Friday, December 14, 2007

A brave Kremlinologist. Too bad for him.

Your typical Kremlinologist lives in the surreal world of opinion, generalized claims, and qualitative (rather than quantitative) judgments. Why? Because it is an absolute defense against claims of incompetence. If you challenge a general opinion or an unsubstantiated claim, even if you have all the facts in your possession, you are merely demonstrating that given the facts another interpretation is possible -- you are in effect pitting another opinion against that of a Kremlinologist. That quickly degenerates into a mud-slinging contest of claims and counterclaims, in which Kremlinologists excel, and not a scientific debate grounded in facts and their interpretation, where your typical Kremlinologist would not excel. Such tactics are really nothing but moral cowardice, a ploy to allow a Kremlinologist to slither away from the onslaught with credibility undamaged, in order to continue to spew the same rubbish on a different date in a different venue. Incidentally, in this way Kremlinologists and Creationists are quite similar -- the latter also like to leave such escape routes when attacked by the scientific community.

With this skeptical mindset I began reading the latest work product of Michael McFaul, a rather eminent Kremlinologist, and Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, whose name doesn't ring a bell, and whom I am too lazy to research, entitled "The myth of Putin's success". But what a surprise awaited me when I got to this passage:

The murder rate has increased under Putin. Health spending averaged only 6 percent of GDP from 2000 to 2005, compared with 6.4 percent from 1996 to 1999. Russia's population has been shrinking since 1990, thanks to decreasing fertility and increasing mortality rates, but the decline has worsened since 1998. At the end of the 1990s, annual alcohol consumption per adult was 10.7 liters; by 2004, this figure had increased to 14.5 liters. In short, the data simply do not support the popular notion that Putin's more autocratic state is also a more capable or effective state in addressing Russia's significant public policy challenges.

I was so stunned by this discovery that I dropped my vodka bottle and startled my pet bear. Do I see statistics? Do I see quantitative judgments? Do I see verifiable facts?!! What courage! A Kremlinologist willing to stick his neck out, provide some facts, and be judged on that? I cried. With tears flowing down my cheeks, I proceeded to verify these facts.

And what did I discover? Well, let's proceed to list these in the order in which they appeared:

#1 "The murder rate has increased under Putin."

Murder rate per 100,000 population, 2007 rate annualized based on Jan-Sept

Source: Rosstat

Conclusion: Our brave Kremlinologists lied.

#2 "Health spending averaged only 6 percent of GDP from 2000 to 2005, compared with 6.4 percent from 1996 to 1999."

As usual, no source given. Let's verify from sources that we have:

Source: Euromonitor quoting WHO

Average for 1996-1999: 5.8%
Average for 2000-2005: 5.7%

A more correct conclusion would be that health expenditures as percent of GDP remained on virtually the same level throughout the period, especially if we factor out the unexplained spike in 1998. But we cannot say that the authors are wrong in their implication that such expenditures were decreasing during Putin's term, even if the source of their numbers is unknown. But we'll return to that later.

Meanwhile, some fishy choices need to be explained. Why were the years 1992-1995 excluded from the calculation? Could it be in order to make the pre-Putin average appear bigger compared to the Putin average? Such shameless manipulation...

Now, what do these numbers tell us? That Putin is evil? Well, I'm sure the authors were trying to tell that. But they forgot some important considerations: 1) Why would health expenditures increase if the population is decreasing? 2) Why use indirect statistics relative to GDP, rather than absolute numbers?

Given the fact that Russia's population had decreased during the given period, while GDP increased, we can safely say that in absolute numbers health expenditures per capita have grown significantly. Ah, that evil Putin!

Conclusion: Can't say that our brave Kremlinologists lied, but they did engage is some unseemly manipulations with numbers.

#3 "Russia's population has been shrinking since 1990, thanks to decreasing fertility and increasing mortality rates, but the decline has worsened since 1998."

Natural population growth rate, per 1000 population (only death and births counted, migration excluded), 2007 rate annualized based on Jan-Sept

Source: Rosstat

Conclusion: Our brave Kremlinologists lied.

