Friday, December 31, 2021

What I read in the Year III of covid: an annotated summary

 I will try to imitate my colleague @milescorak who nicely summarized his work and readings in 2021.

Most of my work was on my forthcoming book “Through the lens of inequality” that looks at how inequality was perceived and framed (popular word these days) from before the French Revolution to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The book covers Quesnay, Adam Smith, Ricardo, Marx, Pareto and Kuznets. And then the last chapter looks at inequality studies in communist and capitalist countries between 1960 and 1990.

The most challenging chapters are the last one (why the eclipse of inequality studies?) and the one on Marx. Marx is always a challenge both because of the breadth of his writings and combination of philosophy, history, literature and economics in them; as well as tons of commentary it produced during the past 150 years.  

So, in terms of this year’s readings, let me start with the Marxiana.

I re-read all three volumes of Leszek Kolakowski’s “Main currents of Marxism” that I read 30 years ago. Absolutely brilliant. Kolakowski’s erudition is breathtaking. You wonder: Oh, why I cannot know as much as he does?

He also has the advantage of having lived in Moscow in the 1950s and speaking Russian, so he covers Russian (often Stalinist) authors who are almost unknown in the West.

The towering presence in the books is Lukacs’s. Although Kolakowski is critical of him (“intellect in the service of a dogma”), there is no doubt that Lukacs’s influence on Kolakowski was enormous. (He says it himself in the preface.) According to Kolakowski (and not only him), Lukacs was the most important Marxist philosopher of the last century. Gramsci also gets an “honorable mention” as does Sorel, and even Lenin for his “Philosophical Notebooks” (on Hegel) of whose existence I have totally forgotten.

Here is my Substack review of Kolakowski’s view of Trotsky. Not very flattering to say the least.

This Fall I read Shlomo Avineri’s “The Social and Political Thought of  Karl Marx.” It is a beautiful book that tries to present Marx as a West European liberal thinker. I think that Avineri downplays the revolutionary character of Marx especially in the context of 1848-51 and the Paris Commune. Marx can never be seen as a liberal *only*. Perhaps liberal too--in some ways--but surely not as *only*. Avineri,  unjustifiably I think, takes a super critical attitude towards Engels who is accused of misinterpreting Marx. I wish I had reviewed the book—perhaps another time.

I have to say that neither Kolakowski nor Avineri have directly influenced my Marx chapter—simply because they do not discuss much Marx’s economics. But indirectly they are absolutely invaluable. Reading them, and also Marx's "Economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844" (which I read for the first time this year too) made me realize how important is Hegel for understanding Marx as a philosopher. Unfortunately, I have not read any of Hegel, and even more unfortunately, I do not think I will start now.

S S Prawer has written a delightful book on Marx’s use of literature in his writings going over Marx’s classical education, his love for Greek writers and philosophers  (Marx’s dissertation was on Epicurus) and nothing less than adoration of Shakespeare, Dante, Balzac and Goethe. Marx largely learned English from reading Shakespeare whom he would cite in extenso to his children. In the last ten years of his life Marx also learned Russian so that he could read Russian authors in the original. I would recommend the book to all lovers of literature.

Finally, one disappointing piece of Marxiana were Benedetto Croce’s debates with Labriola (and Pareto) on Marx’s theory of value, marginalism, individualism etc. I did not like Croce’s style that is full of rhetorical questions (on a few pages I circled all the ?; they would run into a dozen), easy metaphors, sentences that seem often to be both simple and too complicated. I never finished the book.  

Adam Smith is (obviously) one of the six economists in my forthcoming book. I wrote the chapter on Smith the year before, so this year I read only Dennis Rasmussen’s “The infidel and the professor” (published in 2018), a story of the friendship between David Hume and Adam Smith. I reviewed it here.

A  very nice and light book.  I was interested in the relationship between Smith and the physiocrats but the book barely mentions it. There is apparently no new information on it.  

My interest in China continued unabated this year.

A monumental history of the Cultural Revolution was published in English in 2021. I reviewed Yang Jisheng book in two separate reviews, one critical, another laudatory (see below).


