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March 22, 2021

When Three Wars Collided: Moscow, April 1982

Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/staff/mharrison/moscow1982/

This column is about a moment when three wars collided: the Cold War, the Second World War, and the Falklands War. It was April 1982; the Cold War was in full swing, and East-West relations were not in good shape. I was in Moscow for a month, thanks to the British Academy's exchange programme with the Soviet Academy of Sciences; I was engaged in a project on the Soviet economy in the Second World War. As I arrived, the Falklands War broke out.

The events that led directly to the Falklands War were taking place as I left the UK. But I had paid little or no attention, so I arrived in Moscow more or less unaware that the Falklands Islands were a British possession, that their sovereignty was disputed, who lived there, and even which hemisphere or ocean they were in. Once in Moscow I was pretty much on my own, with no access to Western radio or newspapers, and I was busy, so I did not even try to follow the news. All in all, I was the last person to find out.

The first I knew of the conflict was a chance remark at the Institute of USSR History, where I was visiting – someone I knew distantly broke into a conversation in a corridor to as: "Why is your country at war with Argentina?" I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. As I recall, I thought it must be some obscure Soviet joke that I did not understand, so I probably smiled enigmatically and carried on with the conversation as before.

After that, I tried to catch up. But my only source was Pravda, the daily party newspaper. In the first days of the conflict, the Soviet line was strongly anti-imperialist and pro-Argentinian, so they called the Falklands the Malvinas, and they portrayed Argentina as helping the Falkland Islanders to free themselves from colonial oppression and exploitation. I picked up the idea that the islanders were originally brought there as plantation slaves.

After a few days the line shifted. I don't know why, but the Soviet stance became more neutral. The press began to refer to the "Falklands/Malvinas" and, most importantly from my perspective, to report developments from both sides in a more objective way. So I began to get a more accurate fix on what was going on.

In the midst of all this I continued to work on my project, which was on Soviet economic planning in the Second World War and would lead eventually to my first book. Something I was trying to puzzle out was the reliability and consistency of the Soviet official measures of the scale of the war effort. In those days there was absolutely no question of getting archival access to such information, so I had spent a long time combing through all the Soviet publications on World War II and putting together all the data I could find. Not surprisingly, I was left with a lot of questions: things like the concepts and methods used to calculate the growth and scale of Soviet war production, the proportions of resources used for the war, the squeeze on wartime consumption, the role of Allied aid, and so on. The reason I wanted to do this was to be able to make more accurate comparisons of how the different countries fought the war.

I hoped that in Moscow I might find some answers. Of course, I knew that all this information was quite sensitive. I also knew that the Soviets were very proud of their war effort, but I did not see any way in which my digging away would threaten that. With that in mind, asking for help seemed reasonable to me.

In the Institute of USSR History I was attached to the sector on military history. I had a number of interesting conversations there, but i did not get any help with my data issues. When I raised this, I was told: You'd better talk to Mitrofanova.

Avgusta Vasil'evna Mitrofanova was a well-known figure; she'd written the definitive history of the Soviet working class in the war, and at least some of the figures I was puzzling over came from her big book (published in 1971), so this seemed like a good idea. A meeting was arranged. As I was not completely confident in my Russian, I wrote my questions down.

The afternoon of our meeting came around. We met at the institute in a large, rather dingy room. Avgusta Vasil'evna (as I called her, respectfully) was in her early sixties. After all this time I couldn't give much of a description, but I remember a trim lady with an authoritative manner and unshakeable self-possession. There was no small talk. I described my project, and I explained that I had a bunch of unresolved questions which I'd written down, and I passed her the list. She took it and read it. Then, she looked up at me. She said:

Mr Harrison, tell me. Are you an economist, or a historian -- or what?

This was not a good start. Not everyone will recall the atmosphere of the time, but the Cold War meaning of "or what" was perfectly clear to me in that moment. She was asking me if I was a spy. I replied politely. I said that I was a scholar, an economist by training, and my field was economic history: I was an economic historian.

Her next question:

Mr Harrison, who told you to work on these questions?

She might as well have asked who put me up to it. I explained that it had been my decision: no one had assigned the topic to me. She gave me to understand she didn't believe me; I was too young and too junior to choose my own research. Afterwards I remember figuring out that perhaps she was just thinking on Soviet lines. If I'd been a young Soviet scholar, I wouldn't have had the authority to define my own project. My department or sector would have had a plan of work, agreed with the administration and the party committee, and I would have been assigned a part of that plan. Anyway, her implication was that I was really just a hired investigator.

By then I knew I was in trouble. I would have continued to argue my case, but she said to me:

Mr Harrison, I don't know the answers to your questions.

And, if I did, I wouldn't tell you.

After that, there were no more questions. Instead, she gave me a lecture. As I recall, it went on for well over an hour, maybe an hour and a half. It certainly felt like a long time. The highlights that I can remember were the great sacrifices of the Soviet people in the war, her own personal sacrifice (her husband was killed in the defence of Moscow), the huge costs of the war effort, the deaths, the destruction, the homeless refugees, the struggle for postwar recovery. I wondered what I could say. Then I realized there was no point my saying anything. I was not expected to respond.

When Mitrofanova reached her conclusion, I nearly tried to prolong the discussion. I think she'd gone back to the iniquities of capitalism and the shirking and backstabbing of the Soviet Union by the wartime Allies. Her final words were:

But, you see, ours is a different social system. We don't need other people's islands.

Ah! I thought. Now we're back in the present, and she's thinking about the Falklands. But me, I'm thinking about an interesting analogy: If yours is a different social system, why does the Soviet Union continue to hold onto the Kurile Islands and Southern Sakhalin, which historically belonged to Japan but were occupied in the final days of World War II and never returned? That's a great question! Why don’t I ask her?

Perhaps better not. My desire to escape from the room defeated my curiosity. I held my tongue. The meeting was over. Mitrofanova swept out through the door, and I strolled after her into the bright sunlight and the warm breeze of an April afternoon.

Avgusta Vasil'evna Mitrofanova lived for another 30 years, dying in 2003 according to an obituary that I found online. She was born in Akmolinsk in 1910. Her childhood and adolescence were marked by war, revolution, civil war, and famine. Evidently a true believer, she became a party worker in the press and a party lecturer; that's how she passed the years of collectivization, more famine, rearmament, terror, and war again. A woman in a man's world, she successfully converted her skills to scholarship, at least as the Soviet Union understood the term.

In our only meeting she was condescending and confrontational, but in the Soviet Union it was often hard to know who was sincere and who was just playing the role that the situation required of them. Maybe the circumstances and timing of our meeting were sure to provoke an East-West confrontation. Maybe in less formal circumstances or at another time she'd have looked for some common ground. But I think she probably meant every word.

One thing that never occurred to me was to say to her: Why are we fighting? Aren't we both on the same side? For, like her, at that time I was a communist party member. All I can say is that it didn't feel as if we were on the same side. Her communism wasn't mine, and I didn't want to pretend it was.

As for the questions on my list, I had to wait another ten years. In April 1982, the country was on the edge of change. Most of the top party leaders were near the end of their biological lifespans. Leonid Brezhnev was 75 and obviously ill. He died before the end of the year. The Politburo voted twice for continuity, appointing first Yurii Andropov (who died in 1984), then Konstantin Chernenko (who died in 1985).

At last the Politburo bowed to the inevitable, turning to the next generation in the person of Mikhail Gorbachev. After several years of attempted reforms, Gorbachev surrendered the party's monopoly of power. It turned out there was nothing else to the pillars holding up the temple, which collapsed. In 1992 the secret archives were opened, and I found my answers (the result was another book).

In 1982 the spring weather was beautiful. During my time in Moscow I walked around with a camera in my pocket (an Olympus Xa-1 or Xa-2, I think) and I took a ton of photographs. I walked a lot around Oktyabr'skaya square, where I was staying, the roads to the city centre, and a few other places. I remember a disused monastery, a visit to friends in the suburb of Sviblovo, and a short trip out of town to the flea market in Malakhovka.

Recently I noticed that my photos were fading. I decided to scan them and to put them online as my record of Moscow towards the end of the Cold War, on the edge of unimaginable changes.


May 07, 2020

For VEDay75: Economic Warfare in Two World Wars

Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/research/centres/cage/manage/publications/wp468.2020.pdf

In two world wars the Allies employed economic warfare against their principal adversaries – Germany in World War I, German and Japan in World War II. Economic warfare meant attacking the enemy not head on by a clash of military forces, but indirectly by attacking their supply chains. In World War I this meant a naval blockade of German ports and restrictions on Germany’s neutral trading partners. In World War II there was a novel dimension: bombing of the enemy’s industrial towns and ports.

What difference did economic warfare make? Its most resolute advocates saw it as a war-winning weapon, one that would avoid wasteful attrition on the battlefield. Sceptical observers saw it as a waste of lives and resources on a project that distracted from the main task, that of defeating the enemy’s armed forces on the battlefield. The truth lay somewhere in between, but where?

I’d taught this subject for twenty years, maybe more, but never written about it. Last year I wrote a short piece on economic warfare in World War II, for The Economics of the Second World War: Seventy-five Years on, edited by Stephen Broadberry and me, and published by CEPR earlier this week. I decided to write a longer paper that would wrap up the issues with others I had been thinking about and seeking to integrate into my thinking.

This was much more difficult than I anticipated. I hoped to write a short, zippy paper with a few bullet-point takeaways. That didn’t happen. My paper is a long read. Much of it is about one campaign – the Allied air offensive against Germany, the most comprehensive and controversial episode of economic warfare in two world wars. The answers to my questions depended. I knew, on the effects of economic warfare, which could be understood only after considering how the adversary’s economy and society responded to being attacked. There was no one answer to what happened next.

On the internet, “TL;DR” stands for “”Too long; didn’t read.” It’s a signal to stop droning on and cut to the finish. In that spirit I’ll paste in my conclusions, of which there are seven. If they make you want to read the paper, the full text is linked here.

This survey points to seven conclusions. (1) It was often hoped that economic warfare would act as a substitute for combat, but experience showed that this was largely an illusion. The complementarities between economic warfare and combat were much stronger.

(2) The most important effect of economic warfare was to raise the overall costs of the adversary’s war effort. This was a gradual process, one that gave the adversary ample opportunity for countermeasures.

(3) The main countermeasures were Olsonian substitution, nationalism, and the escalation of violence. Substitution and nationalism did not nullify the effects of economic warfare, but they redistributed them and postponed them. Heightened violence aimed to pre-empt the effects of economic warfare by breaking out. Whichever of the three routes was taken, the one thing that was certain was that economic warfare found its logic only in protracted wars of resources.

(4) Wars of resources evoked vast productive efforts, and it was easy to conclude from this that the objective of economic warfare should be to attack production. The example of the Allied air war against the German economy in World War II suggests that the most effective way to prevent production from taking place was not to attack production facilities directly, but to demolish the transport system, which provided the means of supply-chain cooperation and coordination. This had to be done at many points at once, which could not be done without air superiority. Thus, success in economic warfare relied on success in combat – another aspect of their complementarity.

(5) Wars of resources were also wars of attrition. Economic warfare was sometimes seen as a way to avoid the attrition of armed forces. Instead, economic warfare turned out to be a phase of the war of attrition. This too emphasizes the complementarity between economic warfare and combat, because the resources available to each side for attrition in deployment and combat were limited to those that survived the attrition arising from the other side’s economic warfare. From another perspective it suggests that economic warfare and combat were not so much separable elements of warfare as neighbouring bands on the continuum of warlike activities.

(6) The complementarity of economic warfare and combat is further illustrated by cases in which choosing one over the other carried high costs. It was inefficient to engage in combat without considering the possibility of striking at the enemy’s supply chain, as the Soviet Union did in 1941. It was reckless to embark on economic warfare without the readiness to engage in combat, as the United States did in 1940; this encouraged the adversary to respond by aggression.

(7) While the age of mass warfare is hopefully over, similar lessons may apply to the peacetime use of trade sanctions to resolve disputes. When an economy is sanctioned, losses to civilians are inevitable. A country under siege can exploit Olsonian substitution and nationalism to mitigate the effects. If sanctions raise the cost of resistance by enough, violence may become an attractive option. If trade sanctions heighten the risks of militarized conflict, strong defences or credible deterrents are required to manage them.


April 28, 2020

Dazed and Confused in the Cold War

Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/markharrison/papers/there_was_a_front_ver_6.pdf

For a few months in the 1970s I was a graduate student in Moscow. Capitalism and communism were fighting the Cold War. What was it like? I was dazed and confused. Now I've written a short memoir of that time. It covers cultural exchange, learning Russian, travelling to Russia, making wonderful friends, learning about informers and surveillance, feeling my way through Soviet academia and economic thought, being misunderstood, trust and mistrust, and travelling for work and for leisure, including my epic visit to a collective farm near Voronezh. I include a few photos from the time. Also, I reflect on what we know now about the Soviet system that I didn’t know then.

My memoir is called: “There was a front, but damned if we knew where.” To explain why, here is an excerpt from towards the end, a section that describes my homecoming. If you want to read more, the full version is here.

It was time to leave. I booked a train ticket on the direct service from Moscow to London, three days and two nights via Warsaw and East Berlin, including a Channel crossing by boat from the Hook of Holland to Harwich. Out of interest, I added on a 24-hour layover in Warsaw – my only visit to another East European country under communism.

I was sad to leave but I was also tired and ready. It was a long journey and I would sit the whole way in a shared compartment. There was some small talk in the carriage, but the countryside was flat and monotonous, and the hours of daylight were few.

At the Soviet border, the whole train was raised off the track while the broad-gauge bogeys were removed and replaced by standard-gauge for the remainder of the journey. While this was done the carriages were inspected inside and out, under and over, by the Soviet border troops, looking for contraband manuscripts and Soviet citizens who for any reason did not want to live out the rest of their lives in the socialist paradise.

In Warsaw, I wandered around the old city, meticulously restored after the war. The only language I had in common with most Poles was Russian, which did little for friendship.