#4 "At the end of the 1990s, annual alcohol consumption per adult was 10.7 liters; by 2004, this figure had increased to 14.5 liters. "

Our brave Kremlinologists are slightly confused here. The alleged alcohol consumption figures are usually alcohol sales figures. If we assume that alcohol sales figures correspond to consumption, we'll have to admit that Russia is one of the more sober countries on this planet, which does not correspond to empirical observations. In reality, these figures indicate that Russians started buying more legal alcohol. They say nothing about purchases and consumption of illegal alcohol, such as counterfeit products and moonshine, or of alcohol products not intended for consumption. Therefore, no conclusions can be drawn based on this evidence alone.

However, alcohol consumption can be measured indirectly through mortality statistics.

Deaths due to accidental alcohol poisoning, per 100,000 population, 2007 rate annualized based on Jan-Sept

Source: Rosstat

Conclusion: Our brave Kremlinologists lied.

And so it goes. You find some brave Kremlinologists, and even they are liars. What a disappointment.


Anonymous said...

I don't think you understand the meaning of the word "source."

First of all, you can't just say "Rosstat." You have to give a link to the specific published information you cite, only then does it become a "source." Most high school students are aware of this requirement.

Second, if I'm not mistaken "Rosstat" is part of the Russian government, which would have a motive to fudge data that makes them look bad. So it's quite possible that the author you discuss is relying on some other source, and you give no explanation as to why you think the Russian government can be believed.

People who live in glass houses should not throw stones. Your claims are at least as shoddy as those you purport to expose.

Fedia Kriukov said...

Dear anonymous friend,

Please open a dictionary and look up the definition of the term "source". Then explain how my use of the term contradicts the definition. I eagerly await the results of your findings.

I believed that anyone who knows what Rosstat is would have no trouble at all in finding the data I provided. But since I apparently overestimated the mental capabilities of some of my readers, I might consider inserting direct URLs as well.

Now, if you're wondering about the reliability of Rosstat's demographic data, you may relax. It's internally consistent, which means that either it's not fudged, or if it is, an improbable amount of effort went into restoring internal consistency (i.e. fudging all other pieces of data to hide the inconsistencies that would inevitably arise). Are you familiar with Occam's Razor?

I would also like to point out that an intellectually honest debate begins with you providing some concrete evidence indicating that government statistics are incorrect. Alleged motive alone is clearly insufficient and actually indicates your desperation.

The fact remains: the authors of this article lied. Is this a shoddy claim on my part? No, it is a well-founded claim, with evidence and sources provided in support.

Anonymous said...

Hello Fedia, it's nice to read you again. Good post, thank you.

Fedia Kriukov said...

Nice to hear from you too, Heribert.

felix said...

Very interesting post, Fedia. Carry on, please.

Anonymous said...

I've discovered this blog not so long ago. Very good articles. Keep up the good work :)

White Crow said...

Thank you! It so happens that I have the damn Rosstat set for up to 2006 on CD, and a few months ago had nothing better to do than analyze it in detail. So, when I saw that article I just groaned and moved on. Glad you took the time.

Actually, if you look at some of the crime trends, they don't make much sense. For example, murder rates are going down, but property crime is going up... At the same time, when you talk to people in Russia, they feel that property crimes have actually gone down and things are a lot safer than they used to be (which doesn't mean they are great, mind you). Anyway, no time to get into this right now, but the data is indeed very interesting, and our 'brave' Kremlinologist did, indeed, lie. But -- who cares? Right?

Fedia Kriukov said...

Thanks for the interest in my post. :)

White Crow:

There are usually two theories put forward for the trend in crime that you noted:

1) Russia is following in the footsteps of Western Europe, where property crime rate appears to be higher than in Russia, while violent crime rate is lower.

2) More property crimes are actually being reported to law enforcement agencies than before (i.e., it's not the crime rate itself, but the improving quality of statistics), while statistics on violent crime were originally of much higher quality.

In support of (1), I would have to rely on my own experience: e.g., I don't worry about pickpockets in Ukrainian or Russian cities, but I do have to worry about them in many Western European cities -- I've actually witnessed such crimes in Madrid and in Rome or, rather, their aftermath.

But I believe that (2) is closer to reality. The reason is that I am also of the impression that all crime, not just violent crime, is on the decline. It's just that statistics don't adequately reflect the gravity of the crime situation in the 1990s.

White Crow said...

