Russia is to avoid severe population decline in coming decades. Contrary to prevailing opinion, plans to raise life expectancy to 75 years by 2020 or 2025 are feasible if approached seriously. From 1970-1995 in Finnish Karelia, better healthcare and lifestyle reforms reduced incidences of heart disease, Russia’s main cause of death, by over 70%. Considering the sheer size of the gap between Russia and the advanced industrial world, even modest improvements will have a big impact.

And speaking of which, Russia is now installing new equipment in oncology centers, aims to increase access to hi-tech medical services from 25% to 80% by 2012 and is implementing anti-smoking and anti-alcohol measures. Deaths from alcohol poisoning and violence, as well as overall life expectancy, recently improved to the pre-transition levels of 1992.

The percentage of pregnant women testing HIV positive plateaued in 2002, suggesting the epidemic remains contained among injecting drug users. Models projecting imminent mass deaths from AIDS unrealistically assume heterosexual, sub-Saharan Africa transmission patterns, which is unbacked by sociological analysis or surveillance data.

Fears of Islamization ignore the unremarkable birth rates among Tatars, the largest Muslim ethnic group, and the 1990′s fertility transitions in the Caucasus. The idea that no more than 250,000 seasonal Chinese traders and laborers in the Far East pose a demographic threat is risible.

After 2020, Russia will start experiencing severe demographic pressure due to a smaller youth cohort and population aging. It must use the next decade wisely to build the foundations for recovery through increased fertility, mortality reduction and continued immigration. Despite temporary setbacks, Russia retains solid prospects for growth – a well-educated people, an extensive industrial infrastructure, growing centers of innovation and big hydrocarbon reserves. If things go right, large-scale population decline is still avoidable.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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After its long pre-modern stint as Europe’s most populated nation, France started transitioning to lower birth rates from the Napoleonic era, about a century in advance of the rest of Europe. On the eve of the First World War, its stagnant population made a stark contrast to German youth and virility. Considering the disparity in absolute numbers, 40mn French to 67mn Germans, it is not surprising that its General Staff looked with trepidation across the border and conscripted more men for longer periods than the Deutsches Reichsheer. And although France prevailed in the Great War, as was said of the Persians after Thermopylae, “any more such victories and they will be ruined”. Its morale collapsed upon invasion in 1940, leaving it to be occupied by the Nazis – thus apparently evidencing popular contemporaneous views of them as an effete race doomed to fail against Teutonic might.

Yet Germany too underwent a fertility transition after World War One, falling to replacement-level rates at around the time of the 1923 Weimar hyperinflation. For all their pro-natality efforts and anti-feminist zeal, the Nazis cardinally failed to pull Germany out of its demographic rut. The post-war baby boom crashed after 1970, and since then deaths consistently outnumbered births in Germany. Today France’s growing population of 62mn souls already has more children than Germany, whom it will overtake by around 2050, according to UN projections based on current trends. But unlike France in 1914, Germany needn’t worry too much about this. It is economically, politically and culturally intertwined with its erstwhile enemy and at least for now, the prospect of another European civil war is in the realm of fantasy.

The moral of this story? First, demography is an inherently difficult thing to predict – especially its key component, fertility, which depends on a myriad of economic, social and cultural factors whose relations to each other are still little-understood. Second, though demography is a powerful trend it is frequently superseded by social, political and technological developments. Third, and consequently, the deterministic concept that “demography is destiny”, relying as it does by necessity on the fallacy of linear extrapolation, is of very limited utility in forecasting the fates of nations.

An objective and in-depth look at Russian fertility trends shows that forecasts of Russia’s impending demographic doom, in which the Crescent replaces the Cross on its national gerb and ethnic centrifugal forces tear apart its Federation, are completely unrealistic. Though rhetorical hyperbole dismisses it as a dying nation with “European birth rates and African death rates”, the reality is that it is already fast recovering from the extended transition shock of the post-Soviet collapse. Instead, it is likely that the next few decades will see stagnant or slow population growth as Russian fertility patterns converge to that of France or Canada, with any shortfalls between births and deaths filled in by immigration; and after 2030, the world system faces a series of discontinuities that rend apart any predictive enterprise.

A Crude Demographic History of Russia

The annual rate of population growth can be derived from the birth rate, the death rate and net migration, which are usually measured in cases per 1000 people. Subtracting the death rate from the birth rate gives the rate of natural increase, which is shown below for Russia from 1959-2008.

The rate of natural increase was closely correlated with overall population growth in Soviet times, since migration either way was small then. As social and economic problems multiplied in the late 1980′s, the birth rate contracted and the death rate soared, intersecting each other around 1992 and forming the so-called “Russian Cross”. Though the population hit its peak of 149mn in 1992 and the rate of natural increase fell to -0.5% annually, the population fell at a relatively low rate until 1998 because of a large influx of ethnic Russians from the newly independent Near Abroad.

Afterwards the collapse accelerated after fertility tumbled further and immigration began to dry up in the wake of the financial crash, but the situation began to improve again from 2006 due to rising births, falling deaths and increased immigration. In 2008, the death rate stood at 14.7 / 1000, the birth rate at 12.1 / 1000 and net migration at 1.7 / 1000, giving a rate of natural increase of -2.6 / 1000 and overall population growth of -0.9 / 1000. Russia’s population almost stabilized in the last two years.

A Fertile Demographic History of Russia

Let us now look in more at the fertility side of Russian demographics in more detail. The graph below shows Russia’s total fertility rate (TFR) from 1925-2006.

The TFR is calculated by creating an imaginary woman who passes through her reproductive life subject to all the age-specific fertility rates for ages 15-49 that were recorded for a given population in a given year within one year, and calculating the number of children she would be expected to have. As such, it is a much more meaningful measure than crude birth rates, which depend on the particular structure of a society’s population pyramid. The replacement fertility rate is the figure at which long-term population growth tends to zero, absent increasing life expectancy and migration. In most developed societies this is around 2.1 because slightly more boys than girls are born.

Although Russia was at the forefront of the demographic transition in the 1950’s and 1960’s, unlike most Western European countries its TFR remained stable and edged upwards in the wake of the new maternal benefits and social guarantees of the 1980’s, peaking at 2.23 in 1987. It collapsed in the face of the socio-economic tsunamis of the 1990’s, reaching a nadir of 1.17 in 1999, albeit there has been an incipient recovery since the new millennium. A booming economy, state sponsored pro-natality propaganda campaign and a 2007 law that ‘expanded maternity leave benefits and payments, and granted mothers educational and other vouchers worth $10,650 for a second child and any thereafter’, contributed to a rise in the TFR to 1.41 in 2007 and approximately 1.50 in 2008. This is higher than the average for the European Union and the post-Soviet baby boom is already getting noticed by media outlets in the West.

A Female Demographic History of Russia

An even more meaningful measure is the net female reproduction coefficient (NFRC). It takes into account two things that the TFR doesn’t, at least not explicitly – a) the male-female ratio at birth and b) the female death rate, pre- and during childbearing age. Although the replacement level TFR is usually quoted as being 2.1, as mentioned above it varies in practice. Although that is indeed the case in most modern industrial countries, in underdeveloped and/or traditional societies with high female mortality rates in early years and/or high male to female ratios, the TFR needs to be as high as 2.5, 3.0 or more for generation reproduction. This is because a lot of females die before they can give birth to more girls. Although China has a nominally respectable TFR of 1.7-1.8, it is effectively considerably lower due to societal preference for males and the resulting skewed demographic profile.

The net female reproduction coefficient explicitly takes the two factors above into account – any value greater than 1 ensures long-term population growth, while a value of less than 1 implies impending decline. In the graph below you can see a graph of Russia’s NFRC from 1960 to 2005.

Today all the world’s major industrial nations are not producing enough girls to maintain their current population levels in the long-term. The US as a whole just about makes an exception, although only thanks to the help of highly fertile Hispanics. In Russia, the NFRC increased since 2005 to 0.67, which puts it above most east-central European countries but still significantly below France, Scandinavia and the Anglosphere.