Berlin was shocking. The train rolled through the divided city in the middle of the night. I blinked at the sudden passage from the darkened East to the bright lights of West Berlin. We did not stop, and the lights went out again after a few minutes because West Berlin was an island, and the train rolled back over into the Eastern zone.

As with the journey out, it was better to travel than to arrive. Adjusting to home life was hard. It was hard for me and I’m sure I did not make it easy for others. Time had not stood still while I was away. My friends and loved ones had as much stored up to tell me as I had to tell them. The Britain to which I returned was not the normal country of the anecdote; it was preoccupied with its own class struggle. Many of my friends were warriors for social justice, and I aspired to be one too. To some the Soviet Union was a distraction; to others, it was “my enemy’s enemy” and therefore perhaps a friend. Their appetite for my stories was limited.

For weeks I dreamed about Moscow night after night. In my dreams Moscow was dark, confusing, and utterly strange; I was lost in it and could not find my way back. I saved myself by pouring everything into finishing my dissertation. Looking back, I am reminded of the words that Joan Littlewood put in the mouths of the soldiers returning from the Great War:

And when they ask us,
How dangerous it was,
Oh, we'll never tell them,
No, we'll never tell them:
We spent our pay in some café,
And fought wild women night and day,
’Twas the cushiest job
We ever had.

And when they ask us,
And they're certainly going to ask us,
The reason why we didn't win
The Croix de Guerre,
Oh, we'll never tell them,
No, we'll never tell them
There was a front,
But damned if we knew where.

The Cold War was not the Great War, and we were not soldiers. In Moscow no rockets flew nor bullets winged. The hazards we faced were only moral. Still, I had been to the other side, and I had returned, and I couldn’t explain it, even to myself. It changed my life. I spent the decades from then to now trying to understand where I had been and to come to terms with it. I am still trying. The only ones to whom I had nothing to explain were the former comrades-in-arms who had been there too, whose lives were also changed, just as surely as mine. So, I was not alone.


April 12, 2020

COVID–19: When This Lousy War is Over

Writing about web page https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/coronavirus-what-happens-war-won-21852580

Nigel Nelson, political editor of the Sunday Mirror, was kind enough to quote me at the end of his article Coronavirus: What happens when war is won as UK stands on crossroads as in 1945, in this morning’s paper. Here’s the notes I sent him last week.

Do you think Boris Johnson will come out of this crisis as the hero of it or could he go the same way as his great hero Winston Churchill?

World War II fuelled a desire for change in British society, with more social provision for those people who faced the greatest risks that no one could control – sickness, old age, and unemployment. Churchill was (and for many still is) the hero of the war, but the voters still tossed him out afterwards because he did not sufficiently identify with the turn to a welfare state. Attlee and the Labour Party went that way and took the voters with them.

In a time of national crisis, it’s natural that people rally round the leader, and the polls suggest a degree of rallying around Boris Johnson right now. That may not last. Whether Boris keeps hold of the halo afterwards depends on whether he “gets” the swing of the popular mood and is able to go with it.

How are British values changing (clearly we put a new value on the worth of NHS staff and key workers who have been undervalued for so long)?

Our society is going through a severe shock. Lots of things we took for granted have suddenly been taken away: jobs, schools, incomes, easy shopping, foreign holidays, contact with friends and family. There is risk to life – of our parents and friends. There is fear of a rather cruel way to die. It’s natural to suppose that we will come out of this with a much greater desire for security against these risks. We will look to the government to “do something” to give us that extra security, so we will have greater expectations of the government than before.

There were signs of this before the coronavirus struck. The new Johnson government already did not look like an old-style Conservative free-market austerity administration. Whoever won the election was going to pay more attention to public services, infrastructure, and levelling up. These trends will be reinforced by the coronavirus emergency.

If that is correct, then we should expect that key workers and care workers will be paid more, social security will become more generous, and public services like the NHS will be allowed to build a margin of spare capacity in order to be able to respond better to emergencies. So cost-cutting and “efficiency gains” will go out of fashion. Meanwhile the taxpayers will be under much greater pressure to pay for all this – as well as for servicing our much larger public debt. Putting it all together, there will also be some levelling of inequalities.

Once we come through the crisis, not everything will go right. Mistakes will be made, and some measures will be taken too far. Some people will find they enjoy bossing others around in the name of the community, and they will find ingenious ways of defending their authority. Efficiency will be neglected in public services, even when it would benefit everyone. This also happened after World War II. Britain did not have to have food rationing for nine years after the war, but that’s what happened.

And more broadly will our attitudes to what is important be permanently changed by what we've been through in the way they were after the war?

The crisis has already shown that most people are thoughtful and sensible, they balance self-interest with concern for others, and they put a high value on community. Three quarters of a million of them have already volunteered to help with the NHS and care support. There are other people who might try to be like that, but they are also thoughtless or behave in ways that are divisive. A tiny minority are selfish and take advantage of the situation to exploit others. This won’t change.

What seems likely is that for most people community will feel a lot more real than before. We don’t have a foreign enemy, but we do have a common cause. Faced with the coronavirus pandemic, none of us can be excused. Those who serve in health care are in deadly danger. To help protect them, others stay home. The sacrifices may not be equal, but everyone contributes something. We all depend on each other for survival. These are important lessons, and they could last for a generation.

After that, it will probably be time for another change of direction.


April 04, 2020

The Alexander Nove Award goes to . . .

Writing about web page http://basees.org/news/2020/2/4/the-alexander-nove-award-for-distinguished-scholarship-for-the-industrialisation-of-soviet-russianbsp-vol1-7

Tonight I hoped to be in Cambridge for the annual conference dinner of the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies. My plan was to pick up a prize -- the Alexander Nove Award for Distinguished Scholarship, which was to be presented to my three co-authors and me. Well, something that began quietly last December in Wuhan, China, and went on to creep around the world has got in the way. Like miillions, maybe billions of others I'm staying home. I'm not complaining: this is the least of anyone's problems. I'll just quietly raise a glass to my co-authors.

To explain the award, here's the prize committee's citation:

BASEES is delighted to announce that the Alexander Nove Award for Distinguished Scholarship goes to the seven-volume economic history of Russia The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia, which has come to the end with the publication of the seventh and final volume: The Soviet Economy and the Approach of War, 1937-1939 (Palgrave, 2018). The pivotal role in the series has been played by R. W. (Bob) Davies (b. 1925), a mighty figure in Soviet (Russian) and East European Studies, and a founding member of this association, serving on the precursor NASEES committee from 1963-1977. The final volume of the series, is co-authored by Mark Harrison, Oleg Khlevniuk, & Stephen G Wheatcroft and Stephen Wheatcroft also co-authored volume 5.

The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia was a continuation of E. H. Carr’s project to write a history of the Bolshevik revolution. Between 1950 and 1969 Carr published 14 volumes of his History of Soviet Russia, covering the period from 1917 to 1929. To help with the final set of volumes, entitled Foundations of a Planned Economy, he recruited a co-author, the young economist R. W. Davies of the University of Birmingham. When he got to 1929, Carr stepped back from his project citing the increasing secrecy of the Soviet regime in the 1930s and the lack of primary documentation as his reason. Where Carr stopped, Davies took up the work. The seven volumes of his own series, entitled The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia, cover the period from 1929 to 1939. In what must be a record, the project was funded continuously by the Economic and Social Research Council from 1973 to 2010.

While the project continued, the world changed. The Soviet Union opened up, and then collapsed. Its archives became available to the world, solving the obstacle that had defeated Carr. Davies became a leading figure among many who made the Soviet state the best documented authoritarian regime of modern times. The topics embraced by the seven volumes include forced industrialisation and collectivisation, famine, the emergence of the command system and how it worked, the limited scope for reforms, mass killings and forced labour, the path of consumption and living standards, the militarisation of the economy and war preparations, and the character of Soviet economic growth and development.

In case you're not bored yet, here are some links to further detail:

Finally who was Alexander Nove -- or Alec, as everyone called him and as he called himself?


March 18, 2020

The War on COVID–19: Lessons from Wartime

Writing about web page https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/topics/c8nq32jw8r1t/boris-johnson

Many people have likened the war on COVID-19 to World War II. Those I've noted range from US Senators Bernie Sanders and Lindsey Graham to the head of Britain's Office of Budget Responsibility Robert Chote. Our own Boris Johnson says it is as if we have a wartime government.

I have some sympathy with this view. The time we are going through will be seen as an historical watershed, like the two world wars. The reason is that it is changing the way of life of every family worldwide, in a way quite unlike 9/11 or a financial panic. Moreover its effect will be persistent, at least for several years. Our world after COVID-19 will be more nervous, more prepared, and less globalized and interlinked for some time to come.

When historical novels are written about our time, every author will have choose the setting: before, during, or after the coronovirus epidemic?

Yesterday I was interviewed on this subject for a radio programme. Understandably, I think, the interview was spiked in favour of more practical and pressing concerns. Beforehand I made some notes, based on questions I was given. Below, I'll share my notes.

Was there any similarity in the challenges facing governments now and at the start of World War 2?

There are several similarities, although not a perfect fit. As in WW2, we face a clear enemy: a disease.

It is a surprise attack – even more than in WW2. In 1941 the Soviet Union suffered a surprise attack by Germany and the USA suffered a surprise attack by Japan, but still most people had seen a war building since the 1930s, so just about all governments had incorporated war into their thinking. This is not the case today: we are at a standing start.

Resistance requires resources to be mobilized urgently into the medical sector: people, equipment, power supplies and provisions.

At the same time the enemy is striking at our supply chains – it attacks economic cooperation and the division of labour. It is forcing us into isolation and self-sufficiency and isolated, self-sufficient people are very unproductive, so our economic capacity is falling. This is what bombing and invasion did in WW2, but the coronavirus is doing it much more efficiently. It is already among us and it is unseen.

There is fear and anxiety. Before WW2 many people feared a bombing apocalypse, which did not actually happen until 1945. A similar fear is present today.

Were there bailouts and nationalisations of businesses and industries disrupted by WW2? What about coronavirus?

World War II brought an explosion of demand. Rather than people losing their jobs, they were called up to serve in the military or in war production. Schools, shops, and pubs did not close but their staff of working or fighting age did. The war economy still required films and entertainment. As for business, most businesses repurposed their production for the war effort. The government paid for the building or converting of factories to war production. There was very little nationalisation. There were very limited bailouts (money for nothing) because the government was primarily spending money to pay people to do something else.

It is true that some small businesses lost out, but most people understood the needs of the war and complaints were muted. I have a letter of 1942 from the wholesale cocoa distributors to the London Chamber of Commerce. They complain that the government has taken over the distribution of chocolate. They no longer have a business. Milk wholesalers have been compensated: what about us? Will we not be needed again after the war?

So some suffered financially. Wealthy people took a hit. But everyone had a role. The war killed, injured, and bereaved millions, but no one was cast into destitution because everyone had a role and could find a job. Old people (fewer than now) benefited from a widening social safety net. After the war, British society was a lot more equal than before.

How did governments manage shortages and supply chain disruptions?

The main tools were licensing and rationing. These converted our market economy into a command economy. There were still markets and money and prices, but for the most part you could not spend money on anything without a government license. The most important exception was bread: through the war you could always buy as much bread as you wanted, so no one went undernourished. This made Britain different from many other countries at war.

But to buy steel or components, a business needed a license. To import materials, you needed a license. To borrow for investment, you needed a licence. You got this licence only if you were on the government’s priority list: important for the war effort. In this way the government could protect the essential industries and the inessential parts of the economy withered.

The problem was inflation – not price inflation, but priority inflation. At first, a few things were seen as crucial – priority A1. As the economy became more and more stretched many other things competed for top priority. When everything was top priority, the priority system stopped working, and government committees had to set limits even on top priorities. You’d think you could never have enough soldiers in a war, but in 1942 the government had to cap the armed forces at 5 million in order to keep enough workers in the war factories and other essential industries.

How was production of munitions (then, medical equipment now) ramped up, and how were people recruited for the war effort (then, for intensive care units etc. now)?

I read today that the government is hoping to find British manufacturers of a basic ventilator – 30,000 in two weeks. Here the standing start is important. For years before WW2, the governments of all the major powers were ordering new weapon designs and thinking about the industrial capacities that the next war would require. Nearly all the major aircraft types of WW2 were designed before the war broke out. Here we are in the middle of our war with a blank sheet of paper.

War preparations made it possible to boost war production to peak levels within one or two years of the outbreak. One or two years, not two weeks.

Market economies do have great flexibility. If the government throws enough money at it, I am absolutely sure that something will be achieved, although not necessarily on the timescale that is demanded, because of our unpreparedness.

My guess is that ECMO machines will be the tip of the iceberg. We have a £2 trillion economy. If we pay the top rate for ventilators, which is £50k, and buy 100,000, they will cost us only a fraction of a percent of national income. BUT in addition to producing them, you have to build the new infrastructure.

Again, I read that a bed in intensive care costs £15k a day – that’s staffing, maintenance, paying off the building. Keeping 100,000 of these beds open for a year would be a big slice of Britains’s GDP, maybe a quarter. And we are a rich country. No doubt we could do it for less by makeshift building and cutting back on training and standards.

And at the same time, we will be having a big recession: output might fall by 10, 20, or 30 percent, so the burden could be even greater. That’s more like Russia in 1942 than Britain or America.

Uncertainty: Did governments have to make things up on the fly?

To some extent. But most governments had spent a long time thinking about how the next war would go, and this helped. It was only 20 years from WW1 and every government had tried to learn the lessons. WW1 was much more improvised than World War II. In WW1 it took years to learn how to get out of the trenches and move on the battlefield. It took years to learn about the public-private partnership and the public finance necessary to ramp up production. So, in WW2 governments generally made fewer mistakes than in WW1.

That’s also probably why Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong are having a better time today. They had the experience of SARS in 2003, and they were determined to learn from it.

What were long term effects on how the government ran the economy? And on society?

I think we are going to see a lot more compulsion in a short time. Certainly, compulsion in terms of quarantine. Everyone needs to understand there’s no such thing as a public health measure that doesn’t end up infringing on someone’s rights. The clue is in the name: public, not private health.

