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October 28, 2017

The Soviet Economy Collapsed After the World for Which it was Designed Disappeared

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This column appeared (in Spanish) on 28 October on the website of El Independiente.

Soviet economic institutions were inspired by two western economic models of the early twentieth century. One was the German war economy of the Great War, which Lenin observed and admired for its government priorities, the control of supply chains by committees of industrialists, the rationing of commodities at fixed prices, and obligatory labour mobilization. The other was the American system of mass production of standardized products in great factories under centralized management.

Combined with an authoritarian single-party dictatorship, these two models made the Soviet economy as it emerged under Stalin and persisted until 1991. Everything was designed for mobilization, production, accumulation, and expansion. To ensure this, the state owned nearly everything and directed nearly everything from the centre, either by decree or by pressure to conform, backed up by the secret police. The citizens were motivated to comply with authority by a mixture of patriotic appeals, fear, and meagre rewards. The economy could supply basic consumer goods and services, but its special advantage lay in supplying the means of national power in the world, especially a mass army with vast quantities of standardized weapons. By the outbreak of World War II, Stalin’s Soviet Union had become one the world’s two leading producers of armaments, the other being Hitler’s Germany.

The Soviet economy was capable of growth, but it never proved capable of catching up with the innovative market economies of the time. Moreover, the growth rate of the Soviet economy steadily deteriorated through the postwar period. From the mid-1970s, the Soviet Union was falling further behind the United States in productivity and prosperity. While its economy began to stagnate, the Soviet Union faced additional challenges of the time. One challenge arose from the U.S. rearmament under Presidents Carter and Reagan. Another arose from the self-imposed burden of the Soviet Union’s entanglement in Afghanistan. In the international economy the Soviet Union was reliant on the oil market, where prices collapsed.

The Soviet leaders made repeated efforts to overcome economic constraints through reforms. The reforms sought to raise productivity by decentralizing management and improving incentives for efficient behaviour, while retaining the framework of state ownership and the party monopoly of power. All such reforms failed, as the economy reverted to its basic type. Later, the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping would say that the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was a fool for abandoning the party monopoly of power without reforming the economy. But this was unfair. Gorbachev did so only after all economic reforms had been tried, including most of the reforms that had been tried out successfully in China. Why they failed in the Soviet Union is an important story, but one for another time.

The end of the Soviet economy cannot be explained by economic factors alone. This should be clear from the example of countries like Cuba and North Korea, where ruling parties are facing vastly greater economic problems and threats than the Soviet Union ever faced, yet regimes have not collapsed. In the case of the Soviet Union, politics was decisive. The conservative generation of leaders such as Leonid Brezhnev, born in the early twentieth century, died out. A new generation took command, led by Mikhail Gorbachev. The new generation was more open-minded, and their open minds had been influenced by the ideas of the dissident movement – nationalist, liberal, or social-democratic. Gorbachev was decisively influenced by ideas about social democracy and rule by consent. He did not want to rule at any price, or to rule by fear. Once it became widely understood that resistance to power would not be punished, people stopped being afraid. The Soviet Union became ungovernable and fell apart.

Politics was decisive in the moment, but at the same time we should not ignore the deeper economic forces. The Soviet economy was designed for a world of mass production and mass armies. That is no longer the world in which we live. In the 1970s, the information revolution gave rise to flexible production and a services economy based on information sharing. In the same decade, precision guidance and miniaturized nuclear weapons put an end to the idea that the future of Europe could be decided by a great battle fought by thousands of tanks and planes and hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the central European plain. The world for which the Soviet economy had been designed was disappearing. The Soviet Union had no future. No one should want to see it return.

June 02, 2016

When Central and Eastern Europe Led the World

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Last week I spent a few days in Regensburg, a pretty town in Bavaria. The subject of our conference was the economic history of central, eastern, and southeastern Europe since 1800. The meeting was convened by the excellent Matthias Morys of the University of York; Matthias is editing a book on this theme for Routledge. The general standard of the chapters is going to be exceptional. (I’m not an author; I went along to hear and discuss.)

An important theme of the book will be how central and eastern Europe lagged behind western Europe in productivity and social well-being, and the varying successes and (mostly) failures of the region in closing the gap. This raised a question: Should central and eastern Europe always be judged against western European countries, as though we (the West) set the only standards that count? Shouldn’t everyone try to understand that region in its own terms, without negative preconceptions?

We had reached the interwar period of 1918 to 1939 when a commentator raised this question sharply. It’s a good question, and it brings us in a surprising direction. Think about it: what were the standards that the nation states and regimes of Central and Eastern Europe set themselves, whether in the interwar period or over the last two centuries? Often enough, the answer turns out to be, the goal that they set was to catch up with Western Europe.

At first sight this takes us back to where we started, to the standards of productivity and social well-being set in Western Europe. But this would not be strictly accurate. When the states and rulers of central and eastern Europe set out to catch up, it was not so much in average incomes or welfare, which were not even measured systematically until the middle of the twentieth century. The dimension in which they aimed to catch up was that of national power.

As it turns out, the first decades of the twentieth century were a time of great success for two of the countries of central and eastern Europe in the race to catch up and overtake western Europe in national power. These countries were Germany and the Soviet Union.

National power can be measured, although imperfectly. The scholars of the Correlates of War project set out to measure the global distribution of national power with a “composite index of national capability” (CINC) designed to capture “the ability of a nation to exercise and resist influence.” A country’s CINC score combines six indicators of its relative weight in the international system, year by year: total population, urban population, iron and steel production, energy consumption, military personnel, and military expenditure. On this measure, in 1871, the Russian and German Empires together accounted for one fifth of the total of power in the world (12 percent for Germany and 8 percent for Russia). By 1914, through industrialization and rearmament, they had pushed up their combined weight to more than one quarter (14 percent to Germany, 12 percent to Russia). And by 1940, after more expansion and more rearmament, when Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes were temporarily in alliance, their share had risen to nearly one third (17 percent to Germany, 14 percent to the Soviet Union).