One more thing can be gleaned from the graph above. Russia’s combination of high middle-age mortality rates, one of the earliest demographic transitions and post-Soviet fertility postponement meant that absolute demographic decline set in as early as the 1990′s, whereas the likes of Germany and Japan have only began sliding into them fairly recently. In Germany’s case, since the country has been in a deep sub-replacement rut since 1970 (i.e. for more than a generation), this is a truly deep and perhaps intractable problem, whereas a big Russian population decline can still theoretically be avoided. As it stands, however, the natural rate of population decline for Russia’s population, with a NFRC of 0.67, is 1.5% when it reaches equilibrium. Any improvements must come from increasing the TFR, as its infant mortality rate of 8.9/1000 in 2007 is already statistically negligible and changing the sex ratio in favor of more girls is unrealistic.

Now that we have a basic understanding of longterm Russian demographic trends, it is time to examine some common arguments of Russia’s demographic doomers.

The Argument from Reduced Cohorts

In demographic discussions on Russia, whenever someone points to the revival of births rates during the late Putin Presidency, a pessimist will interject that it is just the result of many women born during the 1980′s mini-baby boom coming of childbearing age – the so-called “echo effect”. Yet although from 1999-2007 the crude number of births increased by 33% from 1,214,700 to 1,610,100, only 37% of that increase was due to an increase in the size of the childbearing age segment of the population. The other 63% is due to the rise in the TFR, which is independent of the population’s age structure by definition. In 2007, these two figures widened to 10% and 90%, respectively. So the common doomer argument that recent increases in the birth rate are exclusively down to the current youth bulge is at best only a third valid for Putin’s whole term, and almost totally false for the past two years.

They do however make a valid point when they warningly point to Russia’s pine tree-shaped population pyramid, the demographic legacy of the Great Patriotic War (1941-45). As you can see in the 2006 diagram below, there are currently about 40% fewer females in the 0-15 years age range, than there are in the 15-30 year age range.

The transition shock, coupled with the echoes of war, means that the number of women in the 20-29 age range is going to peak by 2013, and then go into rapid decline. To avoid an intensified resumption of population decline after that period, Russia will have to lower its mortality rates, increase immigration and raise the average age at childbirth.

The Effect of a Rising Average Age of Childbirth

Speaking of which, that has already been happening since 1993 as couples begin marrying later and postponing children, albeit the average age of Russian women at birth is still significantly smaller than in Western Europe.

In the 1960’s, when people expected to have many children, the average age at birth was around 27-28; but as fertility fell and a bigger percentage of births became firstborns, this figure declined. It rose slightly in the 1980’s (mini baby-boom) and collapsed until 1993, when it began rising again. From 2000, fertility growth was concentrated amongst women over 25 and decreased amongst those between 20 and 25. The share of newborns accruing to women younger than 25 years fell from 61% in 1993 to 41% in 2007, while the structure of age-specific fertility coefficients changed in a cardinal way.

This means that as Russian women converge to European fertility schedules in the years ahead, the big 1980’s generation will have more children in their 30’s than any previous post-Stalin cohort. The sharp fall-off expected in birth rates will thus be to a certain extent modulated, depending on the speed of the above transition.

Fertility Expectations Today are Little Different from the Soviet Era

One problem with total fertility rates is that they overestimate the effects of timing of births. An even more accurate measure of long-term fertility is the average birth sequence (средняя очередность рождения, henceforth ABS), which gives for any one year the mean order of all newborn children (for instance, if women in a previously entirely childless country all decided to give birth in a given year for some reason, the TFR would leap up to a very high level but the ABS would equal exactly one). Looking at these different fertility patterns, it emerges that in the 1980’s, Soviet fertility was not as high as implied by the TFR – nor was the 1990’s collapse as apocalyptic as some would have it. Or in other words, many women gave birth in the 1980’s because of the social benefits of perestroika and many postponed birth in the 1990’s because of the transition shock. The effect on deeper generational fertility patterns was much more modest – a drop of just 0.2 children.

From above we can also see that 2007 was a seminal year not only for its respectable rise in the TFR, but because for the first time since the post-Soviet stagnation the ABS begun to appreciably rise again, increasing from 1.59 in 2006 to 1.66 in 2007. This was due to the increase in second-, third- and higher order births – firstborns as a percentage of all new children declined from 60% (where they had been since 1993), to 55%. This is partly linked to the aforementioned rise in the average age of childbirth.

The Argument from Convergence to European Fertility Patterns

Many better-informed pessimists, though they know about the recent up-tick in the TFR, nonetheless insist that it is a one-off improvement exclusively due to the recent pro-natality campaign. They believe it just brought forward in time births that would have occurred anyway and that this effect will fade away in a few more years. The respected demographer Nicholas Eberstadt falls into this camp, writing:

The other side of the equation is the fertility level, and Russian fertility is very low these days, although it has crept up over the past five or six years. But it is still down 30-40 percent below the replacement level. Is it feasible to think that Russian fertility will rise to replacement level over the next decade or so? Well if Russian fertility does rise up to replacement level, if it does rise by 50 percent from its current levels, this would be because of change in desired fertility on the part of parents in the Russian Federation. So far I don’t think we’ve seen any big signs of a big demand for more children. Rather, what we seem to be observing is that Russia is becoming part of the rest of Europe with respect to ideas about ideal family size. In the rest of Europe, fertility levels are very far below the replacement level. There are a few exceptions like France’s, which are close to replacement levels, but for the most part, European norms on fertility are one or at most two children as the ideal family size. What drives births in modern, relatively affluent societies, more than any other factor, are parental desires about how many children to have. Unless there is a transformation of Russian attitudes about children, its going to be hard for any kind of program of birth incentives or birth schemes to convince Russian parents to have more children then they see as the ideal.

Unfortunately, Eberstadt is wrong, or at best over-simplifies the situation. First, according to most surveys the vast majority of Russians say that they desire to have two or three children. The mean is around 2.5 children. This is barely down from the 2.7 children desired in 1990, when the first such survey to my knowledge was conducted under the auspices of the World Values Survey. Less than 10% would be content with an only child, albeit many were forced to do with just that during the post-Soviet hyper-depression.

This is further backed by a 2005 Rosstat study, Family and Fertility. The average desired amount of children, within favorable economic and social conditions, was 2.24, 2.40 and 1.99 for women, men and 15-17 year old teenagers respectively in Tver oblast, 2.26, 2.63 and 2.15 in Nizhnij Novgorod and 2.33, 2.56 and 2.11 in Marij El. On the other hand, the amount of children people are prepared to have in the present circumstances is substantially lower. Amongst women, men and teenagers, it is: 1.75, 1.87 and 1.72 in Tver Oblast; 1.60, 1.78 and 1.97 in Nizhnij Novgorod; 1.83, 2.05 and 1.92 in Marij El. The birth rate in these regions in 2005 was 9.3, 8.9 and 10.5 / 1000 people respectively, which is similar to the Russian average of 10.2. As such, it’s possible to construct the following table. Figures in italics are estimates based on crude, but in my opinion justified, linear extrapolation from the other data in the table.

Russian Demographics – Fertility Patterns
Real BR Real Fertility Planned Fertility
Desired Fertility
Tver Oblast 9.3 1.18 1.78 2.21
Nizhnij Novgorod 8.9 1.13 1.78 2.35
Marij El 10.5 1.33 1.93 2.33
Russian Federation 10.2 1.29 1.95 2.44

Extended to Russia as a whole, it implies that the planned fertility is around 1.9-2.0 and the the desired fertility is 2.4-2.5 children. There is a gap of 0.65 children between real fertility and planned fertility, and a further 0.5 child gap between planned fertility and desired fertility. This is roughly in line with surveys in other countries.

