December 22, 2014

The Meaning of Christmas, 1914: When Peace Broke Out

Writing about web page http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-spirit-of-the-1914-christmas-truce-1419006906

At Christmas 1914 up to 100,000 troops on the Western front took part in unofficial truces. They left the opposing trenches and exchanged greetings, cigarettes, food, and drink. Most famously, some of them may have played football.

Christmas Truce 1914

The moment was captured by Bruce Bairnsfather (1917); thanks to Major and Mrs Holt, Bairnsfather's biographers, for permission to reproduce this image.

The Christmas truce of 1915 is often considered to be something rather unique. In fact, as the sociologist Tony Ashworth (1980) showed, it was a special case of a wider pattern. The Christmas truce was special because there was open fraternization. The wider phenomenon was simply a tendency for the soldiers on both sides, left to themselves, to bring down the level of conflict and hostility. They did this spontaneously, without calculation, using coded signals that did not need to be translated into words or confirmed by shaking hands. The signals were the dawn volley, aimed far above the enemy's heads, or the tea-time shell that always fell wide of the mark. These were signals of a lack of hostility that the receiving soldiers could easily come to recognize, predict, and reciprocate.

In this way the soldiers on each side would learn to collude with the enemy to avoid direct clashes and minimize the danger on both sides.

Ashworth called this pattern of behaviour "live-and-let-live." Live-and-let-live was observed in all periods of the war; the Christmas truce of 1914 was unusual only in that the men's desire to avoid outright hostilities was expressed openly. But it did not need to be expressed openly to persist. Live-and-let-live could develop without any explicit communication.

The crucial condition for live-and-let-live to develop was that the men were left alone for long enough to learn its language. But military commanders learned not to leave their men alone. They learned to intervene in the game of live-and-let-live and to disrupt it by teaching their men another language, the language of hostility. In between the great offensives, the soldiers learned the language of hostility in night raids. Night raiding involved crossing to the enemy trenches under cover of darkness to surprise, kill, destroy, steal, and kidnap. Night raids were dangerous, caused losses to both sides, stimulated the desire for revenge, and engendered persistent mutual hostility.

For all the same reasons, night raids were universally detested. The British and French officers approached this problem differently. The result was a kind of field experiment in different types of motivation. The French officers asked for volunteers and used positive incentives and rewards to encourage participation. In contrast, the British officers used direct orders that required all troops to take part in rotation.

The result, according to Ashworth, was that in the French army night raiding was generally regarded as exceptional service, demanding special recognition. In the British army, on the other hand, night raiding was seen as one of the regular duties of front line service. Because of this, the British were able to carry out the policy of night raiding at a higher level than the French in 1915 and subsequent years. In the British sector there was more hostility and live-and-let-live was cut off at the root. Armed with superior motivation, the British troops then showed greater commitment in both minor and major offensives.

In contrast, Ashworth argued, French morale declined to the point where, in 1917, faced with orders to go once more into battle, half the regiments in the French army experienced mutinies. Ashworth supported his argument with a striking fact: On the German side of the French sector in 1917 there was no awareness that the troops in the opposing trenches were refusing orders to attack. This can only mean that the German soldiers had become completely habituated to the French passivity and so saw no change in the behaviour of the French soldiers.

Could the Christmas truce have ended the war before it had barely begun? Was it a lost chance to avert the premature deaths of tens of millions of people? It is a tempting thought, but we are bound to conclude that there are several reasons why this could not have been the outcome.

Live-and-let-live was surely facilitated by trench warfare, when large numbers of soldiers faced each other for long periods across static lines, and could learn to reciprocate each others' behaviour. But static warfare was temporary. The war began with movement, and by the time it ended the ability of the troops to move had been restored by new weapons and technologies.

If the war had ended on the Western front in December 1914, it would have left Germany in possession of a large slide of eastern France. The French leaders would surely have resumed the war at some point for this reason.

If the war was not quickly restarted in the West, Germany's leaders had another war to fight in the East, a war on Russia that in their strategic vision was more vital to Germany's interests than the war on France. The Germans would surely have exploited a truce in the West to pursued the war in the East with redoubled energy.

In fact the political leaders and military commanders were able quickly to overcome the natural tendency to live and let live and so return to the war. They were learning rapidly how to mobilize their nations around national identity, how to use their economies to deploy and arm millions of young men for combat, and how to organize those young men into fighting organizations that would attack and defend in together in large-scale operations, regardless of victory and defeat.

The Christmas truce of 1914 is testimony to the intense desire of most young men not to die and not to kill. It is also evidence of the growing aversion to extreme violence that writers such as Steven Pinker (2011) have identified over thousands of years of human history. It reproaches the rulers of 1914 that condemned Europe to thirty years of mass warfare. But it did not and could not overcome the political calculations that led to war at that time.

In 2014 the Kremlin's political calculations have led to war in Ukraine. Russian leaders seem to have no qualms when they threaten to widen the use of force in Europe by means of rapid rearmament, large-scale miltary exercises, and continuous probing of NATO air and sea defences, and by talking up the use of nuclear weapons.

From one end of Europe to the other today there is ample evidence of the innate desire of ordinary people to live and let live. But live-and-let-live does not offer a solution to the problem of authoritarian rulers that make their war plans in secret, free of moral and political restraints.

References

  • Ashworth, Tony. 1980. Trench Warfare, 1914-1918: The Live and Let Live system. London: Macmillan.
  • Bairnsfather, Bruce. 1917. Fragments from France. New York and London: The Knickerbocker Press.
  • Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes. London: Allen Lane.

Back to the USSR: National Security in the Soviet Economy

Writing about web page http://postnauka.ru/video/30259

In Moscow 18 months ago, I made some short videos for Postnauka, a Russian science and social-science video magazine. One of the videos I made was about the security dimension of the Soviet economy. Under the heading of "security" I had in mind both external (mainly military) security and internal political security. The Postnauka people published it on line in August this summer and I think they forgot to tell me so I noticed it only recently. Anyway here is the interview(in English, just over 16 minutes).

Here's a translation of the Russian-language introduction on the Postnauka web page:

What approaches have been used to study the history of the Soviet economy? Why is it difficult to investigate the various influences on the Soviet economy? University of Warwick Professor Mark Harrison explains how to uncover the hidden connections between the agencies of government in the "Serious Science" project established by the Postnauka team.

At first [after the opening of the archives] researchers looked into just two aspects. One was the actual scale of the Soviet military-industrial complex, which was not the whole economy but still a very important part of it and it affected the whole economy, for example, through mobilization planning. So understanding the scale of Soviet rearmament and the military-industrial complex was one aspect, and the other was the effort to better understand the general context of the "great breakthrough" of the first five year plan of the 1920s and the transformation of the Bolshevik party into Stalin's personal power.

