Income inequality in times of war and revolution: the city of Moscow in 1916

by Elizaveta Blagodeteleva (National Research University Higher School of Economics)

This research will be presented during the EHS Annual Conference in Belfast, April 5th – 7th 2019. Conference registration can be found on the EHS website.

 

Moscow,_Kremlin,_Voznesenskaya_Square,_1900s
Voznesenskaya Square, 1900s. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

In autumn of 1916, a big scandal roiled the Moscow public: local landlords petitioned the municipal government for the permission to raise rents, which was prohibited by the military administration a year before amid the escalating refugee crisis. Newspapers fumed at the selfishness of the rich, who not only avoided serving their country at the battlefield but exploited wartime hardships to get even richer. Health inspectors, lessees and workers of the largest industrial plants publicly raised their objections to the proposal.

Although the concerted effort of the city landlords to increase revenue eventually failed, the public outrage persisted. The occasional evidence of huge war profits and rumours about the luxurious life of industrialists and rentiers stoked anger among the urbanites, who struggled to make ends meet under the increasing pressure of galloping inflation and food shortages. The rent scandal highlighted the growing animosity towards the rich that the Bolsheviks would later channel into fully-fledged class warfare.

In 1916, Moscow residents sincerely believed that the gap between the wealthy and the rest of the population was enormous and it kept widening at an alarming pace. But did their beliefs match reality? In other words, how unequal was urban society in Russia in the last year of the old regime? To answer this question, a student of social and economic inequality would usually refer to income tax records. Unfortunately, there are very few of them in case of imperial Russia.

The Russian authorities had been extremely wary of income taxation up until the beginning of the Great War, when the national political mobilisation elevated the issue of the personal responsibility of each and every subject of the tsar. As a result, the state legislature passed an income tax in the spring of 1916. Its political objectives overwhelmed fiscal practicalities as lawmakers wanted it to bring the state closer to the ‘pockets’ and ‘hearts’ of the people. The progressivity of the new tax was supposed to ensure the levelling of the great fortunes and make the body politic more cohesive.

Since tax collection began in March 1917 and continued through the period of an intense power struggle and regime change, surviving records are patchy. Neither the tsar’s local treasures nor early Soviet fiscal authorities left comprehensive accounts of the sums collected in 1917. Nevertheless, Moscow archives have preserved some tax rolls that document the personal incomes for the year 1916, reported by taxpayers and then ascertained by tax collectors in the first half of 1917.

The records allow a tentative reconstruction of the level of income inequality in the city. Given that the adult population of Moscow amounted to 1.1 million in the spring of 1917, the estimates show that the wealthiest 1% and 5% must have received and then reported about 45.9% and 58.8% of their total income. With the Gini coefficient standing at 0.75, those shares display an extremely high level of income inequality among the city residents in 1916. A huge gap between the rich and the others not only felt real but was real.

Foreign intervention can bring stability…but stability is overrated: the United States in Latin America 1905-31

by Leticia Abad (City University of New York) and Noel Maurer (George Washington University)

This research will be presented during the EHS Annual Conference in Belfast, April 5th – 7th 2019. Conference registration can be found on the EHS website.

 

James_Monroe_Cabinet
‘The Birth of the Monroe Doctrine’ – US President James Monroe presides over a cabinet meeting in 1823, discussing the Monroe Doctrine. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Every time American intervention in some faraway conflict appears to be off the table, another call for it rises. Today the example is the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, where President Nicolás Maduro has neutered the elected parliament while causing the economy to collapse to the point of famine. The Trump administration has openly backed the opposition and the president himself has floated the possibility of military intervention.

Donald Trump is following in the footsteps of President Theodore Roosevelt, who ushered in an earlier era of American intervention with his famous 1904 call: ‘The adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.’

Roosevelt’s declaration began a three-decade period of extensive American intervention, in which the United States used its tools of national power to intervene in the affairs of Latin American governments. The United States took over the fiscal institutions of no fewer than eight (out of 19) Latin American states over the period; deployed military forces in five; and took over the entire state (for a time) in three.

What can that earlier period tell us about the wisdom of modern-day calls for intervention?

In research to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference, we find that US intervention in the period 1905-31 indeed reduced political instability. The number of coups and coup attempts fell, as did the severity of political violence.

More specifically, US intervention reduced the probability of an unconstitutional regime change by 10% and the intensity of political violence (measured by the number of deaths per day in political violence) by almost half. In that sense, intervention worked.

But the United States failed to accomplish its other goals. American aims were not just to reduce violence; they hoped to decrease corruption, increase government revenue and promote investment in the intervened nations.