Compulsion in rationing basic supplies? Maybe. But my instinct is that we will soon all be making do with less.

Compulsion in service? Medical service, like military service in a war, is going to be dangerous. I hope there may soon be a pool of young, willing volunteers who have survived exposure and been immunized by it.

The persistence of these regulatory changes may be for years after, but not for decades after. The war gave Britain a much larger state and food rationing and food subsidies lasted for years after. The war essentially created the basic elements of a national health service, formalized after the war. But the war did not create nationalized industries. It was postwar socialism, not the war, that led to nationalization. If you look at the share of the state in economic activity in neutral Sweden over the long run, it follows a similar course as in Britain. There were deeper forces at work than the war. The war just brought things a forward a bit.

The same may be happening now. Before we were struck by the plague, things were already changing. Austerity was already ending, the government was already set to throw money at the police, the health service, infrastructure and the regions. That had already begun; maybe now it will be reinforced. There’s visible pressure in society for government to do the right thing and be accountable for it.

I would like to live in a free society and in most settings, it seems to me, free markets will do the best job. But in the present setting I would support a little more of the clarity that comes from compulsory rules. How do I reconcile these things? You can think about compulsion in two ways. One is the Chinese way: do as the unelected party tells you or fear the consequences. But there is also a British way, which is different: when the elected government tells you it’s your turn to do the right thing. It’s your turn to serve in a hospital, or stay at home, or go out to buy the goods you need. There’s a line: don’t step out of it.

That’s how it worked in Britain in WW2. There were lots of rules, which most people accepted, and the few that didn’t were vigorously pursued, with the support of most people. It did continue for too long after the war; that’s something we should aim to avoid.


March 13, 2020

Communist Luxury; or 'You complete idiot, do you think we all want to look the same?'

Writing about web page https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/fellows/maxine-berg-FBA

Recently I was asked to say a few words at a conference held to celebrate the career of Maxine Berg, who is one of the world’s best early modern economic historians. I was on a panel about the links between economics and economic history. A theme of Maxine’s recent research in economic history has been luxury in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and especially the production and consumption of luxury objects. I thought of contributing to the occasion by saying a few words about luxury objects in another setting and in a much more recent period: the Soviet Union under communist rule.

A thing can be more than a thing

First, what should economists learn from Maxine’s writing about luxury objects? We learn, first, that a thing is much more than a thing. When we acquire a thing, we do not just acquire the thing itself, or the use of it. We also gain access to the feelings that go with owning it or using it and these feelings can be powerful factors in our choices and our behaviour.

Maxine has written about the many feelings associated with luxury objects. From one angle, they evoke “the vices of luxurious excess”: gluttony and greed. From another angle, they bring us “modern comfort and convenience, enjoyment and sociability, taste, aesthetics and refinement.” From a third angle, they raise questions about “individual and national virtue, the canons of taste, definitions of the self.”

In economics we often refer to concepts of self-interest and of stable preferences as drivers of human behaviour. Increasingly, modern economists also ask questions about the identity of the self that is self-interested; that is, self-interest may not be primitive, but may be formed in association with our feelings of identity. The idea of self implies individual difference, and this leads naturally to the question of how we differentiate ourselves from others in society through the things we consume. The evolution of style and fashion shows that our preferences are not as fixed or stable as economic theory would once have liked them to be, and economists increasingly ask questions about how preferences are formed and what economic and social pressures might cause them to change. In all of these respects, the study of luxury objects suggests fascinating lines of inquiry.

There is more. If we spend a few minutes thinking about luxury objects under communism, we’ll find that they take us in a nearly straight line to the dark heart of the Soviet system of power.

As an exchange student and later a young scholar in Moscow during the Cold War, I saw among my Russian friends a longing for luxury (the Russian words were roskosh’ or uyutnost’) that would have been immediately familiar to Maxine and her team of collaborators, working on luxury in a much earlier period. The people in my own circle showed a yearning for something more than the basic standardized means of life. They sought out small luxuries that would provide some kind of individual difference or distinction. They were fascinated especially by foreign objects of luxury, which were rarely encountered other than at second-hand through the censored media and were therefore novel and unfamiliar by definition.

I was a foreigner: what foreign goods did the Soviet people around me seem to aspire to? Denim jeans, leather goods, cosmetics, handbags, electronic goods, and also images of foreign life including Western-branded plastic carrier bags. Invited to dinner, more than once I bought a bottle of wine or vodka at the local liquor store and carried it to the apartment of my hosts in some plastic bag that had found its way from England into my luggage. When I arrived, the bottle would be accepted with a conventional thank you. The bag it came in would be snatched out of my hands, smoothed carefully, folded with precision, and placed to one side for future use on special occasions. Such things were so much more than "just things."

Approved luxury

The Soviet social order was designed and managed by a power-building party elite who believed that power lay in the production of things – especially motors, planes, tanks, and guns. These were things, too, but, like luxury objects, they were also more than just things. Like luxury objects, rockets and tanks were also valued for their capacity to evoke feelings. Unlike luxury objects, however, the feelings were of national pride and power on one side, and fear and submission on the other.

This vision of society was not just for the elite. It was for the masses too. The masses were supposed to be included into this vision of a powerful modern nation through pride in the Soviet state and party, reinforced by gratitude to the ruling party for the provision of standardized, affordable, basic household goods and services.

Within that somewhat Spartan vision, luxury did play a role. More precisely, there were two kinds of luxury, one approved and permitted, the other censured and restricted to the greatest degree possible.

Approved luxuries were goods that would encourage hard-working families to aspire to a simple, healthy, educated way of life topped off with the elements of modernity: a cooker (later a fridge, washing machine, and vacuum cleaner), soap and basic cosmetics, books and a display bookcase, pictures and family photographs, a telephone, a radio (later TV), a samovar (later an electrovar), patterned china, patterned wallpaper, household ornaments, a bicycle (later a motor car) – all Soviet made, allowing limited scope for distinctions of taste and elegantnost’ – another Russian word but interestingly one with an obvious foreign origin.

Such things were not just things; they were supposed to make you feel proud, especially given that (as everyone knew from the novels of Dickens) working families in the capitalist West lived in poverty and children went barefoot.

These notions of luxury went back to the 1930s when the Stalin regime began to design the legitimate aspirations of young, skilled, highly productive workers – the Stakhanovites. You work hard and fulfil or overfulfil the quota, so you get a bonus – but what’s the point if there’s nothing to spend it on? The 1930s answer was: spend it on permitted luxury. That was then, but it was followed by the war and a 20-year pause of living standards, so permitted Soviet luxury was not remotely widespread until the 1960s.

The approved luxuries were priced to be within the budget of a skilled worker household, but from in the 1950s even through the 1980s they remained in chronically short supply. Worst in that regard were apartments, cars, and phones, for which waiting lists ran to years or decades; a second-hand car could cost you much more than a new one, regardless of condition.

The effect of chronic shortages was that, if you met your friend in the street and saw they had acquired something desirable or pretty or unusual, you did not ask: — Where did you buy that? That was not even a question, because you already knew it could not be bought. So instead you asked, with a lowered voice: — How did you get hold of that?

And the answer to that question was that your friend got hold it either through “special distribution,” which allowed them to exercise the privileges of party membership or key-worker status, or else they had worked their connections to some semi-legal or even criminal under-the-counter network.

Forbidden luxury

From another world, there were also forbidden luxuries. Foreign literature, clothes, cosmetics, and electronic goods were available only to people with privileged access, or with private connections to foreigners, which were discouraged.

This might make you wonder how the forbidden luxuries were different from the permitted ones. The answer is that the permitted luxuries were on sale to domestic residents in government outlets – in principle. (Just not in practice, the shelves being bare for the ordinary shopper.) The forbidden luxuries were not available in that way, even in principle.

In rare cases a few forbidden luxuries could be found on sale in the so-called “currency stores.” These stores were not open to the public. Ordinary people could not see them and did not know they were there. Their street doors were unmarked and their windows were curtained. No one was admitted who could not show papers proving their right to hold foreign currency. On sale inside, along with caviar, cameras, furs, and the best vodka, could sometimes be found the works of Akhmatova, Pasternak, and other "edgy" authors, whose works were printed and published in the Soviet Union but sold only to the export market. Because I was a Westerner with foreign currency in my pociet, I could go in and buy them; occasionally my friends would ask me -- beg me -- to get hold of copies for them, which I did gladly.

Another way in which the forbidden luxuries were different from the approved ones is that you were not supposed to show interest in them or accept them, even if offered.

The forbidden luxuries were proscribed because they were so much more than just things. They too evoked feelings, but these were feelings that the party and state stigmatised as disruptive and dangerous: desire to escape the limitations of Soviet life, admiration of foreign technologies, and interest in Western ideas of free choice (which the Soviet press would call "so-called 'freedom'"). For this reason, the loyal citizen was expected to spurn them. When this did not happen, the KGB would regularly pull in people who praised Western consumer goods or the quality of foreign cars (not for a beating, but at least for a ticking off).

Everyone belonged to the mass

This was how the ruling party controlled Soviet identity: everyone could aspire to Soviet luxury, but only if it was the same luxury for all. In luxury, people could find distinctions, but only within the narrow limits permitted by the ruling party. Beneath that, everyone belonged to the mass.

In conversation with a female acquaintance, I once remarked: — Sitting on the Moscow subway, I like it that I can look around and not know who’s rich or poor. People dress the same. My friend replied, or rather she shouted back at me: — YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND! YOU COMPLETE IDIOT, DO YOU THINK WE ALL WANT TO LOOK THE SAME? THE UNIFORMITY THAT YOU LIKE IS FORCED UPON US. WE HAVE NO CHOICE.

From this I understood that beneath the surface of uniformity, there was a deep inequality that was hidden from the naïve observer. There was inequality of choice. Even more, there was inequality of power. The aspirations of millions were restricted by the self-interested decisions of a tiny, power-building elite. It’s something I think about when I come across complaints that today’s formerly communist societies used to be so much more equal than they are today.

Anyway, the point of this story is to confirm what Maxine Berg has already proved to us with such talent and energy, that the origins of modern luxury and the attributes of luxury objects are fascinating and well worthy of the attention of both economists and economic historians.


January 06, 2020

President Putin blames Britain and France for World War II

Writing about web page http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/62376

The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939 joined Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany in an alliance. It was not called an alliance, but for nearly two years the two countries coordinated their foreign policies and military operations. In the first phase, they joined together in aggression against Poland and the destruction of the Polish state.

Wars may have proximate causes and deep causes. Whatever the deep causes of World War II, it is clear from the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that Stalin helped to bring the war about.

On 20 December, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin read a lecture on the origins of World War II. His audience was the heads of state of former Soviet republics that make up the Confederation of Independent States – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. His purpose was to defend the Soviet Union against the charge of having helped to cause World War II. Putin used the occasion to argue three things.

First, Putin argued that that the Soviet-German non-aggression pact was merely the last occasion – and the most desperate, and therefore the least blameworthy – on which the European powers would seek to put off or divert German aggression; the Soviet Union agreed to it “pnly after all other avenues had been exhausted and all proposals by the Soviet Union to create a unified security system, in fact, an anti-Nazi coalition in Europe were rejected.” To this extent, he suggested, there was nothing particularly abnormal or sinister about the Soviet-German non-aggression pact.

Second, he maintained, among the other proximate causes of the war were the bad judgement and bad faith of Britain, France, and their ally Poland.

Third, he suggested, the deep causes of the war lay in the peace settlement made after World War I, and especially in the Treaty of Versailles. The Western Allied powers made the treaty and imposed it on Germany. (Russia, an Allied power, was not involved at Versailles, having left the Allies in the lurch in 1917.) Putin blamed this settlement for two things. One was the creation of artificial states and unstable borders that were bound to lead to further conflict in Europe. The other was the imposition of humiliating and unbearable terms on Germany, also bound to lead to a further war. Britain and France were responsible for these things and therefore they were far more deeply implicated in the causes of World War II than Russia.

This was quite a lecture – focused, logical, full of historical detail and quotation. Perhaps English-speaking readers, who have become habituated to the tirades of President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson’s ramblings might feel envious: the Russians have such a scholar for their head of state! As I said, focused, logical, and full of detail.

One quality might be thought more important than detail or coherence: was Professor Putin’s lecture good scholarship? Was it true to the facts, and were the facts understood properly in their context? This is what I will briefly consider. I will comment only on the third and last of these issues, the significance of the Treaty of Versailles among the causes of World War II. Much more could be said about the first and second issues, but perhaps they can wait for another day. For now, you can think of the issues arising from the Versailles Treaty as my sampling of the quality of President Putin’s research.

For background, you can think of the Allies at Versailles pursuing three goals: to punish Germany by seizing territory and assets, to force Germany to compensate the Allies for war damages, and to constrain Germany's future behaviour by imposing limits on its armament. The problem was that on a reasonable interpretation the first and second of these goals undermined the third, by stimulating nationalist counteractions. Too much of the punishment and compensation would have fallen on the people, whereas the leaders went largely unpunished. Still, an important question arises: by how much, particularly the treaty is compared to other possible causes of the next war.

Here’s how Putin's argument begins.

Putin: In this connection [the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact], I am asking you to take a few minutes to return to the origins, to the very beginning, which I find very important. I suggest beginning, as they say, from ‘centre field’, as they say, I mean from the results from World War I, from the Versailles Peace conditions written in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

Me: Sounds interesting!

Putin: For Germany, the Treaty of Versailles became a symbol of blatant injustice and national humiliation.

Me: Provisionally, I’d shade this a little. For the German ultra-nationalists, and also for more moderate monarchists and conservatives, yes: the Treaty of Versailles symbolized injustice and humiliation. For others, who were generally in the majority, it’s not clear. More below.

Putin: In fact, it meant robbing Germany. I will give you some numbers, because they are very interesting. Germany had to pay the Triple Entente countries (Russia left the winners and did not sign the Treaty of Versailles) an astronomical sum of 269 billion golden marks, the equivalent of 100,000 tonnes of gold.