Second, it ignores the fact that there is a great deal of diversity in European fertility patterns. It can be roughly subdivided into the following regions: the West (France and the British Isles), the Med (Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal), Germania (Germany and Austria), Visegrad (Poland and its east-central European neighbors) and Scandinavia. The West and Scandinavia tend to have reasonably healthy TFR’s, ranging from 1.7 to 2.1, and on average desire to have 2.4-2.6 children. The Med and Visegrad countries have 1.3-1.4 children and desire 2.0-2.2 children. Although Germania has a TFR of 1.4, its desired number of children is the lowest in the region at 1.7-1.8. So on average although Europeans want about 2.1-2.3 children, their particular circumstances – frequently speculated to be excessive social obligations, high unemployment and perhaps subconscious forebodings of overpopulation – limit their fertility to a EU average of 1.4. In general, the greater the disparity between real fertility and desired fertility, the greater the perception that they have too few children and presumably, the greater the desire to close the “potential gap”.

Belief in the Future Returns to Russia, Crisis Notwithstanding

Considering that Russia’s desired fertility is around 2.5, this means that in the presence of good conditions, its “natural” TFR can be expected be lie somewhere between 1.7 and 2.1 children. It is true that the phenomenally rapid jump in the TFR from 1.3 in 2006 to about 1.5 in 2008 was helped by the pro-natality campaign, but there are deeper factors at work. According to the Levada Center for sociological research, there were a number of positive discontinuities in Russia life from 2006 on.

After a long period of disillusionment, at the end of 2006 more people began to believe Russia was moving in a positive than in a negative direction, and from early 2008 more people felt confident in tomorrow than not. Though positing dependencies between such semi-intangible variables and concrete demographic trends is risky, I do not think it is a coincidence that solid improvements in the TFR only began from 2006. Anyone closely observing Russia in the past few years will have noticed a new confident conservatism in Russian society, albeit many pessimists interpret it as mere petro-fueled swagger, about to be brought back down to earth by the unfolding economic crisis.

Perhaps. Yet marriage rates, perhaps as good an indicator as any of social confidence, surged from a nadir of 6.2 / 1000 people in 2000, to 7.5 / 1000 in 2005 and 8.9 / 1000 in 2007, and continued increasing in Jan-Feb of this year. Mortality rates also continued their swift descent, after taking a rest in 2008 from the impressive improvements from 2005-2007, when life expectancy rose from 65.3 to 67.5 years.

Furthermore, the post-Soviet collapse was an unprecedented hyper-depression, surpassed only by the Civil War in its social costs. Though on paper recovery from the 1998 crisis was rapid, newly severe budget discipline undercut social spending that left many classes and regions destitute for years. It is telling that in the first six months of the 1998 recession, the proportion of people who could hardly afford even food rose from 29% to 40% of the population; in stark contrast, in the five months since the Russian economy began collapsing in October, this figure rose from 9%…to just 10%.

This is notwithstanding that the rate of decline from Q4 2008 to Q1 2009 was even sharper than during H2 1998. However this time round, both state and society have much bigger surpluses to fall back on during the lean times. As such, the probability that the crisis will have a significant longterm effect on Russian fertility is extremely low. Russia retains strong foundations for growth – an educated populace, an extensive industrial infrastructure, growing centers of innovation and extensive hydrocarbon reserves in a post-peak oil era. Sooner or later rapid growth will resume, ushering in the material conditions for the rite of spring to blossom into demographic summer.

Not All Demographic Indicators are Created Equal

Many commentators believe that Russia’s excessively high mortality rates preclude a demographic recovery – an example of this line of reasoning appears in Rising Ambitions, Sinking Population by Nicholas Eberstadt. It is certainly true that Russia’s life expectancy is exceptionally low by industrialized-world standards and that death rates for middle-aged men today are, amazingly, no different from those of late Tsarism. This development is almost entirely attributable to the extreme prevalance of binge drinking of hard spirits. Yet their conclusions don’t follow the arguments.

This has little direct effect on fertility – the main burden of hyper-mortality falls amongst men, who as a rule don’t reproduce except in very rare circumstances. Female death rates, although much larger relative to their Western counterparts, are statistically insignificant prior to and during their childbearing years. The infant mortality rate of 8.5 / 1000 for 2008 is already close to developed-world standards of 3-7 / 1000. There is no major discrepancy between the numbers of men and women until the age of 40, so no problem with finding mates.

Excessive mortality also disproportionately affects poorer, badly-educated people – life expectancy for college grads actually increased from Soviet times. Eberstad asserts that high mortality rates precludes human capital formation through education and hence dim prospects for high rates of future economic growth and consequently perpetuating low fertility. This doesn’t stand up to evidence or common sense.

Today, more than 70% of Russians get a higher education and they perform well in standardized international tests on math and science. deaths from heart disease and accidents only happen to other people. The reasons why should be obvious – most folks don’t refer to the society around them, calculate their life expectancy and make cost-benefit analyses on whether or not to improve their human capital. They just see their friends go to college and join in to avoid the draft and avoid jobs like cleaning garbage.

It is true that poor health lowers productivity, although by curbing aging it also partially relieves pressure on pensions. Yet it cannot check the growth of a vital civilization – America was known as the Alcoholic Republic in the great early days of its founding. The drinking problem was already very bad in the late Soviet Union, but that did not preclude it from maintaining near replacement level demographics until its dissolution. In my own simulations of Russia’s demographic future, even small changes in the TFR have bigger long-term impacts than major changes in mortality trajectories.

Finally, some analysts believe Russia is going to experience an AIDS mortality crisis sometime in the next few years. As I noted in The Myth of the Russian AIDS Apocalypse, the models used by Eberstadt and other prophets of doom are critically flawed, because according to the international research program Knowledge for Action in HIV/AIDS in Russia, they assume that “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 by the slightest acquaintance with comparative development and sociology.

Russia’s medieval working-age male mortality profile blights lives, but has only a minor effect on long-term demographic development, and as such should be treated as a pressing public health problem instead of the demographic land-mine it is more commonly portrayed as.

The Myth of Dhimmitude

Alarmist analysts like Daniel Pipes and Paul Goble, Islamic fundamentalists and certain plain demented Russophobe bloggers raise the specter of Russia’s transformation into a majority Muslim nation within the next 50 years. As is usually the case with such sensationalist claims, closer examination clears up the clutter. If you read Russian, take a look at Will Russia become Muslim?, otherwise…

First, the share of ethnic Russians declined from 81.5% of the population of the RSFSR, to 79.8% of the population of the Russian Federation – a time of low Russian birth rates and rapid Muslim expansion. Even a crude linear extrapolation of these rates forward, ignoring demographic transitions and aging, gives a figure of 68.7% ethnic Russians in 2050.

Second, even this is a pointless exercise, of course, as a quick look at current regional TFR proves. The two biggest ethnic Muslim groups, the Tatars (3.8% of the population) and the Bashkirs (1.2%) transitioned to sub-replacement fertility rates at about the same time as ethnic Russians. Today, Tatarstan has a TFR of 1.4 and Bashkortostan has a TFR of 1.6, which is not significantly different from that of majority Russian regions.

Even the current rapid population growth seen in the Caucasian Muslim republics conceals a major demographic transition during the 1990′s. Although a huge youth bulge contributes to current high birth rates, it should be noted that all the Caucasian republics now have sub-replacement fertility rates, with the sole exception of Chechnya where the TFR was 3.1 in 2007. Incidentally, I suspect it is no coincidence that it is Chechnya which also had by far the bloodiest recent history – when you have just one son to lose instead of several, it is that much harder to send him off in the service of violent separatism or radical Islam.

Third, the reason some people fear or relish the idea of an Islamic Russia is because they associate Russian Muslims with their less socially developed counterparts in the Middle East. Actually, vodka has long since dissolved away the Koran in Russia. Tatars, who make up more than a third of Russia’s Muslim population, are almost as secular to Islam as ethnic Russians are to Christian Orthodoxy. Even amongst the Chechens Wahabbism never truly took root, despite the best efforts of Arab mujahideen. As Fedia Kriukov put it, “the whole idea of Muslim takeover is predicated on one giant falsification — the substitution of the term “Muslim” for the term “representative of a traditionally Muslim ethnicity”…Absolutely nothing would change in the country if Tatars became the majority, however unlikely that situation is.”

