All 34 entries tagged History
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December 09, 2014
Writing about web page http://warwick.ac.uk/markharrison/comment/torture.pdf
Torture is wrong. Applied to interrogation it is unproductive. Given these two things, it should be easy for interrogators to choose not to use torture. Despite this, torture is widely and persistently used in interrogation around the world. So here, apparently, is a puzzle. Why does torture persist? The solution to the puzzle is found in a third feature: torture is corrupting.
Today's publication of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the Central Intelligence Agency 's Detention and Interrogation Program will be noted mainly for its detailing of the fates of the 39 CIA detainees who were subject to "enhanced interrogation" (or torture).
Also notable, however, is the report's documentation of the CIA's determined defence of its practices, extending to concealment and misrepresentation of the facts in order to evade accountability. This defence began concurrently with "enhanced interrogation" but it is not confined to the past. It continues today and will no doubt be maintained tomorrow.
It was 9/11 that moved me to write regularly on public affairs. I didn't have a blog, so I just wrote short papers and uploaded them to a web page. In November 2001 torture was already being floated in public as a way to get US detainees to talk about terrorist conspiracies. It seemed to me that European history already provided ample evidence that this was a bad idea, so I wrote a short paper to explain why.
My last-but-one paragraph from that paper is relevant to the idea that torture cannot be a temporary expedient. Even if it turns out to be a bad idea, once you start, it's hard to stop. It also helps to explain why a body like the CIA would become committed to a bad idea and continue to defend it to the present. What I wrote thirteen years ago seems as good today as I thought then, so I'll quote that last-but-one paragraph in full.
A final and most important consequence is that the process of torture is corrupting. Torture creates employment for the interrogators, and privileges that stem from the capacity to instill fear. The practice of torture also attracts those who find it enjoyable and use it as an instrument of self–gratification rather than investigation. Thus it gives rise to vested interests in its continuation that do not wish to be held accountable for their actions. These interests are helped by secrecy. Torture takes place in secret. Most people find the subject distasteful and do not wish to know about it, and this further strengthens the wall of secrecy. The result is a part of the state that exercises a cruel and tyrannical power over society, one that grows inevitably with the extension of torture and has the power to resist subsequent attempts to curb it.
December 03, 2014
Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/history/research/seminars_readinggroups/historyseminar/
Recently Warwick’s History Department held a roundtable on Thomas Piketty’s important and bestselling blockbuster, Capital in the Twenty-first Century (Piketty 2014). I was on the panel, which was ably organized and chaired by Maxine Berg, whom I thank for the invitation. Here I’ll summarize my remarks, which have benefited from listening to the other panelists and the discussion. For better or worse my words seem to have been modified by the passage of time; I sense that their tone has sharpened since that evening.
Piketty’s book has been reviewed thousands of times; we have already seen reviews of the reviews. I have little to say that can be original. I prefer not to comment on Piketty’s conclusions, because most readers seem to have made up their minds on those before reading the book. Instead, I’ll focus on the early chapters, where Piketty sets out his contention that “capital is back”; nearly everything else in the book follows from that foundational claim.
Here’s the short version of my assessment: The problem? Hugely topical. I won’t spend any time on that. The model?Unobjectionable in principle, flaky in use. I’ll explain briefly. The historical data? A wonderful contribution, yet they do not show what many suppose, and that would seem to include Piketty himself. My conclusion? Capital is back -- but not as corporate capital. If capital is back, it is not, apparently, because of financial deregulation or capital account liberalization. And, if capital is back, there are clear candidates for countervailing forces that will tend to restrict its further rise in the twenty-first century.
Now for the detail, some of it unavoidably technical. Let’s start with the model. Piketty writes (2014, p. 32):
The discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and highly ideological speculation …
(So of course we don’t expect to find anything like that in the pages that follow.) What we do find is this:
- A first fundamental law (p. 52): the profit share in income rises with the profit rate on capital and with the capital/income ratio.
α = rβ
- A second fundamental law (p. 166): the capital/income ratio rises with the saving rate out of income (which governs the rate at which income adds to capital), and it also rises as the income growth rate falls.
β → s/g
- A fundamental force (p. 35): profit rate on capital tends to exceed income growth rate.
r > g
The generality of the model is notable. In fact there is almost nothing in it, so far, that could be considered novel. It is also simple to an extreme. Of course, all models are just simplified representations of reality. Is it oversimplified? The question calls to mind the maxim of Box and Draper (1987, p. 74):
All models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful.
Our question for Piketty, correctly formulated, is not whether his model is “wrong,” as it surely is, but whether his model is “not-wrong” enough to be useful. Considered in these terms, the maths is not the problem. The problem is in the application of the maths to a necessarily complex reality.
How does this simple model lend support to the claim that capital is back? Piketty puts his two laws and the fundamental force to work in the following way.
- Start with the fundamental force: r > g. Here is a gap, made up by the excess of the rate of return on capital over the growth rate of the economy. According to Piketty the gap has widened because g has fallen (pp. 99-102), but r is fairly stable and we do not expect it to fall (pp. 220-223).
- Now the second law comes into play: β → s/g. Piketty appears to argue that the saving rate is stable, or at least is not falling (pp. 173-178), but the growth rate has fallen, so β, the ratio of capital to income, must be rising towards a new, higher steady state.
- Finally the first law swings into action: α = rβ. Given that the capital/income ratio is rising and the rate of return on capital is not falling, the profit share in income must be rising too, with all that might imply for social inequality.
- (The maths is neat too: the three expressions collapse easily into α → s × r/g, meaning that the steady-state profit share equals the saving rate times the rate of return over the growth rate. So far, the logic is unassailable.)
The question that comes naturally to mind is whether Piketty might have neglected some countervailing force that would eventually nullify or attenuate the tendency that he has identified. (In thinking about this I’ve been influenced by the insights of many, but I ought to mention especially Krusell and Smith 2014).
Picketty concludes that capital is back because, he maintains, the growth rate of the economy has fallen, the rate of return on capital is relatively stable, and so is the saving rate out of income. How robust is this chain? Consider each link in turn.
