Did Privatization in Russia Lead to a Higher Mortality Rate?

On January 16, 2009, an article by staff writer Judy Dempsey titled “Study Looks at Mortality in Post-Soviet Era" appeared in the New York Times.

Dempsey and the Times breathlessly touted the conclusion of Oxford sociologist David Stuckler in the British medical journal The Lancet that the speedy adoption of capitalism had caused the mortality rate among Russian men to spike horrifically upwards. Freedom, liberty, and democracy, Stuckler claimed, were literally killing off the population of Russia.

The complex scientific report had been available for public perusal less than 24 hours  before Dempsey was shouting its conclusions to the world.

It turns out that there was just one small problem with Stuckler’s conclusion: it was absolutely false. On January 30, 2010, a second article appeared in The Lancet. This article, written by John S. Earle and Scott G. Gehlbach, was titled “Did Mass Privatization Really Increase Post-Soviet Mortality?” The answer: no!

Oops. Do you think the report got next-day trumpeting from the Times? Best think again.

The noted Russian economist Konstantin Sonin of the prestigious Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University calls Earle “one of the world’s leading specialists in analyzing data from businesses in transitional economies.” Stuckler? Not so much. Sonin ridicules the Times for impulsively announcing the far less qualified Stuckler’s conclusion, which of course falls right in line with the Times’ neo-socialist worldview, while ignoring those of Earle.

Sonin says that Earle and Gehlbach used “more accurate statistical methods and data” and subjected their work to “stricter review prior to publication.” They could not duplicate Stuckler’s results, proving that those results were so much ideological claptrap.

Ironically, just the day before Dempsey’s article came out the Times own blog, Economix, had reported on the reaction of Jeffrey Sachs, who had been the architect along with Russia’s Yegor Gaidar of the “shock therapy” high-speed transition to capitalism. Sachs called Stuckler’s conclusion “completely wrong.” And Earle himself published a comment on The Lancet a few months after Stuckler’s article appeared calling his results rubbish.

But the Times didn’t care about any of that. Nor did the Times pause to consider the fundamental assumption underlying Stuckler’s work: that the pre-Soviet population growth records he relied on to compare to democratic Russia’s performance were accurate. In other words, Stuckler assumed that the Communist overlords of Soviet Russia wouldn’t lie and understate the mortality rate among Russian men, not even if it made them look bad.