Finally, one of the staples of alarmist, pessimistic and/or Russophobic (not to mention Sinophobic) commentary on Russian demography is a reworking of the yellow peril thesis. In their fevered imaginations, the Chinese supposedly swim across the Amur River in their millions, establishing village communes in the taiga and breeding prolifically so as to displace ethnic Russians and revert Khabarovsk and Vladivostok back to their rightful Qing Dynasty-era names, Boli and Haisanwei. I comprehensively refuted this fantasy in a previous post on Russia Blog, The Myth of the Yellow Peril.

Arguments from Linear Extrapolation Discount Future Discontinuities

Based on the following analysis, it is clear that Russia’s demographic crisis is nowhere near as great as commonly portrayed even in informed commentary on the subject, which too frequently uses flawed analogies and unwarranted linear extrapolations. As I argue in Faces of the Future, all predictions of a fall in Russia’s population to 100mn or less by 2050 are not borne out by current fertility and sociological developments. I give an alternate range of scenarios that see Russia’s population change to 139mn-150mn by 2025, and 119mn-167mn (medium – 150mn) souls by 2050. My results are more or less in line with Rosstat forecasts which see the population growing to 129mn-150mn (medium – 137mn) by 2025, albeit they diverge from more common models based on pessimistic assumptions on future fertility. I highly recommend checking it out – my Medium Scenario is reproduced below.

Ultimately, history will be the judge on whether this forecast fares any better than its peers. I suspect it will be epic fail all around – especially after 2025. This is because by then much more powerful trends in resource depletion, climate change and technological growth will be coming into play. The end of cheap hydrocarbon based energy threatens an end to global economic growth and collapse into the Olduvai Gorge. Numerous positive feedback mechanisms such as methane clathrate releases and saturation of traditional carbon sinks will intensify global warming. We will be reaching limits to growth on multiple fronts and industrial civilization will be in peril. As one of the few countries to benefit from global warming, Russia may become host to hundreds of millions of climate refugees.

On the other hand there will be great technological advances, including the rise of nano-manufacturing, ultra high-bandwidth full-immersion virtual reality networks and perhaps recursively self-improving strong AI. Major demographic discontinuities could include the development of an artificial womb (and baby factories?) and indefinite lifespan or actuarial escape velocity. However, bioengineered viruses or malevolent AI could also conceivably destroy the human race. Much as the rise of agriculture made hunter-gathering obsolete as a way of life, and just as industrial civilization remade the world in its own image, the dematerialization associated with a technological singularity will rend traditional human demography moot.

Perhaps neither of this will happen and things will continue much as they did before, but many serious futurists believe that major discontinuities will occur – there are simply too many exponential runways and pitfalls. Yet there is one thing I am certain on – the significance of demography will decline, just as it has since the days of mass conscription armies. Superpowers in the future will count their strength in oil barrels and supercomputers, not men.

This article is reprinted at Russia Blog. It also generated a long discussion over at Streetwise Professor.

(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)
 
Models that predict a Russian AIDS catastrophe rely on simple extrapolation from sub-Saharan Africa transmission patterns inapplicable to Russia and are as such fatally flawed.
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Many analysts of an unreasonably gloomy (or Russophobic) bent delight in raising the specter of an AIDS mortality crisis sometime in the next few years, indulging in fantasies of Russia as a dying, blighted wasteland populated by nihilistic, promiscuous druggies. In 2002 Vadim Pokrovsky, well known government anti-AIDS crusader, predicted the number of infected would rise to 3-5mn in “a few years“; by 2005, “we could be talking about five-million being infected, and these are realistic, even conservative figures” and tens of thousands would be dying by 2007. Prominent doomer demographer Nick Eberstadt modeled a 10% HIV prevalence rate by 2025 under a “severe scenario” and 2% under the lowest “mild scenario”. The World Bank (Ruhl et al) predicted a range of 3.21% (3.2mn cases) to 7.26% (5.3mn cases) by 2010, which is still much lower than US governmental National Intelligence Council estimates which project truly apocalyptic figures from 7.0% (5mn cases) to 11.2% (8mn cases). In other words the demographic, economic and geopolitical collapse of Russia is imminent.

To be fair a few years back I too was very concerned about these trends and apparent apathy of the Russian government. Then I became a bit more relaxed as the exponential tidal wave of new infections promised by Pokrovsky and the other prophets of doom failed to materialize and overall anti-AIDS spending ratcheted up to 300mn $ in 2006 and more than 500mn $ in 2007. Furthermore, a bit more research showed that these scenarios of African-style STD oblivion simply don’t stack up neither in theory nor in practice.

In 2007 Pokrovsky believed that there were “as many as 1.3mn” people infected with AIDS, very far from the multi-million rates he was predicting just five years ago, and not a catastrophic increase from “expert estimates” of 0.8mn in 2000. Russian government data shows that the percentage of pregnant women testing HIV positive reached a plateau in 2002 and tended down ever since. The models used by Eberstadt and co. are themselves critically flawed, because according to the international research program Knowledge for Action in HIV/AIDS in Russia, they assume that “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”. (They are also not borne out by the slightest acquaintance with comparative development and sociology. Few Russians are malnourished and hence have greater immune resistance, their medical equipment tends to be sterilized and it is socially unacceptable for them to have many partners or engage in anal sex; all this cannot be said for sub-Saharan Africans).

I will now look justify my bold claims with more details. Firstly, let’s go through the 2008 Russian Progress Report on AIDS to the UN to get the key statistics.

As of year-end 2007, some 416,114 people were registered as HIV-positive in Russia, which means HIV prevalence amongst the total population stood at 0.3% (in practice, twice or thrice more because many cases go undetected). Infection rates were much more “concentrated” amongst high-risk groups like injecting drug users (IDUs) and to a much lesser extent amongst sex workers, male homosexuals and prisoners. There are great variations in prevalence between regions, from already concentrated epidemics amongst IDUs in some Siberian cities to very low rates in rural and conservative regions.

Although the first case of HIV was uncovered back in 1987, the disease remained relatively dormant for the first decade. However, it exploded from around 1996, when the major vector of infection shifted to the usage of non-sterile instruments for intravenous drug injection (83% of registered cases). The epidemic at this stage was concentrated amongst young men. In recent years the role of heterosexual sex began creeping back up, indicating that it was spreading from IDUs to the general population and women (e.g. men getting infected from drug-injecting sex workers and then spreading it to their usual partners). By 2007 some 34% of infections were through heterosexual sex (including 63% of women, whose share of new cases is increasing).

The government has vastly ramped up spending on AIDS prevention from a paltry 33mn $ in 2005, to 254mn $ in 2006 and 445mn $ in 2007. The latter two years saw the implementation of the “The Project for the Prevention of HIV, Hepatitis B and C and Diagnosis and Treatment of HIV”, which involved spending more money on funding anti-retroviral therapy (ART) and informational campaigns aimed at prevention. By 2007, the percentage of registered people in advanced stages of the infection receiving ART rose to 93%; some 87% of HIV positive pregnant women were getting ART to limit the chances of spreading the infection to their babies; 39% of sex workers, 17% of practicing homosexuals and 24% of IDU’s got covered by HIV prevention programs.

82% of schools were providing some form of HIV/AIDS education by 2007, so it is no longer correct to say Russian society ignores this problem. Nonetheless, people remain relatively uninformed so far with only 34% of young people displaying accurate knowledge about AIDS untainted by myths. 7% of under-15 year olds had sex and 15% of 15-49 year olds had sex with two or more partners in the last year. This is not particularly promiscuous by international standards (in the US, 14% of under-15 year olds are no longer virgins, while 14% of 20-59 year olds had sex with two or more partners in the last year). According to the survey, amongst the high risk groups 92% of sex workers, 60% of male homosexuals and 37% of IDUs used condoms the last time they had sex.

