Italy and the Belt and Road Initiative

There has been a growing scepticism with regard to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project in many quarters, due to the lack of transparency with regards to terms and conditions as well as the economic implications for countries which are part of the project. A report published in April 2018 by the Center for Global Development (CGD) in Washington flagged 8 countries (including Pakistan, Maldives, Laos, and Djibouti) where the level of debts are unsustainable.

Apart from the red flag raised by a number of researchers, the removal of Pro-China leadership in countries like Malaysia, Maldives, and Sri Lanka has also resulted in problems with the BRI project, and China’s economic dealings (which are clearly skewed in favour of Beijing) with other countries is drawing more attention.

The most vocal critic of China’s economic links has been Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. During a visit to China in August 2018, Mahathir, alluded to China’s trade relations with poorer countries as ‘a new version of colonialism’. Mahathir later on denied that his statement was targeted at China or the BRI. The fact is that the Malaysian Prime Minister did scrap projects estimated at well over $20 billion (which includes a rail project, East Coast Link, as well as two gas pipelines).

Top officials in the Trump Administration, including US Vice President Mike Pence, have also been critical of the BRI project for a variety of reasons. The major criticism from US policy makers has been the economic ‘unsustainability’ of the project as well as the point that the project is skewed in favour of China.

Italy to join BRI Continue reading

Some quick thoughts from Athens

I spent the last week and a half in Greece (mainly Athens and other historical sites in the Peloponnese) thanks to the Reason, Individualism and Freedom Institute, and explored ancient political philosophy in a modernly turbulent state. I’m writing this in Naples. Here are a few thoughts I had from the first couple days in Athens.

There is a strong antifa presence (at least judging from graffiti, small talk with some locals and the bios of Grecian Tinder girls). I can’t help but imagine the American antifa pales in comparison. Our black bloc — thrust into the spotlight in mostly superficial college campus debates — tends to be enthusiastic, whereas the antifa in Hellas, culturally sensitive to millennia of dictatorships, entrenched aristocracies, Ottoman annexation, great power puppeteering and a century of neighbouring fascist regimes, must be somber and steadfast. Our antifa crowd has so little targets to find Ben Shapiro a worthy protest, whereas Golden Dawn, the ultranationalist, Third Reich-aesthetics Metaxist party gets 7% in the Hellenic Parliament. Nothing here is spectacle. (Moreover, the extreme-right in Greece, according to our tour guide, has been known to worship and deify mainstream Christian figures as well as the ancient gods spawned of Uranus and Gaia. Umberto Eco’s immortal essay Ur-Fascism explained phenomena like this as the ‘syncretic’ element of fascist traditionalism.)

Moving past the fascists and antifa, in general Greece is left. The Communist Party of Greece, KKE, gets about 5% of the votes and displays a sickle and hammer. More telling still, plenty of the leftist graffiti is actually representing the KKE. Political parties tend to de-radicalize, or are supposed to in theory, and the fringe ideologues disavow the party for centrism or weakness (it’s funny to think of American socialists spray-painting the initials of the CPUSA). The graffiti stretches all the way to Lesvos, of Aristotle’s biology and Sappho’s poetry, and to Corinth of the cult of Aphrodite, but is most prominent in downtown Athens.

Athens has an anarcho-friendly district with a rich history called Εξάρχεια, Exarcheia. Antifascist tagging is complimented by antipolice, antistate, antiborders and LGBT designs, the Macedonian question is totally absent, and posters about political prisoners stack on each other like hotels on ruins. Our friends at KEFiM warned us about Exarcheia — it has a history of political/national xenophobia, and one member had been violently assaulted — but I had already visited on the first day. Aside from a recently blown-up car, it wasn’t too different from Berkeley — nice apartments and restaurants juxtaposed with street art and a punk crowd, drug dealing, metal bars on windows. Granted, this was in daylight and I saw only what was discoverable with Google maps. Still, I had the fading remains of a black eye and my usual clothing is streetwear, so maybe I wasn’t too out of place — even as an American and thus most hated representative of that target of so much antifascist graffiti, NATO.