There is nothing I need to add now to these reviews: the book is enormous, extremely well-researched, and for me it was a trip down the memory lane as I do remember many of the events from the 1970s: Chu Enlai’s death, Mao’s death, Hua Guofeng (whom I saw, from distance, live when he visited Belgrade in the late 1970s), the Gang of Four,  the “capitalist roader” Deng….

Isabella Weber’s “How China escaped the shock therapy” justifiably attracted huge attention. I participated in one of her book talks. I discuss the shock therapy and indebtedness of Eastern Europe (the themes addressed by Weber in the Chinese context) in this post.

I also read Julia Lovell’s “Maoism: AGlobal History.” It is a good book, fun to read, but with a somewhat exaggerated, or overdone, thesis of  Maoism as a global movement. Still you learn a lot about Abimael Guzman of the Sendero Luminoso notoriety (perhaps the best chapter of the book), the Khmer Rouge, the Sino-Soviet split, Enver Hoxha etc. I reviewed the book here:

I enjoyed Stephen Pratt’s “Imperial Twilight” which describes how Britain ended up waging a war (the first Opium War) against China. My son recommended the book and I read it on the beach this Summer. Thus this year's Summer’s vacation will forever remain linked in my memory with this book. (For some reason, my Summer book choices always turned well.)  The Opium War was just the beginning of “the century of humiliation” but one does get the idea how China was mistreated by Western powers. I reviewed the book here.

Should I stop now? Let me just mention Anthea Roberts’ and Nicholas Lamp’s “Six faces of globalization” that takes off from the “elephant chart” to study how different narratives can be created around it. Quite a fascinating book especially at the time of Trump, middle class discontent in the West, and Sino-US conflict.

I also read John Lewis Gaddis book on the Cold War. I knew that he was the premier  US historian of the Cold War and was curious  how, in this popularly written summary, he describes it. Gaddis is a very good writer, but the book is ultimately disappointing. Perhaps it is an unfair comparison but when you think how Thucydides was able to see the war from the point of view of different participants, you cannot but be disappointed to read Gaddis who sees it only from the Foggy Bottom and Pentagon perspectives. I felt a bit sorry for students whose sole exposure to the Cold War history might come from Gaddis.

This is about all that is worth mentioning.

I do not think that my reading priorities will change much in 2022. Will continue with China, Marx, Simon Kuznets (my author No. 6), inequality literature of the 1970s and 1980s (which is rather boring, so I did not review it here)….If a good book on World War I comes along by some chance…

Sunday, December 26, 2021

How I did not celebrate Christmas

 A week ago, a friend asked me how was Christmas when I was growing up in Yugoslavia, in the 1960s. I said to  her: “Christmas was cancelled.” That was true, but the full truth was a bit more complex. Like in the Soviet Union, but not in the rest of Eastern Europe, Christmas in Yugoslavia was combined with the New Year, and all the usual Christmas festivities, including the Christmas tree, Santa Claus and gift-exchange were just displaced by several days. Christmas was folded onto the New Year and lost most, or all, of its religious connotation. The official holiday was New Year’s day, a staunchly secular festivity.

How did that happen? When Communists came to power in Yugoslavia they faced a multi-religious country where different religions during the World War II, egged on by the Nazis, engaged into brutal internecine and religious wars. (Anyone who believes that religious people are tolerant knows nothing about history—or present, for that matter.)  In the intra-war Kingdom of Yugoslavia, both types of Christians celebrated their Christmases and Easters; they were official holidays, and it is possible (although I am not sure) that in the parts of the country with a Muslim majority some Muslim holidays were official holidays too. It was a complicated patchwork of religious celebrations. Yugoslav communists, dizzy with the success of the revolution, decided to cut the Gordian knot of religious celebrations  (which they disliked anyway) and get rid of all of them as official holidays.  