Ever since the first case was uncovered in 1987, a huge surveillance program was set up to monitor the disease in the last years of the Soviet Union. It tests some 20-25mn people per year, which makes it probably one of the most comprehensive systems in the world. After remaining flat and very low until 1998, it spiked in 2001 and has since settled down to a lower level.

Over period to end 2007, some 21,959 HIV positive people died; in 2007 the number of deaths and new cases fell due to wider availability of ART.

Possibly the most important graph is above, which shows HIV prevalence amongst pregnant women (and as such is a good proxy for infection rates amongst the low-risk and overall population). As we can see the figures took off after the IDU explosion in 1996 and accelerated sharply, before hitting a slowly declining plateau by 2002. This is important because it implies that there is a mostly linear relationship between infection rates amongst high risk groups like IDUs and the general population, and that purely sexual transmission does not have a critical momentum of its own. (PS – the reason the number of HIV tested pregnant women fell during the 1990′s was because of the post-Soviet fertility collapse).

Which is not to say that there do not exist ominous signs in the other direction elsewhere. From 2002 to 2007, AIDS cases due to heterosexual contact increased from 18% to 34% of cases and is now the major vector for transmission to women (IDU remains by far the biggest for men). There is a rising incidence of new HIV cases amongst sexually active homosexuals (1.1% HIV positive in 2007 amongst those who sought testing, against 0.5% in 2006). However, there was a decrease in new HIV infections amongst registered IDUs (6% in 2001, 2% in 2007 were new cases of HIV).

My impression is that the epidemic is now more or less controlled amongst the highest risk group, IDUs. There is also evidence that it is not seeping into the general low-risk population. However, the situation is getting worse amongst those who live in the nether regions between these two worlds, by which I mean the partners of men sleeping with drug-injecting sex workers and the girlfriends of IDUs. This would imply that the HIV prevalence rate will continue going up for perhaps another decade and will peak at no more than 1% of the population. This is realistic because as mentioned the material conditions for the mass spread of AIDS simply do not exist and in any case the government is now making lively efforts to provide ART (and thus reduce chances of transmission, i.e. rate of diffusion) and educate people on the topic. While researching this post, I even found a (mildly erotic) children’s poetry book on AIDS from the town of Kaluga!

Now that we know a bit more of the context, let us now turn to the Knowledge for Action in HIV/AIDS in Russia report. This excellent publication has a whole chapter devoted to “modeling the HIV epidemic in Russia”, published in October 2006.

They start off by saying that although there is a risk of a concentrated epidemic amongst IDUs and sex workers transferring to a slower but deeper amongst the general popular, so far this possibility remains conjecture. They criticize the work of the likes of Eberstadt and the NIC thus (my emphasis):

The future of the emerging HIV epidemic in Russia is difficult to project, owing in part to the varying quality of both HIV surveillance and data describing on prevailing patterns of risk behavior. In order for HIV infection to become generalized within a population, sexual transmission must become the main route of transmission (because the other routes influence fewer people)…Despite these problems, demand from policy makers and the media often leads to speculative projections of the future of emerging HIV epidemics and their economic impact, such as those projections by Eberstadt and the US National Intelligence Council.

The key difference between the lower prevalence projections and the very high projections is the assumption about future heterosexual transmission. The higher projections assume that the epidemic will be essentially heterosexual and will follow the trends observed in Sub-Saharan Africa. This seems unrealistic based on current knowledge of the situation in Russia, where the epidemic is still predominantly concentrated in injecting drug users.

As we can see below, there is a huge divergence between models built on differing assumptions.

The sub-Saharan models of Eberstadt, NIC and the World Bank (Ruhl et al) quickly lead to demographic (and economic, geopolitical, etc) catastrophe. The Transnational Family Research Institute (TFRI) works from different assumptions, namely that “the size of the behaviorally define high-risk groups will not grow; prevalence in high-risk groups is close to stabilization; the epidemic proceeds mainly by spreading to rest of population through sex contacts”, which results in a peak of 1.2% HIV prevalence in 2015 assuming that this figure was 0.6% in 2002 (as estimated by UNAIDS).

The Knowledge for Action writers then create their own model, which uses the available data on Russian IDU injecting and sex habits and different assumptions about the patterns of sexual mixing between low and high risk groups, IDU life expectancies and the effect of sex work on future HIV prevalence. (The report also has all the differential equations used for the model, in case you want to play around with the model).

The degree of sharing needles and syringes observed in the IDU data do not produce an epidemic in the model. As already noted this may be because there is no epidemic in the regions or because behavior has changed, or it may be a result of the survey not capturing the high risk individuals. With the rate of sharing estimated by our Russian colleagues an HIV epidemic is observed. The epidemic is concentrated in the high risk population and is driven by IDU transmission with sexual transmission causing a small HIV epidemic in the low risk population.

Under their model the epidemic becomes endemic amongst IDUs, but otherwise affects the general population little.

The model parameters specified in this way with current prevalences of infection in risk groups generated an epidemic concentrated in injecting drug users.

The model parameters specified in this way with current prevalences of infection in risk groups generated an epidemic concentrated in injecting drug users.

Despite the high levels of prevalence amongst IDUs, they are a small part of the population and as such overall prevalence of HIV does not exceed 1% under these conditions.

The overall prevalence does not exceed 1% of the population.

The overall prevalence does not exceed 1% of the population.

IDU’s dominate in absolute numbers too, albeit substantial numbers of low risk women continue getting infected. (Thus the current trajectory of increasing heterosexual transmission, particularly to women, is not surprising).

There are numerous infections in low risk women who are the sex partners of clients of injecting drug using sex workers.

There are numerous infections in low risk women who are the sex partners of clients of injecting drug using sex workers.

There are a number of factors which can either improve or exacerbate the situation. For instance, expanding ART to more patients will substantially reduce new cumulative HIV infections. Effectiveness would be further increased by reducing the use of unclean needles (e.g. by handing out sterilized syringes). If starting in 2010 some 50% of patients were to be given ART and if there was a 70% reduction in the use of unclean needles, then peak infection will come in at 0.7% of the population round about 2015, instead of nearly 1.0% in 2020.

I will now quote their (condensed) conclusion in extenso:

The future of the emerging HIV epidemics in Russia is difficult to project, mainly as a result of the varying quality of surveillance data and information on prevailing patterns of risk behavior. In this chapter we have explored previously published projections for Russia and have used models to explore epidemic trajectories using model parameter estimates derived from the behavioral surveys and other primary research undertaken during the course of the Knowledge Programme…

Previous projections of the future of the HIV epidemic in Russia give results so varied that they are very difficult to interpret. As well as lack of information about risk behaviors, there is also considerable uncertainty over both the size and turnover of high risk populations. The models used here indicate the potential importance of both the size and turnover of high risk population. The model of IDUs and the general population shows an epidemic concentrated in the high risk IDU population. Prevalence in the low risk general population is driven by high risk individuals who cease their high risk behavior and return to the low risk population, bringing with them a higher probability of being HIV positive. Further, the more extensive model developed in collaboration with Russian partners indicates that small changes in parameters describing transmission can have a considerable impact on the HIV epidemic.