I want to mention here another researcher, Vladimir Kontorovich. He drew attention to the need to listen to what the Bolsheviks actually said. In Western economics there is often neglect of what politicians say because we think of our own politicians and their broken promises; we know that politicians lie, so why read what they write as opposed to looking at the outcomes? Kontorovichhas argued that we ought to take seriously what Lenin and Stalin said about their economic goals. In my view if you consider carefully what they wrote about economics you can see some things that emerged from the Bolshevik strategy and the Soviet system of power.

It's difficult for historians to evaluate the role of the security services in economic policy and decision making partly because we have access to the security archives only for the 1930s. Now this situation is changing because a group of independent states that were Soviet republics have chosen a different political path and some of them have opened thei security archives. These are primarily the Baltic countries — Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia; Ukraine (to some extent) and Georgia have also opened their archives, so now we can find out how the Soviet security service operated in the [Soviet] borderlands. Based on this, we can try to infer how they worked in the Soviet Union as a whole.

To give an example of the kind of research that is now possible, over the last couple of years Inga Zaksauskiene of the History Faculty of Vilnius University and I have been writing a paper entitled "Counter-Intelligence in a Command Economy." Our paper, bassed on research in the documents of the Lithuania KGB held on microfilm at the Hoover Archive, has just been acceped for publication by the Economic History Review. Here's the abstract:

We provide the first thick description of the counter-intelligence function in a command economy of the Soviet type. Based on documentation from Soviet Lithuania, the paper considers the KGB (secret police) as a market regulator, commissioned to prevent the disclosure of secret government business and forestall the disruption of government plans. Where market regulation in open societies is commonly intended to improve market transparency, competition, and fair treatment of consumers and employees, KGB regulation was designed to enforce secrecy, monopoly, and discrimination. One consequence of KGB regulation of the labour market may have been adverse selection for talent. We argue that the Soviet economy was designed to minimize the costs.

And here is a preprint.


December 13, 2014

Was the Soviet 1923 Male Birth Cohort Doomed by World War II?

Writing about web page http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/radio4/moreorless/moreorless_20141213-0600d.mp3

Tim Harford's BBC Radio programme "More or Less" asked me to comment on a claim that is widely repeated on the internet, for example on Buzzfeed:

Almost 80% of the males born in the Soviet Union in 1923 did not survive World War II.

My answer

Here's the numbers I worked from on the programme(in thousands, rounded to the nearest hundred thousand). Each of the lines is sourced below.

  • Males born in the Soviet Union in 1923: 3,400
  • Infant (0-1) mortality: 800
  • Childhood (1-18) mortality, famine, and terror: 800
  • Surviving to 1941: 1,800
  • Wartime mortality: 700
  • Surviving to 1946: 1,100

My comment

The Buzzfeed claim is overstated, although not by a wide margin. Around two thirds (more exactly, 68%) of the original 1923 male birth cohort did not survive World War II. But the war is not the most important reason for the poor survival rate; almost half of them died before the war broke out.

The babies of 1923 were born at an awful time and faced a dismal future. The country they were born in was poor and violent. Between 1914 and 1921 their families had endured seven years of war and civil war, immediately followed by a major famine. Their society lacked modern sanitation, immunization programmes, and antibiotics. Rates of infant mortality and childhood mortality were shockingly high. Moreover, violence and famine were not a thing of the past. The 1923 cohort would be aged nine in the first year of the next major famine (1932) and fourteen in the year of Stalin's Great Terror (1937). They turned eighteen just as Germany attacked their country (1941).

The German invasion of 1941 was a deep national trauma. The young men born in 1923 were inexperienced conscripts for an army that was repeatedly shocked, taken by surprise, encircled, and pulverized. It suffered terrible losses. In the first six months, three million troops were killed or taken prisoner, and most of those taken prisoner did not survive. If they survived that, they faced more years of battlefield attrition or else and exhaustion on the home front. In all the Soviet Union suffered around 25 million war deaths, plus or minus a million (Harrison 2003). Red Army deaths alone were 8.7 million.

The overall mortality of the Soviet 1923 male birth cohort can be distributed over four stages of life. Around 800 thousand died in their first year. These died of birth defects, disease, accidents, abuse, and neglect. Another 800 thousand died between the ages of 1 and 18 from a range of causes that included those just mentioned and extended beyond them to famine and political violence. Then, from age 18 to 22, another 700 thousand were carried off in the war. That left just over a million to live on into middle and old age.

It may be surprising that war was not the major cause of premature death up to 1946 for the young men born in 1923. But in this there should be two harsh reminders. The first reminder is that nature is wasteful: everywhere until very recently only a minority of babies survived to adulthood, even in peacetime. This was still the situation for the Soviet Union in 1923. The second reminder is that 700,000 wartime deaths from a single birth cohort of young men is still a shocking figure. It is, for example, more than twice the total number of British military and civilian casualties in World War II.

My working

I took the data from Andreev, Darskii, and Khar'kova (1993). These three Russian demographers reworked the Soviet census and registration records immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union opened up the archives for independent research. Everyone abbreviates the reference to ADK so I will too. ADK (p. 118) give the total of births in the Soviet Union in 1923 as 6,523 thousand. Assuming a normal male/female split of 107/100, male births were 3,372 thousand. This is the size of the 1923 male cohort that we have to reckon with.

ADK do not give exact figures for the numbers of the 1923 male cohort surviving to 1941 and 1946, but you can read them off a chart (p. 79) as approximately 2 million and 1.2 million, implying 800 thousand wartime deaths. For our purpose, however, these figures require adjustment for border changes. In 1946 Soviet borders were wider than in 1923. In 1939/40 the Soviet Union expanded to absorb the Baltics, eastern Poland, and some other territories. Because of this the population was boosted (p. 118 again) from 168.5 to 188.8 million, or about 12 percent). So we need to multiply by 168.5/188.8 to take the 1923 male birth cohort as reported in 1946 back to the original borders of 1923. This gives survivors to 1941 as 1,785 thousand, wartime deaths as 714 thousand, and 1,071 thousand survivors to 1946.

A cross-check

If these figures are right, two thirds (rather than 80 per cent) of the original 1923 male birth cohort were dead by the end of World War II. But the war was not the largest cause of death, for nearly half of them were dead by 1941, before the war broke out. How reasonable is that?

There are two factors that explain heavy peacetime mortality. First, infant mortality: ADK give infant mortality in 1923 (p. 135) as 229 per thousand (with 220 as a lower bound and 238 as an upper bound). Applying their central estimate gives 770 thousand deaths in the first year of life, leaving 2,600 thousand survivors to 1924.

Second, childhood mortality, famine, and violence. For consistency with 1,785 survivors in 1941, we obtain deaths over the period from 1924 to 1941 as a residual, and the number of these is found to be 814 thousand, which is a larger number than the number of deaths in the first year of life. Is that reasonable? Elsewhere (pp. 19, 20. 35), ADK give survival tables for male newborns based on the three interwar censuses, from which it is clear that male child mortality over 1 to 3 years was never much less than over 0 to 1. Taking into account famine, terror, etc., a figure for 1-18 mortality that slightly exceeds 0-1 mortality is plausible.