Me: No. German reparations were fixed in 1921 by a Reparations Commission set up under the treaty. The Commission fixed the final bill at 132 billion gold marks, of which 50 billion were to be collected in the first instance; the remaining 82 billion were judged beyond Germany’s means, and would be collected only if Germany’s capacity to pay proved greater than expected.

A puzzle: then how did President Putin’s researchers come up with the much higher figure of 269 billion gold marks? Possibly, from one of a number of internet sources that offer this figure, including the websites of the BBC, ABC, and National Geographic. The same figure of 269 billion, but in dollars at today’s prices, can also be found on History.com. But they are all wrong.

The ultimate origin of the figure is possibly an Allied claim of 269 billion gold marks, submitted to the reparations commission during 1920 as a first move for negotiation (Kent 1962: 178). It was not adopted, however.

As for Putin’s gold translation of the reparations total, this appears to be roughly correct; 269 billion gold marks would have been close to 100,000 tons of gold (more exactly 96,000 tons). Of course, the gold equivalent of the figure for reparations actually due, 50 billion marks, would have been much less, a little short of 18,000 tons.

Even a single ton of gold is hard to imagine. It invites the question: how much is a lot? Putin tries to answer this question by offering two alternative standards of comparison:

Putin: For comparison, I would say the gold reserves as of October 2019 are 8,130 tonnes in the US, 3,370 tonnes in Germany and 2,250 tonnes in Russia.

Me: Such comparisons are striking, but the figures seem to have been selected in order to mislead. Germany was expected to pay reparations not out of its gold reserves on hand at the end of the war, but out of its export earnings over many years. (Gold, incidentally, was and is not the only form in which foreign currency reserves are held. For Germany, which has one of the largest gold holdings in the world today, gold is around three quarters of its total of foreign reserves.)

Putin: And Germany had to pay 100,000 tonnes.

Me: No, just 18,000.

Putin: At the current price of gold of $1,464 for a troy ounce, the reparations would be worth about $4.7 trillion, while the German GDP in 2018 prices, if my data are correct, is only $4 trillion.

Me: At last, we have a calculation that would seem to underplay the weight of the reparations burden. Putin compares the gold value of reparations then to Germany’s GDP today, when both are measured at today’s prices. The undervaluation arises as follows: the dollar price of gold has increased by around 100 times, whereas Germany’s nominal GDP has increased by a factor of around 300. Of course, after a century of economic growth, the German economy of today would be much better placed to sustain the burden of the reparations bill fixed in 1921 – even if we overstate it by five times, as Putin’s researchers have done.

The fact is that Germany was expected to bear the burden of reparations at the gold price of the time based on the value of its national resources of the time. A more relevant comparison is then as follows.

What was the scale of Germanys’ indebtedness in 1921, including reparations, in comparison to the indebtedness of the victorious powers? The 50 billion gold marks of reparations, set in 1921, would have represented approximately 125 per cent of Germany’s GDP at the time. To this should be added Germany’s ordinary public debt of around 50 per cent of GDP. Germany’s overall debt burden, including reparations, was therefore 175 per cent of GDP. By modern standards this would be a heavy burden. But the British debt burden of 1921, mostly arising from the war, was around 160 per cent of GDP. At 250 per cent, the French burden was still higher. (For sources and further detail see Harrison 2016: 152.)

In short, the reparations commission did not ask defeated Germany to shoulder a burden of national debt heavier than that of the victorious powers. The complication -- a serious one -- was that the German governent owed this debt mostly to foreigners, whereas the British and French governments owed it mostly to their own citizens.

Claims of the burden of reparations on Germany in the 1920s should also take into account the treaty restrictions placed on German rearmament. To the extent that the restrictions were effective, they relieved Germany of the fiscal burden of maintaining and equipping planes, battleships, and tanks. The size of the relief was large, possibly of the same order as the reparations payments actually made (Hantke and Spoerer 2010). To the extent that the Versailles restrictions were ineffective, then it was Germany ‘s choice to spend money on secret rearmament that could otherwise have been used to compensate the victims of German aggression in the war.

Putin: Suffice it to say that the last payments of 70 million euros were made quite recently, on October 3, 2010. Germany was still paying for World War I on the 20th anniversary of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Me: This small fact is used to convey several misleading implications – that Germany was forced to pay for World War I over many decades, and that this is a measure of the undue weight of the burden. Neither implication is valid. Even before Hitler, Germany never paid more than a fraction of the reparations bill set in 1921 – perhaps 20 billion marks out of 50 (Marks 1978). The rest was never paid; the rather small payment that Germany made in 2010 was the final instalment not of reparations but of loans that Germany took out in the 1920s, mostly in the United States, to help smooth out the limited reparation payments being made at the time.

Putin: I believe, and many, including researchers, agree that the so-called spirit of Versailles created an environment for a radical and revanchist mood. The Nazis were actively exploiting Versailles in their propaganda promising to relieve Germany of this national shame, so the West gave the Nazis a free hand for revenge.

Me: This greatly overextends the truth. What is true is that “The Nazis were actively exploiting Versailles in their propaganda promising to relieve Germany of this national shame.” It was not only the Nazis that wanted to reverse the restrictions and obligations imposed on Germany at Versailles: the idea was shared by the remaining monarchists and many conservatives. But Versailles did not create this spirit: the spirit of revenge was created earlier, by the fact that Germany lost the war, was defeated and forced to surrender, and then lost its monarchy to a democratic revolution.

The reaction against the democratic revolution became an important expression of radical nationalism in Germany after the war. But the fact is that from 1920 onwards the weight of reactionary opinion opposed to the Versailles settlement declined steadily (as did support for revolutionary communism), if measured by votes cast in successive parliamentary elections from before the Versailles Treaty in 1919 through the publication of the reparations bill in 1921, the conflicts over repayments and the hyperinflation of 1923, through the subsequent stabilization to the Great Depression in 1929 (again, see Harrison 2016: 153). Until the Great Depression, in other words, most Germans just did not care enough about Versailles to vote for the parties agitating against it.

Germany’s radical right was a menace to public order through the 1920s, but not until the sudden wave of bankruptcies and the growth of mass unemployment in 1930 did it come to look like anything more than a temporary nuisance of fading relevance. It was the Great Depression, not the Versailles Treaty, that created Hitler’s opportunity to move from the fringe to the mainstream.

President Putin goes on to quote various authorities – Ferdinand Foch, Woodrow Wilson, and Winston Churchill – to the effect that the Versailles Treaty made poor sense as an exercise in peace-making. Here Putin has a point. The treaty prioritised collective punishment and reparations over justice for the leaders and reconciliation for the people. It was much more in line with the standards of peacemaking of the nineteenth century than of ours.

But did the Treaty of Versailles amount to a deep cause of World War II? No; the evidence for this is overstretched or misunderstood. Did the President consider the origins of the war in an objective, open-minded spirit? No; he argued the case for a predetermined thesis. How then was the evidence found? Most likely hs instructed his research assistants to trawl the internet for favourable evidence, passing over anything that was adverse, and so they selected the supporting views and facts, false as well as true, that they found there.

One last matter:

Putin: The Versailles world order gave rise to many conflicts and disagreements. They are based on the borders of new states arbitrarily drawn up in Europe by the winners of World War I. That is, the borders were reshaped. This created conditions for the so-called Sudeten crisis.

Me: What Putin has in mind here is the validation of frontiers that stranded an ethnically German minority within the interwar boundaries of Czechoslovakia. In 1938, Hitler claimed this territory from Czechoslovakia and the British and French agreed rather than go to war with Germany. In his lecture, Putin associates the ethnic heterogeneity of the countries formed at the end of World War I with the artificiality of their borders; he implies that the conflicts that followed were inevitable and foreseeable consequences, for which the “winners of World War I” (and, therefore, not Russia) may be blamed.

Putin’s negative verdict on Europe’s borders after Versailles is striking, and I cannot help being reminded of Molotov’s self-satisfaction in October 1939, when he reported to the Supreme Soviet on the successful conclusion of Soviet Army operations in Poland:

Molotov: A short blow by the German army, and subsequently by the Red Army, was enough for nothing to be left of this bastard of the Treaty of Versailles.

Me: It is fair to say that Putin is not Molotov. Putin does not actually say that Poland or any of the other independent countries formed in the aftermath of the war were “bastard” states, lacking in legitimacy or the right exist. But he does find their existence problematic, and for me this comes uncomfortably close.

Again, it is fair to say that Putin has a point – a rather obvious one. The land borders of every continental state have been shaped by wars, foreign and civil. Particularly in Eurasia, the territorial expanse of which is largely flat, nearly every land border has an artificial character. Russia’s borders are no exception; with the size and weight advantages of a great power, Russia has never been slow to force the adjustment of borders to its own advantage.

But faced with artificial borders, created not in time immemorial but in relatively recent times after much blood was spilled, what do you do? Do you set out to delegitimise the surrounding states that stand on them, in order to destroy the borders that exist and to create new ones more to your liking, or do you seek to soften the borders and make them more porous, opening them to trade and the peaceful movement of people?

The fact is that in 1939 Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union found common cause in destroying the borders created by the Versailles settlement. Stalin said as much a year later, when he told Stafford Cripps, the British ambassador, that he had come to see German and Soviet interests as fundamentally aligned (Weinberg 1994: 25):

Stalin: The USSR had wanted to change the old equilibrium . . . but that England and France had wanted to preserve it. Germany had also wanted to make a change in the equilibrium, and this common desire to get rid of the old equilibrium had created the basis for the rapprochement with Germany.

Me: It was not the existence of newly independent countries such as Poland or Czechoslovakia that led to war in 1939, but the fact that they neighboured much larger states that were bent on the revision of their borders and the destruction of their independence. These were the countries that brought about the war. Hitler pointed the gun; Stalin helped him pull the trigger.

So, President Putin’s lecture. Focused, logical, and full of detail? Yes. Good scholarship – at least, that part of it that addresses the Treaty of Versailles? No.

References

  • Hantke, Max, and Mark Spoerer. 2010. The Imposed Gift of Versailles: The Fiscal Effects of Restricting the Size of Germany’s Armed Forces, 1924-9. Economic History Review 63/4, pp. 849-864.
  • Harrison, Mark. 2016. Myths of the Great War. In Economic History of Warfare and State Formation, pp. 135-159. Edited by Jari Eloranta, Eric Golson, Andrei Markevich, and Nikolaus Wolf. Singapore: Springer, 2016.
  • Kent, B. E. 1962. Reparation and the German financial system, 1919-1924. PhD dissertation. Australian National University, Canberra.
  • Marks, Sally. 1978. The Myths of Reparations. Central European History 11/3, pp. 231-255.
  • Weinberg, Gerhard L. 1994. A world at arms: a global history of World War II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

August 19, 2019

Brexit as Economic Warfare

Writing about web page https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/no-deal-brexit-planning-assumptions-the-leaked-operation-yellowhammer-document-797qxkrcm

This column is about the short-term costs of a no-deal Brexit. Like many economists, I tend to think any disruption will prove temporary, even in the case of no deal. It’s in the nature of temporary costs that, in the long term, they disappear. It’s the long-term costs that we will be left with, and they will exceed the short-term costs by many orders of magnitude. Nonetheless, the only way to the long run is via the short run. As the short run looms before us, we are all understandably fixated on a single issue: what will happen next?

According to yesterday's leaked disclosures, the Cabinet Office’s Operation Yellowhammer report predicts the short-term consequences of a no-deal Brexit: a three-month paralysis of Britain’s maritime trade, a hard border in Ireland, shortages of fresh food and medicines, and many other things. This is the central estimate, not a worst-case scenario.

One side of what passes for Britain’s Brexit debate has seized on the findings as confirming what was claimed all along: Brexit is an act of national self-harm. The other side derides them as more “Project Fear.” The government itself now claims that the report is already out of date: the government has everything in hand.

Uncertainty over the likely short-term outcome of a no-deal Brexit (or any kind is often blamed on the idea that this has never happened before. Never before has a major trading nation deliberately disengaged from deep integration with its nearest and wealthiest neighbours. But this is not entirely true. There are two precedents: 1939 and 1914. The precedents are not recent, of course. Still, they might offer something to discover.

The outbreak of World War I was preceded by what some today might call an Edwardian version of “Project Fear.” Liberally minded commentators – best known were the banker Ivan Blokh and the journalist Norman Angell – warned that war among the industrial powers would lead inevitably to disaster. They offered two predictions, one, that industrialised war would be horrible; and two, that it would prove economically and socially intolerable.

On the first prediction, Angell and Blokh were correct. Total war was horrible. But their second prediction was wrong – at least in the short term.

The industrial powers, they argued, had become so economically integrated that they could no longer tolerate the interruption of trade by war. Within a few months they would run out food – first Britain, then France and Germany. After that, they would starve and surrender. Russia might survive, based on its food surplus. But this is not what happened.

When Germany went to war in 1914, the direction of their attack was against their main trading partners. Britain alone accounted for more German trade than all Germany's allies. Russia was a major source of German food and fodder. Yet as the war dragged on the German economy did not collapse. Like Britain and France, which were even more exposed to the global economy, Germany mobilized its resources for four years of total war.

In every country the war imposed wrenching adjustments and sacrifices on soldiers and civilians alike. But the results were not intolerable, for the people tolerated them. Two forces were at work that Angell and Blokh had neglected, that prevented collapse or at least staved it off for several years. One was the basic flexibility of market economies, which enabled the industrial powers to adapt much more easily to the loss of trade and the demands of war than anyone predicted. The other was the arousal of national feeling among the peoples now at war, which led them to hate the enemy and to tolerate readily the changes and sacrifices necessary for war mobilisation to proceed.

It is true that after several years of total war the populations of Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary gave up the struggle. But it was Russia, most self-sufficient in food, with the least industrialised economy, that dropped out of the war first. So Blokh and Angell were wrong about that too.