We find that the efficiency of government institutions – measured by the ability to collect customs revenue – did not change: in fact, it appears to have fallen. That is to say, intervened governments got worse at carrying out their governing functions.

Nor did foreign investors invest more capital into the intervened countries. Neither the stock of portfolio investment, foreign direct investment nor domestic investment budged. The volume of trade did not grow. What did change, however, was an increase in the short-term profits of existing bondholders and trade diversion towards the United States.

In short, intervention provided political stability to the target countries. It also generated private benefits for American investors and traders. But it did little to improve those countries’ quality of governance or long-term growth prospects.

Two general lessons emerge from our work.

First, political stability may be overrated. Investors don’t seem to care, at least inasmuch as instability doesn’t directly affect them. The reason, we postulate, is that investors have many ways of protecting their interests in poor and unstable countries.

Foreign intervention therefore provides a nice benefit to creditors, who believe that it raises their chances of being repaid, but it does little to prompt them to risk good money after bad.

Second, improving governance is hard. It is one thing to prevent rebels from sacking customs houses or stop governments from massacring their opponents; it is quite another to stamp out corruption and make government more efficient. The United States failed at its attempts to promote long-term growth.

We use the opening of the Panama Canal, which brought the seven Pacific coast countries of Latin America closer to Washington in order to strip out reverse causality or the impact of third factors. Being closer to Washington made the United States more likely to intervene but had no independent effect on countries’ political stability or government corruption.

from Vox – “New eBook: The economics of the Great War. A centennial perspective”

by Stephen Broadberry (Oxford University) and Mark Harrison (University of Warwick)

There has always been disagreement over the origins of the Great War, with many authors offering different views of the key factors. One dimension concerns whether the actions of agents should be characterised as rational or irrational. Avner Offer continues to take the popular view that the key decision-makers were irrational in the common meaning of “stupid”, arguing that “(t)he decisions for war were irresponsible, incompetent, and worse”. Roger Ransom, by contrast, uses behavioural economics to introduce bounded rationality for the key decision makers. In his view, over-confidence caused leaders to gamble on war in 1914. At this stage, they expected a large but short war, and when a quick result was not achieved, they then faced the decision of whether or not to continue fighting, or seek a negotiated settlement. Here, Ransom views the decisions of leaders to continue fighting as driven by a concern to avoid being seen to lose the war, consistent with the predictions of prospect theory, where people are more concerned about avoiding losses than making gains. Mark Harrison sees the key decision makers as acting rationally in the sense of standard neoclassical economic thinking, choosing war as the best available option in the circumstances that they faced. For Germany and the other Central Powers in 1914, the decision for war reflected a rational pessimism: locked in a power struggle with the Triple Entente, they had to strike then because their prospects of victory would only get worse.

Full post at https://voxeu.org/article/new-ebook-economics-great-war-centennial-perspective

Winning the capital, winning the war: retail investors in the First World War

by Norma Cohen (Queen Mary University of London)

 

Put_it_into_National_War_Bonds
National War Savings CommitteeMcMaster University Libraries, Identifier: 00001792. Available at wikimedia commons

The First World War brought about an upheaval in British investment, forcing savers to repatriate billions of pounds held abroad and attracting new investors among those living far from London, this research finds. The study also points to declining inequality between Britain’s wealthiest classes and the middle class, and rising purchasing power among the lower middle classes.

The research is based on samples from ledgers of investors in successive War Loans. These are lodged in archives at the Bank of England and have been closed for a century. The research covers roughly 6,000 samples from three separate sets of ledgers of investors between 1914 and 1932.

While the First World War is recalled as a period of national sacrifice and suffering, the reality is that war boosted Britain’s output. Sampling from the ledgers points to the extent to which war unleashed the industrial and engineering innovations of British industry, creating and spreading wealth.

Britain needed capital to ensure it could outlast its enemies. As the world’s capital exporter by 1914, the nation imposed increasingly tight measures on investors to ensure capital was used exclusively for war.

While London was home to just over half the capital raised in the first War Loan in 1914, that had fallen to just under 10% of capital raised in the years after. In contrast, the North East, North West and Scotland – home to the mining, engineering and shipbuilding industries – provided 60% of the capital by 1932, up from a quarter of the total raised by the first War Loan.

The concentration of investor occupations also points to profound social changes fostered by war. Men describing themselves as ‘gentleman’ or ‘esquire’ – titles accorded those wealthy enough to live on investment returns – accounted for 55% of retail investors for the first issue of War Loan. By the post-war years, these were 37% of male investors.