Soviet demography is not an exact science. All these figures are more fuzzy than might appear at first sight -- one reason my opening summary rounds everything to the nearest hundred thousand. On the same programme you can hear Mike Haynes (he and I reach similar conclusions) reminding listeners that the error margin on Soviet war deaths, plus or minus one million, is another number that is greater than the number of British war deaths. The one thing that saves us from complete confusion is that demographic accounts have to be consistent, both internally and externally. The requirement of consistency helps us to judge that some claims are reasonable and others are ruled out.

References

  • Andreev, E. M., L. E. Darskii, and T. L. Kharkova. 1993. Naselenie Sovetskogo Soiuza, 1922-1991. Moscow: Nauka.
  • Harrison, Mark. 2003. Counting Soviet Deaths in the Great Patriotic War: Comment. Europe-Asia Studies 55:6, pp. 939-44.

December 09, 2014

Torture: Once You Start, It's Hard To Stop

Writing about web page http://warwick.ac.uk/markharrison/comment/torture.pdf

Torture is wrong. Applied to interrogation it is unproductive. Given these two things, it should be easy for interrogators to choose not to use torture. Despite this, torture is widely and persistently used in interrogation around the world. So here, apparently, is a puzzle. Why does torture persist? The solution to the puzzle is found in a third feature: torture is corrupting.

Today's publication of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the Central Intelligence Agency 's Detention and Interrogation Program will be noted mainly for its detailing of the fates of the 39 CIA detainees who were subject to "enhanced interrogation" (or torture).

Also notable, however, is the report's documentation of the CIA's determined defence of its practices, extending to concealment and misrepresentation of the facts in order to evade accountability. This defence began concurrently with "enhanced interrogation" but it is not confined to the past. It continues today and will no doubt be maintained tomorrow.

It was 9/11 that moved me to write regularly on public affairs. I didn't have a blog, so I just wrote short papers and uploaded them to a web page. In November 2001 torture was already being floated in public as a way to get US detainees to talk about terrorist conspiracies. It seemed to me that European history already provided ample evidence that this was a bad idea, so I wrote a short paper to explain why.

My last-but-one paragraph from that paper is relevant to the idea that torture cannot be a temporary expedient. Even if it turns out to be a bad idea, once you start, it's hard to stop. It also helps to explain why a body like the CIA would become committed to a bad idea and continue to defend it to the present. What I wrote thirteen years ago seems as good today as I thought then, so I'll quote that last-but-one paragraph in full.

A final and most important consequence is that the process of torture is corrupting. Torture creates employment for the interrogators, and privileges that stem from the capacity to instill fear. The practice of torture also attracts those who find it enjoyable and use it as an instrument of self–gratification rather than investigation. Thus it gives rise to vested interests in its continuation that do not wish to be held accountable for their actions. These interests are helped by secrecy. Torture takes place in secret. Most people find the subject distasteful and do not wish to know about it, and this further strengthens the wall of secrecy. The result is a part of the state that exercises a cruel and tyrannical power over society, one that grows inevitably with the extension of torture and has the power to resist subsequent attempts to curb it.


December 03, 2014

Capital is Back — But Not As We Know It: Comment on Piketty

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/history/research/seminars_readinggroups/historyseminar/

Recently Warwick’s History Department held a roundtable on Thomas Piketty’s important and bestselling blockbuster, Capital in the Twenty-first Century (Piketty 2014). I was on the panel, which was ably organized and chaired by Maxine Berg, whom I thank for the invitation. Here I’ll summarize my remarks, which have benefited from listening to the other panelists and the discussion. For better or worse my words seem to have been modified by the passage of time; I sense that their tone has sharpened since that evening.

Piketty’s book has been reviewed thousands of times; we have already seen reviews of the reviews. I have little to say that can be original. I prefer not to comment on Piketty’s conclusions, because most readers seem to have made up their minds on those before reading the book. Instead, I’ll focus on the early chapters, where Piketty sets out his contention that “capital is back”; nearly everything else in the book follows from that foundational claim.

Here’s the short version of my assessment: The problem? Hugely topical. I won’t spend any time on that. The model?Unobjectionable in principle, flaky in use. I’ll explain briefly. The historical data? A wonderful contribution, yet they do not show what many suppose, and that would seem to include Piketty himself. My conclusion? Capital is back -- but not as corporate capital. If capital is back, it is not, apparently, because of financial deregulation or capital account liberalization. And, if capital is back, there are clear candidates for countervailing forces that will tend to restrict its further rise in the twenty-first century.

Now for the detail, some of it unavoidably technical. Let’s start with the model. Piketty writes (2014, p. 32):

The discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and highly ideological speculation …

(So of course we don’t expect to find anything like that in the pages that follow.) What we do find is this:

  • A first fundamental law (p. 52): the profit share in income rises with the profit rate on capital and with the capital/income ratio.

α = rβ

  • A second fundamental law (p. 166): the capital/income ratio rises with the saving rate out of income (which governs the rate at which income adds to capital), and it also rises as the income growth rate falls.

β → s/g

  • A fundamental force (p. 35): profit rate on capital tends to exceed income growth rate.

r > g

The generality of the model is notable. In fact there is almost nothing in it, so far, that could be considered novel. It is also simple to an extreme. Of course, all models are just simplified representations of reality. Is it oversimplified? The question calls to mind the maxim of Box and Draper (1987, p. 74):

All models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful.

Our question for Piketty, correctly formulated, is not whether his model is “wrong,” as it surely is, but whether his model is “not-wrong” enough to be useful. Considered in these terms, the maths is not the problem. The problem is in the application of the maths to a necessarily complex reality.

How does this simple model lend support to the claim that capital is back? Piketty puts his two laws and the fundamental force to work in the following way.

  • Start with the fundamental force: r > g. Here is a gap, made up by the excess of the rate of return on capital over the growth rate of the economy. According to Piketty the gap has widened because g has fallen (pp. 99-102), but r is fairly stable and we do not expect it to fall (pp. 220-223).
  • Now the second law comes into play: β → s/g. Piketty appears to argue that the saving rate is stable, or at least is not falling (pp. 173-178), but the growth rate has fallen, so β, the ratio of capital to income, must be rising towards a new, higher steady state.
  • Finally the first law swings into action: α = rβ. Given that the capital/income ratio is rising and the rate of return on capital is not falling, the profit share in income must be rising too, with all that might imply for social inequality.
  • (The maths is neat too: the three expressions collapse easily into α → s × r/g, meaning that the steady-state profit share equals the saving rate times the rate of return over the growth rate. So far, the logic is unassailable.)