As I mentioned, they followed Soviet practice there. The situation was different in other Eastern European countries whose communists were more considerate, as they came to power mostly thanks to Soviet involvement, had to be a bit more thoughtful of the religious practices of the populace, and did not face a patchwork of religious holidays. Also, they often had to deal with a much more powerful Catholic Church. Thus, in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Christmas remained celebrated, quite  openly.

I hardly knew about the existence of Christmas when I was a child. Both the 25th of December and the 7th of January were ordinary working days, with my parents, and everyone else's parents going to work. When I would read in the newspapers an article, for example, on how Parisian streets were especially nicely lit for that year’s Christmas, I felt vaguely that the French must have been celebrating some weird quasi-medieval festival that no modern-minded person would pay slightest attention to. For me, Christmas celebrations in Western Europe were a bit like those weird customs that I would read still existed amongst the British Lords, Queens and Kings that seemed so outlandish that I was wondering how an advanced country could have such unenlightened practices. It was perhaps like a feeling that votaries of some new religion might elicit among many people in the United States today.

In our elementary school, Christmas and Easter (of both kinds) were also ordinary working days. So far as I remember, nobody ever mentioned them. The only discordant note that I remember is that we had in our class a kid, Mikica by name, whose parents refused to send him to school on Christmas and Easter. He was a quiet, rather taciturn kid, nor much liked by other students, and twice a year, he would just not show up, get an unjustified absence from the teachers, but neither teachers nor anybody else made a big deal about it. For us, kids, it seemed that Mikica’s parents were somewhat unusual parents who instead of pushing their son to go to school, very uncharacteristically, forbid him to take classes on a specific day. In a way we liked it: not going to school and having parents on your side, seemed pretty cool.

Sociologically –and I became aware of that much later—there was an interesting angle to Mikica’s school absences. While most of my classmates’ parents worked for state-owned companies or government (including my parents), Mikica’s father belonged to the private sector. He was a taxi-driver. Somebody like my father, working for the government, could not, even if he wanted (and my father certainly did not—since he cheerfully ignored Christmas), celebrate Christmas or not send his kids to school on the Christmas day. The story of a communist party member and a government official taking a day off on Christmas or even hosting a Christmas dinner would spread. The outcome would be severe Party-cell critique, job demotion, and in the case of repeated offenses, probably firing.

But if one were in the private sector, the rules were different. My aunt, who was religious and cared about family traditions, would every winter organize splendid dinners, with white-table cloth and crystal glasses, either for Orthodox Christmas or patron saint (hers was St John on January 20). My parents, including my father, would gladly go there. The meals were exquisite, the wine good. But that was politically acceptable: going to a religious festivity hosted by a close cousin was not transgressing the rules. And my aunt, who was a dentist, having had private practice and then later (after the private practice for doctors was banned) working in a state-owned health system like NHS could freely celebrate Christmas. She was not member of the Communist Party and could do whatever she wanted with the exception perhaps of celebrating such holidays in too ostentatious manner. My other aunt who was a geography teacher did the same. Her position was more delicate because teachers were not supposed, by speech or deed, to engage in what might be considered religious propaganda. But she, deeply religious, observed all holidays quietly within the family.

And for us kids, as I said, Christmas was cancelled. We were looking forward to the New Year, when Father Frost would bring various presents, when we would decorate the tree, and as we grew older when we could go out, partying, drinking, smoking, and some even smoking illegal substances, until the wee hours of the morning.

The older we became, the more Christmas faded into irrelevance. The New Year’s eve with nice dinners, dancing parties and concerts was much more exciting. Where should I go? Private party, the new hotel, dancing floor? Who would come? How long will the party last? Excitement and impatience would overwhelm us in the last few days before December 31. And then as everyone was  getting ready for the party, and as I would shave in front of the mirror, to look fresh and neat, the scent of the new cologne would suddenly mix with the crisp and clean smell of the just-fallen snow---and with the dream of a girl I might meet that evening.




Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The Summit of Democracies is a wrong idea (for the world)

 More than 100 nations’ presidents, prime ministers and kings will virtually meet at the Summit of Democracies on December 9 and 10.  It is the first such meeting in history, where the application, or the ostensible application, of the democratic principles in the governance of national affairs is used as a criterion to invite the participants to an international meeting.