Fully agreed. Irony of ironies: i never got robbed in Russia, but I had stuff stolen just a few days ago here in Canada -- out of my locked locker in the university locker rooms.... I could go on for hours why Russia seems far more civilized to me than Canada in many ways, at least in the cities. But, I'll keep that to myself for now.

I'm glad there's still people left who actually go to the data when talking about Russia, rather than simply repeating what some other charlatan said. Most journalist do the latter, few the former.

Keep up the good work.

Donna said...

Dear Fedia,

Thanks for posting on our article. Below is the complete data on murder rates in Russia. (If it doesnt come out, Im happy to email you the spreadsheet). As you will see, the # of murders peaked in 1994, and fell steadily until 1998 and then began to climb well into Putin's time in office. The last year is a positive trend and it sounds like you have looked at 2007 (I havent). But the average is still higher during the Putin years than under Yelstin, which is exactly what we wrote. Ill provide the health data when Im back at work.

And as other have pointed out, the real experts on this stuff (which I am not) have become very suspicious of goskomstat's work of late.

Sincerely, Mike McFaul

year recorded homicides homicide mortality population homicide rate homicide mortality rate
1990 15566 21145 147969423 10.52 14.29
1991 16235 22621 148394227 10.94 15.24
1992 23006 33912 148538202 15.49 22.83
1993 29213 45060 146969999 19.88 30.66
1994 35122 47870 146911755 23.91 32.58
1995 31703 45257 147149317 21.54 30.76
1996 29406 39083 146960202 20.01 26.59
1997 29285 34995 146744499 19.96 23.85
1998 29551 33553 146507420 20.17 22.90
1999 31140 38225 146079747 21.32 26.17
2000 31829 41090 145543547 21.87 28.23
2001 33583 42921 144941836 23.17 29.61
2002 32285 44252 144110025 22.40 30.71
2003 31630 41764 143452540 22.05 29.11
2004 31553 38911 142689836 22.11 27.27
2005 35636 143113895 24.90

Vital Statistics (homicide mortality): 1990-1994 - Vallin. J.; Andreev. E.M.; MeslĂ©. F.; Shkolnikov. V. M.: “Geographical diversity of cause-of-death patterns and trends in Russia” (2005) Demographic Research. 12:13. 323-380; 1995-2005 – Goskomstat publications.

Recorded Homicides: 1990-2004 – MVD, Prestupnost i Pravoporyadok v Rossii.

Kathryn Stoner-Weiss said...

So, how reliable are YOU as a researcher if you can't even be bothered to google my name?! It might have taken you all of 10 seconds. Just because you are lazy doesn't mean: a) I don't exist and have no credentials in this field (guess my 3 books and my jobs at Princeton and Stanford don't count); and that b) women authors are evidently less important than male authors, so don't bother to mention the co-author since, well, it's true, I'm a woman.
Accusing us (not just Mike) of lieing is pretty outrageous, and wrong, of course.

The facts are the facts and they are pretty startling and evidently Putin's control of the media has spread to bloggers from just TV. We wrote the piece precisely to refute the kind of post you have on this blog where people report that the "feel" safer in Moscow now than they did (or safer than they do in Canada which is frankly not just bad science but ridiculous if you look at the comparative murder statistics and crime statistics in Toronto compared to Moscow). We'd be happy to send the full version of the piece with all the relevant citations.
Can't help but notice you are also evidently "too lazy" (your words) to attempt to refute the evidence we also provide on economic growth in Russia. That's probably because we are right, or perhaps it would be too much trouble to actually collect hard data. That's the problem, as you note, with most analysis of Russia -- evidently a problem that you have too.

White Crow said...

Ms. Weiss,

I never claimed Russia is safer than Canada. I said it's more civilized in many ways. Big difference.

Fedia Kriukov said...

Thank you for your replies.

Mike McFaul:

I'm not sure why you would choose to cast doubt on Rosstat's data if you in fact used it as your main source? Even "Prestupnost i Pravoporyadok v Rossii" is a Rosstat publication, if I'm not mistaken. The figures for 1995 and 1999-2005 quoted by you match those posted on Rosstat's web site.