The question that comes naturally to mind is whether Piketty might have neglected some countervailing force that would eventually nullify or attenuate the tendency that he has identified. (In thinking about this I’ve been influenced by the insights of many, but I ought to mention especially Krusell and Smith 2014).

Picketty concludes that capital is back because, he maintains, the growth rate of the economy has fallen, the rate of return on capital is relatively stable, and so is the saving rate out of income. How robust is this chain? Consider each link in turn.

  • First, Piketty asserts that the long-term growth rate of the economy has fallen: Maybe, but also maybe not. Secular stagnation is possible but the concept is also speculative and contentious (for discussion see Teulings and Baldwin 2014). It is even a little unhistorical – the last time secular stagnation was predicted was at the end of the 1930s, since when global output has multiplied by at least 10 times (Maddison 2010). If the prediction of secular stagnation turns out wrong, then Piketty’s prediction is largely sunk by a countervailing factor: the return to faster growth will hold down the capital/income ratio and the profit share in income.
  • Second, Piketty asserts that the rate of return on capital will not decline as capital is accumulated. This outcome is possible, of course, in the general sense that we really don’t know about the future of technology, but this one too is speculative and contentious. A long term conjunction of low growth, high capital accumulation, and high profits is (in my opinion) highly improbable. If we are doomed to secular stagnation, and capital accumulation continues unchecked, the return on new investments will surely fall relative to the past. If the return on capital declines significantly as capital is accumulated faster than income, then here is a factor that would automatically hold down the profit share in income. Thus, a fall in the rate of return cannot be ruled out and would be another countervailing factor.
  • Third, Piketty appears to rely on maintenance of the saving rate out of income. Others have noted that Piketty should have distinguished between gross and net saving. Here net saving = gross saving – depreciation, and depreciation means the annual deterioration of the capital stock through wear and tear and obsolescence. Piketty gets the definition, of course (p. 178), but on my reading he misapplies it. The point is that depreciation is a function of the capital stock: the more capital we hold, the greater must be our provision for its depreciation. Depreciation is not a function of income. If the capital/income ratio rises, then the depreciation/income ratio must rise too. Piketty doesn’t appear to get this (p. 178 again), because he presents depreciation as a proportion of income, not of capital. If the capital/income ratio rises, the depreciation/income ratio must rise. If the depreciation/income ratio rises, and if gross saving is stable, then net saving out of income must fall. If the result of capital accumulation is a fall in the net saving rate, then this must slow net capital accumulation, making a third countervailing factor.

The three countervailing factors are reasons why I concluded that Piketty's basic insight is flaky, in the sense that it might be a good description of what is going on but equally it might not. Still, this does not settle the bigger question: do its predictions fit the known facts? If so, it must surely still merit serious consideration; perhaps the countervailing factors are simply unimportant?

The test here is: what’s been happening to the capital/income ratio? And Piketty’s data do show that the capital/income ratio is rising, don't they? Well, let’s check the data (and here I need to acknowledge a debt to Bonnet, Bono, Chapelle, and Wasmer 2014).

Piketty has five countries in his sample: Britain, France, Germany, Canada, and the US. These data show, as is now well known, a U-shaped pattern in the ratio of capital to income over the twentieth century: high at the beginning, slumping in mid-century, and rising again: hence, “capital is back.”

Piketty’s explanation, by the way, is that in the era of the two world wars the asset markets of these five countries underwent a common pattern of regulation that depressed relative asset prices, and neoliberal deregulation has now released them.

But there are strange things in the data. They are not immediately apparent from Piketty’s stacked-area charts, mostly because of the vertical ordering of the series. (To a smaller extent they are affected because Piketty does not understand how Excel processes the data for stacked charts when one of the series has negative values, as is the case for net foreign capital order in several countries, although only Canada is seriously affected.)

  • First strange thing: If we accept that capital is back, it is not all elements of capital that are back, and it is specifically not corporate capital. It is residential capital. Residential capital is certainly part of the capital stock, but it is probably not what most people think of when they think about the return of (or on) “capital.” More likely they think about Goldman Sachs or Amazon. But capital is not back because of Goldman Sachs or Amazon.

A simple calculation makes the point. For each country, take the increase in the capital/income ratio from 1950 to 2010. Then calculate how much of that increase is due to rising values of residential capital. The result is the proportion of the increase in capital/income from 1950 to 2010 that is explained by the increase in housing wealth:

  • United Kingdom 72%
  • France 103%
  • Germany 102%
  • Canada 63%
  • United States 72%

The figures show that in every country housing wealth accounts for at least three fifths of the increase in the capital/income ratio since the middle of the twentieth century, and in two countries (France and Germany) it accounts for all of the increase in the ratio.

  • Second strange thing. If housing wealth is so important to the claim that “capital is back,” what can we say about the return on housing wealth? Go back to the basic model to recall that the stability of the return on capital is crucial to Piketty’s prediction that the capital share of income is rising. Is the return on housing capital stable? No, it’s not. Bonnet et al. (2014) show clearly that in four out of five countries the return on housing wealth, measured by the ratio of housing rents to housing prices, has fallen over forty years from 1970 to 2010: in the US by nearly 20 percent, and in Britain, France, and Canada by around 40 percent. Only in Germany has it risen.
  • Third strange thing: Asset prices are formed in markets. Sometimes, these markets are regulated, and this affects prices. There are variations across markets and across countries in how regulated these markets are, and I am not expert in measuring this variation. But I venture to claim that in every wealthy country the housing market is one of the most regulated asset markets. Indeed bad regulation of the US housing market was arguably a prime cause of the asset price crash and financial crisis of 2008 (Rajan 2010). And if housing wealth is increasingly a factor in inequality in the UK, policy interventions that have pumped up the demand and restricted the supply must shoulder much of the blame.

To conclude: Capital is back -- but not as corporate capital. If capital is back, it is not, apparently, because of financial deregulation or capital account liberalization. And, if capital is back, there are clear candidates for countervailing forces that will tend to restrict its further rise in the twenty-first century.

if I had been Piketty’s editor I would have been excited and honoured to publish his book. But I might not have allowed him to call it Capital in the Twenty-first Century. More accurately, it would have been called Housing in the Twenty-first Century. But then there would be a marketing problem, because Marx never wrote three volumes on Die Behausung, and Piketty's publisher would have lost a lot of sales. Well, that’s business.