If the Second World War was different, it was that the great powers entered it knowing what had happened in the First. They prepared accordingly. From September 1939, the British blockaded Germany at sea and German submarines waged war on British shipping. Britain, importing 70 per cent of calories for human consumption, was as vulnerable to blockade in 1939 as in 1914. The volume of food imports into Britain halved between 1939 and 1942. Yet the economy and the people adjusted. Domestic farming expanded and prices and rationing shifted diets from meat to cereals and potatoes. The calories available for human consumption barely changed from year to year through the war.

What should we take from such experiences?

  • First, market economies were generally more adaptable than government and public opinion expected. When particular goods were suddenly in short supply, it was natural for those who needed them to find substitutes and work around the shortages. As a result, shortages were usually temporary and rarely, if ever, endangered the economy.
  • But second, in some countries, survival was endangered eventually, after years of war. In Germany, for example, this was much more because of war mobilization than because of the loss of trade. Still, trade had been lost, and substitutes and workarounds for missing supplies were never costless. Such costs accumulated and were added to the costs of the war. It took time for the overall costs to become evident to the point where they might drag down the war effort itself. The costs of lost trade were hidden from sight at first, partly, because the processes of market adjustment redistributed them around the economy, so that they were rarely salient and were lost in the general step-by-step erosion of everyone’s standards of living.
  • Third, in the process, governments took over more and more responsibility for the basic functions of economic life. The methods of command economies were invented during World War I and were widely used from the outset in World War II. While these were usually effective in directing resources into the war effort, the consequences for ordinary people varied. In Britain, food rationing was limited to luxury foods, and was generally effective, so the nutrition of poorer households was levelled up. But where clean government and non-corrupt administration failed, food was diverted into black markets and inequality grew.
  • Fourth, while the war continued, most people were motivated to accept the resulting sacrifices by leadership that provided the sense of a shared national struggle, that focused their anger at the enemy who imposed these losses on them. War leaders created an atmosphere of national unity and solidarity in which the overwhelming majority became willing to “keep calm and carry on” through years of hardship.

Since 1945 the nature of economic life and the structure of international trade have changed nearly beyond measure. Despite this, all four lessons are deeply relevant as we contemplate what will happen on 1 November, the day after Brexit.

  • First, don’t underestimate the flexibility of the market economy. Any real disruption is likely to be short lived. (Unless the government makes shortages worse by adopting price controls, say.) Whatever is suddenly missing from our lives, we will adapt, find substitutes, or work around what is missing. Our lives will certainly change, but we will probably get by. If Russia and Iran can survive trade sanctions, we will survive Brexit.
  • Second, adaptation and substitution will incur many minor costs, and the costs will cumulate and may well grow over time as Britain decouples from the European economy. The sharper the shock, the more trust will be broken. Since trust underpins all long-term relationships, the more our long-term relationship with Europe will be damaged.
  • Third, demands for the government to “do something” about disruption and shortages will push the government to intervene more and more in our economic life. For a time at least, scarcity pricing will be regulated by public pressure if not by law. Supplies will be prioritised. Failing firms will be bailed out. Once in place, these controls will take on a life of their own. Don’t forget that food rationing, which began in Britain in 1939, did not end in 1945; the last controls were not relaxed until 1954.
  • Fourth, our willingness to “keep calm and carry on” will be much less than was the case in 1939 or 1914. We are not at war. We are divided among ourselves. Our government is representative of an extreme, not of a broad national coalition. Half the country expects Brexit to be painless or quickly beneficial. The other half sees it as a self-inflicted wound. Neither of these constituencies seems likely to put up with much pain for the good of the cause.

This can change, only if the government is successful in persuading the majority that we are in fact at war, that Europe is the enemy, that pro-Europeans are the “enemy within,” and that departure from the European Union is worth any sacrifice.


June 06, 2019

D–Day: What If . . . ?

Writing about web page https://soundcloud.com/980cjme_650ckom/bls-mharrison-june6

Here's my 75th anniversary tribute to D-Day. Some 15,000 Canadian troops went ashore on D-Day, around 10 per cent of the Allied total. To mark the day I was interviewed on The Brent Loucks Show on 650 CKOM in Saskatchewan, Canada. There's a disappointingly muffled recording. Alternatively, these are the notes I made beforehand, most of which we got through, although not in the same order.

  • What led up to the decision to invade in June of 1944?

In the spring of 1944, three things. Britain and America were bombing Germany from the air with rising intensity. British American forces were advancing through Italy. The main action was still on the Eastern front where 90 per cent of German ground were being driven back towards Germany by the Red Army. In essence Germany was already being defeated but was still fighting hard. Final victory looked years away. The main beneficiary on the ground looked like Stalin, because his was the main action on the ground. The western Allies by now had a huge material advantage over Germany. But unless they turned that advantage into fighting on the ground in France and then in Germany, it would not be reflected in the postwar control of territory.

D-Day was hugely important. It did not cause Hitler’s defeat, because that was already under way. It did two things: immensely speed up the end of the war; and ensure that Western Europe fell into the hands of the Western Allies not the Soviet Union. For which we should be immensely grateful.

  • What kind of logistics were involved behind the scenes of the invasion?

The planning took two years and was on an immense and comprehensive scale. The SHAEF headquarters tried to plan every last nut and bolt, from the choice of the beaches to the order of creation of port facilities to the rate of advance across France towards Germany to the order and priority of deliveries over time.

All these plans failed. Some landings were in the wrong places. At first the advance away from the beaches was much too slow, so there was an abundance of fuel and not enough ammunition. Then there were unexpected advances so fuel became short while ammunition piled up. But the advantage of the Allies was so great that, once established in France, they could afford a few mistakes. The mistakes also slowed down the Allied victory, but could hardly turn it into Allied defeat.

  • How might the war have played out if D-Day failed?

The war would have dragged on. While it went on, probably every country – those fighting and those occupied – would have suffered more casualties than was the case. Germany would still have lost in the end, but the balance of power in Europe would have shifted away from Britain and North America towards Stalin and the Soviet Union. For that reason, postwar recovery would probably have been much more painful.

  • What would Europe look like now if the war had dragged on?

Much more of Europe would have ended up under Soviet domination – Germany and Austria for sure. Italy and France might well have elected communist governments. After that, who knows?

  • Would atomic bombs have been used on Germany?

What shortened the war in the Pacific was the atomic bomb, which was ready by July 1945. Used against Japan, it shortened the war and forestalled any Soviet attempt to occupy the Japanese islands. Would the atomic bomb have been used against Germany with the same intention? Who knows, but it’s clearly possible. Even as things worked out there were strong pressures to destroy German industries and reduce Germany to a country of farmers and artisans.


April 25, 2019

Do You Know Who I Really Am?

Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/cage/manage/publications/408-2019_harrison.pdf

Here's a Soviet joke (translated from Misha Mel’nichenko's Sovetskii anekdot (Ukazatel’ syuzhetov), Moscow 2014).

Parked at the embassy is an American automobile of an expensive make and the latest model. Two pedestrians walk up from opposite directions and stop involuntarily. One of them exclaims: “An amazing foreign car!” Then he panics and tries to correct his gaffe: “An amazing Soviet car. I think it’s Soviet. Yes, yes, it must be. Of course!” “What, you can’t tell an American automobile from a Soviet one at first glance?” “At first glance I can’t tell an informer from a decent person.”

This joke nicely captures two things. One is that the KGB recruited "undercover helpers" to keep Soviet society under continual surveillance by KGB informers. The other is that the existence of informers was an open secret, but no one knew who they were, so Soviet society was also permeated by the fear that anyone, known or unknown, might turn out to be an informer.

Recently I wrote a paper about KGB informers. As I wrote the paper, I developed its economic motivation: to understand how the informers were recruited and managed, which takes us into the economics of human capital and contracting. The paper also goes into the roles of trust and mistrust in the Soviet system of rule, which are more complicated than might appear. But the reason I was drawn to the subject in the first place was more direct: I was captivated by the stories I found, and I wanted to tell them.

My paper is based on twenty-one stories of the recruitment and development of KGB informers in Soviet Lithuania in the 1960s and 1970s. My paper focuses on their common features, but in their specifics these tales are extraordinarily varied. Their tone ranges from light to dark and from humorous to utterly grim. All of them are told in my paper, either in the text or in an appendix. In the hope that I can make you want more, here are two of them, which turned out to be one story. If you want the others, read my paper.

The story of KGB agents "Korabel'nik" and "Komandulis" grabbed me more than any other, because it is also a story of fathers and son. The fathers make a dreadful mistake, one that threatens to tear their families apart. It is beyond their powers to fix it by themselves. The KGB lends a hand; the families are saved. What price did the families pay? You decide.

One of the channels of Baltic migration in the interwar period led to South America. Among these were families from Lithuania. They had left their homeland to escape persecution, because they were Jews or socialists. Separated from the old country by a generation and an ocean, they still thought of it as home. It was the 1950s; the war was over, and Stalin was dead. From the other side of the ocean, the emigrants looked back at the old country now under Soviet rule and made a fateful choice: they decided to return.

In returning home, they made a terrible mistake. They brought their teenage children. Arriving in the old country, the young generation took a close look and realized immediately what they wanted more than anything: to leave as quickly as possible. But this was the one thing that the Soviet authorities could not permit under any circumstances.

On first refusal, the young people did not give up. They banded together and shared and nurtured what the KGB called their “emigrationist inclinations.” They made contacts with the diplomats representing the countries from which they had come. They travelled to Moscow and tried to obtain access to the embassies. They wrote petitions, demanding the right to leave. They wrote articles for publication abroad, protesting their situation. These things were worse than individual misdemeanours, for they were coordinated and took on the character of conspiracy. They drew the attention of the KGB, which began to watch them and open their letters.

Up to a point, the KGB’s attention was solicitous. These young people were ripe for exploitation by foreign powers intent on disrupting the Soviet political and social order. They were heading straight for a collision with authority, from which they could not emerge unscathed. Could a damaging confrontation be averted? Could their course be corrected in time? The KGB looked for ways to bring its influence to bear.

One idea was to infiltrate an “undercover helper” into the group. The outsider was rebuffed. The group remained solid and its course did not change.

The KGB approached the problem from another angle. They looked again at the group and singled out two of its members as weaker links. The common denominator was the parents: the KGB classed both fathers as politically reliable because of their personal records of engagement with communist politics in their former lives in Latin America. And who but a parent would share more sincerely the KGB’s interest in stopping these young men from destroying themselves over a childish dream?

The documentation tells the two stories separately. Martin (not his real name), from a Jewish family, was identified as being more suggestible than others (“it was established that his anti-Soviet judgements were the result of an incorrect understanding of Soviet actuality”) and the KGB began preparations to call him in for a warning (“preventive discussion”).

Before talking directly to Martin, the KGB applied pressure indirectly. The pressure came from two angles. One angle was Martin’s father, whom surveillance had identified as a potential ally. In preparation for addressing Martin directly, the KGB decided to recruit his father as an informer. The father proved a willing collaborator, talking freely to his handler about Martin’s activities. The handling officer set about training the father how to talk more persuasively to his son – in particular, using examples drawn from life to prove the superiority of the Soviet system to his son.

Another angle for KGB pressure was found at Martin’s workplace, a local newspaper. It turned out that the young man’s direct superior was also a KGB agent. Through this agent, Martin’s managers were given details of his anti-Soviet activities and were asked to use their influence on him to bring him back into line.

Finally, the timing was favourable. A few days before the KGB interviewed him, Martin had been given an apartment in a new building.

The interview went as well as could be hoped. Martin proved to be receptive to the KGB message. He was open about his connections and past behaviour, including contacts with foreigners and attempts to send documents abroad. He put the blame on his own lack of knowledge and thoughtlessness. Why had he changed his mind? Because of his father’s influence, he said, and the influence of his colleagues at work, and because he now better understood how working people lived in the Soviet Union. In short, the KGB approach had worked.

Moreover, Martin appeared more and more to be a suitable candidate for recruitment himself. He spoke Spanish, Russian, Lithuanian, and Hebrew. He had a large network of friends and excellent opportunities to be of value to KGB counter-intelligence. When the subject was raised, Martin consented to recruitment, choosing the codename “Korabel’nik” (shipwright). (This was in 1960, when Martin was 22.)

Not only was Martin willing in principle; he immediately began to give information about other young men of South American origin who were seeking a way out of the country. One of these had served in the armed forces of his country of birth and was allegedly supplying information via the country’s Moscow embassy. Another was currently serving in the Soviet Army in the western borderland of Kaliningrad province; it turned out that military counter-intelligence already had him under surveillance. Later, agent “Korabel’nik” visited him in Kaliningrad; his mission was monitored by a KGB officer who reported back that the new informer had behaved properly while on the assignment.

During his meetings the KGB handler continued the re-education of “Korabel’nik” that his father had begun. The two talked over the Soviet Union’s internal affairs and international relations as well as the KGB’s assignments for the young man. The KGB’s conclusion was that they had made a successful investment: the young man, it was reported, “can be used for the investigation of persons suspected of participation in the agent networks of American and Israeli intelligence.”

The other weaker link was Nicolas (again, not his real name, which we don’t know), the only son of a father who again had a history of close links with one of the South American communist parties. Approached by a KGB informer outside the family, the father was open about the family predicament, blamed his son’s behaviour on the influence of his friends and their lack of understanding of “Soviet actuality,” and expressed deep fears for Nicolas’s future, which seemed set on a criminal course.

The KGB again set out to train the father in how to manage his child. On the handler’s instruction, the informer counselled the father to explain to Nicolas various examples of the virtues and advantages of the Soviet system. The informer also evidently made acquaintance with Nicolas and got him to share some documents (perhaps these were writings of some kind that showed the Soviet Union in a good light) with his friends.

At this point Nicolas too became a potential candidate for recruitment as a KGB informer. Over two months, the KGB evaluated him. At this time, Nicolas received an instruction to report to the local military unit for a medical examination – a disturbing occurrence, one must suppose, for a young man who was doubtful about living in the Soviet Union, let alone accepting compulsory military service. Now the KGB handler took a direct hand, meeting Nicolas face to face at the military unit, at first maintaining his cover, then openly. Nicolas responded well, talked freely about his friends, and afterwards made no attempt to disclose the KGB approach to others. He became a willing and productive informer on the group, choosing the codename “Komandulis” (commander), and working with “Korabel’nik.”