Now, you claim that "the average [of annual murder rates] is still higher during the Putin years than under Yelstin, which is exactly what we wrote". What you in fact wrote was simply that "the murder rate has increased under Putin". This can be interpreted in various ways: a) that the murder rate in each year of Putin's presidency was higher than that in the last year of Yeltsin's presidency; or b) that the murder rate has trended upward under Putin; or c) that the murder rate during Putin's presidency has surpassed the highest point achieved under Yeltsin. But, as you can see from the data, none of these are actually true.

For some reason, calculating the average annual murder rate for both periods never entered my mind due to the obvious absurdity of such exercise: the beginning of the Yeltsin period is influenced by low Soviet crime rate and demonstrates significant worsening of the situation, while the beginning of the Putin period is influenced by the high Yeltsin crime rate, inherited tendency toward worsening, but demonstrates marginal improvement of the situation.

As you can see from the dataset, 1999 (the last year of Yeltsin's presidency) saw a sharp spike in murders. Was the apparent decrease followed by stabilization of 1995-98 real or was it simply statistical aberration caused by a breakdown in recordkeeping? Or maybe it was the return of Chechnya into national statistics? I don't know, and it doesn't really matter. What matters is that when Putin became president, he was faced with an upward trend in the murder rate (the spike from 1998 to 1999). Then, in 2002-03, the upward trend was reversed, and the murder rate has been in continuous, even if gradual, decline right until the present day (that's 5-6 years out of Putin's 8). Thus, no, the murder rate has not increased under Putin. It actually decreased compared to what Yeltsin left.

Not that I credit Putin with that, and not that I would blame him if the trend were different. We are dealing with social phenomena here, which the government can influence but cannot control.

Kathryn Stoner-Weiss:

You can judge how reliable I am as a researcher by simply reading my post. I listed my data, provided my sources, and presented my conclusions. Is the data I quoted wrong, are my sources wrong, don't my conclusions match the data I used? What I wrote about not knowing who you are was not meant to be insulting, and had nothing to do with your gender. It was simple truth -- I did know the name of Michael McFaul, but I did not know yours, and indeed I was too lazy to google it, since it had no direct bearing on the topic. As you can see, I chose to concentrate on statistics rather than personalities. But I can assure you that from now on I will remember your name and your credentials.

Now, before you simply label what I wrote "outrageous and wrong", I think you need to provide some evidence (similar to what I did). You can attack my post in three ways:

1) The source data I used is wrong (regardless of whether it was intentional or unintentional)
2) The source data is acceptable, but I did not take into account other facts (or competing data) that materially alter the picture
3) The source data is acceptable, I took into account all relevant facts, but my conclusions do not logically follow from the data I cited

Which of the three do you base your disagreement on?

As to why I didn't refute your evidence about the Russian economy, the reason is simple: there is nothing fundamentally wrong with it on the factual level. But I do need to mention that, while comparing Russia with other post-Soviet economies, you forgot to take into account that Russia was a trail blazer in economic policies, and that other states followed in her wake (e.g., flat income tax). A really useful analysis should've included: a) the effect of specific economic policies under Putin on the GDP growth (you make it sound as if there was none, either positive or negative); b) the possibility of other post-Soviet states' growth as the result of copying Russia's economic policies; c) the possibility of other post-soviet states' growth caused by Russia's own growth, as the dominant economy in the region. Basically, when you claim that Russia's growth is unexceptional compared to the region, you are making the assumption that each country in the region is economically independent of each other, rather than all of them depending to on Russia to a large degree. You are also erroneously assuming that all of them have equal GDP structure and size per capita. You know, if the US and Russia both grew at 7% per year, it would be exceptional -- for the US, but not for Russia. Similarly, Russia's growth is exceptional compared to e.g. Armenia's growth, regardless of the actual %. There are many other factors besides GDP per capita that make each economy somewhat unique and prevent the use of GDP growth comparison alone to figure out which one of them is "exceptional" or "unexceptional".

Finally, since you noted that Putin controls me as well as "the media", would you also be able to inform me as to where I can pick up my paycheck for the services rendered? On a serious note, do you realize that by accusing me of working for Putin, you actually undermine your own claims about Putin's alleged control of the media? If you accuse me based on the fact that you don't like what I write, then what is your basis for accusing the Russian media of being under Putin's control? That you don't like what they write either? (I keep wondering if you're going to bring up the infamous article about "brigadniki"...)

White Crow said...