References

  • Bonnet, Odran, Pierre-Henri Bono, Guillaume Chapelle, and Etienne Wasmer. 2014. Does Housing Capital Contribute to Inequality? A Comment on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. Working Paper. Sciences-Po.
  • Box, George E. P., and Draper, Norman R. 1987. Empirical Model Building and Response Surfaces. New York: Wiley.
  • Krusell, Per, and Tony Smith. 2014. Is Piketty's Second Law of Capitalism Fundamental? Working Paper. Stockholm and Yale.
  • Maddison, Angus. 2010. Statistics on World Population, GDP and Per Capita GDP, 1-2008AD. Available at http://www.ggdc.net/maddison/oriindex.htm.
  • Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-first Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap.
  • Rajan, Raghuram. 2010. Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Teulings, Coen, and Richard Baldwin, eds. 2014. Secular Stagnation: Facts, Causes, and Cures (VOXeu.org and CEPR)

October 09, 2014

Economics books are quite the opposite of what the FT thinks they teach

Writing about web page http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/60feaa0c-47d0-11e4-ac9f-00144feab7de.html

On 25 September the Financial Times published an editorial "Economics needs to reflect a post-crisis world":

The typical economics course starts with the study of how rational agents interact in frictionless markets, producing an outcome that is best for everyone. Only later does it cover those wrinkles and perversities that characterise real economic behaviour, such as anti-competitive practices or unstable financial markets. As students advance, there is a growing bias towards mathematical elegance. When the uglier real world intrudes, it only prompts the question: this is all very well in practice but how does it work in theory?

... Fortunately, the steps needed to bring economics teaching into the real world do not require the invention of anything new or exotic. The curriculum should embrace economic history and pay more attention to unorthodox thinkers such as Joseph Schumpeter, Friedrich Hayek and – yes – even Karl Marx. Faculties need to restore links with other fields such as psychology and anthropology, whose insights can explain phenomena that economics cannot. Economics professors should make the study of imperfect competition – and of how people act in conditions of uncertainty – the starting point of courses, not an afterthought.

My response was published on 1 October under the heading "Economics books are quite the opposite of what the FT thinks it teaches" (what the FT thinks they teach, surely):

Sir,

You write (editorial, September 26) that economics courses too often begin with “how rational agents interact in frictionless markets”, and only later proceed to “anti-competitive practices or unstable financial markets”. This is not so: the problem is quite the opposite. All introductory textbooks quickly cover imperfect markets and the government interventions required to correct them. Thus, the belief that free markets are always for the best is quickly punctured. Replacing it you will too often find the idea of the government regulator as a Victorian civil servant: high-minded, well educated and perfectly equipped to make decisions for society. At the same time, the wealth of research on power-building, corruption, and incompetence in high places around the world is treated as an “advanced” special subject that only a few will ever follow.

Mark Harrison, Professor, Dept of Economics, University of Warwick, UK


September 30, 2014

Forty Years On: What I Have Learned (Not!)

Today's my last day as a full-time employee of the University of Warwick. I started in the autumn of 1974, so forty years ago. You might well think: It’s about time, too. That’s enough! I agree, so my departure is completely voluntary.

What did I learn in those forty years? Not much that is worth repeating. Our world is changing continually. As it changes, most lessons of experience fall by the wayside. In 1974 it was another world. The world was local; I never thought of looking for a position in another country. Your first appointment could be a job for life (mine was). My colleagues were not exclusively white but they were all male. Warwick was at the forefront of quantitative economics: this meant every faculty member had a desktop machine that could add, subtract, multiply and divide in a cutting-edge sort of way. An equipment room held a box the size of a banana crate that did means and standard deviations. We banged out our work on typewriters; cut-and-paste meant working with paper, scissors, and glue.

Not many lessons of that era have stood the test of time. In fact, all I seem to have learned is what not to do. Here are some of the mistakes I’ve made or seen that have stayed with me. See if you agree.

Mistake #1. Collective responsibility is good

The professor didn’t show up to the class, the exam questions were off the syllabus, and the grades were random numbers. The students have revolted. What shall we do? Let’s have a committee to investigate, apologize, and take collective responsibility. Oh, and let the guy whose fault it was off the hook. The institution can soak up the damage. Now, you might think that the odd spot of bad teaching is inevitable in a research-led university. I take the opposite view: if you want the university to be research-led, demanding good teaching of everyone is an absolute requirement. Why? It’s simple. One hour of one person’s bad teaching will cost 100 hours of the research time of others; that’s the time everyone else will have to spend tied up in meetings and conflict resolution procedures and inventing new quality assurance rules and monitoring mechanisms to cover up for the bad guy and ensure it will never, ever happen again. Oh, until the next time. Bad teachers are thieves who steal everyone else’s time. It’s their fault, so they’re the ones who should pay – with their jobs if necessary! It’s their fault we are stuck with the teaching quality bureaucrats that make good teachers miserable, hike up the costs of trial-and-error, and hold back innovation. Let's hear it for personal responsibility. You want to complain to me about so-and-so? Their office is down the corridor. Go and shout at them.

Mistake #2. Our commitment to learning is 24/7

Warwick’s learning grid is open to students twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. In the weeks before the summer examinations, the library stays open all night. Students can come in and study any time they want. To facilitate that, librarians and advisers are available and on call around the clock. Inside, I'm silently shouting: “No-o-o … !” Students don’t sleep enough! Already we can’t get them to show up for a 9AM class. To use our scarce building space more efficiently we’d like to lengthen the teaching day at both ends so that classes begin at eight, but that’s out of the question because the same students were in the library reading (or networking) at half past three that morning. They won't get up till midday. We should stop for a minute and reflect on why the rest of the world has a routine called “working hours” and a “working week.” By existing, this routine solves a coordination problem. Everyone must work, relax, and sleep. All of these activities go better in themselves, and are better balanced with each other, if we all work at the same time, have fun at the same time, and turn out the light at the same time! If university is a preparation for the adult world, we should encourage our students in an adult routine. Being open for business 24/7, even for educational business, is just a bad idea.

Mistake #3. The university is a therapeutic community

He’s silent with misery while you explain that he needs to go home. He should be with his family and be looked after for a while. He might need to break his studies. “No,” he whimpers: “I want to carry on. I can work through this. I don’t want my parents to know.” Legally he’s an adult, so he gets to make the decision. You know it’ll be a disaster, but you have to go along. Our students come to us physically fit, but the same does not apply to fitness of the mind. They’re away from family and friends for the first time. In our hothouse community they’re trying to put down roots, put out feelers, and climb all at the same time. They fight for the sunlight of academic, social, and sexual success. They don’t sleep enough. They overcommit to student societies and other competitive sports. They neglect their studies and rely on last-minute revision. They’re haunted by unresolved childhood issues and family conflicts. They’re vulnerable to rejection and failure. But they still want to make it on their own. Mum or dad is the last person they want to bring in. So, when rejection and failure come round, as they do, we try to help them stay in class, supported by counselling and their friends, as though the university can make them better. The truth is that it can’t. The classroom is lonely and competitive. However long postponed, essay deadlines and exams add to their stress. Their friends have their own fears and fragilities. Their tutors must reckon with the needs of all students, not just one. More often than we recognize, the student who is suffering needs to go home to heal. Let them go.