In contrast, skilled labourers – blacksmiths, coal miners and railway signalmen among others– were 9.0% of male retail investors by the after-war years, up from 4.9% in the first sample.

Suppliers of war-related goods may not have been the main beneficiaries of newly-created wealth. The sample includes large investments by those supplying consumer goods sought by households made better off by higher wages, steady work and falling unemployment during the war.

During and after the war, these sectors were accused of ‘profiteering’, sparking national indignation. Nearly a quarter of investors in 5% War Loan listing their occupations as ‘manufacturer’ were producing boots and leather goods, a sector singled out during the war for excess profits. Manufacturers in the final sample produced mineral water, worsteds, jam and bread.

My findings show that War Loan was widely held by households likely to have had relatively modest wealth; while the largest concentration of capital remained in the hands of relatively few, larger numbers had a small stake in the fate of the War Loans.

In the post-war years, over half of male retail investors held £500 or less. This may help to explain why efforts to pay for war by taxing wealth as well as income – a debate that echoes today – proved so politically challenging. The rentier class on whom additional taxation would have been levied may have been more of a political construct by 1932 than an actual presence.

 

From VOX – Short poppies: the height of WWI servicemen

From Timothy Hatton, Professor of Economics, Australian National University and University of Essex. Originally published on 9 May 2014

The height of today’s populations cannot explain which factors matter for long-run trends in health and height. This column highlights the correlates of height in the past using a sample of British army soldiers from World War I. While the socioeconomic status of the household mattered, the local disease environment mattered even more. Better education and modest medical advances led to an improvement in average health, despite the war and depression.

hattongraph
Distribution of heights in a sample of army recruits. From Bailey et al. (2014)

The last century has seen unprecedented increases in the heights of adults (Bleakley et al., 2013). Among young men in western Europe, that increase amounts to about four inches. On average, sons have been taller than their fathers for the last five generations. These gains in height are linked to improvements in health and longevity.

Increases in human stature have been associated with a wide range of improvements in living conditions, including better nutrition, a lower disease burden, and some modest improvement in medicine. But looking at the heights of today’s populations provides limited evidence on the socioeconomic determinants that can account for long-run trends in health and height. For that, we need to understand the correlates of height in the past. Instead of asking why people are so tall now, we should be asking why they were so short a century ago.

In a recent study Roy Bailey, Kris Inwood and I ( Bailey et al. 2014) took a sample of soldiers joining the British army around the time of World War I. These are randomly selected from a vast archive of two million service records that have been made available by the National Archives, mainly for the benefit of genealogists searching for their ancestors.

For this study, we draw a sample of servicemen who were born in the 1890s and who would therefore be in their late teens or early twenties when they enlisted. About two thirds of this cohort enlisted in the armed services and so the sample suffers much less from selection bias than would be likely during peacetime, when only a small fraction joined the forces. But we do not include officers who were taller than those they commanded. And at the other end of the distribution, we also miss some of the least fit, who were likely to be shorter than average.

FULL TEXT HERE

From The Royal Economic Society – Myths of the Great War

From issue no. 165, APril 2014, pp.17-196

 

Understandably, 2014 has seen (and will yet see) many reflections on the ‘Great War’ of 1914-18. In a lecture given to the Economic History Society Annual Conference on 28th March, Mark Harrison1 identified a number of widely-held myths about that tragic event. This is a shortened version of that lecture, which is available at: http://warwick.ac.uk/cage/research/wpfeed/188-2014_harrison.pdf.

Perceptions of the Great War continue to resonate in today’s world of international politics and policy. Most obviously, does China’s rise show a parallel with Germany’s a century ago? Will China’s rise, unlike Germany’s, remain peaceful? The Financial Times journalist Gideon Rachman wrote last year:

The analogy [of China today] with Germany before the first world war is striking … It is, at least, encouraging that the Chinese leadership has made an intense study of the rise of great powers over the ages – and is determined to avoid the mistakes of both Germany and Japan.2

The idea that China’s leaders wish to avoid Germany’s mistakes is encouraging, certainly.3 But what are the ‘mistakes’, exactly, that they will now seek to avoid? The world can hardly be reassured if we ourselves, social scientists and historians, remain uncertain what mistakes were made and even whether they were mistakes in the first place.

In this lecture I shall review four popular narratives relating to the Great War. They concern why the war started, how it was won, how it was lost, and in what sense it led to the next war.

Full article here: www.res.org.uk/view/art6Apr14Features.html