December 09, 2014

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

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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

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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.


  • 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
  • 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 ( and CEPR)

October 09, 2014

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

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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):


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?

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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,


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

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.

August 29, 2014

The Carswell Effect: Dishonour and War

Writing about web page

Yesterday called for a grand gesture. Russia finally admitted its troops were engaged on Ukrainian territory. They were there only by accident, it was claimed, or on holiday. Russia's committee of soldiers' mothers told a different story. The truth of Russia's aggression is more and more beyond denial.

Thus, yesterday certainly called for a grand gesture. The gesture that we got, in contrast, was contemptible: the defection of the MP Douglas Carswell from the Conservatives to the UK Independence Party. This gesture was accorded much importance, "one of the biggest political surprises for years" according to Andrew Pierce in the Daily Mail, and casting Cameron's leadership of the Tory Party into fresh crisis according to Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times.

As Pierce notes, Cameron once wrote off UKIP as "fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists." I have no view on whether or not Carswell is a closet racist. He is an odd libertarian. He promotes the freedom to associate and to compete, but for natives only; foreigners should not apply. On the other two counts UKIP's latest acquisition hardly proves Cameron wrong.

Carswell himself is of little importance. The importance of the gesture is to illustrate how Britain's foreign policy has been undermined by anti-immigration politics. We have become a country that resolves every foreign issue on the basis of three simple questions. These foreigners: Do we know them? If so, do we like them? And might they want to come here to live? And if we do not know them, or know them and do not like them, and if we believe they might want to come here and live among us, then pull up the drawbridge. Perhaps they will go away.

Because of this, we have lost our influence in Europe. We are rapidly losing any serious foreign policy. The world is, unfortunately, a complicated place. For the Carswells it is just too complicated, so they give up any atttempt to understand it or influence it. Instead they ask themselves the simpler question: Do we like foreigners? No, on the whole, they answer, and that decides everything.

The Carswell effect is this. Europe is in the middle of its most serious crisis since Stalin's blockade of Berlin in 1948. And Britain's attention is focused on this silly man. For the Carswells of our time Russia's dismemberment of Ukraine in 2014, as Neville Chamberlain described Germany's descent on Czechoslovakia in 1938, is "a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing." Faced with the choice between resistance and dishonour, the Carswells choose dishonour.

In advocating resistance I do not advocate war; rather I would like us to avoid it. We are a million miles away from NATO troops becoming involved in Ukraine -- and Putin knows it. He expected, with much foundation, that the West would largely acquiesce in his dismemberment of Ukraine. That is why he has been willing to take such apparently risky steps: he did not think they were truly risky. The Western response must disabuse him, by sending substantial economic and military aid to Ukraine. Determined Western resistance now will curb his appetite for risk in future. A "fortress England" approach will only encourage him in further aggression.

But to reach that point, we ourselves must first see beyond the Carswell effect. We need to refocus on the world and our place in it. What should Britain stand for? What should Europe stand for? Eastern Europe and Ukraine have many brave people who see Europe, and the idea of Europe, as a beacon of human rights and democracy. If we betray them (Winston Churchill once said) we will have dishonour, and we will have war.

August 08, 2014

Was Europe really ready for World War I?

Writing about web page

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How prepared were the Great Powers for war in 1914? Too often, this question has been answered by pointing to expectations of a short war, and to muddle and inefficiency in its opening stages. The realities are that most informed people had realistic expectations, and that muddle and inefficiency are intrinsic to war.

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, who masterminded Prussia’s victory over France in 1870, wrote the words often paraphrased as, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” His son commanded the German army as World War I broke out.

In fact, the degree of preparedness of the Great Powers for war in 1914 has as many layers as an onion. Here are four.

Did political leaders expect war?

In various ways the war was anticipated, planned, and even welcomed. War was planned in Berlin and Vienna. It was welcomed in St Petersburg, and to some extent in Paris.

Anticipation of the war was widespread among national political elites. The element of surprise was greatest for the mass of people who were uninformed in every country. For the leaders there were differing degrees and kinds of anticipation, but one feature of the prewar period was that all the Great Powers had shared knowledge of each others’ war plans. The sharing arose partly through espionage, partly through intentional diplomacy.

This led to a situation where, on one side, all the leaders understood the potential for specific conflicts to trigger a general European war. This is one reason why Britain tried hard to mediate in the July 1914 crisis. These efforts were unsuccessful because others were willing to take the risk of a wider war or even intended to bring it about.

On the other side, it is true, some particular aspect of the coming conflict was salient to each national elite. Thus, for Austria the enemy was Serbia; for Germany the enemy was Russia; for Russia, the enemy was Austria. For Britain the priority was to save France. For France, the priority was to save itself and avenge 1870. In every country, in the end, these aims took precedence over war avoidance.

Did the leaders understand what was coming?

Yes, although not fully. Too much has been made of the idea that everyone expected a short, victorious war. This expectation was widespread only among ordinary people who had no influence on decision making. German war plans were for a short, victorious campaign but even their authors understood they represented an outrageous gamble. The idea of a short war was a hope, not a calculation.