Mistake #4. Let’s take a holistic approach

You’re in a meeting that’s been called to discuss some problem: A solution’s on the table. Everyone’s about to decide in favour. Suddenly an objection appears: “Hold on. We need to take a holistic approach.” What that means is that our little problem touches on much larger things, and before we solve the little problem we need to solve the big ones. So, in that moment the issue is changed from a small problem you can solve into a far bigger one that you can’t. Instead of being solved, the problem must be escalated into higher committees and wider communities where it will be dispersed and lost in a thousand inconclusive conversations. How many times have you seen a useful idea founder in that moment? It may seem strange that an economist should disfavour a holistic approach. After all the idea of a general equilibrium is a basic economic concept. Isn’t a holistic approach the same as seeking a general equilibrium solution? Yes, in a way. But in many practical situations the model of a general equilibrium serves to remind us only that particular solutions may well give rise to further problems. While this is salutary, economists have also learned that sometimes you should settle for second best. Too often, the quest for a holistic approach offers only procrastination and avoidance.

Mistake #5. Collegiality is our goal

The word “collegial” is linked to two other important words: “college” and “colleague.” It implies equality and sharing. When we make decisions in a collegial way, we discuss as equals, sharing reasoned arguments. We negotiate our way to a consensus. That’s fine; we’re academics, which means we are (mostly) reasonable people who hate conflict. We’d all like to work in a collegial atmosphere. But sometimes there is no consensus, and a decision must be made anyway. And someone (inevitably, it’s someone who disagrees with the outcome) responds: “Well. That’s not very collegial!” Their implication is that that should put a stop to it. But collegiality should not be our goal or our criterion. We are not employed to be colleagues; we are employed to be scholars. Our goal should be to do great research and teaching, and we should be judged by the standard of excellence that we achieve, not the standard of our collegiality. I have seen departments that have made collegiality their goal, and forgotten about excellent scholarship. Oddly enough, they have tended to be quite nasty places, because everybody is checking up on each other all the time to see if their behaviour is falling short of a collegial standard, rather than working to improve their own research and teaching. In a department where each one is striving to become a better scholar, everyone cannot help but be great colleagues to each other. But the collegiality will be a by-product of the striving after scholarship. Collegiality cannot be forced and should never be a goal.

***

I didn’t expect to stay at Warwick all this time, but for some reason I never got away. I have absolutely no regrets; Warwick has been a fantastic place to be. I never got bored with Warwick because every few years something would happen that changed what I did beyond all recognition: for example, computers came along, the Cold War ended, Russia became a normal country … and then not so normal. I also travelled and visited a lot, and then I came back. Anyway, here is one thing I learned that is not a mistake: if you are looking for a place to work or study, Warwick will be a wonderful choice. As for me, I’m not going anywhere so you will continue to see me around. Bye for now.


September 11, 2014

British Growth is Best in the World — Since When?

Writing about web page http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/economics/11036043/Top-of-the-world-UK-economy-winning-global-growth-race.html

Summary: On a restricted definition of "the world" (limiting it to our neighbours of similar size in northwestern Europe), British growth is best in the world since ... well, since 2012. This shouldn't count for much. More importantly, and perhaps surprisingly, British growth is also best in "the world" since the 1970s. To go on to a more tendentious point, the economy of the United Kingdom appears to be benefiting still from the relative growth advantage that it gained in the Margaret Thatcher years. I thought I'd mention this while the UK still exists.

Here's the full argument, with evidence. To start with, just how well is the UK economy doing at the moment? Here are the top three results of a Google search on "British growth best in world":

These have been recent headlines, but anyone with a little knowledge of recent economic history knows it's not so simple. The UK economy is growing fast, in part, because it is making a belated recovery from its deepest postwar recession, which began in 2008. In the crisis, the UK economy went down hard. As the crisis wore on the economy continued to perform dismally, with recovery continually postponed. In that setting, Britain's current rapid growth is no more than partial compensation for its underperformance earlier in the recession.

In other words, how well the British economy is performing today depends critically on when you start the clock. If you start it from yesterday, the British economy looks great. If you start from a few years back, its performance looks unimpressive at best.

How far back should you go? While the previous peak, in 2007, is a natural reference point, it is still only a few years ago. As an economic historian I'd prefer to take a longer view. How well is the British economy doing today, relative to other countries, if we shift the starting point still further back into the past? This is an easy thing to do, and it produces some surprises.

Here's what I did: I found figures for the real GDP of the United Kingdom and of five European neighbours, per head of the population. These neighbours are Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, and Netherlands. I chose these because they are not only nearby, but also because they are important trading partners, comparable to the UK in both income levels and economic size. The result is a small sample, but this is just a blog and I want to make a simple point. Anyone can repeat the exercise with more countries and then you will naturally find a more nuanced story. I looked at each country's growth rate comparing 2013 with every previous year: 2012, 2011, 2010, and so on, back to 1950. Germany is in the data, but only back to 1990, because before that it was two countries, and you cannot easily compare Germany today with West Germany in, say, 1970 or 1950. Finally, I worked out Britain's rank among the six countries (five before 1990) based on its growth rate up to 2013, starting from every one of the preceding years.

The chart below shows the result. It plots Britain's rank compared with our European benchmark competitors, based on growth rates of average incomes up to 2013, and it shows how that rank depends on the year you start from. In other words it answers the question: British growth is best in "the world" -- since when?

Since when was British growth best in the world?

Source: Data for real GDP per head of the population in international (Geary-Khamis) dollars and 1990 prices are from The Conference Board Total Economy Database,January 2014,

Notes:

Each data point is the UK's relative position among five or six West European countries, based on the increase in real GDP per head in 2013 over its level in the base year shown. Countries are Belgium, France, Germany (from 1990, the year of East and West German reunification), Italy, Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. Because Germany is counted only from 1990, there are six countries from the present to 1990 (red squares), but only five before that year (blue squares).

Here's how to read the chart. As of 2013, Britain's growth is best in "the world" (OK, the little world of our Western European neighbourhood) since ... well, since 2012. But there is more! As of 2013, Britain's growth is also best in "the world" since 1995, 1994, ... and since every previous year right back to 1970. Now I'll discuss this in more detail.