- First, Piketty asserts that the long-term growth rate of the economy has fallen: Maybe, but also maybe not. Secular stagnation is possible but the concept is also speculative and contentious (for discussion see Teulings and Baldwin 2014). It is even a little unhistorical – the last time secular stagnation was predicted was at the end of the 1930s, since when global output has multiplied by at least 10 times (Maddison 2010). If the prediction of secular stagnation turns out wrong, then Piketty’s prediction is largely sunk by a countervailing factor: the return to faster growth will hold down the capital/income ratio and the profit share in income.
- Second, Piketty asserts that the rate of return on capital will not decline as capital is accumulated. This outcome is possible, of course, in the general sense that we really don’t know about the future of technology, but this one too is speculative and contentious. A long term conjunction of low growth, high capital accumulation, and high profits is (in my opinion) highly improbable. If we are doomed to secular stagnation, and capital accumulation continues unchecked, the return on new investments will surely fall relative to the past. If the return on capital declines significantly as capital is accumulated faster than income, then here is a factor that would automatically hold down the profit share in income. Thus, a fall in the rate of return cannot be ruled out and would be another countervailing factor.
- Third, Piketty appears to rely on maintenance of the saving rate out of income. Others have noted that Piketty should have distinguished between gross and net saving. Here net saving = gross saving – depreciation, and depreciation means the annual deterioration of the capital stock through wear and tear and obsolescence. Piketty gets the definition, of course (p. 178), but on my reading he misapplies it. The point is that depreciation is a function of the capital stock: the more capital we hold, the greater must be our provision for its depreciation. Depreciation is not a function of income. If the capital/income ratio rises, then the depreciation/income ratio must rise too. Piketty doesn’t appear to get this (p. 178 again), because he presents depreciation as a proportion of income, not of capital. If the capital/income ratio rises, the depreciation/income ratio must rise. If the depreciation/income ratio rises, and if gross saving is stable, then net saving out of income must fall. If the result of capital accumulation is a fall in the net saving rate, then this must slow net capital accumulation, making a third countervailing factor.
The three countervailing factors are reasons why I concluded that Piketty's basic insight is flaky, in the sense that it might be a good description of what is going on but equally it might not. Still, this does not settle the bigger question: do its predictions fit the known facts? If so, it must surely still merit serious consideration; perhaps the countervailing factors are simply unimportant?
The test here is: what’s been happening to the capital/income ratio? And Piketty’s data do show that the capital/income ratio is rising, don't they? Well, let’s check the data (and here I need to acknowledge a debt to Bonnet, Bono, Chapelle, and Wasmer 2014).
Piketty has five countries in his sample: Britain, France, Germany, Canada, and the US. These data show, as is now well known, a U-shaped pattern in the ratio of capital to income over the twentieth century: high at the beginning, slumping in mid-century, and rising again: hence, “capital is back.”
Piketty’s explanation, by the way, is that in the era of the two world wars the asset markets of these five countries underwent a common pattern of regulation that depressed relative asset prices, and neoliberal deregulation has now released them.
But there are strange things in the data. They are not immediately apparent from Piketty’s stacked-area charts, mostly because of the vertical ordering of the series. (To a smaller extent they are affected because Piketty does not understand how Excel processes the data for stacked charts when one of the series has negative values, as is the case for net foreign capital order in several countries, although only Canada is seriously affected.)
- First strange thing: If we accept that capital is back, it is not all elements of capital that are back, and it is specifically not corporate capital. It is residential capital. Residential capital is certainly part of the capital stock, but it is probably not what most people think of when they think about the return of (or on) “capital.” More likely they think about Goldman Sachs or Amazon. But capital is not back because of Goldman Sachs or Amazon.
A simple calculation makes the point. For each country, take the increase in the capital/income ratio from 1950 to 2010. Then calculate how much of that increase is due to rising values of residential capital. The result is the proportion of the increase in capital/income from 1950 to 2010 that is explained by the increase in housing wealth:
- United Kingdom 72%
- France 103%
- Germany 102%
- Canada 63%
- United States 72%
The figures show that in every country housing wealth accounts for at least three fifths of the increase in the capital/income ratio since the middle of the twentieth century, and in two countries (France and Germany) it accounts for all of the increase in the ratio.
- Second strange thing. If housing wealth is so important to the claim that “capital is back,” what can we say about the return on housing wealth? Go back to the basic model to recall that the stability of the return on capital is crucial to Piketty’s prediction that the capital share of income is rising. Is the return on housing capital stable? No, it’s not. Bonnet et al. (2014) show clearly that in four out of five countries the return on housing wealth, measured by the ratio of housing rents to housing prices, has fallen over forty years from 1970 to 2010: in the US by nearly 20 percent, and in Britain, France, and Canada by around 40 percent. Only in Germany has it risen.
- Third strange thing: Asset prices are formed in markets. Sometimes, these markets are regulated, and this affects prices. There are variations across markets and across countries in how regulated these markets are, and I am not expert in measuring this variation. But I venture to claim that in every wealthy country the housing market is one of the most regulated asset markets. Indeed bad regulation of the US housing market was arguably a prime cause of the asset price crash and financial crisis of 2008 (Rajan 2010). And if housing wealth is increasingly a factor in inequality in the UK, policy interventions that have pumped up the demand and restricted the supply must shoulder much of the blame.
To conclude: Capital is back -- but not as corporate capital. If capital is back, it is not, apparently, because of financial deregulation or capital account liberalization. And, if capital is back, there are clear candidates for countervailing forces that will tend to restrict its further rise in the twenty-first century.
if I had been Piketty’s editor I would have been excited and honoured to publish his book. But I might not have allowed him to call it Capital in the Twenty-first Century. More accurately, it would have been called Housing in the Twenty-first Century. But then there would be a marketing problem, because Marx never wrote three volumes on Die Behausung, and Piketty's publisher would have lost a lot of sales. Well, that’s business.
- Bonnet, Odran, Pierre-Henri Bono, Guillaume Chapelle, and Etienne Wasmer. 2014. Does Housing Capital Contribute to Inequality? A Comment on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. Working Paper. Sciences-Po.
- Box, George E. P., and Draper, Norman R. 1987. Empirical Model Building and Response Surfaces. New York: Wiley.
- Krusell, Per, and Tony Smith. 2014. Is Piketty's Second Law of Capitalism Fundamental? Working Paper. Stockholm and Yale.