There are three ways to look at the summit. A naïve view is to consider it as a meeting of like-minded states interested in learning from each other about how to improve the application of democratic principles at home. (For that, however, there are  many other venues and there was no need to create a new one.) A more realistic way is to see it as an attempt to create a loose association of states that would try to promote abroad their model of governance under the assumption that it is compatible with the aspirational ideals embodied in the UN Charter of Human Rights. The most realistic way however is to see it as a  prelude to the creation of an unwieldy association of states that will be used by the United States to spearhead its ideological crusade in the escalating geopolitical conflict with China and Russia.

This is why the summit is, from a global or cosmopolitan perspective  (which it pretends to reflect), exactly the wrong idea. It aims to divide the world into two incompatible camps between whom there can be little intercourse and even less understanding. If things are taken to their logical conclusions, conflict is inevitable.

The clash between China and the United States is a clash driven by geopolitical considerations: the rising relative power of China and its attempt to reassert its historical prominence in East Asia. It has nothing with to do with democracy.

The clash has acquired an ideological dimension by the insistence of each side that its system is more attuned to the world’s needs. China puts the emphasis on its system’s technocratic nature which, it claims, efficiently responds to what people want; US puts the emphasis on democratic participation of the citizenry.

The geopolitical and ideological clashes however enter into a truly dangerous territory when they become transferred into the area of values. For geopolitical conflict can by solved, as has been done many times in history, by one or another formula of balance of power. The same is true regarding the economic or ideological competition of the two systems. It may be even beneficial to the world as each side, in trying to outbid the other, pays more attention to global issues such as poverty alleviation, migration, climate change, the pandemic and the like.   

But if one side believes that the values it incarnates are in total opposition to the values held by the other side, it is difficult to see how the conflict can, in the long-run, be avoided. Compromise between different interests is possible, but not between different values. The creation of an association which enshrines or cements the view of value-incompatibility between the American-type systems and the Chinese-type systems contributes to elevating the original clash of interests to a plane where compromise is near impossible.  

The formalization of the conflict forces all countries, whether they like it or not, to choose sides. Such alignment projects the US-China clash across the world and exacerbates it.

The lesson that we should have learned from the first Cold War is that the refusal to divide the world into two implacably opposed camp has diminished  the intensity of the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, and probably prevented a number of local wars. This was the contribution of the non-alignment movement. But this will be impossible now: there will be no third way. According to the logic of the Summit, you are either with us or against us. 

The Manichean logic of the struggle between good and evil pervades today’s attitude of many Western media and politicians. Many may truly believe that they are on the side of angels, or might have convinced themselves to believe so, but they do not realize that by doing so they participate in a very self-serving reading of history and bring the world closer to an open conflict. In fact, what they are doing is the very opposite of what peace-seeking, compromise-building, cosmopolitan approach would require them to do: seek common ground between systems and countries, and allow them to naturally evolve toward a better state of affairs.

All great conflicts begin with great ideological justifications. Crusades started with the idea of wresting the control of Jesus’ tomb  from the “the infidels.” They turned into plundering expeditions that destroyed all societies, Christian or Muslim, in their stead. European colonialism was justified in either religious (evangelization of the “heathens”) or civilizational terms. They were smoke-screens for the system of servile labor in Latin America, enslavement in Africa, and control of internal policies elsewhere (India, Egypt, China, and most of Africa). At the end of the First World War, a similarly megalomaniac project by Woodrow Wilson, while pretending to follow the great principles of self-determination  and democracy, degenerated into a rubber-stamping of colonial rule under the label of “protectorates” and “mandates”, and sordid territorial deals.   

This new grandiose project, if it remains alive, will end the same way: as a flimsy cover-up for much more mundane objectives. This is why the first summit of democracies should hopefully be its last.