If you measure Britain's growth over the last twelve months that are shown, from 2012 to 2013 Britain's performance was the best of the six countries. So, the red square on the far left puts Britain in first place out of six. For those who prefer numbers, here they are (and they remind us that economic recovery has been pretty anaemic everywhere):

  • United Kingdom 0.8% growth of GDP/head, 2012 to 2013
  • Germany 0.6%
  • Belgium 0.0%
  • France -0.3%
  • Netherlands -0.9%
  • Italy -1.1%

The chart also shows how Britain's relative position collapses as we move the starting point back to the beginning of the global crisis. Thus, the red squares to the right of 2012 and back to 2007 fall back to the second, third, and fourth ranks. If we start the growth story on the eve of the Great Recession, British growth to the present is nearly worst in "the world," ranked fifth (out of six):

  • Germany 1.1% average annual growth of GDP/head, 2007 to 2013
  • Belgium 0.3%
  • France -0.5%
  • Netherlands -0.8%
  • United Kingdom -1.1%
  • Italy -2.2%

Now for a surprise. As you take the starting point further back into the twentieth century, Britain's relative performance starts to look better and better. The red and then blue squares reflect this by rising back up to show Britain recovering to fourth, third, and second place, and eventally back to first place. If, for example, you wind the clock right back to 1979, the year that Margaret Thatcher took office, then British growth from that year to the present is faster than of any of the other European economies in the sample (which now excludes Germany). Here are the figures:

  • United Kingdom 1.9% average annual growth of GDP/head, 1979 to 2013
  • Belgium 1.7%
  • Netherlands 1.5%
  • France 1.2%
  • Italy 1.0%

Note: Britain's relative growth advantage is seen for a whole run of starting points, beginning in 1995 and ending in 1970. This does not mean that the turnaround in Britain's fortunes began in 1970, for in the 1970s British economic performance remained relatively poor. The turnaround began in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher. At that time Britain began to grow faster, just as our European neighbours decelerated. The way our chart looks at things, however, the benefits of that turnaround cast a beneficial "shadow" back onto earlier years, considered as starting points for the measurement of growth.

Finally, you can push the starting point right back into the 1960s and 1950s, but eventually relatively slow British growth in the so-called Golden Age of Brettton Woods takes its toll, so that Britain's ranking slips back down again to the bottom. Here are the last figures:

  • Italy 2.7% average annual growth of GDP/head, 1950 to 2013
  • Belgium 2.4%
  • France 2.3%
  • Netherlands 2.2%
  • United Kingdom 2.0%

Note: There's a surprise here for Italians. In almost all these estimates Italian growth has been worst in "the world"; notoriously, Italian incomes have marked time over the last 20 years. The surprise is that if you measure growth since 1950, Italian performance shows up as best in "the world"! That's the legacy of a postwar economic miracle: Italian incomes tripled in just two decades from 1950 to 1970.

Here's my bottom line. Just how good is British economic performance today? The answer depends critically on "Since when?"

  • The British economy has done relatively well since 2011, outpacing our nearest European competitors. But this is no surprise, because British economic performance was so spectacularly poor in earlier years of the Great Recession.
  • The British economy has done relatively well since the 1970s, and this deserves greater recognition. Even today, despite the dismal experience of the Great Recession, the British economy continues to benefit from its reversal of fortunes under Margaret Thatcher.

September 03, 2014

From Donetsk to Danzig

Writing about web page http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2014/09/polands-intellectuals-appeal?fsrc=scn%2Ftw%2Fte%2Fbl%2Fed%2Ffromdanzigtodonetsk%3Ffsrc%3Dscn%2Ftw%2Fte%2Fbl%2Fed%2Ffromdanzigtodonetsk

Having absorbed Austria and sliced up Czechoslovakia, Germany attacked Poland on 1 September 1939. On 3 September, that is, 75 years ago today, Britain declared war on Germany. At that moment everyone knew it was serious. Probably no one imagined that the war already in progress would take the lives of 55 million people before it was over. We know it now. With another war under way in Europe, it's a frightening thought.

Yesterday I wrote:

What keeps me awake at night is the thought that lukewarm NATO support for Ukrainian resistance might encourage Putin to try to change the facts on the ground quickly and irrevocably by means of a sudden all-out war.

Here's why I'm not sleeping well:

More than likely, Putin is rethinking his options.

  • His original plan may have been to create frozen conflicts on Ukraine's borders, with the aim of destabilizing and neutralizing a potentially hostile power. These would be similar to the conflicts that Russia has established with Georgia and Moldova.
  • Russia's ability to freeze a conflict relies, however, on the adversary's limited capacity to resist. Unlike Georgia and Moldova, Ukraine is resisting strongly. Because of this, the conflict is staying hot. Russia is having to commit increasing resources into the conflict. Perhaps more importantly, Russia's costs are also increasing in its diplomatic and economic relations with the West.
  • NATO's response was divided and unenthusiastic at first, but may become stronger and more unified as NATO's East European members become more vocal.

These are the reasons why Putin may start to think that a short decisive war would serve his purposes better than a drawn out conflict that remains unresolved.

What does this mean for us?

In September 1939 Danzig (today Gdansk) was the first city to fall to Hitler's Eastern advance (which he had choreographed beforehand with Stalin). At that time, Europeans asked themselves: Why die for Danzig? On the 75th anniversary of these events, Polish scholars have appealed to the West not to make the same mistake as in 1939: to think that we can save our own skins by ignoring aggression.

Just to be sure you understand, I'm not advocating dying for either Danzig or Donetsk. I'm saying that if we do not want to die for Donetsk we must act urgently to stop Putin short of all-out war.

What does that mean? Here are four measures that conclude the Polish declaration:

1. French President François Hollande and his government are tempted to make a step that will be even worse than France’s passivity in 1939. In the coming weeks, as the only European country, they actually plan to help the aggressor by selling Putin’s Russia brand-new huge Mistral-class amphibious assault ships. France has teamed up with Russia on this issue in 2010 and already then the project triggered numerous protests. Previous French President Nicolas Sarkozy would as a rule dismiss them because, after all, “the Cold War was over." But now a Hot War has started in Ukraine and there is no reason why France should still want to implement the old agreement. Already several politicians suggested that it should sell the two ships to NATO or the EU. If President Hollande does not change his views soon, European citizens should force him to change them with a campaign boycotting French products. For in line with its great tradition France must remain true to the idea of European freedom!

2. The Federal Republic of Germany began its journey of increasing dependence on Russian gas as early as around 1982. Already then Polish intellectuals including Czesław Miłosz and Leszek Kołakowski warned against building new pipelines to transport Russian gas and called them “instruments for future blackmail of Europe”. The same warnings came from two successive Polish presidents, Aleksander Kwaśniewski and Lech Kaczyński. But German politicians, whether because of the German guilt complex or because they believed in the “Russian economic miracle” and hoped to benefit from it personally, have held cooperation with the Russian authorities in very high esteem. And thus, perhaps unwittingly, they were perpetuating the unfortunate German tradition of treating Russia as their only partner in Eastern Europe. In recent years, companies belonging to the Russian state and its oligarchs have been putting down ever deeper roots in the German economy, from the energy sector through the world of football to the tourist industry. Germany should contain this kind of entanglement because it always leads to political dependence.

3. All European citizens and every European country should take part in campaigns aimed to help alleviate the threat hanging over Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of refugees from the eastern regions of the country and Crimea are in need of humanitarian aid. The Ukrainian economy is bled out as a result of many years of damaging gas-supply contracts signed with the Russian monopolist, Gazprom, who ordered Ukraine - one of the least affluent buyers of its gas - to pay the highest price for it. The Ukrainian economy urgently needs help. It needs new partners and new investments. Ukrainian cultural, media and civic initiatives – truly fabulous and very much alive – also need partnerships and support.