- Maddison, Angus. 2010. Statistics on World Population, GDP and Per Capita GDP, 1-2008AD. Available at http://www.ggdc.net/maddison/oriindex.htm.
- Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-first Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap.
- Rajan, Raghuram. 2010. Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Teulings, Coen, and Richard Baldwin, eds. 2014. Secular Stagnation: Facts, Causes, and Cures (VOXeu.org and CEPR)
June 13, 2014
Writing about web page http://theconversation.com/the-military-power-economics-and-strategy-that-led-to-d-day-27663
The Conversation published this column on the seventieth anniversary of D-Day, June 6 2014. I thought I'd include it here.
On June 6, 1944, more than 150,000 Allied troops landed in Normandy. Their number rose to 1.5m over the next six weeks. With them came millions of tons of equipment, ranging from munitions, vehicles, food, and fuel to prefabricated floating harbours.
The achievement of the Normandy landings was, first of all, military. The military conditions included co-operation (between the British, Americans, and Free French), deception and surprise (the Germans knew an invasion was coming but were led to expect it elsewhere), and the initiative and bravery of officers and men landing on the beaches, sometimes under heavy fire. More than 4,000 men died on the first day.
D-Day was made possible by its global context. Germany was already being defeated by the Soviet Army on the eastern front. There, 90% of German ground forces were tied down in a protracted losing struggle (after D-Day this figure fell to two-thirds). The scale of fighting, killing, and dying on the eastern front was a multiple of that in the West. For the Red Army in World War II, 4,000 dead was a quieter-than-average day.
Economic factors were also involved. In 1944 the main fighting still lay in the east, but the Allied economic advantage lay in the west. Before the war the future Allies had twice the population and more than twice the real GDP of the Axis powers. During the war the Allies pooled their resources so as to maximise the production of fighting power in a way that the Axis powers did not attempt to match. America made the biggest single contribution, shared with the Allies through Lend-Lease.
Between 1942 and 1944 Allied war production exceeded that of the Axis in every category and on all fronts. This advantage was especially great in the West. In the chart below, a value of one on the horizontal plane would mean equality between the two sides. Values above one measure the Allied dominance:
Eventually the accumulation of firepower helped turn the tide. A German soldier in Normandy told his American captors, “I know how you defeated us. You piled up the supplies and then let them fall on us.”
D-Day was made possible by economics, but it was made inevitable by other calculations. When the outcome of the war was in doubt, Stalin demanded the Western Allies open a “second front” in Western Europe to take pressure off the Red Army. At this time, working towards D-Day was a price that the Allies paid for Stalin’s cooperation in the war. By 1944 German defeat was assured; now D-Day became a price the Western Allies paid in order to help decide the post-war settlement of Europe.
While D-Day was inevitable, its success was not predetermined by economics or anything else. The landings were preceded by years of building up men and combat stocks in the south of England, and by months of detailed logistical planning. But most of the plans were thrown to the wind on the first day as the chaos of seasick men struggling through the surf and enemy fire onto the Normandy sands unfolded. This greatest amphibious assault in history was a huge gamble that could easily have ended in disaster.
Had the D-Day landings failed, our history would have been very different. The war would have dragged on beyond 1945 in both Europe and the Pacific. Germany would still have been undefeated when the first atomic bombs were produced; their first victims would have been German, not Japanese. Germany and Berlin would never have been divided, because the Red Army would have occupied the whole country. The Cold War would have begun with the Western democracies greatly disadvantaged. We have good reason to be grateful to those who averted this alternative history.
Mark Harrison does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
March 17, 2014
Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-26606097
In an old English story, a tramp was asleep in the grass by a lane. The landowner woke him roughly:
Get off my land!
The tramp replied:
How come it's your land?
My ancestors fought for it!
Then I'll fight you for it.
This story offers a dubious principle and an excellent moral. The dubious principle is that property is theft: no one's claim on property is more legitimate than anyone else's. The excellent moral is that if we lived by that principle our's would be a world of chronic insecurity and unremitting threats in which no one could sleep peacefully.
In that light, here are some facts about Russia.
- Russia's territory covers more of the globe than any other country: more than 17 million square kilometres.
- Russia's land border is the second longest in the world: more than 20,000 kilometres, shared with 16 sovereign neighbours.
- Between 1870 and 2001, the Correlates of War dataset on Militarized Interstate Disputes counts 3,168 bilateral conflicts involving the show or use of force. Every dispute involves a country pair, and the same dataset also registers the country that originated the dispute. Over thirteen decades Russia (the USSR from 1917 to 1991) originated 219 disputes, more than any other country. Note, by the way, that this is not about capitalism and communism; Russia's pole position is the same both before and after the Revolution. Also-rans include the United States (in second place with 161 conflicts) China (third with 151), the UK (fourth with 119), and Iran (fifth with 112). (My more patriotic readers will want to know where Germany stands: lagging behind at sixth with 102). These results are reported by Harrison and Wolf (2012, p. 1064, footnote 29).
Why has Russia achieved this preeminent position in the history of conflict? Here are three reasons.
- Russia is large, and small countries have little weight to throw around.
- Russia has many neighbours, and therefore many opportunities to engage in bilateral disputes.
- Russia's regime has always been authoritarian, with the exception of the few years either side of the collapse of communism, when Russia's borders were able to change relatively peacefully. It is an established empirical regularity that authoritarianism predisposes a state to engage in conflict (the literature is surveyed and also qualified by Harrison and Wolf).
In most of European history, borders have changed through violence. The Eurasian landmass is for the most part a vast plain, with mountains only on the margins, and without natural frontiers. The absence of natural defences other than a few rivers and wetlands has allowed armies to roam freely back and forth across vast distances, killing as they go. European sovereignty was based on possession, and sovereignty changed hands when rivals fought for it.
The stability of borders is a tremendously important condition for economic development. Unstable borders engender conflict, raiding, and killing. Stable borders can be opened for trade and the movement of merchandise and merchants. The goods, cultural values, skills, and talents that flow across stable borders enrich both sides. Stable borders also allow the development of democracy, as argued by Douglas M. Gibler (2007), whereas territorial disputes prevent it.
