All entries for Monday 19 August 2019

August 19, 2019

Brexit as Economic Warfare

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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 The government itself now claims that the report is already out of date: the government has everything in hand.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.

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

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