(For data sources and more context, look at Table 1 of this paper.)

Within 70 years, in summary, the two great powers of central and eastern Europe transferred more than one tenth of global power into their own hands. This was a dramatic shift in the balance of power, and a stunning achievement.

Thinking about this, I said in the conference: You want us to celebrate the aspects in which the countries of eentral and eastern Europe led the world at the time? OK, let’s hear it for autocracy, aggression, and mass killing. I was trying to be ironic, but I wasn’t sure if something got lost in translation.

Of course, you could be central or east European and be happy. Anywhere in the region, most of the time, you could live, love, carry on a trade, make a family, make art, make science, teach, and build. You could try to lead a good life, a life no worse than the lives led by anyone to the West. Bad things might happen to interrupt these efforts anywhere in Europe, west or east. For centuries, however, if you lived to the east of the Rhine, the probability that your efforts would be cruelly ended by young men in uniform under orders from above was much, much greater.

To understand why is the challenge for Matthias and his co-authors..

March 21, 2016

How We Paid for Spitfires

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On 5 March we marked the eightieth anniversary of the 1936 maiden flight of the Supermarine Spitfire, a fighter airplane that played a decisive role in Britain's air defence in World War II. The British affection for the Spitfire is partly for its role in our history, and partly for its elegant design. Like thousands of other boys of the 1950s (and no doubt a few girls, but this was the 1950s), I made up model aircraft from plastic construction kits. I think my first was the even more beautiful Hawker Hunter. The Spitfire was perhaps my second, and always my favourite.

A few days ago the BBC journalist Greig Watson wrote some engaging pieces on the Spitfire's anniversary, here and here. The second of these describes the Spitfire Fighter Fund, through which the public was invited to contribute to their cost. While he was preparing this piece, Greig wrote to me:

Clearly pilots were not sat around waiting for a cheque to arrive so they could purchase a new plane – so could it be argued the funds were just a publicity stunt which made no difference to the number of Spitfire in the air? Or were they in fact effective?

In his article Greig quotes me briefly – right at the bottom, if you struggle to find the place. Here's the full reply that I sent him.

From 1940 onwards, Britain had a command economy. The market economy was restricted to the sidelines: those foodstuffs that were unrationed, and the black market. For most things the government set targets and priorities, decided how money would be spent, and on what, and how much of nearly everything would be produced. That included Spitfires. Only after ensuring the supply of Spitfires did the government worry about how to pay for them. Quite right, too, that’s what you do in an existential struggle. That’s not to say they did not care how it was paid for. They did care. But still, it was a secondary care, one that came after working out how many ships and planes we should make.

From this perspective, Spitfire funds were like today’s “sponsor a panda” and “buy a metre of rainforest” appeals. In any immediate sense these make no difference to the number of pandas or the amount of rainforest. They do put money into the hands of campaigning organizations and charities. We trust them to make a difference, and we get some small satisfaction from the cloak of sponsorship.

What difference did Spitfire funds make? They did not make any difference to the number of Spitfires, because for most of the war Spitfires were a top government priority (along with ships and other planes). If you run out of money, it’s not the top priority that is at risk. It’s the bottom priority that is most likely to be neglected.

What would have happened without Spitfire funds? Two scenarios.

  • Scenario 1: with less money coming in, the government might have economized on the bottom priority, which could have been, say, the rehousing of bomb victims. So more civilians would have been homeless and morale on the home front might have been that bit lower.
  • Scenario 2: the government might have spent the money on the war anyway, by printing it, so more money would have been in circulation in the economy. Since most goods were rationed, the extra money might have found its way into the black market, raising prices for under-the-counter food. Because of this, some army battalion quartermaster would have been tempted to sell army rations on the black market, so more soldiers would have gone hungry and morale on the fighting front would have been that bit lower.

Thus, Spitfire funds did not pay for Spitfires, but they were still an essential part of the war effort. Without them the war would eventually have gone less well in one aspect or another. There would have been a cost.

According to Greig Watson, the total subscribed by the public was £13m. This would have covered only a small fraction of the Spitfires produced in wartime. (The total number of Spitfires produced up to 1948 was just over 20,000. Their average unit cost lay somewhere between the £13,000 of an early batch sold to Estonia in 1939 and the notional £5,000 set by the Spitfire funds appeal.) The rest was paid out of general taxation and government borrowing, both of which reached large fractions of national income.

November 02, 2015

The Great War: the Value of Remembering it As it Really Was

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In the spring of 2013, the British government was considering how the nation should remember the centenary of the Great War. At that time Jeremy Corbyn made some remarks on the subject, and in April the Communist Party uploaded them to Youtube. His words would no doubt have lingered in obscurity, were it not that in September this year the same Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of Britain's Labour Party. This weekend his remarks of more than two years ago were brought under critical scrutiny. What attracted the ire of the Sunday columnists was the following words:

Keir Hardie ... was a great opponent of the first world war and next year the government is apparenlty proposing to spend shedloads of money commemorating the first world war. I'm not quite sure what there is to commemorate other than the mass slaughter of millions of young men and women, mainly men, on the western front and all the other places.

As an economic historian I was more interested in what came next:

And it was a war of the declining empires, and anyone who's read or even dipped into Hobson's great work of the early part of the twentieth century, written post-world war, that presaged the whole first world war as a war between monopolies fighting it out for markets and that's essentially what the first world war was.

