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Myths and Realities of Russia's Population Crisis

Myth 1) If Russiaís population continues to decline, Russia will cease to exist.

Thatís patent nonsense. Population density has nothing to do with whether a country can exist or not. But, even if there was a lower population density limit at which countries magically disappear, Russia really has not much to worry about. Even the worst case scenario of only 80 million people on Russiaís territory by 2075 would still leave Russia with a greater population density than contemporary Canada. Russiaís current population density is about 8.5 people per square kilometer, more than three times that of Australia, and twice that of Canada. And last time I checked, Canadaís still on the map. Itís actually hard to miss there. So, Russiaís population has a lot of shrinking to do before Russia is going to disappear, and we can stop worrying about this for the moment.

Myth 2) If Russiaís population declines, other will take over its territory.

Thatís really just a correlate of Myth 1, and equally nonsensical. Yes, much of Russiaís territory is pretty empty. But so is that of Canada and Australia, and quite a number of other countries, including the USA. The reason for this is that nobody wants to live there. There is an explanation why much of Siberia was settled by fugitives and convicts Ė given the choice, people much rather settle where the weather is reasonably warm and the soil fertile. So, folks are not exactly lining up to move into the empty vastness of Russiaís East.

Of course, some people seem to believe that if the Russian East is not settled systematically by Russians, China might just forget the place belongs to Russia. Tired of paying for Russian, oil, gas, and other resources, it will instead move in and cut out the middleman. This line of reasoning is so absurd in so many ways I will limit myself to a very obvious rebuttal: the Chinese government is highly unlikely to start annexing Russian territory, even if it wanted to, for the very simple reason that Russia has a lot more relative firepower there. Russian nukes are a lot closer to Beijing than Chinese nukes are to Moscow. I leave the rest of this morbid scenario to those with a greater tolerance for absurd apocalyptic visions than I have.

Myth 3) If Russiaís population continues to decline, there will be an invasion of immigrants.

Thatís just stupid. Whether Russiaís population is shrinking, expanding, or staying the same makes no difference to people who want to come and live here. Population size, density, and dynamics have no bearing on immigration; just ask the Dutch, Germans, or Pakistanis.

That being said, there is something absurd about this argument: on the one hand, everybody seems to complain that not enough people live in Russia, but when people try to actually come, live, and work here, itís no good either.

Immigration has traditionally been a major factor in the economic success of nations, just witness the US, Canada, Australia for contemporary examples. Historic examples would be Prussia, whose rise to economic fortune, political power, and cultural prowess had much to do with Frederick II enlightened immigration policy. Russia, too, has fared quite well in the past when it adopted generous immigration policies. There is no reason in principle to assume it wonít do so now.

Does this mean I am in favor of uncontrolled and unlimited immigration? Of course not. Iím not in favor of uncontrolled and unlimited anything. A modern society needs rules, and that includes rules for immigration. What a modern society does not need is tribalism, which brings us to the next point:

Myth 4) If there is an invasion of immigrants, Russia will cease being Russian

This is outright xenophobic, racist, and stupid: if Russia gave citizenship to all those Chinese, Azeris, and what have you, would Russia cease to be Russian? Only if being a Russian citizen is conditional on being Slavic. But, since when did being a Slav have anything to do with having Russian citizenship? The answer to that is obvious: it never did. Any assertion to the contrary simply displays a complete ignorance of Russiaís history, culture, and ethnography.

And even IF being Slavic was once a prerequisite for being a Russian citizen, would it not be time to stop living with a tribal mindset? All successful civilizations of the past and present have been and are multi-cultural. This is no argument against Russian language and institutions being the unifying element of Russian society Ė far from it Ė but itís an argument against tribalism.

Myth 5) Russia needs a large population to have a good economy

Balderdash. Countries like Luxemburg and Switzerland have very small populations, but nobody would argue their economies are anything but stellar. Nigeria has a huge population, its economy, however, isnít doing so well. The USA has a population about ten times that of Canada, but both are doing just fine economically. There is no relationship whatsoever between population size, population density, and economic performance. Any assertion to the contrary is just ignorant.