Russia has suffered terribly from the territorial disputes of past centuries. When the Soviet Union broke up, Russia's new borders were drawn for the most part peacefully. This was a tremendously hopeful omen for Russia's future. Particularly important were the assurances given to Ukraine in 1994: Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons and in return the US, UK, and Russia guaranteed Ukraine's territorial integrity. It is all the more shocking that Russia has created an opportunity, which it is now seizing, to revise its border with Ukraine unilaterally and by force.
That some Russian nationalists now regret the 1994 agreement is completely irrelevant: Russia gave its word, and so did we.
In the present crisis the issue that should take precedence over all others is the integrity of European borders and the process of adjusting them lawfully and without violence. That should come before everything else, including rights of self-determination and the political composition of this or that government. No good will come of Russia's violation. We all stand to lose by it. But anyone with knowledge of Russia's history knows that Russia, of all countries, has most to lose by returning Europe to the poisoned era of conflicted borders and perpetual insecurity.
Gibler, Douglas M. 2007. Bordering on Peace: Democracy, Territorial Issues, and Conflict. International Studies Quarterly 51:3, pp. 509-532.
Harrison, Mark, and Nikolaus Wolf. 2012. The Frequency of Wars. Economic History Review 65:3, pp. 1055-1076. Repec handle: http://ideas.repec.org/a/bla/ehsrev/v65y2012i3p1055-1076.html.
March 13, 2014
An old joke has resurfaced in connection with Ukraine's Crimean crisis. I saw it first in a column by my co-author Paul Gregory:
You want to live in France? Go to France. You want to live in Britain? Go to Britain. You want to live in Russia? Stay where you are: Russia will come to you.
It's generally hard to work out when and where such jokes originated, but this one has real-life foundation.
Before the war Menachem Begin, who was later Israel's prime minister, was a Jewish activist in Poland. When Germany and the Soviet Union divided Poland in 1939 he fled to Lithuania, where Soviet troops arrived in 1940. With thousands of others, Begin was arrested. He was accused of being a British agent under Article 58 of the RSFSR (Russian republic) criminal code, which dealt with counter-revolutionary crimes. In a later memoir Begin recalled a prison conversation (Weiner and Rahi-Tamm 2012, p. 14):
When Begin inquired how article 58 of the Soviet Criminal Code (counter revolutionary activity, treason, and diversion) could be applied to activities that were considered legal in then sovereign Poland, his interrogator did not hesitate: “Ah, you are a strange fellow [chudak], Menachem Wolfovich. Article 58 applies to everyone in the world. Do you hear? In the whole world. The only question is when he will get to us or we to him.”
This raises an interesting question: If the jokes are the same, is the system the same? In other words, is Putin's Russia the same as Stalin's Soviet Union? In most aspects of everyday life the answer is: Clearly not. In Russia today there is far more freedom of speech, assocation, and enterprise than there ever was in the Soviet Union. But there is also much less of these things than there should be. And there are disturbing continuities with the Soviet past in Putin's KGB background and loyalty, his nostalgia for the Soviet empire, and the identification of national power with his personal regime.
Directly linked to these things is continuity in Russia's menacing approach to its neighbours. The people of what was once eastern Poland (now western Ukraine and western Belarus), and Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, are being reminded today that they live in territories to which "Russia came" in 1939 and 1940. These occupations were followed by unanimous parliamentary votes and rigged referenda, the registration of the population and issuing of "passports" (ID cards), and mass arrests and deportations.
If we are returning to the past, one may hope for a new era of Russian jokes. Unfortunately, it may turn out that the best jokes have already been told.
Weiner, Amir, and Aigi Rahi-Tamm. 2012. Getting to Know You: The Soviet Surveillance System, 1939-1957. Kritika 3:1, pp. 5-45.
February 06, 2014
Writing about web page http://www.hoover.org/publications/hoover-digest/article/5279
The athletes gathering in Sochi for the Winter Olympics must regret the fact that the threat of terrorism is commanding as much media atttention as the prospects for sporting excellence.
The extent of the terrorist threat to Sochi is a measure of how Russia has changed. The Soviet Union offered little scope for terrorism. Under intense state and party surveillance it was very difficult for non-state actors to spread a message or recruit. It was not obvious what would make an effective target for a terrorist act and the state was fully capable of suppressing any publicity that would normally follow in an open society. Terrorist acts were rare. Nonetheless, a few did take place.
While studying the records of the KGB of Soviet Lithuania (held on microfilm at the Hoover Institution), I came across documentation of such a case. On a Saturday afternoon in January 1977, three bombs were detonated in Moscow, one in a subway train, another in the street, and a third in a food store. The attack came out of the blue: there was no warning and no one claimed responsibility. Seven people were killed and 44 injured. Two days later, on January 10, the Soviet news agency TASS issued an uninformative bulletin that mentioned only the subway blast and concealed the deaths.
The KGB was completely at a loss where to look for the perpetrator, so they looked everywhere -- including Lithuania. The investigation took many months; almost a year passed before arrests were made. I'm not going to tell the story of the investigation here; I've published the main story elsewhere and you can also read a more detailed version in a working paper with footnotes.
The thing that interested me most was what I learned about the career concerns of KGB operatives. It worked like this.
- If you were Yurii Andropov, the USSR KGB chief in Moscow, you naturally had what Mancur Olson would have called an "encompassing interest" in identifying and catching the culprits as soon as possible.
- At the next level down, if you were Juozas Petkevičius, the Soviet Lithuania KGB chief in Vilnius, your concerns were more complicated. Your first priority was to ensure that the culprit was not in Lithuania. The culprit had to be somewhere, of course, and the chance that he (or she, but let's be realistic: most terrorists are male) was in Lithuania was very small (1 percent of the Soviet population). Moreover, if the perpetrator was found in Lithuania, Petkevičius could expect a career setback, because this would be someone the local KGB had overlooked or underestimated. One could understand it if Petkevičius had chosen to let sleeping dogs lie. But he couldn't, because then he would face an even worse career risk: that some other branch of the KGB would come into Lithuania and find the terrorist that the locals had overlooked. So Petkevičius did the right thing and mobilized his forces to scour Lithuania for the culprit, if the culprit was to be found there.