My notes. "The declining empires": I'm not sure what that can mean, for in 1914 the major empires were surely at their highest moment. "Hobson's great work of the early part of the twentieth century." This is most likely a reference to J. A. Hobson work on "imperialism." Hobson (1902) argued that the capitalist industrial economies of the time suffered from underconsumption, because the big companies were raising productivity while pushing down wages. As a result, there was not enough purchasing power to buy all the output, which was accumulating as surplus capital. Faced with too much capital, Hobson argued, the capitalists solved the problem by exporting it to poorer countries. Having done that, they needed to protect their investments by bringing the poorer countries under colonial administration. So, this was a a theory of imperialism. Being published in 1902, Hobson's book was not "written post-world war" because the world war was yet to come. And it did not presage the coming war "as a war between monopolies fighting it out for markets"; that idea came along later, when the war was already in progress, and belongs to Lenin (1916). While Hobson did not predict the Great War, he did draw a clear link from imperialism to nationalism, and he opposed the war when it came.

How does the Hobson-Lenin view of the Great War stand up today? Not well. Here are two problems:

Problem #1. The surplus of capital does not explain imperialism. In the words of Gareth Austin (2014: 309):

the major outflows of capital from the leading imperial powers, Britain and France, went not to their new colonies but to countries which were either the more autonomous of their existing colonies (such as Australia) or were former colonies (the United States), former colonies of another European country (as with Argentina), or had never been colonized (Russia). Decisively, several of the expansionist imperial powers of the period were themselves net importers of capital: the United States, Japan, Portugal, and Italy.

Problem #2. The protection of business interests abroad does not explain the outbreak of the Great War. Richard Hamilton and Holger Herwig (2004) reviewed the evidence, country by country. In every case, including specifically Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, they found that the business constituency was excluded from the decisions that led to war. Had the business leaders been consulted, they would have opposed war. (This would also have been true in Russia, a case that Hamilton and Herwig do not consider.) They conclude (p. 247):

Economic leaders were not present in decision-making circles in July 1914. And, just as important, their urgent demands to avoid war were given no serious attention. It is an unexpected lesson because many intellectuals give much emphasis to the power of big business. The logic is easy: industrialists and bankers have immense resources; anxious and deferential politicians, supposedly, must respond to their demands. But the realities were quite different. At one point a German banker, Arthur von Gwinner, “had the audacity to point out Germany’s dire financial straits” to Wilhelm II. The monarch’s reply: “That makes no difference to me.”

In remembering the Great War, we should be careful to remember it as it really was. War did not break out in 1914, as Jeremy Corbyn seems to think, because of a money-making war machine, or because commercial interests were manipulating politics behind the scenes.

The Great War broke out because secretive, unaccountable rulers in Vienna, Berlin, and St Petersburg decided on it (I wrote about this in more detail in Harrison 2014). They feared the consequences but decided on war regardless because they believed the national interest would be better served by risking it in aggression than by remaining at peace. They believed this based on a nationalist, militarist, and aristocratic view of the national interest, in which profit and commercial advantage played no role. They decided on war in July 1914, and not in any previous crisis, because in previous crises they had been divided. They came together in July 1914 because this was a moment when Anglo-French deterrence failed, and this reduced their fear of the consequences of aggression below some critical threshold.

Thus two deeper causes lay behind the Great War. One was the ability of autocratic rulers to plan aggressive war in secret, ignoring public opinion, or taking it into account only to manipulate it. The other was the failure of the democracies to deter the aggressors. These lessons are still of value today. But to value such lessons you first need a desire to learn about what actually happened. And a political leader who bases his entire understanding of the Great War on a book published in 1902 seems to have missed that desire to learn.


  • Austin, Gareth. 2014. "Capitalism and the Colonies." In The Cambridge History of Capitalism, vol. 2: 301-347. Edited by Larry Neal and Jeffrey G. Williamson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hamilton, Richard F., and Holger H. Herwig. 2004. "On the Origins of the Catastrophe." In Decisions for war, 1914–1917, pp 225–252. Edited by Hamilton and Herwig. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Harrison, Mark. 2014. "Myths of the Great War." CAGE Working Paper no. 188. University of Warwick, Department of Economics. Available at
  • Hobson, J. A. 1902. Imperialism: A Study. New York. Available online.
  • Lenin, V. I. 1916. Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Petrograd. Available online.

May 14, 2015

Terrorism: A Career Choice?

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Recently the Warwick PPE programme (that's Philosophy, Politics, and Economics) put on an event for school students. The idea was to show what each of the three disciplines--Philosophy, Politics, and Economics--can contribute on a topic of current importance. It turned out that philosophy is good at trying to understand the concept of terrorism, and the study of politics helps us to understand how western politics have influenced our concepts of terrorism. I decided to talk about why young people choose to become terrorists in terms of the economics of career choice. Here, roughly, is what I said.

Right now you are probably getting a lot of advice about career choices, so I am going to talk about terrorism as a career choice--the sort of choice that has been made recently by a number of young British people who have gone to Syria to join ISIS. First of all, what is a terrorist? Someone who kills or injures civilians with a particular purpose: to create a violent spectacle, and so to spread terror beyond the immediate victims. The motivation is political: to support political demands--maybe. I say "maybe" because for reasons that will become clear I am less certain on this point.

Where is the economic aspect of terrorism? Terrorists seem to belong to the world of politics. What do they have to do with economics? For today, the point is that the decision to become a terrorist is an occupational choice. To become a terrorist is costly. There are also benefits – but what are they? The choice can be understood using concepts from economics such as cost, benefits, and rational decision making.

Is terrorism a choice (1)?

A first step is to establish that becoming a terrorist is indeed a choice. Do people choose terrorism or are they driven into it by despair (or by voices in their heads)? My answer is that they choose.

How to we know this? From two things. One is that far more people support terrorism than take part in it. Across societies and over time support for terrorism is rarely a majority point of view, but around the world supporters do come in significant numbers that amount to sizeable minorities:

Support for suicide terrorism across countries and time

This table (from PewResearchCenter 2013) shows that support among Muslims for suicide terrorism is highly variable--widespread in some places, quite infrequent in others. (In most countries it shows a tendency to dwindle over the period shown.) But it is worth bearing in mind that the first three countries shown in the table are among the most populous on earth: Pakistan, Indonesia, and Nigeria together account for more than 600 million people. If you apply the percentages for 2013 to the working-age populations (aged 15 to 64) of the 11 countries in the table, you come up with at least 50 million sympathizers. So, support for terrorism is shown by sizeable minorities.