Myth 6) Russiaís shrinking population is bad for the economy.

Nonsense. Changes in the number of people in a country have nothing to do with its economic performance. Letís assume we are having an annual population growth of 10%, and the productivity of every member of the population is equal and does not change, then the economic growth should be 10% as well. 10% economic growth seems like a good thing, but in reality, if it is caused by a 10% population growth, this economic growth really means nothing. Nobody in such a country is better off. All you are having is more people who live no better or worse than before.

Of course, the inverse is equally true. If the population declines by x%, while each member of society remains equally productive, overall GDP shrinks by x%, while per capita GDP remains unaffected. In other words, changes in total population are neutral in respect to GDP per capita.

Myth 7) Russia needs to increase its birth rate.

Thatís actually a really, really dumb idea. Russia needs an increased birth rate as much as it needs more snow. Children may be a biological necessity, but since infants and children are not economically productive members of society, they are bad news for the economy. If a lot of children are born, a lot of economic resources will go into feeding, clothing, housing, and educating them Ė these expenses are, at least in the short run, an economic net-loss. So, obviously, children do not contribute to the growth of GDP.

In fact, children decrease the productivity of a society. After all, somebody has to look after them Ė and time spent looking after children is time not spent engaging in economically productive activities. Logically, the more children somebody has, the less economically productive this person will be. Thus, high birth rates also mean decreased general economic productivity, negatively impacting GDP growth.

At the risk of offending mothers and romantics everywhere, Iíll state it bluntly: children make us poorer. In order to maintain any given level of GDP per capita, productivity of the working population has to increase at the same rate as the birth rate just to maintain current levels of GDP per capita. Anything less would lead to a decrease in GDP per capita and consequently to a pauperization of the general population.

Birth rates around the replacement level (2.1 children per woman, on average) seem to be economically harmless. Anything much above that, however, leads to trouble. If you donít believe this, just look at the facts: no country with a birth rate significantly above replacement rate is doing well on any scale, whether economically or politically.

Myth 8) Russia needs to grow its GDP

Wrong. Russia needs to grow its GDP per capita. Economic growth by itself does not mean increased average economic welfare. Economic growth only leads to an increase in overall economic welfare if it is the result of an increased GDP per capita. GDP per capita matters. GDP doesnít. Write that down. Any economic policy not targeted at increasing GDP per capita, preferably through increased productivity, is meaningless.

These arenít exactly new insights, but considering the debates currently taking place about Russiaís economy in and outside Russia, the obvious does seem to need repeating.

Myth 9) Russiaís low life expectancy is a bad thing.

Not necessarily true. Those of you with no stomach for a little cynicism may want to skip this section, the rest, please bear with me.

This point is not about economics per se, but about some larger sociological factors, which also impact on economics. There is no adult in Russia today who was not born under the previous regime. In other words, the vast majority of the population has been brought up to think along lines of official Marxist-Leninist ideology about a wide range of things, including public policy in generale, and conomics in particular. As time passes, these generations seem to forget all the bad things about the previous regime, and increasingly become rather nostalgic about Soviet economic policies. Since these generations also tend to vote more than younger people who are not overly affected by such ideas, government policies in Russia must by necessity take into considerations the sentiments of the older generations. But since Marxist-Leninist ideas are not exactly a good basis for sound public policy, accommodating ideas based on Marxist-Leninist thinking cannot be good public policy. If Russiaís current low life expectancy means that the generations whose ideas about public life are largely informed by Marxism-Leninism is dying off quickly, this means that demand for public policies based on Marxist-Leninist ideas is decreasing. Politically, this can only be a good thing, with definite benefits for the economy.

There, Iíve said it. Breath in, breath out, breath in. Calm down. This is a Ďthereís a good side to almost everythingí kind of situation, not a Soylent Green scenario.