The behavioral surveys undertaken in this Knowledge Programme provide some information on both sexual and injecting drug use behaviour in the general population and the harder to reach IDU population. However, as shown in an exploration of possible sexual and sharing partner change rates, considerable heterogeneity in behaviour is observed and characterizing this heterogeneity is problematic. The rates of needle sharing reported in the IDU behavioral survey were not sufficient to produce an HIV epidemic in our models. This may indicate that there will only be a limited HIV epidemic in this population because of a lack of risk behavior, it may also indicate a change in behavior as a result of greater awareness of risk. Alternatively, it may be a result of the IDU survey not capturing the highest risk individuals. As this result is in contrast to that found in other studies further exploration of the distribution of risks of this high risk population is needed…

Finally, predictions of the HIV epidemic produced by the models in this chapter are relatively reassuring. In one sense they are possibly also conservative given that the rates of sharing used to parameterize the models were considerably higher than that reported in the IDU behavioral survey. However, we should still be concerned as many of the parameters used are poorly estimated and model results show that small variations in parameters may have a considerable effect…

So let’s get this straight. Predictions of a sub-Saharan scale die-off due to AIDS are completely without merit from a theoretical, practical or even intuitive perspective. One of the more serious (and transparent!) works on it acknowledges that even its base case of around 1% HIV prevalence in 2020 might be too pessimistic. Finally, the Russian government itself has woken up to the crisis and is lavishing immense resources on the problem.

Speaking of which, at least Pokrovsky has an excuse for wild exaggeration – as a key figure in the Russian government on AIDS policy, he’s allowed to lobby for more funds. Cutting the number of people with AIDS is a noble goal. If doom-mongering about how Russians are going to be dropping like flies a few years down the road if nothing is done is what it takes, so be it. The other analysts don’t have a good excuse.

Available en français at Le Kremlin contre le sida by Alexandre Latsa.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Sometimes, it is much simpler to expound upon one’s views on a subject by replying to and arguing against an opposing view, rather than constructing one’s own thesis. Call it intellectual laziness, a clever short-cut or whatever you not, this is what I’m going to do with the Washington Post article A Long Wait at the Gate to Greatness, in which John Pomfret argues that China is unlikely to ever match, let alone surpass, the United States as the world’s premier superpower. I will quote it in full, adding my own comments:

Nikita Khrushchev said the Soviet Union would bury us, but these days, everybody seems to think that China is the one wielding the shovel. The People’s Republic is on the march — economically, militarily, even ideologically. Economists expect its GDP to surpass America’s by 2025; its submarine fleet is reportedly growing five times faster than Washington’s; even its capitalist authoritarianism is called a real alternative to the West’s liberal democracy. China, the drumbeat goes, is poised to become the 800-pound gorilla of the international system, ready to dominate the 21st century the way the United States dominated the 20th.

The key difference is that China is a demographic giant. This means that to match the US in gross GDP (one of the key criteria for superpower status), it need only advance to around a quarter of its per capita development, or Mexico’s level. To match the West (and be double the US), it need only reach Portuguese standards.

Except that it’s not.

Ever since I returned to the United States in 2004 from my last posting to China, as this newspaper’s Beijing bureau chief, I’ve been struck by the breathless way we talk about that country. So often, our perceptions of the place have more to do with how we look at ourselves than with what’s actually happening over there. Worried about the U.S. education system? China’s becomes a model. Fretting about our military readiness? China’s missiles pose a threat. Concerned about slipping U.S. global influence? China seems ready to take our place.

But is China really going to be another superpower? I doubt it.

China’s positive portrayal is far from universal. To the contrary, it’s possible to find a great many articles like his claiming that China’s rise is overblown, e.g. Will Hutton on Does the future really belong to China? (no, it doesn’t, according to him).

Too many constraints are built into the country’s social, economic and political systems. For four big reasons — dire demographics, an overrated economy, an environment under siege and an ideology that doesn’t travel well — China is more likely to remain the muscle-bound adolescent of the international system than to become the master of the world.

Let’s see how well he backs up this thesis.

In the West, China is known as “the factory to the world,” the land of unlimited labor where millions are eager to leave the hardscrabble countryside for a chance to tighten screws in microwaves or assemble Apple‘s latest gizmo. If the country is going to rise to superpowerdom, says conventional wisdom, it will do so on the back of its
massive workforce.

However, there is a very big hitch in the aforementioned conventional ‘wisdom’. According to the World Bank’s report Unleashing Productivity, the overwhelming majority of Chinese growth can be attributed to increasing total factor productivity and investment from 1999 to 2005. If labor supply hadn’t increased, China’s growth rate would have fallen by less than 1% point. Furthermore, China has experienced very high human capital accumulation, as nine-year schooling has become universal and “during the past decade, China has produced college and university graduates at a significantly faster pace than Korea and Japan did during their fastest-growing periods”; since education is the elixir of growth, its workforce won’t just be assembling gizmos and tightening screws for long. Even now higher-added value manufacturing is booming.

But there’s a hitch: China’s demographics stink. No country is aging faster than the People’s Republic, which is on track to become the first nation in the world to get old before it gets rich. Because of the Communist Party’s notorious one-child-per-family policy, the average number of children born to a Chinese woman has dropped from 5.8 in the 1970s to 1.8 today — below the rate of 2.1 that would keep the population stable. Meanwhile, life expectancy has shot up, from just 35 in 1949 to more than 73 today. Economists worry that as the working-age population shrinks, labor costs will rise, significantly eroding one of China’s key competitive advantages.

Firstly, a TFR of 1.8 is far from critical and kept constant will lead to only small declines in the size of succeeding cohorts. Secondly, according to most projections the absolute size of the labor force will nonetheless continue growing until 2030 (it also neglects the fact that the supply of excess labor from agriculture is far from drying up). Thirdly, it ignores the extend to which rising labor costs will be offset by rapidly growing productivity as much more resources can be invested in a smaller pool of children.

Finally, I strongly recommend reading the third chapter of the Goldman Sachs BRICs and Beyond book, Will China Grow Old Before Getting Rich?, for a refutation of this particular variant of the demographic-apocalypse myth.

Worse, Chinese demographers such as Li Jianmin of Nankai University now predict a crisis in dealing with China’s elderly, a group that will balloon from 100 million people older than 60 today to 334 million by 2050, including a staggering 100 million age 80 or older. How will China care for them? With pensions? Fewer than 30 percent of China’s urban dwellers have them, and none of the country’s 700 million farmers do. And China’s state-funded pension system makes Social Security look like Fort Knox. Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer and economist at the American Enterprise Institute, calls China’s demographic time bomb “a slow-motion humanitarian tragedy in the making” that will “probably require a rewrite of the narrative of the rising China.”

In other words, just a little more than Japan’s rate (22%) today. Nothing particularly alarming. So what if the share of the working age population drops from 71% today to around 60% in half a century? Especially in an ever wealthier world where old people get ever healthier?

Regarding pensions, he answers his own question. They won’t be a problem because they generally don’t bother with them. (As a matter of fact, the lack of pensions partly explains China’s huge savings rate).

As for Eberstadt, I don’t put much stock into what he says, given the apocalyptic rhetoric he has spewed on Russia which I covered in the Demographics post on Da Russophile.

I count myself lucky to have witnessed China’s economic rise first-hand and seen its successes etched on the bodies of my Chinese classmates. When I first met them
in the early 1980s, my fellow students were hard and thin as rails; when I found them again almost 20 years later, they proudly sported what the Chinese call the “boss belly.” They now golfed and lolled around in swanky saunas.

But in our exuberance over these incredible economic changes, we seem to have forgotten that past performance doesn’t guarantee future results. Not a month goes by without some Washington think tank crowing that China’s economy is overtaking America’s. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is the latest, predicting earlier this month that the Chinese economy would be twice the size of ours by the middle of the century.

There are two problems with predictions like these. First, in the universe where these reports are generated, China’s graphs always go up, never down. Second, while the documents may include some nuance, it vanishes when the studies are reported to the rest of us.

Opinion presented as fact.

One important nuance we keep forgetting is the sheer size of China’s population: about 1.3 billion, more than four times that of the United States. China should have a big economy. But on a per capita basis, the country isn’t a dragon; it’s a medium-size lizard, sitting in 109th place on the International Monetary Fund‘s World Economic Outlook Database, squarely between Swaziland and Morocco. China’s economy is large, but its average living standard is low, and it will stay that way for a very long time, even assuming that the economy continues to grow at impressive rates.