- There were still lower levels, headed by chiefs of KGB city and rural district administrations, and so on down to factory and ward officers, workplace and apartment block informers, and so forth. At each level the KGB staff and agents faced the same conflicting pull as Petkevičius, but the balance changed. By the time you came down to a village or street, the chance that the culprit had chosen to hide out exactly there, as opposed to any other street in the entire Soviet Union, was absolutely infinitesimal. Correspondingly, as you went down the hierarchy, the risk of slacking and the incentive to search weakened and dwindled to zero. The only remaining incentive to search was to please the boss. Therefore, as time went by, Petkevičius became more and more concerned that no one below him was trying hard. And he needed them to try hard, so he pleaded and threatened and bullied.
Why is this interesting? Because we might think of the KGB as a special, elite organization full of dedicated, self-motivated patriots and loyalists. Yet, when push came to shove, in the face of a national emergency, most employees behaved like the staff of any bureaucracy: they responded to career concerns, and not otherwise.
PS If you follow my links to the full story, you'll find that what happened in the end was exactly what Petkevičius must have feared most -- but it happened elsewhere, to another regional KGB boss who was found to have held the terrorist leader in his hands and let him go.
January 16, 2014
Writing about web page http://www.voxeu.org/article/costing-secrecy
Yesterday VOX published a short column that I wrote about Costing Secrecy. The teaser is as follows:
Democracy often seems bureaucratic with high ‘transaction costs’, while autocracies seem to get things done at lower cost. This column discusses historical research that refutes this. It finds empirical support from Soviet archives for a political security/usability tradeoff. Regimes that are secure from public scrutiny tend to be more costly to operate.
A starting point of my column was that communist rule in the Soviet Union gave rise to one of the most secretive systems of government that has ever been devised. I'm always looking out for ways to illustrate this, and I found a new way recently with the help of Google's Ngram Viewer(thanks to Jamie Harrison). The Ngram Viewer searches the Google Books corpus for words and word combinations and shows their changing frequency over time. The chart below shows the result of searching in the Russian corpus for the word "Главлит" (Glavlit).
Glavlit, the Soviet Union's Chief Administration for Affairs of Literature and Art, was created in 1922 to centralize the censorshop of the media. The background is that the Bolsheviks introduced censorship in November 1917 as one of the first acts of the Revolution (the "Decree on the Press"). During the Civil War that followed, they operated censorship through many agencies at many levels. Glavlit pulled it all together into a single, unified agency. The official title of Glavlit changed a few times over the next 70 years. Still, no one ever called it anything but "Glavlit," even in official government and party documents.
My current research is on secrecy. Censorship and secrecy are not the same. But they are closely connected. Enforcing government secrecy was one of the most important functions of censorship. In addition, Glavlit was a government agency, and its working arrangements were entirely secret, so the censorship had to censor the facts of its own operations.
How effective was Soviet censorship? The frequency with which the chief agency of censorship was mentioned in published works offers a simple measure in one dimension. Here it is:
Notes: My guess is that the Google Books Russian corpus must include books published in the Russian language abroad, out of reach of the Soviet censor, as well as within the Soviet Union. For transparency the chart is completely unsmoothed. In the years of the Civil War (1918 to 1920) and World War II (1941 to 1945) fewer books were published, making observations in those years more susceptible to the law of small numbers. You can view and play with the chart here in its home setting.
There is a simple message. The Soviet censorship agency was openly acknowledged and discussed at the time of its establishment and for a few years afterwards. From the mid-1920s it faded rapidly from sight. By 1931, when Stalin was fully in charge, its disappearance was almost total. For more than half a century Glavlit successfully covered its own tracks. Fifty-six years later, in 1987, Gorbachev launched his policy of "glasnost" (openness). Only then did Glavlit gradually come back into uncensored view. Glavlit was finally abolished in 1991.
In short: Soviet censorship worked.
January 08, 2014
Writing about web page http://www.kremlin.ru/news/19859
How is Cromwell so different from Stalin? Can you tell me? There is no difference. From the standpoint of our liberal representatives, from the liberal spectrum of our political establishment, he is a similarly bloody dictator. He was a treacherous guy, and he played an ambivalent role in the history of Great Britain. His memorial stands, and no one is tearing it down.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin does not know the difference between Joseph Stalin and Oliver Cromwell. It is true, as Putin declared (at a four-hour press conference held at the end of last year, on 19 December 2013), that Cromwell was a dictator. It is true, also, that Cromwell's historic achievements were stained with the blood of others. Yet his statue stands in Westminster outside the British Parliament. Putin's implication is clear: Like Cromwell, Stalin is just another national leader from times past, and any nation would be willing to remember him for his place in national history.
What should we take from this? There is a characteristic skew to Putin's view of Russia's past. But this is hardly new. In 2007 Putin had this to say:
As for the problematic pages in our history -- yes, they existed. The same as in the history of any state! Indeed, we have had fewer than some others. And not as terrible for us as in some others. Yes, we had some dreadful pages: let's remember the events that began in 1937, let's not forget them. But there were no less in other states, they've had worse. At least we haven't used atomic weapons on civilians. We haven't flooded thousands of kilometres with chemicals and we haven't dropped seven times more bombs on a small country than were used in the whole Great Patriotic [War, i.e. World War II], as happened in Vietnam, let's say. We've had no other black pages such as Nazism, for example.
You never know what might have happened in the history of other states and peoples! We can't afford to let them make us feel guilty about it -- they should worry about themselves.
In short, Putin does not see much to feel bad about in Soviet public life before 1937. He feels bad about "the events that began in 1937" (when Stalin ordered the execution of 700,000 and the imprisonment of 1.5 million more), but these were no more than would fall into the normal range of bad stuff that might have happened anywhere. I'm not going to go into more detail here on this. Interested readers can go back to the blistering response of Leon Aron, who said it at the time much better than I can.
If "Stalin = Cromwell," what does it matter? One implication might be for Russia's public life, given that Stalin is still politically relevant to Russia in a way that Cromwell is not to the UK. It is three centuries and a half since England's Civil War was concluded and there is no significant Cromwellian party in British public life (other than perhaps in Northern Ireland). Russia today, in contrast, has many active claimants to Stalin's mantle, including a communist party whose leader Gennadii Zyuganov, according to Putin, could be considered as the second figure in Russia's public life. Still, Putin is not calling on Russians to rally under Stalin's banner and return to the peasant-slayer's precepts; far from it.