Saturday, December 4, 2021

How to share vaccines between the poor and the rich

 Until a friend asked me yesterday, I have not given much thought to the vaccine gap between rich and poor countries. My “line of business” is global inequality; so I am inured to the fact that the gap in per capita incomes between rich and poor countries is huge, that the gap in their CO2 emissions per capita is similarly large, and I was neither surprised not did I pay much attention to the vaccine gap.

But his question led me to think a bit more carefully. And here is a small “model” that I think explains that gap. I apologize if somebody has already produced something similar or better. If not, I think that this small model, which can be made much better by the introduction of real data, may usefully be the basis of a nice paper.


How does the model work? First, assume that only rich countries produce vaccines; poor countries can buy them or are given vaccines. We’ll assume that they are given. Then,  suppose that all governments prefer to give vaccines to own citizens than to foreigners. This is, I think, obvious: citizens vote for the government and expect things from it, not foreigners. Third, introduce the externalities of the pandemic. The pandemic is not over until everybody is vaccinated and safe. (Yes, it could be over for the rich also if it remains endemic in some parts of the world, but given the level of infectiousness of covid, we can disregard this possibility.) So, let’s say that from each vaccine given to foreigners, rich country gets a small gain α: its own infections are reduced too if fewer people in poor countries get covid.


Now, after we have so nicely set up the assumptions, let rich country produce vaccines. At first the number of vaccines compared to total needs, that is, population in a rich country is small: you may have enough to vaccinate only 10% of the domestic population. At that point, domestic elements totally dominate. You give 100% of vaccines to the local population. This is our point A in the graph below. (The horizontal axis is the ratio between number of vaccines and domestic population; the vertical axis is the percentage of existing vaccines that the rich country will give to own citizens.) That situation will continue for a while: you will just provide vaccines to the domestic population. 


              But note that as we move toward 100% domestic coverage, the gain from additional domestic coverage may become less than α. Why? Because  the number of domestic infections may be reduced more by helping to control the spread of the disease elsewhere than by having an additional domestic citizen vaccinated. This happens at point B, and after that point, the rich country becomes willing to give vaccines to the poor. It thus seems that eventually all rich countries will, after vaccinating (say) 80% of their populations, reach the point at which the flow of vaccines to the poor world will begin. 


But is it true? We have not taken into account that the pandemic is not a one-shot (so to speak) event. There are new waves of the virus, and everyone requires additional booster shots. So even if at the end of the first wave, the rich country ended with almost 100% coverage of the domestic population and was thus willing to share vaccines with the poor world, the next wave will immediately push it back to the beginning, to our point A where it would have just enough for 10% of domestic population’s boosters. As the second wave progresses, the rich country will traverse exactly the same path as in the first wave, will again reach point B, might begin to share vaccines---only to be set back to the point A by the third wave.


Things get even worse afterwards. As we do not know how many waves there may be, it makes sense to build stocks of vaccines: it thus makes sense, as some rich countries have indeed done, to have 200% of vaccine/population ratio simply because one does not know how many waves (and booster shots) there may be. The conclusion is that incentives to share vaccines with poor countries are significantly diminished because the number of waves cannot be predicted. If we believe that we shall run through the entire Greek alphabet and more, then stockpiling vaccines is totally in the interest of the rich.


How can this be changed? There are, in my opinion, three possibilities. First, new waves might become more infectious. This, interestingly, will make α go up and rich counties more interested in sharing because they can be less isolated from the impact. Second, the world can be broken up into largely non-communicating regions. This  in turn reduces the advantage to the rich country of controlling the outbreak in a poor country and makes the sharing of vaccines less likely. If, for example, a country becomes totally isolated, it has no incentive to give vaccines to anyone. Finally, and by far the best option, is to increase the production of vaccines in poor countries. This ramps up the overall capacity and does not lead to rich countries having to make the invidious choice between domestic and foreign populations. They can give everything they produce to the domestic only so long as  poor countries can, and are allowed to, produce vaccines at home.  To do that however requires giving  up patent rights of vaccine-makers or compensating them (by the rich countries). It thus seems to me that unless we decentralize the production of vaccines, the gap will remain, and no amount of surplus in rich countries will lead them (rationally) to share vaccines with the poor.