In this story an accident of family ties had made two young people into active resisters to one of the core principles of Soviet rule – the closed border. To resolve the situation the KGB successfully exploited the same family ties. The fathers were willing to help if it would keep their children out of trouble – and who could blame them when the KGB was holding a gun to the heads of their sons? But first the handling officers had to teach the fathers to talk to their sons, and also to become more persuasive advocates of communist rule. The fathers became informers on the sons. This was productive not only in terms of information passed; it also helped to build the agent network. In turn, the sons also became undercover helpers, informing on their friends.

What happened to the other young people in the group of would-be re-emigrants? Frustratingly, we have no idea.


February 01, 2019

All Camels are to be Castrated

It's Friday evening. Time for some fun!

I've been writing a paper about the KGB, the Soviet secret police, and its informers. While the operations of the Soviet KGB undercover informer network were completely secret, and the identities of the informers were closely guarded, their presence in Soviet society was an open secret -- everyone knew they existed, they just didn't know who they were.

That's what I recall from personal experience, anyway. But personal experience isn't everything, so I wondered what evidence there might be to support what I remembered. I thought of jokes: if ordinary Soviet citizens didn't know about informers, how could there be jokes? I turned to the excellent compilation of 5,852 Soviet jokes by Misha Mel'nichenko (Sovetskii anekdot (Ukazatel’ syuzhetov). Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2014). I quickly found a joke about inforners -- in fact, I found 39 jokes listed in the index, a number that I will use in my paper as evidence that knowledge of the existence of informers was widespread. For the weekend, here's joke no. 1617, somewhat abbreviated:

A husband decides to hold a party for his wife. He takes the guest list to the local security police and explains that, to avoid suspicion, he's happy to include the officer and any of his colleagues. The officer glances at the list and replies: "There's no need for that. You've already invited eight of our people."

You might wonder what's the truth in the joke. One point was a simple one: nobody knew whether some friend might be an informer. An objection to the joke might be that the officer's reply was unrepresentative: on average, the true density of informers in Soviet society was far below what the joke might be taken to imply. But, conditional on a person being already under investigation, the reply was actually quite realistic: once the KGB had you in its cross-hairs, it was no more than good practice to set several informants on you in order to cross-tally their reports. Anyway, it was still an important point that nobody knew and nobody could know.

More on this when I finish writing my paper.

For now, jokes about informers are to be found in a section of the book headed "The staff of the organs of state security." Inevitably, I've spent some time browsing. Here are some that I could understand and I think could work across the divides of space, time, language and culture. (This seems an appropriate moment, by the way, for me to offer a confession. Confession -- ha ha!! By their nature, jokes are informal. And my informal Russian is not that fluent. My Bolshevik Russian, in contrast, is excellent, and that's what you need to study the Soviet period. But what this means is that a lot of Russian jokes go straight over my head. As for translation, quite a number also rely on word plays that are funny in the original but can't work in English without laborious explanation.)

Soviet jokes came in many varieties. Here are a few, in a mix of free translation and paraphrase.

Nationalistic (#1595). "In France crimes are cleared in four weeks. In England, two weeks. But the Soviet Union has the best police in the world: every crime is cleared two weeks before it happens."

Philosophical (#1609, a rare case of a wordplay (бытие/битье) that translates directly). Marx's law that being determines consciousness, rendered for Soviet conditions: "Beating determines consciousness."

Harsh (#1612). Interrogator: "How old are you?" Prisoner: "I'll be fifty next month." Interrogator: "No, you won't."

Legalistic (#1602). Prosecutor's motto: "Give me the man, I'll find the law."

Anthropomorphic (#1603). Two hares run through a field and into each other. "Why are you rushing?" "Haven't you heard? They've announced that all camels are to be castrated!" "But you're not a camel." "Well, they catch you and castrate you and then you have to prove you're not a camel."

Downright nasty (#1644). Every Soviet organization had a personnel section the first task of which was to report to the KGB on the political loyalty of the workforce. A worker rushes into the chief's office. "The personnel officer has hanged himself in the warehouse!" "Have they cut him down?" "Not yet, he's still alive."

Not funny? You need to enter the frame of mind of a society where any of these would have given rise to a knowing smile and a shake of the head.

Enjoy the weekend.


January 03, 2019

The Radicalization of Deng Xiaoping

Writing about web page https://global.oup.com/academic/product/deng-xiaoping-9780199392032

On a beach in the autumn, I read a biography of Deng Xiaoping, the reformer of Chinese communism after Mao (Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life by Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine: Oxford University Press, 2015). I've been interested in communist reforms and reformers for a long time, partly because there was a time when I believed in them. Also, because of their personal histories before reform: the only way the reformers could rise to authority was through the system, so they were products of the system they wanted to change. They had to be very hard people, otherwise they could never have survived to that point.

Khrushchev, for example, decided to break with the legacy of Stalin, although he had been responsible for many mass killings in Stalin's lifetime. Why did he decide to rule differently? No doubt there were many reasons, but one seems to be that he was uncomfortable with the way things were. He had enough of a conscience to want to rule without continuous killing -- not enough to want to confess his sins, but enough to want to stop sinnng. Deng Xiaoping, too, built his career on the millions of victims of Mao's terror and famines. He too chose to put a stop to it when he had the power to make that choice. It seems Deng was led not so much by conscience, more by pragmatism and by a recognition that that China was weakened by the legacy of Mao.

Probably Khrushchev, like Deng, would have remained willing to go to any lengths to preserve party rule. In Deng's case the evidence is there in the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, for which he was directly responsible. There was no similar challenge to party authority in the Soviet Union under Khrushchev.

Pantsov and Levine cover Deng's adult years in fascinating detail. But what struck me particularly was something about which I knew nothing: the story of Deng's youth and his path to revolutionary activism (roughly pp. 15-35). The story seemed to correspond quite neatly with what social scientists have found out about recruitment into modern terrorism: what sort of people are attracted to join militant political factions and what other factors are involved in their selection.

Of course, you could object that communism and terrorism are quite different, as they are in many ways -- but I think not in this respect. (A logical test would be to go through, mark each time I use the word "communist" or "communism," replace it with "terrorist" or "terrorism," and check for sense.)

What the literature suggests is that the people who are radicalized in this way are typically young, mostly male, and on average relatively affluent and relatively educated. They are psychologically normal. Often they have faced some difficulty in finding a place in society. If male they may be unemployed; if female, they may have been widowed; if migrants, they may be poorly assimilated. Often they turn out to be surprisingly ill-informed about the philosophies and goals of the organizations they have joined; more important to them than ideas and programmes is the opportunity for intense comradeship with other young people based on common action for a common cause -- whatever that cause might be. (More detail and references here.)

Deng was born in 1904. His family was moderately well-to-do, in other words, well above the level of most Chinese. Later Deng described his father as a "small landowner" or a "middle peasant." In fact, he was a pillar of the local community, able to have his son privately educated and even to pay for him to study abroad.

Although educated, Deng was not a natural scholar. As a teenager, when he should have been studying in class, he was more often hanging out with his friends around the town.

The political atmosphere of the time, which Deng absorbed readily, was one of agitation against the monarchy and against foreign influences. But it is not clear that he ever encountered a foreigner at this time, other than the local Catholic priests.

In 1919, when Deng was 15, his father placed him in a school designed to prepare young people for study in France. France was not only a wealthy country but the home of "liberté, égalité, fraternité." A former classmate from this time is quoted to the effect that Deng studied "very diligently and seriously" but on other evidence he spent more time hanging out and taking part in various "patriotic" disturbances.

At the end of the year Deng scraped through his exams. He had qualified to study in France, but not by enough to earn a scholarship, so his family paid his expenses. With other students from China, Deng travelled first to Paris, then onward to college in the French provincial town of Bayeux.

In Bayeux, Deng's studies were not successful. The main subject was the French language, which he could not master. Because of this, he dropped out of his course. But his poor French also isolated him from French society, so that he was restricted to the company of other Chinese students in a similar situation. He had nothing to do, so there was more hanging out.

Running out of money, Deng took a series of unskilled factory jobs, all of which he hated and soon gave up. Eventually he gravitated to Paris and to the Chinese-French society that had organized his studies. He turned out to be one of hundreds of young Chinese men in a similar situation. They could not support themselves in France, but nor could they return home and admit that they had failed their studies. Without occupation, for several months of 1921 they hung out at the society premises with the help of a daily handout.

In early 1922, Deng found employment with other Chinese students at a provincial rubber factory. By now the other students had reached the conclusion that all their troubles had a single cause: capitalism. In this, they were ahead of Deng, but eventually he too came to share their view. "I acquired class consciousness," he wrote later, "when the capitalists and their tools--the foremen--slighted and exploited me." But he had no familiarity with Marxist ideas and it seems unlikely that he had ever met a capitalist, so the main factors must have been the racism of the French foremen (who were only half a step above the French proletariat) and the influence of his friends.

Deng's friends concluded that the remedy was communism. By 1923, although he knew little about the ideas of communism or Marxism, Deng had followed his friends into the Chinese communist party. His father sent him more money so that he could return to study, but instead he broke off relations with his family and immersed himself in the revolutionary underground. He made new friends, among them the youthful Zhou Enlai.

Deng now began to show his qualities as an effective organizer. By 1925, he was one of the leaders of the Chinese communist party in Europe. In January 1926, under increasing surveillance, with the police not far behind, he fled to Moscow. There he would receive his first serious training in the ideas of Marx and Lenin.

To summarize:

  • By family background, Deng was not ground down by poverty. His family supported him and gave him many opportunities.
  • Deng was not uneducated, but he was also a poor student. He was semi-educated, perhaps, in the sense that he was receptive to new ideas but untrained in testing or criticizing them.
  • A strong influence on Deng's outlook was distrust of foreigners. His personal interactions with them were extremely limited. Even when living in France, he did not share their language and he could not share their company.
  • In Chinese society Deng was not isolated or discriminated against. But in France he was. There, his social world shrank to the company of a few young men like himself. When he came to place his loyalty, the decisive factors were friendship and the chance to find solidarity with his comrades against an indifferent world.
  • When Deng chose the communist party, comradely feeling was a much more important factor than political or philosophical ideas. Deng's ideas did not choose his friends for him; it was the other way around. By becoming a communist, he could spend more time hanging out with his friends.

This was an ordinary path to an extraordinary life.


December 30, 2018

The Mushroom Incident: Expedition to the USSR, 1964

Writing about web page http://www.pushkinhouse.org/blog/2018/9/26/back-in-the-ussr-recollections-and-pictures-of-six-weeks-in-the-soviet-union-fifty-years-on

My parents said I’d better go. A letter from my boarding school advised them that in the summer I could travel with my class mates, under the supervision of a teacher, across Scandinavia to Finland and over the Soviet frontier to Leningrad and Moscow. The return journey would take three weeks. The cost was £70 which may not sound like much, but this was 1964 and the purchasing power of that sum would be between £1,000 and £1,500 in today’s money.

I was reminded of this by a charming column that appeared recently on the Pushkin House blog. There, Jeremy Poynton tells the story of a 1960s school trip to the USSR. Reading it I realized that, although his adventure took place several years after mine (in 1968), and his itinerary was much more of an adventure (from the Finnish border to the Trans-Caucasus), there was nonetheless a clear connection. His school was mine (The Leys School), and the intrepid leader of his expedition (Richard Armstrong) was also mine. And an incident that seals the link: Jeremy relates an incident that took place during the 1964 expedition, to which I was an eye witness, when Mr Armstrong was briefly but excitingly detained on suspicion of espionage.

The whole business was an unusual experience for a British teenager, and it had a marked effect on my life. This is how it came about.

In those days you could take O-levels twice a year, in December and June. (O-levels were the forerunner of the GCSE.) My French class had taken the exam early, in December, and somebody’s rules obliged us to continue to learn a foreign language until the school year ended in July. In those six months our teacher, Richard Armstrong, introduced us to the first rudiments of the Russian language: a new script, the pronouns and a few verbs, and some basic greetings. We began to read stories by Pushkin and Lermontov.

The class was most amused by the Russian vowel ы (transliterated to English as y). “I was” in Russian is spoken “ya byl.” My class included Hugh Beale, later a distinguished legal scholar, whose parental home was in Edgbaston in Birmingham. We decided that the easiest way to the correct rendering of “byl” was to speak Hugh’s family name with what passed among us for a strong Birmingham accent, and we all did this frequently and loudly, whether required to or not. Such was the dog-eat-dog humour of our community.

We set off in a people-carrier of the day, a Commer space van. As I recall there were half a dozen of us schoolboys and three drivers: Richard Armstrong, our leader; a friend of his, of a similar age; and a younger adult, a recent former pupil, much admired for his Minolta 16mm spy camera (that’s what we called it). I had a camera, too, the family Brownie Instamatic. I took some pictures, or so I thought, but when the film was processed later there was nothing on it. So I have no photographic mementoes.

My memory of the adventure is episodic, so that’s how I’ll tell it.

1. Ferry across the North Sea from Newcastle to Gothenburg. The weather was blowy and the seas were enough to unsettle the inexperienced stomach. I was queasy but not sick. I looked out to sea on the windward side of the lower deck. On the upper deck another passenger did the same, and threw up. The results ended up in my hair. In the ship’s refectory I discovered Scandinavian brown cheese and ate so much of it that to this day I have never wanted to try it again.

2. We drove from Gothenburg to Stockholm. Wide roads and dark woods.

3. Overnight ferry from Stockholm to the Finnish port of Turku. Heavy seas (or so we thought) with lots of passengers throwing up everywhere. No one slept. By dawn the sea was a flat calm, and the vessel glided into port through an archipelago of green islets in a blue sea lit mistily by the rising sun.