An alternative implication is the one that matters: Putin wishes Russia's past to be seen as normal. Specifically, a believer in the Russian state and national power, he wishes the history of Russia's state to be seen as continuous and normal. All countries have had their builders of the nation state and its capacity: Cromwell, Napoleon, Bismarck, Ataturk, ... and Stalin. All were forceful modernizers, Putin seems to say, that got their way by imposing sacrifices and crossing the margins of conventional morality. But all deserve their laurels and should have their statues. As for their transgressions, we will not forget to mention "the events that began in 1937," but there's no need to enumerate the mass graves in the birch woods or to detail who killed whom on whose orders.
My guess would be that this view resonates strongly with many Russians today. It's something you can easily lose sight of in Moscow, where most streets and squares lost their Soviet-era appelations and decorations in the early 1990s, and went back to the pre-revolutionary style. But Moscow is not Russia. In many provincial Russian towns the statues of Lenin and other Bolshevik revolutionaries still stand.
A minor detail caught my eye in the reporting of the recent tragic events in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad): the second (trolleybus) bombing of 30 December took place in the city's Dzerzhinskii district, that is, a part of the city named after Feliks Dzerzhinskii, founder of the Soviet secret police and architect of Red Terror in Russia's civil war. According to Wikipedia, there remain no less than ten Dzerzhinskii districts in Russia's cities and provinces (as well as one in Eastern Ukraine), not to mention the town of Dzerzhinsk, not far from Nizhnii Novgorod. In provincial Russia you can't yet have Stalingrad, despite a campaign to restore Stalin's name to the city, but it's quite normal to have Dzerzhinskii. In Moscow the destruction of Dzerzhinskii's statue was one of the symbolic acts of 1991; recent calls to restore it have evoked polarized opinions.
I thought about this a few months ago when I visited Ekaterinburg. Standing on the edge of Asia, Ekaterinburg is the capital of a province the size of England and Scotland combined, but with less than a tenth of the population. First named after the Empress Catherine the Great, the city was renamed Sverdlovsk in 1924 after the early death of Soviet Russia's first head of state: Yakov Sverdlov. In 1991 the city's pre-revolutionary name was restored, but its hinterland is still called Sverdlov province, and Sverdlov's statue still stands on the main street.
Photo: Mark Harrison.
Ekaterinburg's streets and squares commemorate many figures from the Bolshevik past from Kuibyshev (architect of the first five year plan) and Malyshev (Stalin's minister of the atomic industry) to Michurin (Stalin's pet anti-Darwinian pseudo-scientist) and Serov (first head of the post-Stalin KGB). Oh, and here's the "Iset" hotel, built in the shape of a hammer and sickle in the 1930s as an apartment block for security officials and their families.
Photo: Mark Harrison.
People still call it Gorodok chekistov, the little town of the secret policemen. Elsewhere in the town is Ulitsa chekistov, the street of the secret policemen.
Photo: Mark Harrison
In Ekaterinburg Lenin's statue stands opposite the town hall, just as Sergo Ordzhonikidze's statue stands in the suburbs outside the head office of Uralmash, the giant Soviet-era engineering factory. Ordzhonikidze was Stalin's minister for heavy industry. (He shot himself in 1937 as a protest when Stalin eliminated his subordinates one by one).
Photo: Mark Harrison.
In Ekaterinburg some things have changed since Soviet times, not just the city's name. A mile from Sverdlov's statue stands a new shrine to Sverdlov's most famous victims, Tsar Nicholas II and his family, murdered on the spot in July 1918.
Photo: Mark Harrison
In Ekaterinburg, it seems, perpetrators and victims are commemorated with complete impartiality. The martyr Nicholas gets a new statue, while the likely murderer Sverdlov keeps his old one. It's just like London, where Cromwell's statue stands in Westminster, a short walk from that of Charles I, the King whom Cromwell executed, at Charing Cross.
Not quite like London, though. In Ekaterinburg, something is missing. On a highway a few kilometres out of town, a handpainted sign labelled "Memorial" points off the road. (I didn't get a chance to take a picture.) Memorial to whom? The path leads into the birch forests where the Chekists took tens of thousands for night time execution and burial in the years of Stalin's terror. Mass graves have no importance in Putin's nation-building narrative. They can be forgotten, or filed away under the heading of necessary sacrifices and inevitable mistakes.
This is Putin's view of Russia's past. Sverdlov and Tsar Nicholas; Lenin, Stalin; the Chekists; Kuibyshev, Malyshev, Ordzhonikidze. All are figures from history, state leaders in whom Russians should feel equal national pride. Who can tell the difference? No one. As for the ordinary victims, forget them. Anyway, who cares? Only those that wish to dig for dirt among their bones.
November 15, 2013
I contributed recently to the Politics at Warwick blog, which I thank for its hospitality. My post elicited a comment to which I'd like to respond; my response is longer than my original post so I decided to include it here. First I'll put up my original post, dated 13 November 2013. Then I'll quote the comment and respond to it.
How should the economics curriculum respond to the global financial crisis and ensuing recession? Community activists and students have become vocal in this discussion, as recently described by journalist Aditya Chakrabortty and Matthew Watson.
Events have prompted questions about economists’ understanding of financial markets; the same events have generated a deluge of new data. How should economists respond? Economic research has already responded; hundreds of new articles have analysed global imbalances, market efficiency, corporate behaviour, regulation and deregulation, policy rules, the politics and economics of past crises, and the relative fragility of economic and political institutions in history.
The core curriculum has been slower to change. Here are two reasons. The first is that we no longer teach from handwritten notes and a chalkboard; students and teachers demand comprehensive textbooks with instructor manuals, PowerPoint slides, and websites. These take years to develop (and revise). Although slow, change is already visible. Because change is slow, there is more to be done. Change will probably accelerate through initiatives like the CORE (Curriculum Open-access Resources in Economics) project.
A better reason for inertia in the curriculum is our foreknowledge that the full meaning of recent events will take decades to establish – although many people believe that they are already obvious. To illustrate, today we continue to make new findings about the last Great Depression, which began in 1929, although many who lived through the 1930s were so certain of the answers that they were willing to kill and die on that basis.