In contrast, those who choose a career in terrorism are tiny minorities. In 2013 there were perhaps as many as 250,000 international terrorists worldwide. I base that on a rough count of members of groups aiming to attack the United States (from U.S. State Department 2014). This is a tiny number. Among 4.3 billion people of working age in the world it is one 1 in 18,000. In the Middle East and North Africa, active terrorists number perhaps 150,000. Relative to the MENA working-age population that is one in 1,500. In short, many people sympathize with terrorists, but hardly anyone becomes one.

Is terrorism a choice (2)?

If fewer people choose to become terrorists than express support for it, the next thing to ask is whether the participants have truly had the opportunity to choose. Do they have the competence to choose? Do they have alternatives from which to choose? To both questions the answer is: Yes. These people are not driven by crazy inner urges they cannot control; study after study has shown that most are psychologically normal (starting from Merari 1998). Moreover these people do not lack alternatives. In every society the people with fewest choices are women, the elderly, the poor, and the uneducated. But the typical terrorist is male, young, relatively affluent, and relatively educated (e.g. Krueger and Maleckova 2003). These are people with more choices, not fewer. They are not compelled by their circumstances.

Is terrorism a rational choice?

So, terrorism is a career choice. Is it a rational choice? Economic thinking revolves around the idea of people as rational actors. A rational actor isn’t a good or bad person, just a person whose behaviour follows a consistent logic. A rational actor should compare expected marginal private benefits with marginal private opportunity costs. The word "marginal" emphasizes that each person should ask: What difference will my choice make? The word "private" means: the difference to me. Then, the rational person will choose the option that yields the largest net gain to him or her. The gain does not have to be monetary; it will come in any form that the person concerned values.

Choosing terrorism: marginal costs?

What if the option to be considered is “terrorist”? The young person can make a list of marginal costs and benefits, just like a list of "for" and "against." The marginal costs associated with becoming a terrorist are many and large. You have to make the effort to research the groups that are willing to recruit you and work out the differences among them in order to seek to join one of them (in economics that is called a matching problem: there has to be the right match between the group and you). This effort is a cost. You have to learn occupational skills such as violence and concealment. Learning is costly too. You have to make efforts to adopt and live a new social identity, becoming a warrior or martyr.

Any career choice is likely to present analogous costs of matching, training, and developing a new professional identity. The costs of choosing terrorism that would not arise with other choices are that you have to abandon your home, your family, and a peaceful way of life in order to risk death. And, if you survive, and decide that you made a mistake, there may be no going back. These are all things that go under "against."

Choosing terrorism: marginal benefits?

So the costs are many and large. What goes under "for"? What are the benefits that terrorists seek from their career choice?

One benefit you might think of (assuming these are indeed benefits to you) would be to achieve the declared goals of the group: usually, to unify the homeland, or to drive out foreigners, or to establish religious order. But the economist rules this one out on several grounds, each of which should be decisive on its own. First, on average, attacking civilians does not achieve declared goals (Jones and Libicki 2008; Abrahms 2011). In other words, terrorism is counterproductive.

This is not all. Even if terrorism were productive, one person more or less would make no difference, so the marginal gain from your personal participation is inevitably less than the private marginal cost that you will bear. Finally, terrorists often turn out to be quite uninformed about their own group's declared goals (and not only that; they are usually also fairly clueless about world politics and religion). For all these reasons we cannot put much weight on claims, often made many years later, that "I joined the IRA to bring about a united Ireland" (for example).

Note. A listener reminded me: Maybe people join in terrorism out of anger at Western actions. I understand, and we'll come to the beliefs that are required for participation in terrorism. But all the evidence (Abrahms 2011 again) suggests that international terrorism against civilians moves public opinion to the right and increases the likelihood of Western cross-border intervention against terrorists. In other words, again, it's counterproductive. Even Osama bin Laden could see that. When you see people persisting in very costly courses of action and the actions are known to be counter-productive, you have to ask: Why?

But … But what other benefits might there be? A clue lies in the fact that, while psychologically normal, terrorists are often excluded or isolated (e.g. Pedahzur 2005): they are young unmarried men, or young women who were prematurely widowed, or poorly assimilated migrants. Correspondingly, Max Abrahms has argued, what terrorists value above all is the comradeship and supportive ties they find in the organization they joined.

Here are some examples (from Abrahms 2008). Among 516 Guantanamo Bay detainees, knowing an al-Qaida member was a significantly better predictor than belief in jihad. Among 1,100 detained members of the Kurdish PKK, respondents were ten times more likely to say they were attracted to join “because their friends were members” than by political ideology. There are related findings from Europe based on study of the IRA, ETA, RAF, and Red Brigades.

Moreover, terrorist groups are well placed to supply intense comradeship. They provide shared dangers and extreme experiences that cannot be shared with outsiders.

So terrorism is like ... ?

This suggests a more general model for terrorism. What benefits do young people seek from work? To some, salary and prospects matter most. For others, most important is the kind of work. Suppose you want excitement and risk; you don't want work that is routine or desk-bound. Suppose you want teamwork and comradeship, not isolation. Suppose you want the opportunity for acknowledgement of your personal role; you don't want to disappear into an anonymous mass.

If you are that sort of person, you might consider competitive team sports, or becoming an outdoor adventure leader, or joining the emergency services, for example the fire brigades. Or ... you might become a terrorist.

Radicalization and beliefs

So far I've said nothing about beliefs. Yet in choosing terrorism beliefs do play a role. For only a tiny minority chooses terrorism. Most young people do not want to kill others in order to share excitement and form bonds of affection with co-workers. What can overcome this natural reluctance? Here is where beliefs matter.