As I mentioned, to fulfil what is perhaps the most important criterion for superpowerdom, China’s population size means it only has to reach about a quarter of America’s per capita development level to qualify – something it is already, by some measures, quite close to doing.

Secondly, the gap in development actually means China has the means to continue to ‘catch-up’ rapidly, since it’s much easier to grow fast when you lag far behind best practice. And unlike Morocco or Swaziland, which have yet to come close to conquering illiteracy, China possesses a basically well-educated population that is capable of absorbing higher-productivity technologies to convergence.

The big number wheeled out to prove that China is eating our economic lunch is the U.S. trade deficit with China, which last year hit $256 billion. But again, where’s the missing nuance? Nearly 60 percent of China’s total exports are churned out by companies not owned by Chinese (including plenty of U.S. ones). When it comes to high-tech exports such as computers and electronic goods, 89 percent of China’s exports come from non-Chinese-owned companies. China is part of the global system, but it’s still the low-cost assembly and manufacturing part — and foreign, not Chinese, firms are reaping the lion’s share of the profits.

And this matters how? Innovation and global brands are the next stage of development; for now, rapid build-up of industrial capacity, infrastructure and human capital is paramount, and something China is succeding at marvelously.

When my family and I left China in 2004, we moved to Los Angeles, the smog capital of the United States. No sooner had we set foot in southern California than my son’s asthma attacks and chronic chest infections — so worryingly frequent in Beijing — stopped. When people asked me why we’d moved to L.A., I started joking, “For the air.”

China’s environmental woes are no joke. This year, China will surpass the United States as the world’s No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gases. It continues to be the largest depleter of the ozone layer. And it’s the largest polluter of the Pacific Ocean. But in the accepted China narrative, the country’s environmental problems will merely mean a few breathing complications for the odd sprinter at the Beijing games. In fact, they could block the country’s rise.

The problem is huge: Sixteen of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in China, 70 percent of the country’s lakes and rivers are polluted, and half the population lacks clean drinking water. The constant smoggy haze over northern China diminishes crop yields. By 2030, the nation will face a water shortage equal to the amount it consumes today; factories in the northwest have already been forced out of business because there just isn’t any water. Even Chinese government economists estimate that environmental troubles shave 10 percent off the country’s gross domestic product each year. Somehow, though, the effect this calamity is having on China’s rise doesn’t quite register in the West.

Actually this is the one point I somewhat agree on.

What I’d like to point out though is that these are not terminal factors which will prevent China’s rise, just an inconvenience. South Korea also had an extremely polluted environment in its industrial growth period (and to an extend, still does), but this didn’t stop it developing quickly and now that it’s rich it can devote more resources to environmental protection.

The real danger I see is that the Himalayan glaciers melt due to global warming and the great rivers that sustain Chinese (and Indian) civilization dry up. This will indeed probably pre-empt Chinese superpowerdom. Minor things like a bit of smog or increased water stress won’t.

And then there’s “Kung Fu Panda.” That Hollywood movie embodies the final reason why China won’t be a superpower: Beijing’s animating ideas just aren’t that animating.

In recent years, we’ve been bombarded with articles and books about China’s rising global ideological influence. (One typical title: “Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World.”) These works portray China’s model — a one-party state with a juggernaut economy — as highly attractive to elites in many developing nations, although China’s dreary current crop of acolytes (Zimbabwe, Burma and Sudan) don’t amount to much of a threat.

But consider the case of the high-kicking panda who uses ancient Chinese teachings to turn himself into a kung fu warrior. That recent Hollywood smash broke Chinese box-office records — and caused no end of hand-wringing among the country’s glitterati. “The film’s protagonist is China’s national treasure, and all the elements are Chinese, but why didn’t we make such a film?” Wu Jiang, president of the China National Peking Opera Company, told the official New China News Agency.

The content may be Chinese, but the irreverence and creativity of “Kung Fu Panda” are 100 percent American. That highlights another weakness in the argument about China’s inevitable rise: The place remains an authoritarian state run by a party that limits the free flow of information, stifles ingenuity and doesn’t understand how to self-correct. Blockbusters don’t grow out of the barrel of a gun. Neither do superpowers in the age of globalization.

Sounds more like an American triumphalist delusion than a realistic appraisal of how the world really works.

And yet we seem to revel in overestimating China. One recent evening, I was at a party where a senior aide to a Democratic senator was discussing the business deal earlier this year in which a Chinese state-owned investment company had bought a big chunk of the Blackstone Group, a U.S. investment firm. The Chinese company ha
s lost more than $1 billion, but the aide wouldn’t believe that it was just a bum investment. “It’s got to be part of a broader plan,” she insisted. “It’s China.”

I tried to convince her otherwise. I don’t think I succeeded.

I really fail how this is at all relevant. Perhaps it was just a commercial blunder; perhaps it was done for the purpose of acquiring American best practice. What could this possibly have to do with analyzing China’s future?

Well, to them, everything.

Washington’s political elites are filled with unease over the looming end of Pax America and the impending restructuring of the world economic and international order to one where regional powers like China, India and Russia become much more prominent and influential; the culmination of a macro-historical process that has only been accelerated by America’s fiscal profligacy, imperial overstretch and peak oil.

As such, their spokespeople, like Pomfret, try their best to deny the Emperor has no clothes, their arguments based on questionable assumptions and internally inconsistent. The US would be wise to reverse course and focus its energy on accomodating to the new multipolar world instead of trying to hyperventilate it away.

(Republished from Da Russophile 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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The demographic situation in Russia is usually painted in apocalyptic terms. The Russian Cross – the post-Soviet transition into a world of death without new life – will supposedly preclude it from attaining First World living standards and wreck any Great Power, let alone superpower, pretensions. Is Russia Too Sick to Matter and the Sick Man of Europe, as alleged by Nicholas Eberstadt in two reports in 1999 and 2004, respectively? Are we seeing the Death of a Nation?

To answer these questions, we’ll look at the statistics and trends, and extrapolate into the future under three different scenarios – 1. Stagnation, 2. Improvement and 3. Transformation. In the end we conclude that while the demographic, or rather the mortality, problem is indeed serious, it need not entail pessimism if appropriate measures are taken. Nor will it have anything but a negligible effect on the economy.

First, let us look at the historical trends. Below, I have collated the birth and death rate for Russia from 1959-2008 using data from The Human Mortality Database, Soviet Economic Statistical Series and Rosstat. Subtracting the death rate from the birth rate gives the rate of natural increase.

The rate of natural increase would have closely correlated with overall population growth in Soviet times, since migration either way was small then. The same cannot be said of the 1990′s, though, when there was a large-scale influx of ethnic Russians from the newly independent Near Abroad. While throughout much of the period the rate of natural increase was below -0.5% annually, the population decreased at a much lower rate – indeed, serious decline manifested itself only from around 2000, by which time the flow of migrants had slowed down).

As you can see, the birth rate experienced two transitions – in the early 1960′s and early 1990′s. The fertility rate fell from 2.6 children per woman in 1960 to replacement level (2.1) by the late 1960′s, where it hovered until 1990.

In the 1990′s, it dropped precipitously, to 1.34 in 1995 and reaching a trough of 1.17 in 1999. Since then, there has been a slow recovery up to 1.30 in 2006 and rapid spurt recently. In fact, as contributor Oleg pointed out, this is getting noticed in the Western media – Russia Has First Post-Soviet Baby Boom. A booming economy, state sponsored pro-natality propaganda campaign and a 2007 law that ‘expanded maternity leave benefits and payments, and granted mothers educational and other vouchers worth $10,650 for a second child and any thereafter’, contributed to the fertility rate rising to 1.39 in 2007 and more than 1.50 this year. This is more than the average for the European Union and approaching the United Kingdom.

Is this a sustainable trend? Nicholas Eberstadt doesn’t think so.