How should the core curriculum change? A common complaint is that economics is dominated by a single school of “neoliberalism” or “market fundamentalism.” There are calls for more diversity in economics; some students want more access, specifically, to Keynes and Marx.
It is simply untrue that mainstream textbooks reflect principles of market fundamentalism. I can’t think of a principles text that doesn’t follow the initial explanation of market equilibrium with an immediate, detailed discussion of the varied sources of market failure and the regulatory interventions that might follow.
While one may learn from both Keynes and Marx, what is to be gained from taking them outside their historical settings? A Keynesian model focuses on flows (of income and employment) while neglecting stocks (of capital and debt). Yet capital and debt are very important! Keynesian principles are linked to a model of household behaviour (the “marginal propensity to consume”) that half a century of applied research has comprehensively invalidated. A Marxian model simplifies the continuum of capital ownership into a two-class society; additionally it throws out efficiency and substitution, so distribution is all that remains. In the context of today’s mainstream, each of these is now a stagnant, oxygen-starved backwater.
The importance of competing traditions is much overrated. Those that wish to organize the curriculum around them seem to believe that the major decision each economist must make is “Which dead economist must I follow?” and after that her research findings and policy recommendations will follow. This may be a natural reaction to the fact that mainstream economists are often unenthusiastic about policies that gather widespread popular support, for example rigid immigration controls, employment protection, and double taxation of corporate income. It might be easier for the supporters to say “Oh, those economists are all neoliberals who are ignorant of Keynes and Marx” than work patiently back through the evidence that fails to confirm their biases.
“Economics ought to be a magpie discipline,” writes Chakrabortty. But Economics is a magpie discipline. Most non-specialists – and most journalists – think public and private finance are all we do. They are amazed when I describe the sheer diversity of research that is done just in my department (here and here). We suck up topics and data from any time and place; we don’t care what discipline claims to own them. Then they backtrack and say, “Of course, I didn’t mean to criticize you (or Warwick), I meant Friedman (or Chicago).” The fact is there are no clear intellectual boundaries among schools of thought; we should all mingle in the same fluid mainstream, which is broader, deeper, and faster than you think.
Concluding, Chakrabortty reports a lament for the good old days. Tony Lawson recalls the Cambridge economics faculty in the time of Nicky Kaldor and Joan Robinson: “There were big debates and students would study politics, the history of economic thought.” I remember; I was there too, as a student. The big debates were an exercise in identity politics, not economics. Hostile clashes between intolerant armed camps ended in a war of attrition that benefited no one, least of all students. There is a warning here: be careful what you wish for.
On the day that my post appeared, the anonymous blogger Unlearning Economics posted a comment which you can read in full here after scrolling to the bottom. Here's my response, with excerpts from the comment inset.
Unlearning Economics quotes me and comments:
“A Keynesian model focuses on flows (of income and employment) while neglecting stocks (of capital and debt).” First, Keynes didn’t ignore capital or debt at all; that is simply false ... Keynes carried over some silly marginalist concepts like the efficiency of capital (clearly he mentioned capital once or twice).
My response: It is useful to distinguish between “things Keynes wrote about at various times” and “things that are core principles of the Keynesian model.” Of course we could argue about the division, but it seems to me capital and debt belong to the former, not the latter. The point is exemplified by Keynes’s model of consumer behaviour (more below), in which capital and debt play no role, although they were fundamental to other models available at the time. As for the marginal efficiency of capital, Keynes introduced this to rationalize his discussion of investment (a flow), not to understand the behaviour of the capital stock.
Again, Unlearning Economics quotes me and comments:
“Keynesian principles are linked to a model of household behaviour (the “marginal propensity to consume”) that half a century of applied research has comprehensively invalidated.” Which research would this be? “People don’t consume all of their income” is hardly a false statement.
My response: Yes, it's true that “people don’t consume all their income,” but that isn’t the issue. The issue is whether the main thing in consumption is a stable proportion between household consumption and current income at the margin, as Keynes believed. I should add that he not only advanced this idea in theory but also applied it in practice, for example in his writing about how to pay for World War II. Franco Modigliani, Milton Friedman, and others investigated this idea after the war and failed to find it in the data. They did identify a stable relationship between consumption and wealth, or lifetime (or "permanent") income, to which changes in current income make a small or negligible contribution. Because permanent income is uncertain, the future (including expectations of inflation and the real interest rate) are fundamental. Modern new-Keynesian models drop the marginal propensity to consume (and the multiplier) and focus exclusively on intertemporal substitution intended to smooth consumption over time. Which takes me on to our next point.
Unlearning Economics adds:
Second modern post-Keynesian is *all about* stock-flow consistent models ... people like Godley, Keen etc have updated [Keynes’s] work.
My response: Yes, certainly. Here another distinction arises, between Keynes and the post-Keynesians (or Marx and the post-Marxists). Naturally, there is development in the Marxian and Keynesian traditions. I could not dispute that, when a great economist produces an insight that turns out partial or incomplete or defective in some respect, it may be fixable. There is evolution. Evolution has produced neo-Keynesians and post-Keynesians (and Marxists). Evolution is better than stagnation. At some point it generates new species. Every year I help teach a “new-Keynesian” model of the macroeconomy to Warwick undergraduates, and every year I (and I hope they) learn something new. Yet the label “new-Keynesian,” like George Box’s economic models (more below), although useful, is also wrong. Would Keynes recognize it as his? It’s debatable. Does it matter? Only if you want to claim ownership over Keynes’s legacy.
Unlearning Economics quotes me and comments:
“A Marxian model simplifies the continuum of capital ownership into a two-class society; additionally it throws out efficiency and substitution, so distribution is all that remains.” Marx spent a lot of time talking about the difference between financial capital and industrial capital; Lenin updated his work in the context of ‘globalisation’ (imperialism). I also have no idea how you got that Marx “throws out efficiency and substitution”: he continually praised the efficiency of capitalism, and substituting capital for labour is the main driving force behind the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.