As an economist, I note that beliefs shape rational choice. You cannot make a rational career choice without beliefs. Here is a minimum set of beliefs that seem to matter for young people who choose terrorism. There is the choice of identity: the very concept of self-interest is predicated on the existence of a "self" that answers the question: Who am I? (as argued by Harrison 2006). For those that choose terrorism the answer is apparently: —I am a warrior (or: —I am a martyr). Sometimes the choice of identity is fuelled by anger. But this choice alone is not sufficient; you can be a soldier or a martyr without directing your rage against innocent people.

There is also a matter of values: Specifically, when I choose how to behave in society, how much weight should I give the interests of other people, compared to my own self-interest? Here the critical answer is: —People who don’t share my beliefs have no right to be considered and don’t deserve to live. This, and only this, makes it OK for the soldier to kill them.

When some young people look for others with whom they can form social bonds, these beliefs can tip the rational choice towards terrorist groups. So to adopt these two beliefs, the identity of the soldier and the exclusion of others from the right to exist based on different beliefs or culture, must be decisive in what some authorities now call "radicalization."


  • Abrahms, Max. 2008. What Terrorists Really Want: Terrorist Motives and Counterterrorism Strategy. International Security, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Spring 2008), pp. 78–105.
  • Abrahms, Max. 2011. Does Terrorism Really Work? Evolution in the Conventional Wisdom since 9/11. Defence and Peace Economics, 22:6, 583-594.
  • Harrison, Mark. 2006. An Economist Looks at Suicide Terrorism. World Economics 7:3, pp. 1-15.
  • Jones, Seth G., and Martin C. Libicki. 2008. How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering Al Qa’ida. RAND Corporation: Santa Monica.
  • Krueger, Alan B., and Jitka Malečková. 2003. "Education, Poverty and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection?" Journal of Economic Perspectives, 17(4): 119-144.
  • Merari, Ariel. 1998. “The Readiness to Kill and Die: Suicidal Terrorism in the Middle East.” In Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind, 192-207. Edited by Walter Reich. Second edition, Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center and Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Pedahzur, Ami. 2005. Suicide Terrorism. Cambridge: Polity.
  • PewResearchCenter. 2013. Muslim Publics Share Concerns About Extremist Groups. Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Project. Washington, D.C.
  • U.S. State Department. 2014. Country Reports on Terrorism, 2013. Bureau of Counterterrorism.

February 27, 2015

Russia Under Sanctions: It's Not Working

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On the evening of Tuesday 24 February I joined a panel discussion on "Russia Now," organized by Warwick Arts Centre's Mead Gallery. My fellow panellists were Peter Ferdinand (Politics and International Studies) and Christoph Mick and Christopher Read (History). The discussion was chaired by Mead Gallery director Sarah Shalgosky, whom I thank for the invitation. Here's what I said, roughly speaking.

Sanctions in history

The Russian economy is subject to Western sanctions. These sanctions are of two kinds. There are "smart" sanctions that aim to limit the international travel and transactions of named persons and corporations. There are also broader sanctions that aim to limit the international trade and borrowing of Russia’s financial, energy, and defence sectors.

In history, advocates of economic sanctions against an adversary have usually claimed two advantages for them. One claimed advantage is speed of action: It has often been predicted that economic sanctions will quickly "starve out" an adversary (metaphorically or literally). The other claimed advantage is cost: By attacking the adversary’s economy we can achieve our goals without the heavy casualties to our own side that would result from a military confrontation.

Are these claims justified by experience? Based on the experience of modern warfare and economic sanctions from the Napoleonic Wars through the U.S. Civil War and the two World Wars of the twentieth century to the Cold War, Rhodesia, South Africa, and Cuba, the answer has typically been: "No."

How do sanctions work?

The effects of sanctions on national power have generally been slower and smaller than expected. First, they attack national power indirectly, through the economy, and the economy provides a very complicated and uncertain transmission mechanism. If a country is refused access to something for which it appears to have a vital need, such as oil or food, it generally turns out that there are plenty of alternatives and ways around; nothing is as essential as it seems at first sight. Secondly, external measures will be met by counter-measures. In a country that is blockaded or sanctioned, soldiers will look for ways to use military strength to break ouit and so offset economic weakness. Suffering hardship and feeling unfairly victimized, civilians will become more willing to tighten their belts and fight on.

It would be wrong to go to the other extreme and conclude that sanctions achieve nothing. What have sanctions actually achieved in historical experience? Sanctions do raise the cost of producing national power. They do so gradually, so that immediate effects may not be perceptible. Nonetheless they impose costs on the adversary, and eventually these costs will tell. It is hard to show, however, that sanctions have ever had a decisive effect on their own; at best, they have been shown to have their effect in combination with other factors, such as military force. In those cases, sanctions were a complement to military power, not a substitute or alternative.

Russia: How are Western sanctions supposed to work?

The purpose of Western sanctions is clear: It is to change President Putin’s behaviour, making him more cautious and more accommodating to the demands of Western powers.

What is the mechanism that is supposed to bring this about? Western observers generally see that President Putin's political base is built on the use of energy profits to buy political support. Russia's energy sector, much of it state-owned, has provided major revenues to the Russian government budget. The Russian government uses these revenues to buy support, partly by paying off key persons, partly by subsidizing employment in Russia's inefficient, uncompetitive domestic industries. The result is that many people feel obligated to Putin's regime because without it they would lose their privilege or position in society.

In that context, sanctions have been designed to target those industries and persons that supply resources to the government and those that depend on the government for financial support. By doing so, they aim to deprive President Putin of the resources he needs to retain loyalty.

How have sanctions actually worked? In Russia, real output is falling and inflation is rising. It is important to bear in mind, however, that in recent months sanctions have been only one of three external sources of pressure on the Russian economy.

Three pressures on Russia's economy

Three factors have been at work: sanctions, confidence in the ruble, and energy prices. These factors should be thought of as semi-independent: there are obvious connections among them, but in each case the agency is different.