Myth 10) Russia needs a big population because it needs a big army.

This one is so inane, it hurts. If population size was the main factor determining military capacity, China would have taken over Korea, the USA would have beaten the Vietcong, Afghanistan would be part of Russia, Taiwan part of Red China, Canada part of the USAÖ you get the idea. Throughout history, size did not matter much in military affairs. The Greeks were hopelessly outnumbered by the Persians, the dreaded Mongol hordes, contrary to common belief, were actually much fewer in number than most of the armies they defeated, and Frederick II of Prussia was significantly outnumbered in almost all the wars he fought. What matters in military affairs are first and foremost training, equipment, and morale. Numbers do make a difference, but are far less important than most civilians believe.

Russiaís armed forces face a lot of problems, no question. Military reforms should focus on training, equipment, and morale Ė worrying about its size really isnít an issue, at least not from a purely military security point of view.

Myth Busting Summary:

Much of the current debate on Russiaís demographic situation is nonsense. Russia is not going to disappear from the map because of its shrinking population. Itís not going to lose territory to the Chinese, itís not going to be overrun by hostile armies, and itís not going to be taken over by those swarthy immigrants from the South. Neither Russia nor the Russian narod are going the way of the Dodo any time soon.

Now that we have dealt with the nonsense, letís take a brief look at the real issue:

The Real Issue: Quality, not Quantity

Not Russiaís overall population is too small or shrinking too much: the share of economically productive people in Russia is too small, and arguably shrinking. Russians smoke more, drink more hard liquor, have more abortions, have more preventable diseases, drive more dangerously, and eat less healthy than most people in other industrialized nations. Sick people are not productive workers. As a result, for each unit of GDP per capita, each Russian worker has to work harder and longer than each Canadian worker, and each Russian unit of money has to be more productive than each Canadian unit of money.

Consequently, it does not matter whether Russia has 100 or 500 million inhabitants: if the proportion and productivity of economically active population does not increase, GDP per capita will not increase, and nobody will be better off. The most important task for Russiaís government is to increase the proportion and productivity of its economically active population.

If Russians drank as little as the Swiss, ate as well as the Japanese, drove as carefully as the Dutch, and continued to work as hard as, well, Russians, doubling Russiaís GDP per capita in ten years would be a very modest goal.

The Real Solution: Decreased Mortality

Too many Russian men drink, smoke, drive, and infect themselves to premature death. Too many Russian women suffer from the health effects of too many abortions, or have too many babies who die too early. Demographically, it does not matter whether people arenít born at all, or whether they die prematurely. Economically, the difference is significant, since bearing and raising children only to have them die early is a waste of resources. A single healthy person with a good education employed in a good job when he reaches maturity is better than two sickly people who line up for government handouts.

Historically, this is how the rich countries became rich: they improved labor productivity by simultaneously reducing birth and mortality rates. Incidentally, these factors also contributed to a significant population growth. But, since this population growth went hand in hand with an even greater increase of the size and productivity of the economically active population, todayís rich nations were able to combine rapid population growth with rapid economic development.

What Russia needs is not more babies, but more healthy people who are able to work. For this, it has to find both short- and long-term solutions, including, but not limited to, a significant increase of excise taxes on alcohol and cigarettes, smart immigration policies, public education campaigns on general and reproductive health, more stringent enforcement of traffic and workplace safety rules, and improved medical care. Some of these policies will cost little, while others may prove expensive in the short term.

Clearly, none of this should come as news to any literate person. But, considering the tendency of the current demographic debate in Russia to focus on non-issues such as population size, birth-rates, territorial integrity, or military security, it seems necessary to point out the trivial. There have been serious voices suggesting natalist policies Ė it should be clear to anyone that this would be a serious blow against the future of Russia. Any fear mongering regarding the security of Russiaís territory or identity due to a decreased overall population should be nipped in the bud, and natalist m ideology should be exposed as the idiocy it really is.

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