Archive | May, 2017

The Nation State as an Agent of War

29 May
Tyler Cowen has a recent post consisting of the abstract to a working paper by Alberto Alesina, Bryony Reich, Alessandro Riboni, “Nation-Building, Nationalism and Wars”. Here’s that abstract:
The increase in army size observed in early modern times changed the way states conducted wars. Starting in the late 18th century, states switched from mercenaries to a mass army by conscription. In order for the population to accept to fight and endure war, the government elites began to provide public goods, reduced rent extraction and adopted policies to homogenize the population with nation-building. This paper explores a variety of ways in which nation-building can be implemented and studies its effects as a function of technological innovation in warfare.
Here’s a link to an ungated version of the paper.

Does this imply that as long as the nation-state is the focal-point of political organization we will be fighting wars? Is that why that United States has managed to engage itself in useless and immoral wars since the end of World War II? Perhaps it’s time we create other ways to organize our political life.

Here’s several opening paragraphs from the paper:

The interplay between war and the fiscal capacity of the state is well known. However, guns are not enough to win wars; one also needs motivated soldiers. In modern times, the need for large armies led to a bargain between the rulers and the population. The elite had to make concessions to induce citizens to comply with war related demands. Rulers promoted nationalism to motivate citizens and extract “ever-expanding means of war – money, men, materiel, and much more – from reluctant subject populations” (Tilly, 1994; see also Levi, 1997).

The “ancient regimes” in Europe used to fight wars with relatively small armies of mercenaries, sometimes foreigners, paid out with the loots of war. As a consequence of the evolution of warfare, countries changed the conduct of war, switching from mercenaries to mass armies recruited or conscripted almost entirely from the national population. Roberts (1956) explained how warfare underwent a “military revolution” starting between 1560 and 1660 and reaching a completion with the “industrialization of war” (McNeill, 1982) that occurred in the nineteenth century. The source of this revolution was due to changes in tactics and weapons, such as, the use of gunpowder technology and the invention of new styles of artillery fortification, higher population growth, changes in communications and transport technology which allowed states to put a large army in the field, and the adoption of techniques of mass weapon production. The electromagnetic telegraph, developed in the 1840s, allowed the deployment and the control of the army at distance. Steamships and railroads moved weapons, men and supplies on an entirely unprecedented scale (Onorato et al., 2014). In the middle of the 19th century, the adoption of semiautomatic machinery to manufacture rifled muskets made it possible, and relatively affordable, to equip a large number of soldiers (McNeill, 1982, p. 253). As a result, the size of armies increased and, as Clausewitz (1832) put it, “war became the business of the people”.

This paper examines nation-building in times of war. Mass warfare favored the transformation from the ancient regimes (based purely on rent extraction) to modern nation states in two ways. First, the state became a provider of mass public goods in order to buy the support of the population. Second, the state developed policies geared towards increasing national identity and nationalism. In particular the states had to hold in distant provinces to avoid the breakdown of the country, which would have interfered with war effort, and to motivate soldiers and civilians located far away from the core of the country. In addition, nation-building in times of war also included aggressive negative propaganda against the enemy and supremacy theories.

When the armies had to increase in size, the elites needed to build tax capacity. This is a well studied point as we argued above, and we return to it at the end to close our argument. We focus here on a different issue, the selection on how to spend fiscal revenues to motivate the population to endure wars. The composition of spending is quite relevant. For instance Aidt et al. (2006) argue that total spending as a fraction of GDP did not increase that much in the 19th century up until WW2. What mostly changed was the composition of the budget: in the 19th century and early 20th century, spending on defense and policing was partly substituted by spending on public services (transport, communication, construction) and later on public provision of public goods (education and health).

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Is Trump Out of Control?

16 May

I don’t know. I simply don’t know what to make of events for the last week so.

The Comey firing was a debacle. While I have no love for the man, it seemed pretty clear that when the announcement came last Tuesday that Comey was being fired because over the FBI’s investigation into the interaction between the Trump campaign and the Russians. The pretext given, that it was about his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server, was laughable. No one bought it and the firing blew us in Trump’s face. So what does Trump do? He admits that, yes, he fired Comey over the Russia investigation – thus making his subordinates looking like fools for covering for him.

Meanwhile, the day after the Comey firing Trump met with Russian officials, Lavrov (foreign minister) and Kislyak (ambassador to the US), and gave them highly sensitive intelligence information about ISIS, information that had been supplied to the United States by a third party (now known to be Israel) with the understanding that the US would be very circumspect about sharing it. While such an action is within the authority of the President, it is, for reasons laid-out in full in this post at Lawfare, a stupid and foolish thing to do. We only learned about this yesterday (Monday 15 May).