4. Crossing the border. We travelled by road from Turku to Leningrad, crossing the border at Vyborg. At the border, the guards went through our baggage item by item, giving special attention to books. We all brought paperbacks to read and we shared them round. Among them was Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love, first published in 1957, which had just been made into a film. But James Bond’s reputation had not yet reached Russia. The guards were intrigued by the title, which they spelled out carefully. They considered briefly, decided the book must be harmless, and returned it to us wreathed in smiles.

5. First night in the Soviet Union. Our route across Soviet territory and all our stopping places were pre-booked and pre-approved; our visas required us to to stick to it and not deviate by a day or a kilometre. We stayed in campsites near the major towns; these were well set up and crowded. The weather was fabulous: dry, sunny, and hot. Unlike home, the temperature did not fall when the sun went down, so the evenings were warm and convivial. Our first night was spent in a large tent; we slept on wooden bunks. In the late evening, harsh male voices were heard approaching, apparently going from tent to tent; perhaps they were looking for unoccupied spaces. When they came to us, they barked: “Male or female?” Richard Armstrong responded in a high, quavering voice: “Ne znayu” (I don’t know). There was a puzzled silence; the voices went away.

6. Leningrad. I remember the Neva embankment and the golden needle of St Isaac’s Cathedral. Probably we went to the Hermitage and did stuff like that.

7. Driving across Russia. By day, long straight roads through endless pine forests. Little traffic, mostly lumbering trucks. We overtook them with difficulty because the driver of our British vehicle sat on the wrong side for driving on the right. The driver asked: “mozhno?” (Can I?) The front seat passenger, with better forward vision, would reply: “mozhno!” At night, a problem was that Soviet vehicles did not have the facility to dip their main beams. In traffic they drove on sidelights, even on unlit roads. They either dazzled us or were barely visible. And we, driving on dipped beams, infuriated them, so that they flashed us repeatedly until we submitted and went over to sidelights only.

8. The Kremlin at Novgorod. This was Great Novgorod on the Volkhov River – not the better-known Nizhnii Novgorod far to the East on the Volga. I learned that every town of any significance has a Kremlin (fortress). I bought a print of the Kremlin at Novgorod for my parents, which I still have:

The Kremlin at Novgorod

Nearing Moscow, we visited the Tchaikovsky museum in the small town of Klin. In every town and settlement there were party banners and slogans. Most memorable was “Miru mir” (Peace to the World), which we endlessly repeated to each other.

9. The Mushroom Incident. The writer of a contemporaneous account (in The Leys Fortnightly, 23 October 1964) relates “the Mushroom Incident, or, ‘How we Nearly got Sent to Siberia all because of Mr Armstrong’s Insistence on Taking Pictures of Things he Shouldn’t’”:

On the way to Moscow we gave a man and a basket of mushrooms a lift into a town with the sinister name of Klin.

Even after more than half a century I retain the impression that the man was uncomfortable in our company. This was hardly surprising. Most likely he was taking what he had gathered in the woods to sell in the town market. When we picked him up, he probably had no clue that he’d accepted a lift from a bunch of foreigners. By sitting down with us he was enjoying "unauthorised contact with foreigners," a violation of the code of conduct for Soviet citizens in the regions where tourists were permitted. This was a misdemeanour, if not a crime. The trouble that ensued was inevitable.

As a memento, Mr Armstrong took a photo of him. At our next stop, Tchaikovsky’s house, Mr Armstrong was interviewed by two secret policemen who had been told by an upright Russian tovarisch that we had taken a photograph of a strategic object, which we afterwards concluded to be a few electricity pylons. The police expressed their desire to have the film, which Mr Armstrong in his characteristically pleasant manner declined to give them, and so we eventually went off with another tale to tell.

We were told (I recollect) that the farmer had also been detained, and Richard Armstrong bravely protested against this, but of course I did not witness his conversation with the police.

10. Moscow and Red Square. On the approach to Red Square we made an illegal turn, paid a fine, and blew a tire. I had played with Meccano as a child but I had no other mechanical knowledge or experience, and I was physically lazy, so I took no part in the repair. We visited Red Square, the Lenin Mausoleum, and GUM, the State Universal Store. I remember the summer heat and cloudless blue of the sky. I also remember the queues for everything. In GUM I waited in line to buy a red Young Pioneer scarf. Did I buy a balalaika? Maybe. Some of us did, and I might have been one of them. If so, it was never played, but hung around at home for a few years. Ordinary people were friendly and curious, I guess, but I was a bit of a Young Sheldon. If anybody spoke to me, I was probably scared to death. I do remember someone tried to buy the jeans I was wearing. I’m pretty sure they were my only trousers, so I have no idea what I was expected to do on selling them, but I didn’t. The official reporter notes that, in Moscow and Leningrad alike:

We were often confronted by children demanding ball-point pens, chewing gum and stamps in return for badges often depicting Lenin or the Heroes of the Cosmos. Once two of our members were confronted by a Russian when the conversation went as follows: “English?” – “Yes, English.” Pause. “Beatles?” – “Yes, Beatles!”

11. Food and drink. Food: I discovered the indispensable vegetable of Soviet times: pickled cabbage. Drink: at that time the Soviet consumer was beginning to thirst for Coca Cola. What they got was street vending machines that dispensed sweet fizzy sodas of no particular flavour. A glass, chained to the machine for everyone to drink from, was supposed to be washed between users. We all used it, and as far as I know we suffered no harm.

12. The return journey. As we drew near to Leningrad, we made our only deviation from the permitted route: Richard Armstrong and one or two others paid a clandestine visit to the suburban home of an Orthodox priest of his acquaintance (how the acquaintance arose I never found out). Of our second visit to Leningrad I remember only coming across the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, built on the spot where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. The church was not in the splendid condition of today, which you can see in a photo that I took of it last year:

Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood

In 1964 the church was in a sorry state, in use as a warehouse and closed to visitors.

13. Soviet roads. Near the border, after 1,500 kilometres of ruts and potholes, our faithful Commer van ran into the ground. A rear spring collapsed. One of us got underneath and counted the number of steel leaves in the spring to compare with a nearby Soviet vehicle of comparable size. Ours had seven leaves; the Soviet equivalent was thirteen, so roughly twice as many.

14. Farewell to the Soviet Union. Driving slowly and with great care, we limped our way to the Soviet border. Nearing the border, we stopped for a roadside comfort break. This was understood to be the right way to say good bye to Soviet rule. At the border we held our breath. After inspection, we were waved through to Finland and freedom.

15. Home again. From Finland we returned to the UK in comfort, by rail and boat. No doubt there was some extra expense, of which I knew nothing. In Oslo I strolled around the harbour and visited the Vasa, a wooden warship recently recovered from the waters of the bay. Our van, now barely drivable, was emptied of boys and baggage, and one of our drivers was detached from the party to bring it home.

Aftermath. On the surface, I appeared to have returned home safely and without consequences. In reality, without knowing it, I had contracted an incurable infection: a fascination with Russia that would never leave me.

I’ll finish with Richard Armstrong. He was one of the few teachers that seemed to me to be a genuinely kind person. He was slightly built with a sharp, intelligent face. He did not seem to have any particular age; I suppose he was in his thirties. He was physically tough; he helped to establish and coach the school rowing club and to lead school expeditions into the wilderness. His manner was normally gentle and good humoured; he was sharp only in the face of rudeness. He did not shape my way of thinking about the world, but his Russian class and the adventure that he made for us triggered my interest in Russia and set the course of my research for life.


August 24, 2018

Going Viral: How a Dictatorship Suppresses Ideological Infection

Writing about web page https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/infected-08082018173807.html

Sometimes it is said that a popular image or tweet or a video clip has "gone viral." That means that it has been shared from person to person many times, like an infection.

When we use this image, we think of ideas spreading on an epidemiological model. Some people have little resistance and so they are highly vulnerable. After just one exposure, they are taken over by the idea and become carriers. Then, they pass it on to more people like themselves who are also of low resistance. A pool is formed of people who pass the idea in question backwards and forwards and, in the process, expose many others. These others might be more highly resistant, and are captured by the idea only after repeated exposure, which happens over a period of time. Eventually, as more and more people are exposed more and more times, the infection will spread to everyone who is not for some reason immune.

The same model, according to which ideas spread like a disease, is often found in the practical thinking of authoritarian regimes. Such regimes often prescribe a particular set of ideas as "healthy" -- for example, obedience to the state and loyalty to the ruler, each embodying or personifying the nation. A source of danger to the regime is then the spread of "unhealthy" ideas, which might encourage disrespect of authority or public demonstrations of discontent. They worry that ideas about free speech or the accountability of rulers, if unchecked, might go viral, undermining the stability of the regime.

The epidemiological model also prescribes the remedy. Risks to public health are contained by keeping the community under continuous surveillance, by quickly identifying outbreaks of disease, and stepping in immediately to isolate the people who have become ideologically sick, preventing them from passing on their infection more widely.

This remedy can be seen at work today in China's province of Xinjiang, where the Chinese state is trying to manage the largely Muslim ethnic minority of Uighurs. On August 18, The Economist reported:

During the past year campaigners, academics and journalists have been shedding light on the detention for “re-education” of vast numbers of ethnic-Uighur Muslims in China’s far-western province of Xinjiang. On August 13th the topic was raised at the UN, when experts undertaking an audit of China’s policies towards ethnic minorities said they had heard that as many as 1m Uighurs are being locked away.

The Economist's report went on to cite a recording by the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region communist party youth league, made last year and published on WeChat. The full transcript can be found on the Radio Free Asia website, and that's where I have taken the following excerpt:

In recent times, amid a growing heavy crackdown, a small number of people—particularly young people—have gone to re-education camps to study. However, their parents, friends and relatives, and the general public don’t understand the benefits of re-education, and as a result they are worried and fearful. So let us give answers to their questions and their concerns today.

Members of the public who have been chosen for re-education have been infected by an ideological illness. They have been infected with religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology, and therefore they must seek treatment from a hospital as an inpatient. In recent years, there have been violent incidents occurring in Xinjiang, one after another, instigated by the “three evil forces [of “terrorism,” “religious extremism,” and “separatism”], which has threatened the safety of people from all ethnic communities and caused serious damage and losses. These terrorists have one thing in common: they were infected by religious extremism and a violent terrorism disease.

The religious extremist ideology is a type of poisonous medicine which confuses the mind of the people. Once they are poisoned by it, some turn into extremists who no longer value even their own lives … If we do not eradicate religious extremism at its roots, the violent terrorist incidents will grow and spread all over like an incurable malignant tumor.

Although a certain number of people who have been indoctrinated with extremist ideology have not committed any crimes, they are already infected by the disease. There is always a risk that the illness will manifest itself at any moment, which would cause serious harm to the public. That is why they must be admitted to a re-education hospital in time to treat and cleanse the virus from their brain and restore their normal mind. We must be clear that going into a re-education hospital for treatment is not a way of forcibly arresting people and locking them up for punishment, it is an act that is part of a comprehensive rescue mission to save them.

In order to provide treatment to people who are infected with ideological illnesses and to ensure the effectiveness of the treatment, the Autonomous Regional Party Committee decided to set up re-education camps in all regions, organizing special staff to teach state and provincial laws, regulations, the party’s ethnic and religious policies, and various other guidelines. They mobilized the public to learn the common language [Mandarin Chinese], complete various technical training courses, and take part in cultural and sport activities, teaching them what is correct and incorrect … so they can clearly distinguish right from wrong … At the end of re-education, the infected members of the public return to a healthy ideological state of mind, which guarantees them the ability to live a beautiful happy life with their families.

Ideological illnesses are the same as physical illnesses, in that they must be treated in time, and should never be ignored and allowed to become serious. Otherwise, later we will regret it, as it will be too late … Being infected by religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology and not seeking treatment is like being infected by a disease that has not been treated in time, or like taking toxic drugs … There is no guarantee that it will not trigger and affect you in the future. If people don’t attend re-education class because there is no one to take responsibility for the household chores, or if they choose to run away from re-education, that can be considered being very irresponsible to themselves, their families and society.

You can see that the Chinese communist party youth league's model of the spread of ideas, expressed in this long quotation, is not intellectually consistent. The unhealthy ideas are sometimes called a "virus," sometimes a "poisonous medicine." But the general idea of ideological infection could not be clearer: "Ideological illnesses are the same as physical illnesses."

One feature of this perspective is that people who have been infected are not to blame (unless they refuse treatment). Another is that they are not seen as lost to the community; they can be saved (or they must help to save themselves). Nonetheless, as long as they are inflected by unhealthy ideas, they are a danger to the community as well as to themselves -- even if they are legally innocent of any crime. Therefore, compulsion is justified to treat them.

PS

Why am I interested? In another context, the Soviet KGB (security police) used the terminology of "unhealthy" ideas and behaviours, and of methods of "prophylaxis" (a medical term for prevention), all the time in internal correspondence and reports. If you would like to read more about this, there are some human-interest stories and more discussion in my book, One Day We Will Live Without Fear, especially chapter 5.


August 06, 2018

Brexit and the Rights and Wrongs of Austerity

Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/research/centres/cage/manage/publications/381-2018_fetzer.pdf

A great new paper by my CAGE colleague Thiemo Fetzer was in the news last week. It asks: Did Austerity Cause Brexit? Thiemo is one of those that know how to write a good abstract so, rather than try to summarize the paper in my own words, I’ll use his:

Did austerity cause Brexit? This paper shows that the rise of popular support for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), as the single most important correlate of the subsequent Leave vote in the 2016 European Union (EU) referendum, along with broader measures of political dissatisfaction, are strongly and causally associated with an individual’s or an area’s exposure to austerity since 2010. In addition to exploiting data from the population of all electoral contests in the UK since 2000, I leverage detailed individual level panel data allowing me to exploit within-individual variation in exposure to specific rules-based welfare reforms as well as broader measures of political preferences. The results suggest that the EU referendum could have resulted in a Remain victory had it not been for a range of austerity-induced welfare reforms. These reforms activated existing economic grievances. Further, auxiliary results suggest that the underlying economic grievances have broader origins than what the current literature on Brexit suggests. Up until 2010, the UK’s welfare state evened out growing income differences across the skill divide through transfer payments. This pattern markedly stops from 2010 onwards as austerity started to bite.