My response: I considered proposing that “efficiency of capitalism” belongs to “things Marx wrote about at various times” rather than “things that are core principles of the Marxian model.” On reflection, however, I am not convinced that Marx had a concept of efficiency at all, not in the sense that economists use it today (when you can’t reallocate resources without using more of some input or consuming less of some output). Marx did write a lot about the productiveness of capitalism, but I do not think he was thinking about total factor productivity.
Similarly, I do not think Marx had a concept of substitution in the sense of a choice between alternatives that varies with their relative price. Yes, it’s possible to rewrite Marx’s idea of the organic composition of capital (the constant/variable capital ratio) as capital/labour substitution, but that is not at all how Marx described it. His idea (Capital III, chapter 13) was that over time the ratio of constant and variable capital in value terms will tend to rise, but that seems to be driven by the accumulation of capital, not by relative factor prices. What is described is a process that piles capital up faster than labour; there is no process that allows substitution between them along a frontier. With labour the only source of surplus value, the rate of profit on capital must tend to fall.
Since Unlearning Economics charges me at the outset with “complete ignorance of Keynes and Marx,” I thought I had better come up with a test of Marx’s understanding of substitution. When I teach the subject of economic warfare I put a lot of emphasis on substitution. People who are not mainstream economists (military commanders, for example) often make biased predictions about the effectiveness of blockades and sanctions, and this is because they lack a concept of substitution. They expect a blockade to curtail production and so to cause the rapid downfall of the blockaded economy. In history, the curtailment of trade has generally brought about relative price changes that stimulate substitution and in turn this will make the blockade less effective than expected. So I looked to see how Marx wrote about blockades.
In 1861 the American Civil War led to a blockade of the Southern ports. The Confederacy responded with a cotton embargo; they thought this would trigger such a crisis in Britain’s textile industry that London would have no choice but to intervene on the Confederacy’s behalf. In the autumn of 1861 Marx wrote (in several places including here, for example) predicting that the stratagem would succeed: “England is to be driven to break through the blockade by force, to declare war on the Union, and thus to throw her sword on the scales in favour of the slave-owning states.”
It did not happen. In Britain the price of raw cotton shot up (which Marx could see), and this stimulated a search for alternative supplies, soon found in Egypt and India (which Marx entirely discounted). He had made the characteristic error of someone who does not get substitution.
Back to George Box, who wrote that “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” The models you can find in Keynes and Marx are no different; they are all wrong in the Boxian sense. Are they useful? Sometimes, yes. Marx’s idea of surplus extraction is useful for understanding societies with closed elites and extractive economies, although not modern capitalism. Keynes’s idea of animal spirits gives insight into modern capitalism as a nice corrective to the idea of rational expectations. But, why should I, or you, or anyone confine themselves to the limits of any “wrong” model by declaring that I am a Keynesian or a Marxist? When scholars do that, it surely tells us more about the politics of identity than about their scholarship.
In fact, I fear that the tone of this discussion may exemplify my final point: when social science is polarized into schools of thought, s/he who is not with me is against me and personal rancour is the likely product.
August 29, 2013
Since last week’s gas attack on a Damascus suburb, the political class has been gripped by the idea that “something must be done.” Meanwhile Wall Street, already declining through early August, fell further as this week began. At the same time oil prices have ticked up sharply, not because Syria is a significant oil producer, but in response to fears for Middle Eastern supplies generally.
A military attack on Syria would clearly affect stock values. War diverts trade: some businesses lose while others gain. Is war good for business in the aggregate? Not likely. When an economy is depressed, and the fighting is at a comfortable distance, additional military spending might give a short-run stimulus to business for everyone. In the long run, however, war is a wealth-destroying activity. Because stock values reflect long-run profit expectations, the chances of a positive aggregate effect from hostilities are vanishingly improbable.
It is a somewhat different question whether the launching of an attack will move stock values on the day. Cruise missiles rarely come from a blue sky. Those for whom war has clear implications will usually have looked into the future and hedged their bets.
On the day the fighting starts, it is true, war changes from a probability to a certainty. But if the probability was already seen as close to 100%, the impact on asset values will inevitably be small. Only a true surprise would move them by much.
Economic historians first became interested in this topic in connection with World War I, the outbreak of which was a surprise to many. Niall Ferguson (in the Economic History Review 59:1 (2006)) and others (Lawrence, Dean, and Robert in the Economic History Review 45:3 (1992) have documented that as the war began European bond prices fell and unemployment rose in London, Paris, and Berlin. The panic on Wall Street was so great that the New York Stock Exchange was closed for the rest of the year.
To update the record across the last 100 years, the chart below shows closing values of the Dow Jones Industrial Average in New York for the ten working days before and after eight war onsets (the value on the day itself is omitted).
Source: Mark Harrison, "Capitalism at War," forthcoming in The Cambridge History of Capitalism, edited by Larry Neal and Jeff Williamson for Cambridge University Press. [Thanks to Christopher Renner for drawing my attention to a misprint and a small error in the first version of this chart.]
The days shown are:
- September 11, 2001: Al-Qaeda attacks American cities
- August 2, 1990: Iraq invades Kuwait
- August 7, 1964: Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
- June 25, 1950: North Korea invades South Korea
- December 7, 1941: Japan attacks Pearl Harbor
- September 1, 1939: Germany invades Poland
- March 1, 1917: The Zimmermann telegram published
- July 28, 1914: Russia mobilises against Germany
Only two of these events saw stock prices climb, and then only slightly. In five cases they fell, and in two the stock market was closed (for more than four months after the outbreak of World War I in Europe, and for four days after 9/11).
Notably, although stock prices rose a little after Hitler’s attack on Poland in 1939, they fell thereafter. When Pearl Harbor arrived, they remained below the level recorded two years earlier. The median change in stock prices over the eight crises was a 5.3% decline.
Contrary to commonly held opinion, war has also been bad news generally for the very rich. Tony Atkinson, Thomas Piketty, and Emmanuel Saez have collected historical data on top incomes in many countries across the twentieth century. These show sharp wartime declines in the personal income shares of the very rich in every belligerent country for which wartime data are available.
This does not rule out the idea that a few corporations gain business, and a few people become richer as a result of conflict. It just tells us that the average effect goes the other way. Besides, war is always first and foremost a political act. If Western bombs fall on Damascus in the next few days, it will be because someone decided it made good politics, not good business.
Mark Harrison does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.