4. For many years the European Union has been giving Ukraine to understand that it will never become an EU member and that any support coming to it from the EU will be only symbolic. The Eastern Partnership policy of the European Union has changed little in this area as in practice it turned out to be only a meaningless substitute. Suddenly, however, the issue has gained its own momentum, thanks largely to the unwavering stand of the Ukrainian democrats. For the first time in history, citizens of a country were dying from bullets with the European flag in hand. If Europe does not act in solidarity with the Ukrainians now it will mean that it no longer believes in the values of the Revolution of 1789 – the values of freedom and brotherhood.

For a longer list of possible measures see Ten (Un)Easy Steps to Save Ukraine by Konstyantyn Fedorenko and Andreas Umland.


September 02, 2014

Is Crimea Russia's Payback for Kosovo?

Follow-up to The Carswell Effect: Dishonour and War from Mark Harrison's blog

A few days ago I wrote about how Europe is facing the threat of all-out war in Ukraine, but Britain's foreign policy is being disabled by anti-immigration gestures. There was one response -- Yes! I have a reader! -- which I thought was outstanding, and I'm going to write a whole blog about it. This contribution, by an author with the username Blisset, stood out for its dry humour, and also because it got so many things wrong in so few words. Here it is in full:

Wasn’t Serbia/Yugoslavia dismembered thanks to an invasion of USA and UK and allied forces after months of bombing by the USA and UK and allied forces on the Serbian/Yugoslavian capital?

If that happened 15 years ago, wouldn’t that be a strong, authoritative legal precedent for the USA, the UK and their allies to start bombing Moscow and invading the Russian Federation to give back the Crimea to Ukraine? :-)

Now I'll break it down into three parts. Here's the first part.

Wasn’t Serbia/Yugoslavia dismembered thanks to an invasion of USA and UK and allied forces after months of bombing by the USA and UK and allied forces on the Serbian/Yugoslavian capital?

No. Here's why not.

  • “Serbia/Yugoslavia": This term is misleading. Yugoslavia ceased to exist in 1992. Serbia (strictly, Serbia and Montenegro) claimed to be the successor state to Yugoslavia, but without securing international recognition. So, not “Serbia/Yugoslavia,” just Serbia.
  • "Dismembered": In 1992 Yugoslavia fell apart without any external intervention. In 2006 Montenegro left Serbia of its own accord. The only external force that was involved was the force that removed the province of Kosovo from Serbian control in 1999; Kosovo became independent, however, only under UN administration in 2008.
  • "Thanks to an invasion." None of these territories was invaded from outside the former Yugoslav Republic. The Kosovo war ended with the entry of peacekeeping troops into Kosovo, provided by NATO under UN authority. That wasn't an invasion.
  • "Months of bombing": The NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999 followed many years of restriction of Kosovo’s autonomy and repression of Kosovan ethnicity, culminating in open conflict and a Serbian campaign of ethnic cleansing. By the time the bombing started, half the province’s two-million population were refugees, hundreds of thousands having fled to Albania, Macedonia, and Bosnia.

Now the second part:

If that happened 15 years ago, wouldn’t that be a strong, authoritative legal precedent for the USA, the UK and their allies to start bombing Moscow and invading the Russian Federation to give back the Crimea to Ukraine?

No. Here's why not.

  • "Legal precedent": Russia now claims Kosovo as a precedent for Crimea, but at the same time Russia continues to withhold recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Evidently, Russia does not see Kosovo as a lawful precedent. Rather, it considers that Kosovo provided grounds for retaliation, or tit-for-tat.
  • Kosovo/Crimea: But Crimea is not a parallel to Kosovo. NATO intervened in Kosovo to prevent ethnic cleansing of the population, not to transfer its territory to Albania, the regional neighbour claiming ethnic affinity with the oppressed majority in Kosovo. Ethnic cleansing was not under way in Crimea or any other part of Ukraine before the Russian intervention. All opinion polls carried out before the Russian intervention showed large majorities in every province of Ukraine and amongst every ethnic group in favour of Ukrainian sovereignty and integrity.
  • Casus belli: Yes, unprovoked aggression and the seizure of territory by armed force are generally recognized as grounds for war, and the crime against Ukraine is particularly heinous given that at Budapest in 1994 Russia gave a solemn promise to uphold Ukraine’s frontiers. In that setting Ukraine would be justified in a proportionate military response. But let’s be realistic here, because there is a limit even to my sense of humour: Russia is a nuclear power, whereas Ukraine is not, having given up its nuclear weapons under the Budapest agreement that Russia signed. In any case, on a scale from zero (complete passivity) to 10 (invading Russia) the NATO response is currently registering something around 1 (targeted and financial sanctions). No one is thinking about bombing Moscow any time soon.
  • Invading Russia: It seems odd to worry about invading Russia when the problem is that Russia has invaded Ukraine. But I do not want invading Russia on anyone's agenda. I have friends in Moscow and Kiev and loved ones here who are of military service age. I don't seek conflict or advocate confrontation of any kind except that which will lessen the danger of a worse conflict in the future. What keeps me awake at night is the thought that lukewarm NATO support for Ukrainian resistance might encourage Putin to try to change the facts on the ground quickly and irrevocably by means of a sudden all-out war.

Third part:

:-)

Hahaha! You were joking all along. But I wasn't laughing. Here's why not.

  • Gesture politics comes in more than one form. I started from the danger of anti-immigration gestures, like Douglas Carswell's (he's the MP that defected from the Tories to UKIP). But anti-Americanism can be just as misleading. Underlying your response are two basic ideas. One is that Americans have sometimes behaved badly, so if America is for something, it must be bad for us. Free trade? Exploitation, obviously. Democracy? Hypocrisy. Another is the idea that America is all-powerful, so small countries are of no account. Yugoslavia fell apart? America did it. Ukrainians want to join Europe? America made them.
  • Such ideas arise naturally in the cultures of former great powers such as ours, formed by rivalry with America. They find a less tolerant climate in Europe's smaller democracies. Look at the revealed preferences of the smaller countries that emerged from Soviet domination in the 1990s. To the extent that they became democracies, smaller European countries from the Baltic to the Balkans got away from Russian influence as quickly as they possibly could. They turned to the West. They could not join the EU and NATO fast enough. But joining the EU turned out to be time-consuming and laborious, so they joined NATO first.
  • NATO did not make them join. They chose to do it. Having done it, they show few signs of regret today. There's a lesson in that somewhere.

Mark Harrison writes about economics, public policy, and international affairs. He is a Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick. He is also a research fellow of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, the Centre for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Birmingham, and the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University.



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