  • Sanctions. Before the crisis over Crimea, Russian corporations had approximately $650 billion of short-term, low-interest debt denominated in foreign currency. International lenders have reluctant to lend to Russia long term because Russia's lack of protection of property rights leaves them uncertain about the security of their loans. Because this debt is short term, it requires regular refinancing. Russian firms, including organizations and sectors that have not been directly targeted by sanctions, are now unable to borrow abroad. Struggling to cover their credit needs, they have turned to the Russian government to make emergency loans or bail them out.
  • Confidence in the ruble. As lenders have lost confidence in Russia, capital flight has increased. The ruble has lost half its external value in the last year, and this has doubled the real burden of private foreign currency debts of Russian corporations and also wealthy families with housing debts in euros or dollars. This has intensified private sector pressure on the government for bail-outs.
  • Oil prices. The dollar price of oil has halved since this time last year, slashing Russia's energy revenues and plunging the state budget into deficit.

These three pressures all point in the same direction and complement each other. Their cumulative effect is to be seen in the deteriorating outlook for the economy as a whole and for public finance. The government has lost important revenues while spending pressures have multiplied. Arguably, therefore, sanctions have "worked," because they have squeezed the capacity of the Russian administration to satisfy the expectations of its supporters.

A learning opportunity

From a social-science perspective, we should think of this moment as a learning opportunity: How the Russian administration responds in these circumstances should reveal its type.

To benchmark the Russian response today, consider how two Soviet leaders responded to closely similar situations in the past.

  • One benchmark is offered by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. By the mid-1980s the global energy market had reached a situation not far removed from that of today. A decade of high oil prices was being brought to an end by new non-OPEC suppliers. This put the Soviet economy under a severe squeeze. Faced with this squeeze, Mikhail Gorbachev chose policies of demilitarization and relaxation abroad and at home.
  • Another benchmark is offered by Joseph Stalin in 1930. If anything, the predicament of the Soviet economy in 1930 was even closer to its situation today. Soviet exports were faced with collapsing prices as the world economy entered the Great Depression. The Soviet economy also had considerable short-term debts that suddenly could not be rolled over because international lending dried up. In response, Stalin demanded "the first five year plan in four years!" This involved accelerated mobilization and sacrifice, and ended in the famine deaths of millions of his own citizens (many of them in Ukraine).

These examples illustrate the alternative responses of a ruler under external pressure. When it becomes harder to buy loyalty the ruler can respond like Gorbachev, by moderating demands on supporters; or like Stalin, by cracking the whip over them. In 2015, faced with economic sanctions, falling oil prices, and a falling ruble, which choice has President Putin made? His words and deeds both deserve attention.

  • Before sanctions, President Putin's words were of a Russia encircled by enemies and penetrated by foreign agents. His policies involved accelerated rearmament and frozen conflicts with Moldova and Georgia, capped by the annexation of Crimea.
  • How did things change after Western sanctions were imposed? Putin's rhetoric shifted up a notch with talk of national traitors and a "fifth column" of enemies within. His economists began to discuss ways to shift from a market economy to a "mobilization economy." His foreign policy spokesmen incited tensions in the Baltic region and made nuclear threats against the West. The Russian military embarked on continuous large-scale exercises and increased the frequency of testing NATO defences in the Baltic and the North Sea. Russian forces and heavy weapons were infiltrated into Eastern Ukraine.

The lesson for social science is that under external economic pressure President Putin has revealed his type: He is a power-building authoritarian ruler.

It isn't working

From a policy perspective, the effect of sanctions on the Russian economy is only the tactical outcome of sanctions. Their strategic purpose is to change Russia's behaviour for the better, and that is the only true test of whether they have worked. The lesson for policy is that, despite sanctions, President Putin remains prepared to take risks with peace and to commit aggression. Sanctions are not changing his behaviour.

Now we know this, what should we conclude? A clear implication is that things could get worse. Some worry (or threaten) that, if the pressure on him grows, President Putin might became more confrontational and take additional risks rather than back down and look for compromise. It has also been suggested that, if unseated, Putin might be replaced by someone worse -- a role for which there are several candidates.

Why isn't it working?

This leads to me to a sombre conclusion. It's not a conclusion that I much like; I have thought about it a lot and I wish I could see another way out of the situation. To sum it up, I'll quote in full a letter that I wrote to the Financial Times recently in response to an article by Gideon Rachman ("Russian hearts, minds, and refrigerators," February 16). My letter appeared on 19 February:

Gideon Rachman ... writes : “Rather than engage the Putin government where it is relatively strong, on the battlefield, it makes more sense to hit Russia at its weak point: the economy.” But this neglects the incentives that arise from the time factor.

If the West plays to its strength, which is economic, President Putin will play to Russia’s strength, which is military. But the action of Western financial and trade measures is slow and cannot be accelerated. Meanwhile, Russia can accelerate its military action at will.

In playing the sanctions card while neglecting defence, the West is encouraging President Putin to raise the tempo on the battlefield and change realities quickly and irrevocably through warfare, before the Russian economy can be weakened further.

For the West, therefore, economic sanctions are not an alternative to a military confrontation that is already under way. To avoid disaster, the West must support financial and trade measures with a credible defence.

February 18, 2015

Russia's Improbable Futures and the Lure of the Past

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On 27 January I was asked to join a panel on Russia's Future within the University of Warwick One World Week. (The other panel members were Richard Connolly, co-director of the University of Birmingham Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies, and the journalist Oliver Bullough.) I decided to talk about how Russians are looking to the past in order to understand their uncertain future. Here, roughly, is what I said:

Russia has many possible futures; all of them are improbable. The economy must do better, stay the same, or do worse. Relations with the West must improve, remain as they are, or deteriorate further. Adding them up, there are nine possible combinations. The probability of any particular combination is small, so each is improbable. But one of them must happen because, taken together, the sum of the probabilities is one. One of them must happen, but we have no idea which one.