The other side of the equation is the fertility level, and Russian fertility is very low these days, although it has crept up over the past five or six years. But it is still down 30-40 percent below the replacement level. Is it feasible to think that Russian fertility will rise to replacement level over the next decade or so? Well if Russian fertility does rise up to replacement level, if it does rise by 50 percent from its current levels, this would be because of change in desired fertility on the part of parents in the Russian Federation. So far I don’t think we’ve seen any big signs of a big demand for more children. Rather, what we seem to be observing is that Russia is becoming part of the rest of Europe with respect to ideas about ideal family size. In the rest of Europe, fertility levels are very far below the replacement level. There are a few exceptions like France’s, which are close to replacement levels, but for the most part, European norms on fertility are one or at most two children as the ideal family size. What drives births in modern, relatively affluent societies, more than any other factor, are parental desires about how many children to have. Unless there is a transformation of Russian attitudes about children, its going to be hard for any kind of program of birth incentives or birth schemes to convince Russian parents to have more children then they see as the ideal.

This is an assumption backed up by the raw data – the chart below shows historic fertility rates from an international perspective, in which Russia appears to plummet into and beneath mainstream European levels since the late 1980′s.

On the other hand, a 2005 Rosstat study, Family and Fertility, challenges Eberstadt’s assumptions about desired fertility in Russia. The average desired amount of children, within favorable economic and social conditions, was 2.24, 2.40 and 1.99 for women, men and 15-17 year old teenagers respectively in Tver oblast, 2.26, 2.63 and 2.15 in Nizhnij Novgorod and 2.33, 2.56 and 2.11 in Marij El. On the other hand, the amount of children people are prepared to have in the present circumstances is substantially lower. Amongst women, men and teenagers, it is: 1.75, 1.87 and 1.72 in Tver Oblast; 1.60, 1.78 and 1.97 in Nizhnij Novgorod; 1.83, 2.05 and 1.92 in Marij El. According to Rosstat, the birth rate in these regions in 2005 was 9.3, 8.9 and 10.5 / 1000 people respectively, which is similar to the Russian average of 10.2 As such, it’s possible to construct the following table. Italics are estimates based on linear extrapolation from other data in the table.

Russian Demographics – Fertility
Real BR Real Fertility Planned Fertility
Desired Fertility
Tver Oblast 9.3 1.18 1.78 2.21
Nizhnij Novgorod 8.9 1.13 1.78 2.35
Marij El 10.5 1.33 1.93 2.33
Russian Federation 10.2 1.29 1.95 2.44

As we can see above, in 2005 there was a gap of 0.65 children between real fertility and planned fertility, and a further 0.5 child gap between planned fertility and desired fertility. A number of points can now be made.

Firstly, the post-Soviet fertility drop had much more to do with transitional shock rather than a values shift. That was to be expected; following the collapse of Communism, the state of women’s rights and education (the two biggest determinants of fertility) remained largely unchanged. While religious influence did increase (for instance, the percentage of people believing in the Life Hereafter rose from 21% in 1990 to 37% in 1999 and 45% in 2008), its extent is somewhat exaggerated – it still needs to be borne in mind that proposals to introduce voluntary Orthodox Christianity courses into schools are contentious and that only a very small percentage of people go to church regularly. Russia remains (thankfully) a secular society.

Secondly, opinion polls indicate that the era of transition is coming to an end. For the first time during the transition period, the majority of people are confident in tomorrow. The year 2007 was probably the decisive tipping point, and it is reflected in the fact that it was then that fertility rates began the rapid phase of their recovery. Seen in this context, the current demographic doubleback is not surprising, since real fertility rates are simply converging with planned fertility rates. Moreover, as the economic situation improves by 7%+ per year and healthcare expands, planned fertility rates will edge towards desired fertility rates, while the latter are inflated even higher by government propaganda.

Thirdly, the current trajectory upwards is not going to last. This year’s January-on-January 12.7% increase and last year’s 8.7 % increase in the number of births is not sustainable and indeed a significant portion of them are due to a one-off increase in the case of previously fence-sitting parents who chose to have another child to get the new benefits package. There is a direct precedent for this – from the early 1980′s, state pro-natality policies increased the fertility rate from 1.9 to 2.2, as shown on the graph, but the effect peaked off by 1987. Nonetheless, I think it is reasonable to assume that eventually, say, by around 2015, the birth rate will settle at somewhere in between 1.7 and 2.1, i.e., coinciding with planned fertility. From then on they will probably again resume their decline, following the European (and pre-reform Soviet) pattern.

Fourthly, fertility rates are not birth rates. This is especially the case for Russia, whose age pyramid resembles a pine tree, due to the demographic heritage of the Great Patriotic War (1941-45). As you can see, today there is a relatively large number of women of childbearing age.

However, the transitional shock, coupled with the echos of war, means that the number of women in the 20-29 age range is going to peak by 2013, and then go into rapid decline. By 2020, it will be surprising if the overall birth rate equals today’s. This means that to avoid an intensified resumption of population decline after that period, Russia will have to massively lower its mortality rates. This aspect is covered in Part II.

Alarmist media and certain demented Russophobe bloggers have raised the spectre of Russia becoming a majority Muslim country within the next 50 years. As is usually the case with such sensationalist claims, closer examination clears up the clutter.

Below, I worked out the rate of annual increase for Russians and Muslims and linearly projected both to 2025 and 2050 (note that linear projection in demographics is meaningless – in reality, Muslim rates “merely reflect an earlier stage of development and will ultimately fall”). Even in 2002, the vast majority of Muslim people’s fertility rates were below replacement level and falling fast (i.e. there was a big difference in fertility rates between older and younger women). The main reason absolute birth rates remained high was because Muslims, particularly in the South, still have young populations. Even so, their demographic gains in 1989-2002 were not spectacular. According to the 2002 Census, there were 14.5mn Muslims (I see no reason to trust the 23mn figure given by the head of the Council of Muftis of Russia), of whom 13.0mn were from the largest eleven ethnic groups. Using backwards and forwards linear extrapolation (i.e. 1989-2002 growth rates), I estimate the Russian, Muslim and Neither population from 1989 to 2050. The RF population is the sum of the three.

Russian Demographics – Ethnic
1989 2002 2025
2050
Russian Federation 147.0 145.2 144.4 148.9
Russians 119.9 115.9 109.1 102.3
Muslims 11.4 14.5 22.0 34.7
Neither 15.7 14.8 13.3 11.9

In 1989, Russians made up 81.5% of the population of the RSFSR; in 2002, that figure was 79.8%. In the above scenario, it falls to 75.6% in 2025 and 68.7% in 2050 – Russians remain by far the dominant ethnic group. For a Muslim majority we’ll have to wait well into the next century. Of course, demographically linear extrapolation is a pointless exercise, since Muslim fertility rates will continue falling (as is the experience practically everywhere else), while ethnic Russian rates are likely to rise (as shown above). Nonetheless, the very fact that even with just primitive linear extrapolation we can show that Russians will remain dominant in Russia should shut up the likes of Paul Goble, Islamic fundamentalists and La Russophobe.

Of course, the reason the above people relish the thought of Russia becoming Islamic is because they associate Russian Muslims with their less savoury counterparts in the Middle East. Actually, vodka has long since dissolved away the Koran in Rusia. Tatars, by who make up more than a third of Russia’s Muslim population, are almost as secular regarding Islam as ethnic Russians are to Orthodoxy. Even amongst the Chechens Wahabbism never truly took root, despite the best efforts of Arab mujahideen. As contributor fedia put it, ‘the whole idea of Muslim takeover is predicated on one giant falsification — the substitution of the term “Muslim” for the term “representative of a traditionally Muslim ethnicity”…Absolutely nothing would change in the country if Tatars became the majority, however unlikely that situation is.’

Finally, to demolish one last myth – no, the Chinese are not colonizing Siberia. They come as traders and seasonal workers, make a quick buck, or rather, ruble, and leave. There is little evidence of illegal Chinese settlement in Siberia outside the yellow press.

Now for Demographics II – Climbing out of the Death Spiral(about mortality rates. Third part will be about projections).

(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.