Much of the larger politics of Greece were not easy to discover from our various tour guides. Just like the ancient myths of the country, they constantly contradict each other.

The Athens underground metro was incredibly clean and modern — infinitely more than in Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc. — while their roads are constipated and chaotic. Duh, the city itself is one of our most ancient settled, and so roads have proceeded in a particularly unorganized fashion. But it did cause me to consider the beauty that on a planet where our civilizations literally build on each other generation after generation — and, in an uncommon historical epoch where conquering is out of fashion — sometimes the only place to go is down. Humans have expanded our surface area in dimensions completely unfathomable to the diasporic colonizers from ancient Crete.

The syncretic chaos of the streets, though nauseating to the newcomer, lends itself to almost divine levels of flânerie, such that one can walk hours without reaching any particular destination and feel accomplished. Nothing much looks the same when Times Square melts into an ancient agora melts into a Byzantine church melts into the beach. Attica is wildly heterogeneous and beautiful; modernist adherents to classical Greek conceptions of precision-as-beauty should be humbled.

I should add also that my first impressions of Athens (and Catania) was how much it looked like something out of a videogame. The condition of 21st century man is that, upon visiting foreign cities for the first time, he will invariably compare them to Call of Duty maps.

On a few occasions, enough for me to notice but not enough for me to declare it a custom, my server (who sits me, takes my order and waits on me) gave me extra food on the side. This only happened at small restaurants that aren’t overly European and might be an orange juice, fruit bowl or something small and similar. Every time, of course, I left a larger tip. These actions put us in a sort of gamble. For the waiter to bring me something periphery, he might expect a grander gratuity. Then, when I notice the extra item, I have to assume that it’s not just a mistake — that he didn’t think I ordered something extra which will appear on my tab. He and I are both sort of gambling our luck. Of course, it’s not a real gamble — in every instance we were at least partially sociable prior and lose nothing substantial if it doesn’t work out. What is interesting is that we’ve removed ourselves just a little from the law — I am only legally obligated to pay for what I ordered; he is only legally obliged to bring me what I paid for. Still, without the legal backdrop, everyone leaves happy. Left-libertarians would like it.

(As everyone knows, the Greeks are very hospitable and friendly, and this is a testament to that. A counter-example: I went to a gay club for the first time in the rainbow district of Athens. I can’t speak enough of the tongue to talk to women anyway, and there is at least a chance that some guy will buy us drinks. Nobody buys us drinks. The only conclusions are that we’re not handsome enough or the Greeks are not as friendly. It has to be the latter.)

I should quickly add something about coffee. Where it not for the drought of drip coffee, I could easily stay in the Mediterranean forever. Alas, to literally order an “iced coffee” — kafe frappe — you are ordering a foamy concoction with Nescafé. To order a Greek coffee (known as a “Turkish coffee” before tensions in the 1960’s) means an espresso-type shot with grounds/mud at the bottom. But, the coffee culture is fantastic — the shops are all populated with middle-aged dudes playing cards, smoking rollies, and shooting the shit. I don’t think I need to describe the abominable state of American coffee culture. Entrenched in their mud, the Greeks resisted American caffeine imperialism. Starbucks tried and failed to conquer the coffee market: there were already too many formulas, and the Greeks insisted on smoking inside.

Latest thoughts on Brexit: Its Decay, Italy (and Ireland), Cars, and Giving up British Citizenship

The slow decay of Brexit: a Rule-Taking Country

I don’t mean that the UK will stay in the EU. I fully expect it to formally depart next year. If the poor performance of the UK economy compared with the Eurozone continues, I also expect the UK to rejoin in a few decades, when the growth divergence is not just in figures, but felt in everyday life, such as when people find it too expensive to travel in Europe or buy goods from Europe; if they do travel they notice that everything seems expensive and there are more nice things abroad than at home, while European tourists will seem to have huge amounts of money to throw around.