Signs of an understanding that the war might drag out and that victory could turn to ashes are everywhere in the decisions and documentation of the time. They are represented in the German decisions to respect Dutch neutrality, leaving Dutch ports open to neutral trade, and to attack British shipping. These made no sense unless the war was drawn out. They are explicit in the diaries of leaders on all sides (including the younger Moltke’s). Who could forget British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey’s words on the eve of war:

The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.

Did the people understand?

If not at first, they quickly adjusted. In every country national feeling swung quickly behind the war effort, with only small and isolated minorities opposed. In fact, without this, it would be impossible to explain how any country could have supported the devastating casualties and huge economic burdens of the war for years on end. Only during 1917 did clear signs of social strain begin to emerge in most of the countries that were at war.

Public support for the war was to a considerable extent spontaneous, but its mobilisation was also managed. Notably, German leaders knew they would strike first in the coming war, and a major pre-war concern was to ensure the German public would perceive their country as acting to defend itself against Russian aggression.

Were the soldiers equipped for what came next?

No. In the early stages of the conflict, three kinds of troops went on the offensive: infantry, gunners, and railway and horse troops for supply. They faced rifles, guns, and static machine guns. It soon became apparent that infantrymen had no offensive equipment that could answer the gunfire of a positional defence.

The infantry had rifles that they could fire standing up (making them vulnerable) or lying down (so they could not move). They could not fire and move at the same time. The gunners behind them could try to suppress the defending fire, but they often failed because gunfire was inaccurate and insufficiently heavy. This is why attacking infantry so often walked forward to their deaths.

The volume of munitions required to advance was so great that the supply troops could not bring it to the front when the front was moving, and the Great Powers’ economies lacked the industrial capacity to produce it. Having traditionally relied on its Navy for defence, Britain was more unprepared than most.

Three things eventually restored the ability of the infantry to fire and move. New offensive infantry equipment was developed, such as automatic weapons, rifle grenades and trench mortars. The volume and accuracy of artillery munitions increased enormously. Assault vehicles and aircraft were used in combat for the first time.

All these relied on a colossal mobilisation of productive capacity, which was more successful in Britain than in any other country. These developments explain why the last year of World War I begins to look like the coming years of World War II, with breakthroughs, mobile warfare, and heavier casualties on both sides than those resulting from trench warfare.

July 18, 2014

MH17: Four preliminary judgements

Writing about web page

I was interviewed this afternoon by Tim Boswell on BBC Coventry & Warwickshire's Drivetime. This isn't exactly what I said, which flowed in a conversation, but it roughly follows the notes I made beforehand.

  • Question 1. Who did it?

As yet there is no smoking gun. But there is quite a lot of circumstantial evidence. There are radio intercepts and also posts on Vkontakte, the Russian version of Facebook. The radio intercepts show pro-Russian separatists stunned to find they have shot down a civilian jetliner, and then lashing back:

That means they were carrying spies. They shouldn’t be fucking flying. There is a war going on.

If you don’t trust the Ukrainian government sources, you might give more credence to the evidence provided by the separatists themselves on Vkontake, the Russian version of Facebook where they boasted about bringing down a military transport until they realized the full truth:

We warned them – don’t fly 'in our sky.'

  • Question 2. Crime or tragedy?

Clearly there are elements of both in this hideous event. There was intent to kill: you can’t set out to shoot down an airplane and not anticipate that deaths will follow. The event took place on Ukrainian soil, which is governed by Ukrainian law; in other words it was murder.

There was also incompetence: probably the aim was to kill a dozen Ukrainian servicemen, not 300 civilians from many countries. At best, the circumstantial evidence points to the involvement of people who are unscrupulous, reckless, and lacking in all respect for human life.

  • Question 3. What is Ukraine’s responsibility?

According to Russian President Putin,

The state over whose territory this happened is responsible for the terrible tragedy.

In other words, he argues, Ukraine is to blame for the downing of MH17 because its government is responsible for the actions of those opposing it by force. This amounts to a doctrine of collective responsibility that few will take seriously from a moral or legal standpoint.

Nonetheless Ukraine does have a responsibility, as do all Ukrainians on both sides of their country’s civil conflict. This is to facilitate and ensure objective investigation and prosecution of those found to be personally accountable, no matter who they turn out to be.

  • Question 4. A turning point?

For thousands of people, yes. Their lives have been changed forever.

In terms of global politics, no. The world has not changed, and the reason for this is that we have not learned anything new. We already knew that Eastern Ukraine is in the hands of reckless and unscrupulous people, willing to start a civil war and cause deaths for political ends.

There have been past parallels. In 1983 the Soviet air force deliberately shot down a Korean airliner over the Far East with many casualties. In 2001 the Ukrainian armed forces accidentally shot down a Russian airliner over the Black Sea. These were horrifying events, but it was no surprise that Soviet leaders would overreact disastrously to an airspace violation or that command and control was a weak point in the Ukrainian miliitary.

Russia’s relations with the West will now deteriorate further because of justifiable concerns about Russian support for the Ukrainian separatists and possible involvement in the supply of weapons and technical assistance. But relations were worsening already and the concerns were there already.

It is a terrible tragedy, as well as a crime. These are preliminary judgements, perhaps reached in haste. But it seems hard to escape them.

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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