We’re still processing this. By “we” I mean you, me, and anyone else. But also Trump, and those who serve him and must cover for him. What’s it all mean?

David Brooks, by no means a favorite of mine, argues that Trump is a child:

But Trump’s statements don’t necessarily come from anywhere, lead anywhere or have a permanent reality beyond his wish to be liked at any given instant.

We’ve got this perverse situation in which the vast analytic powers of the entire world are being spent trying to understand a guy whose thoughts are often just six fireflies beeping randomly in a jar.

Tim Burke worries that:

Trump himself or the people around him or his loyal base of supporters [will] continue to insist on his retention of authority despite the fact that he’s impaired. We lurch from crisis to crisis, descending every day deeper into shared delirium. That happens too in history, is happening right now here and there around the world: people closest to the void at the heart of political power decide that they themselves are safest if they embrace that void, and amplify its capricious, random perturbations in all directions. We the People, already both mad and slightly maddened ourselves, become caregivers and captives of a mad king.

Is this what we’ve got, a mad king leading the most powerful nation on earth?

A Fourth Constitutional Crisis?

12 May

Over at Down with Tyranny Gaius Publius argues that we’re having a fourth constitutional crisis. He sets things up by arguing that Trump will not be impeached:

I’ll lay decent odds the administration will appoint no special prosecutor, and if they do, no independent special prosecutor. It would take a revolt from congressional Republicans to prove me wrong. That could happen, but odds that it will? Less than 50-50 as I see it now.

Which means the country stays in its current state, ruled by a man and a party actively perverting the Constitution to enable obvious corruption and — finally, what the Democrats alleged all along on no evidence — apparent collusion by that man with a foreign power to gain domestic power. Whether that collusion was decisive or not in his victory, matters not at all. […]

All of which means that if Trump’s Russia doings aren’t formally investigated, either by a special investigator or by Congress, elites who want him gone will have to force him out by extra-constitutional means.

Extra-constitutional means?

• Relentless, damaging leaks and innuendo from all quarters aimed at turning public opinion against him.

• Privately issued threats and rewards — sticks and carrots — to induce him to step down. Remember, intelligence agencies of various stripes likely have almost all the goods on almost all officials who matter to them. Imagine what’s hoarded in NSA databases, or what FBI background checks reveal. Imagine what secrets angry CIA field agents might dig up. […]

• Threats amounting to blackmail and, if not physical violence, violence to his wealth, business interests, and “brand.” (“We will destroy your brand forever, you will never do business again, if you don’t get out. Here’s how we’ll do it. First…”)

And that leads us to the fourth Constitutional crisis:

• 1789, the Revolutionary War and transition from colony to slave-holding republic.

• 1865, the Civil War and transition from divided slave-holding nation with two competing economies to united freed-slave state. This change took down the Southern agricultural aristocracy (by depriving it of the nearly free labor it depended on); made the Northern industrial economy nationally ascendant; and put us firmly on the path to first-world industrial powerhouse.

• 1933, the Great Depression and transition from a light-handed pro-business government to a heavy-handed regulatory state.

• And now, this.

What will the next American Constitution look like? Turkey’s and Hungary’s, with their dictators and single-party governments wrapped in the old constitutional forms? A naked kleptocracy, where constitutional forms are simply ignored, like those in many third-world countries? A state in which forms are observed but the hand with real power belongs mainly to the “security” apparatus? In many countries, coups by segments of the elite, blatant or covert, are welcomed as correctives and tacitly approved (another way constitutions are revised without being rewritten).

If Trump is not successfully impeached, and it looks for now like he won’t be, our government as practiced will once more dramatically change, as it did when Bush’s crimes were not addressed, and Obama’s after him (never forget that targeted assassination is an innovation Obama made lawful).

But whatever happens next, whether Trump is impeached or not, I think we’ve already been changed as a nation forever by what’s already led to this moment. After all, in 2016 the nation wanted someone like Sanders to be president, wanted an agent of change, and look what it got. This is in fact our second failed attempt this century at change that makes our lives better.

I don’t think that point’s been lost on anyone. We’re in transition no matter what happens to Trump. Transition to what, we’ll have to find out later.

And something else to consider. The last three times the government fundamentally changed, we got lucky. We found leaders — Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt — up to the task, in chaotic and troubling times, of steering an altered ship to calmer water and a safer port.