Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Aspen Strategy Group Overstates Russia's Problems

In today's Washington Post, the usually sharp David Ignatius reports on closed discussions at the Aspen Strategy Group by "senior current and former officials, plus some think tank leaders and journalists" ("Crafting a policy for Russia").  Supposedly a bit more hawkish than the administration, this group is presented as a bipartisan group of wise people who really know what they are talking about as they craft policies for the US to deal with Russia.  Much of what Ignatius reports is sensible ("Don't give in to Putin, but don't give up on Russia" and that the US should "play what one former Cabinet official called 'the long game'" in the face of "Russia's humiliation after the crackup of the U.S.S.R.").

Nevertheless, a disturbing aspect of Ignatius's report on this meeting of supposedly Very Smart (and Serious) People is how out of touch with basic facts they apparently are, mouthing old cliches that are no longer true.  So this group heard (not reported who was handing this stuff out) that Russia faces a "demographic disaster: a shrinking population, a chronic health crisis that puts Russia between Tanzania and Angloa in male life expectancy, and a dearth of entrepreneurship..."

Sorry, but the demographic disaster  was an accurate story some years ago, but has come sharply to an end.  Population growth has been positive since 2009, with an extra three million added with the annexation of Crimea.  Male life expectancy hit a low in 1994 of just below 58 years, but it rose after that for a few years only to fall again nearly to 58 by 2005, finally turning around and steadily increasing since then to be about 64 years.  That level, and overall life expectancy of just over 70, are just about back to where they both were at their previous peak in 1986, the last year of positive economic growth prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Male life expectancy in Tanzania is just about 60.

Certainly many things are not all that great in Russia.   Positive economic growth, now pretty much zero, has mostly been due to higher oil prices, with military exports really the only other major growth sector.  Corruption and many other things hold back the economy, quite aside from the impact of the economic sanctions that have been imposed by foreigners on Russia for Putin's unnecessary adventurism abroad.  But it must be recognized that Putin has succeeded in reviving favorable self-image in Russia, the land "humiliated" by the end of the USSR.

I do not know if this change in image is what lies behind the improving health and demographic situation (birth rate has also been rising), but it certainly serves no purpose for supposedly wise US VSPs to continue to believe out of date horror stories about what is going on there.  According to Ignatius these people were only debating about whether Russia's supposedly inevitable decline will be gradual or sudden. That they seem to be completely unconscious that at least the demographic part of this story is simply total garbage is not encouraging.  I would hope that those who are actually advising Obama rather than just bloviating in Aspen know the facts rather than the right wing think tank fantasies left over from the past.

Barkley Rosser


Myrtle Blackwood said...

Life expectancy in Russia (and elsewhere) can turn around in very short time spans, as you note Barkley. The story's not out on Russia just yet. The thawing permafrost due to climate change, for instance, could make this part of the world far more habitable, or it could kill us all. said...


A lot of people are unaware of the point you make about how demography can shift quickly, partly because parts of it do not shift all that quickly. But birth rates per women of child bearing age as well as life expectancies can change fairly quickly, and they have been doing so more rapidly in Russia recently than we usually see.

Regarding the permafrost-melt-methane-burst threat, which is very real, the irony is that what would be catastrophic for most of the world would probably help Russia in the short term, one of those nations that clearly gains economically from global warming, at least up to a point.