Thiemo’s paper has already been widely reported (e.g. hereand here). The reports have tended to sustain a simple political narrative: In 2010, as Chancellor of the new coalition government, George Osborne set the course towards austerity. Austerity provoked the rise of UKIP and anti-EU sentiment. By implication, austerity was a mistake for which we are paying now with Brexit.

Not so fast.

Thiemo’s findings should be considered in the context of another story in last week’s news. In the Financial Times on 2 August, Chris Giles reported on the latest fiscal sustainability report of the Office of Budget Responsibility The report showed that, if the economy grows and if we continue to tax and spend on pensions, long-term care, health, education, and welfare at current rates, by 2050 there will be no funding for anything else. The government will be unable to pay anything towards defence, police, transport, arts and museums, business, and local authority services such as bins, libraries, and parks.

Driving this conclusion is two problems. One, the British population is ageing. Two, the economy is growing more slowly than in the past. Spending on old age will necessarily encroach more and more on a pool of resources that is finite and will fail to keep up.

In an era of low-interest rates it is tempting to suppose that the government can simply borrow more to pay for these things. Certainly, it can do this for a while. But that can only kick the fiscal can down the road. As deficits rise and once more accelerate the growth of the public debt, the burden of debt interest payments will also grow more rapidly, tightening the screws ever more harshly.

What does this have to do with Thiemo’s paper? It affects the implications that may be drawn.

First, when slow growth makes deficits unsustainable, austerity is inevitable at some point. Certainly, this does not deprive us of all choice. For example, we can choose to have austerity now or later. But for every unit of austerity that we postpone now, we will have more than one unit down the road; that's in the nature of the accumulation of debt. As Chris Giles points out, the government’s relaxation of fiscal targets in 2016, and its more recent boost to health spending, have brought forward the point at which the government will run out of money for “other” spending by six years. We can also choose who will bear austerity’s burdens. Are welfare benefits too generous? Should graduates pay higher contributions? Should companies pay higher taxes, or their shareholders, who include both relatively wealthy households and the pension funds responsible for the retirement incomes of the middle and lower classes?

These are all choices that could have been made differently, and that we can still make. But, as growth prospects diminish, what we cannot do is choose not to have austerity at all, ever.

Second, if you’re thinking that the government should not have imposed austerity in 2010 because that policy induced people to turn to UKIP and Brexit, think again. Rightly or wrongly, George Osborne was trying to return the UK economy to fiscal sustainability by following transparent targets and rules. The purpose of such rules has been to try to bind governments, so that they do not exploit their discretionary powers to time taxing and spending decisions in order to reward supporters, win their votes, and so manipulate elections.

Which is a good thing—right?

If your present thinking is that Thiemo’s paper shows that austerity was a bad policy, ask yourself what you thought of austerity before you knew his findings. If you already had reasons to believe that austerity was a bad policy, then stick to them, whatever they were. Thiemo’s findings have not added to them.

If, perhaps, Thiemo has changed your mind—previously, you thought austerity was necessary, and now you have turned against it—then be careful. The risk you face is that you may soon get what you now wish for: a government that systematically manipulates its electoral base with fiscal generosity that must be paid for later.


March 15, 2018

The Skripal Affair: Tit for Tat

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-43412702

This morning I had the pleasure of talking with Trish Adudu on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire Radio about the Russian state and skulduggery in Salisbury. In five minutes we only touched on a small proportion of what was covered in my notes. Here’s my full commentary on recent events.

Who is to blame for the Skripal affair?

We don’t yet know the persons directly responsible for the attempt to murder Sergei and Yuliya Skripal. Without that knowledge, why does the Russia government not get the benefit of the doubt? First and foremost, Russia’s rulers have form. Putin presides over a conspiratorial regime. Too many opponents, critics, and whistle blowers have come to a bad end under his rule.

The Russian government and connected Russians have offered a long list of alternative candidates for the crime: MI5, Ukraine, Georgia, the United States, and, bizarrely, the family of Yuliya Skripal's boyfriend, seeking to break his connection to a traitor. The fostering of doubt by scattering such allegations is also part of this form.

Second, Novochok, the nerve agent used in Salisbury, is a Russian product of the Cold War. It was intended to be undetectable, but decades have gone by and it is no longer. Russia claims to have destroyed all its stocks, but this is self-evidently not the case.

Third, yes, some third-party involvement is entirely possible. But that should not let the Russian government off the hook. There is a well-understood advantage for a party like the Russian state in using “third parties” to achieve goals by stealth that cannot be sought openly. Sometimes those “third parties” will go “too far,” whether by accident or design, but this is not necessarily an unwanted thing, because it increases complexity and improves the plausibility of denial.

If you think of the various ways in which Russia has challenged the international order in recent years, “third parties” were involved in many of them: seizing Crimea, invading Eastern Ukraine, and shooting down the MH17 jet liner, as well as in many domestic assassinations. Often the trail is not that long and the “third parties” are barely even that. The two men who British police believe assassinated Alexander Litvinenko were former KGB operatives.

Don’t we murder people abroad too?

Sometimes, yes. There are examples of people have done great wrongs or present great dangers, who have put themselves beyond the reach of justice. A case in point would be the execution of Usama Bin Laden. (But the US government made no secret of its role.)

I don’t consider myself to be an expert in such cases. If Western governments set out to kill people in circumstances other than the ones I just described, my guess would be that it’s usually the wrong thing to do. And any such cases should absolutely not be used to justify the attempted murders in Salisbury. (Besides, to defend oneself against a murder charge by saying "he deserved it" or "I'm not the only one" essentially concedes the allegation.)

Most importantly, Skripal was not a fugitive from justice. He was previously tried in a Russian court for being a British spy, convicted, and imprisoned. The Russian state could have shot him at the time, and they did not; the court put him in prison. Later, they decided to pardon him and release him. They could have kept him in Russia, and they did not. They let him go abroad in exchange for some of their own spies. There is absolutely no “what about” defence for trying to kill him now – let alone his daughter, who lives in Moscow and has never been charged with anything.

Britain's responses

Should Britain respond? Yes, absolutely. The expulsion of diplomats thought to be undercover intelligence operatives is appropriate. So are measures against particular Russians now living in Britain on the basis of “unexplained wealth.”

It’s important to understand that nearly all forms of sanction bring risks of collateral damage, which we should try to limit. British and Russia have many cultural and business ties, most of them completely innocent and bringing large benefits. Most Russians living or studying in Britain are entirely innocent of connections to this or any crime. Britons living in Russia are as vulnerable to indiscriminate sanctions as Russians in Britain. Footballers and football fans are mostly innocent bystanders. Whatever are the rights and wrongs of football’s international governance, we should try not to damage these links.

We should also keep talking to the Russians, but, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, the value of high-level contacts is low when the tone of the Russian side is currently limited to sarcasm and passive aggression.

One of the most important responses should be to investigate the Skripal affair thoroughly and to publish the results, as after the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. It was a bad mistake of the government in 2006 to try to limit the damage from the Litvinenko affair by suppressing evidence for the inquest. Lasting damage resulted; possibly, Putin or the FSB concluded that Britain was a soft target. If the individual wrong-doers in the Skripal affair cannot be brought to justice, their public exposure is still vitally important.

Beyond these things, Britain can do little alone. That’s why we have allies in the European Union and in NATO – to help defend us when we are attacked.

What will the Russians do next?

Because both sides need to maintain the appearance of injured innocence, there will be a period of tit-for-tat. These processes do not usually go to many rounds. But everything depends on intentions. If the Russian government intends to escalate the situation, and is not frightened of the consequences, there is little we can do immediately to limit the process. But it should surely give us pause for thought: why we have allowed a situation to arise in which a potential adversary feels able to act against us with impunity?

Are we risking war with the Russians? The risk of unintentional war is very low, and is nearly always lower than many people think. Many believe, wrongly, that the First World War came about through unintended escalation from trivial starting points. This is wrong: the First World War was planned in Berlin and Vienna, and went ahead in 1914 because London and Paris allowed deterrence to fail.

Today the main risk of escalation comes from the possibility that the Russian government might intend to benefit from increased international tension or from conflict. In Russia there’s a presidential campaign under way. Whatever the motivation, the only way we can protect ourselves against this is by deterrence, which requires reliable defences and a strong alliance.


November 20, 2017

Shorn of Violence and Coercion? The Soviet Model of Economic Development

Writing about web page https://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21731113-even-today-some-see-it-way-kick-start-industrialisation-what-there

One of the joys of your own blog is that there is no editor to reject your contribution. (The corresponding downside risk is that there is no one to tell you not to be so bloody stupid.)

Last week, I wrote a letter to The Economist. I responded to a column entitled "What there is to learn from the Soviet economic model: Even today, some see it as a way to kick-start industrialisation." The column correctly pointed out that the Soviet way of doing things incurred heavy human and social costs. Nonetheless I felt it missed something. I wrote and said so, but my letter did not make it into this week's issue. Exploiting the prerogative of the blogger, I publish it here:

Sir

Jawaharlal Nehru asked whether the Soviet economic system could be “shorn of violence and coercion” (What there is to learn from the Soviet economic model, Nov. 9, 2017). Your correspondent correctly answers “No,” but, like Nehru, fails to grasp the reason. Nehru tried to understand the Soviet economy as a civilian project for economic growth and development. This was his mistake. The Soviet economy’s quantitative controls, priorities, and shortages, were the features of a war economy. The Bolsheviks’ first model was the German economy of sacrifice and mass mobilization for the Great War. Lenin expected to improve on the German outcome by dispensing with private property and the rule of law. The Soviet economy’s comparative advantage lay in supplying the means of national power in the age of mass armies. This advantage was revealed not in global market shares but in the global balance of power, where the Soviet Union was much more successful than its second-rate economy would have predicted. That is why the idea of it retains appeal for Russian nationalists in times of international tension.

Yours sincerely

Mark Harrison


October 28, 2017

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

Writing about web page https://www.elindependiente.com/opinion/2017/10/28/por-que-colapso-la-economia-sovietica/

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.


October 20, 2017

The Past and Future of Free Trade, or How Partisan Preferences Spread Foolishness

Writing about web page https://twitter.com/nickdearden75/status/919871698236829697

I woke up on October 16 to a learned debate on Twitter about economic history. Daniel Hannan, who is a Conservative Member of the European Parliament, had posted this:

What made us the world's richest nation? We removed trade barriers and so put money into ordinary people's pockets.

In response, Nick Dearden, who is the director of Global Justice Now, a campaigning organization, replied:

No. We plundered & pillaged. We sold people by the millions. We forced China into opium addiction. We decimated Bengal's textile industry.

(At the time of writing, both of these tweets were well liked, with Dearden well ahead: Hannan 982, Dearden 1.9K.)

Maybe you've guessed: this dispute was not really about economic history. It's about Brexit. Hannan urges Britain to go it alone as a free-wheeling, free-trading nation state, as in the past; that, he maintains, is what made us rich then, and it will work for us again. Dearden maintains that we owe Britain's wealth to the world, from which we once stole it. I'm not sure what that implies for Brexit, but for sure he doesn't seem to like free trade.

Considered as economic history, which version is more plausible? Neither account would pass even a low bar, say, that of an undergraduate multiple choice test. But, of the two, I prefer Hannan's. Here's how that works:

Why Hannan would not pass: he is wrong to imply that free trade was the key factor. Britain's relative advantages can be dated at least back to the fourteenth century, long before free trade; in fact, long before foreign trade represented a substantial share of Britain's economic activities.

Why Hannan deserves some credit: he is right to suggest that in the nineteenth century free trade further promoted British productivity and prosperity. He is also correct to remind us, as many forget, that trade is primarily about wages and prices, and that the gains from trade stem from higher productivity in the jobs we have, not from more jobs.

Why Dearden would fail -- on every count. Plunder, pillage, and the slave trade have little or nothing to do with Britain's modern competitive advantages. These advantages stemmed from factors that came into play long before the eighteenth century. Even in the eighteenth century, Britain's foreign predations were not on a sufficient scale to explain the continued growth of the economy at home, for at that time the total of foreign transactions was not large enough relative to the size of the economy, and all profits on trade did not represent a significant share of British investment.

At home, the revenues from British colonies and plantation enriched a few, but they did not generate economic growth. Britain's industrial revolution was made by mill owners and ironmasters, who were not especially enriched by their entrepreneurship because competition continually drove down their prices and profits. Those enriched by the cotton trade were the many who gained from falling textile prices and cheap imported food.

That's at home; what about the rest of the world? The cotton trade did not only enrich Britain. It also enriched others. It did not, as Dearden claims, "decimate Bengal's textile industry." That was done by Indian mill owners. In India as in England, some lost but many gained. This is shown by the fact that, throughout India's so-called deindustrialization, both production and consumption of textiles rose decade by decade.

So . . . if Hannan had the better case for Britain to have embarked on free trade in the nineteenth century, does he have the stronger case for Britain to leave the EU in the twentiy-first? Absolutely not.

The gains from free trade in the nineteenth century arose from exchanging basic staple commodities: food and raw materials, textiles, and simple machinery. These goods could be described by simple standards, and contracting for them was largely free of regulation. Trade in the twenty-first century is radically different.

Today, trade in complex machinery and electronic devices relies on common standards for quality, safety, and networking. Trade in services, where there are the greatest unrealized gains, relies even more on common regulatory standards for consumer protection and contract enforcement. These things are not provided by the WTO, or by free trade, or by free trade agreements. They are provided by international regulatory harmonization, such as by the EU's Single Market.

If you want to import, you have to export. By leaving the Single Market, we throw up a trade barrier between ourselves and our largest, most competitive market.

So, to the extent that Hannan is correct on free trade, his is a powerful argument against Brexit.

More generally, the exchange between Hannan and Dearden illustrates how the desire to defend or attack prompts the opposing sides to oversimplify history and to spread half-truths and "alternative facts." Partisanship makes idiots of us all.