Faced with an uncertain future, we often look to the past for guidance and reassurance. What was the outcome when we were previously in a situation that felt the same? At New Year, many Russians were looking to the past. I found this out when I stumbled on the website of RBC-TV, a Russian business television channel. Every day the RBC website polls its fans on a different multiple-choice question. On 30 December, the question of the day, with answers (and votes in parentheses), was:

What should Father Frost bring for Russia?

  • End of sanctions (6%)
  • End of the war in Ukraine (27%)
  • A stable ruble (7%)
  • Return of the Soviet Union (59%)

It's disconcerting to be reminded of the strength of nostalgia among Russians for the time when their country was a global superpower. The Soviet Union united all the Russias -- if anyone's not sure what that means, that's Great Russia, Little Russia and New Russia (Ukraine), and White Russia (Belarus) -- with the countries of the Baltic, Transcaucasia, and Central Asia. The Soviet Union stood for strong centralized rule, with a powerful secret police and thermonuclear weapons. The nostalgia is shared by President Putin, who said (on 25 April 2005): “The collapse of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the [twentieth] century.”

Here's a question that RBC asked its supporters on 25 December:

Can direct controls and a price freeze save Russia’s economy?

  • Yes, the free market is not up to the job (55%)
  • No, that would cause insecurity and panic (40%)
  • No need – no crisis (5%)

Again, the strength of support for the backward-looking answer is disconcerting. I tried to think of the last time the Russian economy was in a squeeze like today's. The last time the oil price price came down like this was the mid-1980s when North Sea and Alaskan oil broke the power of the OPEC cartel for a few years (that's the analysis of Anatole Kaletsky). The disappearance of oil rents probably contributed to the collapse of the Soviet economy.

But a closer parallel to today is 1930, when two things happened at once. The global market for Soviet exports shrank in the Great Depression. And international lending dried up, meaning that the Soviet economy could not roll over its debts. The Soviet import capacity collapsed almost overnight. Stalin responded by forcing the pace of import substitution through rapid industrialization. He demanded "The five plan in four years!" The result was a crisis of excessive mobilization that claimed millions of lives in the famine of 1932 and 1933.

Prominent in calling for an economic breakthrough today is President Putin, who responded to Western sanctions on 18 September 2014: “In the next 18 to 24 months we need to make a real breakthrough in making the Russian real sector more competitive, something that in the past would have taken us years.” Government-friendly Russian economists are talking about the need to go from a market economy back to a mobilization economy. In case the foreigners aren't getting the message, first deputy prime minister Shuvalov told those assembled in Davos on 23 January: “We will survive any hardship in the country – eat less food, use less electricity.”

A third question that RBC asked its viewers was on 19 December:

What matters most for the country right now?

  • The foreign exchange rate (33%)
  • Who is a true patriot and who is fifth column (56%)
  • “Vyatskii kvas” (11%)

(The English equivalent of "Vyatskii kvas" would probably be Devon cider. For the reasons why it was being talked up as a solution to Russia's problems last December, click here.)

Here the strength of support for the backward looking answer is shocking. What is the "fifth column" and how does it resonate in Russian history? In 1937, Stalin saw Moscow surrounded and penetrated by enemies. This coincided with the siege of Madrid in Spain’s Civil War. In 1936 the nationalist General Mola was asked which of his four columns would take Madrid. He replied, famously: “My fifth column” (of undercover nationalist agents already in the city). In Madrid the Republicans responded by executing 4,000 nationalist sympathisers. In the Soviet Union Stalin, who was also watching, ordered the execution of 700,000 “enemies of the people.”

In recent times, the spectre of a "fifth column" was first reawakened by President Putin on 18 March 2014, when he remarked: "Western politicians are already threatening us with not just sanctions but also the prospect of increasingly serious problems on the domestic front. I would like to know what it is they have in mind exactly: action by a fifth column, this disparate bunch of ‘national traitors’, or are they hoping to put us in a worsening social and economic situation so as to provoke public discontent?"

Putin took up this theme again on 18 December 2014: "The line that separates opposition activists from the fifth column is hard to see from the outside. What’s the difference? Opposition activists may be very harsh in their criticism, but at the end of the day they are defending the interests of the motherland. And the fifth column is those who serve the interests of other countries, and who are only tools for others’ political goals."

Here you can see that Putin did affirm the possibility that opposition can be loyal. But is it possible for Russia to have a loyal opposition today? The only example of loyal opposition that Putin could bring himself to mention was the poet Lermontov -- who died in 1841.

These echoes of the Soviet past in Russian opinion today are disconcerting and even frightening. At the same time it is important to remember that, even while Russians look to the past, Russia today is absolutely not the Soviet Union. From today's vantage point it is nearly impossible to imagine how closed, stifling, claustrophobic, and isolated was everyday life even in late Soviet times. Russians in 2015 lead very different lives from Soviet citizens in 1985. They are richer, live longer, are able to visit, study, phone, and write abroad. Even today they are relatively free to search for and find information and discuss it among themselves. In all these ways, the transition from communism has not been a failure.

As Andrei Shleifer and Daniel Treisman (2014) wrote recently: "Putin’s authoritarian turn clearly makes Russia more dangerous. But it does not, thus far, make the country politically abnormal. In fact, on a plot of different states’ Polity [i.e. democracy] scores against their incomes, Russia still deviates only slightly from the overall pattern. For a country with Russia’s national income, the predicted Polity score [a measure of democracy] in 2013 was 76 on the 100-point scale. Russia’s actual score was 70, on a par with Sri Lanka and Venezuela."

To see Russia as just another middle income country helps us to identify Russia's underlying problem. In Russia, just like in Sri Lanka, Venezuela, and most countries outside “the West,” wealth and power are fused in a small, closed elite, and that is how it has always been. The fusion of wealth and power was and remains normal. Before the revolution Russia was governed by a landowning Tsar, aristocracy, and church. After the revolution Russia was governed by a communist elite that monopolized all productive property plus media, science, and education. Today Russia is governed by an ex-communist, ex-KGB elite that has once again gathered control of energy resources and the media. This fusion of wealth and power is neither new nor is it unusual among middle and low income countries.