I'm wondering whether the two posts were really written by those two. If so, than Ms. Weiss not only has a very healthy sense of self, but must be a most charming and pleasant person to be around...

Good response overall. Furthermore, if you want to read some very interesting analysis of Russia's economic growth during th Putin era, look up Rudiger Ahrend at the OCED. The OECD also came out with a really interesting (and very underreported) study last year, according to which Russia is NOT suffering from the so-called 'resource curse'. I don't have a link to it right now, but you should be able to find it. If not, I'll dig it out for you. Another reference you should look up is Oleg Golubchikov "Re-Scaling the Debate on Russian Economic Growth: Regional Restructuring and Development Asynchronies", in Europe-Asia Studies 59, 2, March 2007.

From the abstract of that article:

"This article provides a critique of the literature on Russian economic growth and argues that
broadening the growth debate to include regional perspectives may cast new light on economic
processes at work in the varied geographical context of Russia. The article shows that growth in
Russia’s regions is much more comprehensive than often realised in the West and is closely associated
with rising levels of industrial production in the overwhelming majority of regions. This contradicts the
perception that resource dependency is the only formula of success within Russia. The author also
provides a close examination of Leningrad oblast’, once declining but recently one of the fastest
growing regions in the Russian Federation. However, although the general vector of development has
changed radically, the case of Leningrad oblast’ demonstrates that the growing economy perpetuates
the landscape of unevenness. New technologically intensive loci of development have paralleled
‘underinvested’ areas—despite being situated within the same administrative and political context.
Nevertheless, growth continues to trickle down to less advantageous areas, both buttressing and
spurring national growth as a whole."

Good stuff is being written about Russia, not just the "Faul" rubbish.

Fedia Kriukov said...

White Crow, thanks for the recommendations. I'll try to look these up.

I'm always interested in academic analysis when it comes to Russia (books or journal articles). Too bad that the general public only sees the incompetent and propagandistic writings found in the media and popular literature. It's funny how these two words can co-exist and yet never intersect. This applies not only to Russia's politics or economy, but also to history.

stalker said...

They also published a longer and more comprehensive version of their article in Foreign Affairs.

Not to imply that its any less bizarre, however. In the concluding paragraph he remarks that "Russia's path is more likely to be something like that of Angola".

Oleg Nevestin said...

I can't believe Michael McFaul and his Stoner companion actually reacted to the debunking of their bunk. I think it's great, particularly when the Stoner girl pulled some old feminist rabbit out of her old bag of tricks. Made me laugh.
I personally think that Mr.McFaul is so wedded to his liberal friends in Russia who in turn are completely divorced from reality, that he has no credibility on the subject, whatsoever. In fact, my unsientific personal rankings would put him in the top 10 percentile of professional liars with regard to Russia. And I may well be too generous.
One has to understand as to why there is flurry of articles in the West about Putin's legacy. His achievements are so obvious, that they fly in the face of everything his detractors, including Michael McFaul, predicted year in and year out would happen. They promised disaster, but Russia has a veritable Reneissance. Whatever they said would happen, opposite had occured. It's a track record of uninterrupted failure. So all these writings are just a last-ditch attempt at salvaging their own professional reputations. However, it didn't work then, and it won't work now. As a result, these two are in even deeper hole.
Fedia, you are doing a heckuva job, as they say in Crawford, TX.

Gregor said...

Bravo, Bravo

I live in Britain. We have CCTV saturation, the government punitavely taxes lower income earners whilst the super-rich barely pay anything, we have largescale unemployment, an effete police force that is terrified of rowdy teenagers, our army is being defeated by untrained terrorists in two countries (one of which we attacked pre-emptively) and our press is full of indignation and anger for...
Yep, Vladimir hitlerstalin Putin. That vampire who is responsible for Russia's low birth-rate and all the crimes. The loathsome and proven murderer of the gangster- I mean 'dissident' Alexander Litvinenko.

The sad thing is that the few 'Kremlinologists' who actually provide figures are usually wrong, but the standard of the British media is so low that they get away with it. The prevailing opion five years ago was that Iraq was one step away from anthraxing us to death.

After all, Britain has been so routinely humiliated by its unreciprocated adoration of the USA, I think the ruling elite really need one external enemy. Preferably one with nuclear weapons so we won't actually have to fight it.