In societies where wealth and power are fused, particular people are powerful because they control wealth and the same people are wealthy if and only if they are powerful. This is what gives politics in such societies its life-and-death immediacy. To lose power means to lose everything; when power change hands there is often violence. “All politics is real politics," write Douglas North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast (2009); "people risk death when they make political mistakes.”

Several times in history, liberal reformers have tried to separate wealth and power in Russia and make space for public opinion. Here are some examples from the last 150 years:

  • In 1864 a reform brought elected local governments – but within an absolute monarchy.
  • Shaken by military defeats and popular insurrections, in 1906 the Russian monarchy introduced an elected parliament, although with few powers, and ndividual peasant landownership, although (as it turned out) with little time for implementation.
  • In 1992 and 1995 Russia saw voucher privatization and "loans-for-shares," creating a class of corporate shareholders – but the outcome was crony capitalism, not free enterprise.
  • In 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovskii tried to separate the governance of Yukos from the "power vertical," but he went to prison for it.

All these efforts have so far achieved only partial or temporary success. Russia has not yet found a solution to the problem of the fusion of wealth and power. Here, at last, is an aspect of Russia's future that is certain: If Russia is ever to find a solution to this problem, it will be there.

Note: I updated this column after publication to correct a date -- 2014, which appeared as 1914.


  • North, Douglas, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast. 2009. Violence and Social Orders A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Shleifer, Andrei, and Daniel Triesman. 2014. "Normal Countries: The East 25 Years after Communism." Foreign Affairs, November-December.

January 01, 2015

The Soviet Military–Industrial Complex: New Year Insights from Dexter and Rodionov

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Today sees a new version of the Dexter-Rodionov guide to The Factories, Research and Design Establishments of the Soviet Defence Industry. This is the sixteenth edition; the very first (in which I was co-author) appeared in January 1999. In that time the datset has grown from just over 2,000 entries to nearly 30,000, and the detail from around 100kb to more than 10Mb.

From the start this was a curiosity-driven project. The Soviet military-industrial complex was veiled in secrecy for decades. In 1992 the former Soviet archives were opened up for independent research. Google's Ngram viewer lets you see how the subject broke out into the light of day. The chart shows the relative frequency of the phrase "советский военно-промышленный комплекс" (Soviet military-industrial complex) in Russian-language publications from 1917 to 2010. A few of these would have occurred in items published in Russian outside the Soviet Union; I suspect that explains the first observations from the 1970s and early 1980s.

What were the factories that made Soviet weapons and military equipment? How many and how important were they? Where were they? When were they built? How specialized were they, and how self-sufficient? We just wanted to know.

My co-author of the time, Nikolai Simonov, was showing me some of the lists of secret ("numbered") defence factories in the 1920s and 1930s that he had found in the archives. I knew that Julian Cooper at Birmingham had his own files. We were soon joined by Keith Dexter, an authority on Soviet aviation. We put together what we had and the result was the first edition of the present guide. If you are at all interested in the history of exactly how and when the Soviet defence industry was made secret, I still recommend that you read Julian Cooper's introduction to this first edition.

Soon after that, Keith drew in Ivan Rodionov, another aviation expert, and so it became the Dexter-Rodionov guide.

What's new in version 16, apart from additional detail? The cover page carries the chart below, which shows the growing number of Soviet enterprises engaged in defence production from 1917 through 1991, distributed among the major production branches.

The number of Soviet defence plants, 1917-1991

Here are my takeaways (thanks to Dexter and Rodionov for drawing my attention to some of these):

  • The breakneck pace of Stalin's rearmament from the mid-1930s is clearly visible. It culminated in the war, and the first spike which is recorded in 1944).
  • Also visible is the more moderate but sustained growth of defence plants after the war, including the rapid surpassing of the wartime peak.
  • There is a second spike in the number of defence plants in 1964. This was the year in which Khrushchev was outmanoeuvred and replaced by Brezhnev. It suggests an economic issue in the power struggle: was Khrushchev trying to build up defence production at a pace that others considered to be infeasible?
  • The changing composition of the defence sector has two striking aspects. One is the vast growth of radioelectronic establishments. By the end, this sector alone accounted for half of the entire Soviet defence industry.
  • The other aspect is the tremendous stability of the traditional sectors: armament, armour, and shipbuilding. It would not come as any surprise to a student of the Soviet economy to learn that they could create new sectors (like the nuclear industry or radioelectronics) but even if they wanted they couldn't close the old ones down.

Finally, the chart shows us that by the end there were just over 5,000 plants engaged in defence production. How many is that? In 1987 (according to the Soviet statistical handbook of that year) there were more than half a million state-owned establishments of all kinds in the Soviet economy. So, we are looking at no more than one per cent of the total, and one per cent does not seem like a lot. The explanation is that most defence plants were relatively large. Their share in the whole economy, measured by capital assets or production, was many times greater than their share in the number of plants.

As for the share of defence production in the whole Soviet economy, we are still a long way from being able to pin that down. For any other country the most obvious way to do it would be to work from the expenditure side, by comparing the size of the Soviet military budget with the size of the economy, as opposed to working from the production side, which raises a lot of complicated issues about plant specialization and intermediate production. Alas, in the Soviet case it is no less of a problem to work from the expenditure side, because Soviet defence expenditures were also highly secret. Here I mean true military expenditures, not the officially published figures which were as phoney as a three-dollar bill. In fact, the real figures were so secret that by the end nobody knew what they were! And i mean nobody, literally; I wrote about it here.

The Soviet military-industrial complex continues to throw up many challenges for historical research. The Dexter-Rodionov guide is a terrific place to start looking for both questions and answers.

December 22, 2014

Back to the USSR: National Security in the Soviet Economy

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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 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)

I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).

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