It might or might not work out like that, but the point here is that the UK, behind headlines about soft versus hard Brexit, is moving towards an ‘alignment’ with the single market and the customs union: not formal membership but keeping nearly all the rules. The short term losses in trade from leaving both the single market and the customs union, along with the Republic of Ireland/Northern Ireland border question, have combined to make de facto membership of the single market and the customs union inevitable. Hardening the border at all between the two parts of the island of Ireland is economically disruptive and very threatening to a Northern Ireland peace settlement, in which the Irish nationalist-republican side in NI can live with being part of the UK as long as the North and the Republic are unified via the EU and associated commercial agreements.

This is what I get from following Eurosceptic sources when they get round to proper conversation and analysis, rather than fighting the remain-leave battle. Brexit outbursts of premature triumphalism over Italy, or demands to abolish the upper House of Parliament because the Lords uses its constitutional rights to pass amendments they don’t agree with back to the Commons for the final decision, are a distraction from the collapse of full Brexit.

The idea of a ‘no deal’ walk-away from the EU has been abandoned and inevitably the UK will accept single market/customs union rules while the government makes a show of leaving everything. Because the UK very probably will not be a formal member of the single market (though there is a possibility of joining the EEA which would mean formally staying in the single market), it will be able to reduce migration from the EU (not a great thing to my mind), which will bring joy to a large part of the population (particularly the Brexit-voting part). No doubt the reality of moving to what Jacob Rees-Mogg (a well known, hard-Brexit Conservative MP) calls ‘vassal state’ status will be covered over with that issue, but the reality is the UK will accept rules for customs and economic regulation made by the EU indefinitely.

‘Indefinitely’ means ‘permanent’ though this is being covered up by talk of ‘transitional periods’. Alternatives to this have collapsed with the failure of ‘no deal’. The New Hard Brexit is to accept aligned rules on goods, but not on services, with the UK’s exceptional role in financial services in mind. However, there is no indication that the EU will give this kind of deal, despite the Brexiteer posturing about the UK being too powerful to push around, which has clearly been shown as empty by negotiations so far.

Over-excited Brexiteers getting Italy wrong (and Ireland)

So a new government formed without anti-Euro currency finance minister. 5 Star and the League (the coalition partners) are not impeaching President Sergio Mattarella. The idea they would is a bit of a joke anyway, as it would require the agreement of the Supreme Court and a vote of both chambers of the Italian parliament to achieve an impeachment. The issue behind the non-impeachment was that Mattarella had vetoed an anti-Euro candidate for finance minister: Paolo Savona (who now has another post in the government).

Some relevant facts here. 1. Italian presidents have the constitutional right to veto ministerial nominations and have frequently done so before 2. Recent Italian opinion polls show support for the Euro at over 60% 3. Neither coalition party ran on an anti-Euro manifesto.

Claims that Mattarella is some pathetic weak instrument of the European institutions who ordered him to keep Savona out are themselves absurd. 1. There is a shared preference of Mattarella, the Italian public, and European institutions for staying in the Euro 2. Mattarella is from a political family in Sicily, which went anti-mafia and Sergio Materall’s brother, Piersanti, who was head of the regional government, was assassinated by the mafia as a result. I think we can say Sergio is a character of substance to stay in politics after that.

Regarding constitutions and democracy, constitutions establish limits on the power of temporary majorities through rules and institutions designed to embed basic rules about rights and the use of power. This is why democracy of a kind worth having is referred to as ‘constitutional liberal democracy’. You cannot both be in favour of constitutional democracy and complain when constitutional constraints express themselves in the action that Mattarella took, which is well within his formal powers and previous precedent.

Many of the triumphalist Brexiteers in the UK, who were shouting about Mattarella as an enemy of democracy who was about to be punished, are admirers of the US ‘constitutional conservatism’ which, on the face of it, advocates very strict restraints on the actions of elected bodies according to the supposed original meaning of the constitution. You can’t have it both ways. And even if you think democracy means the unrestrained right of a majority, there is no majority support for leaving the Euro in Italy and no manifesto mandate for the coalition to leave the Euro.

You could argue that Mattarella made a mistake about perceptions and had been outplayed, that had some plausibility for a few days but does not look so correct now. Mattarella has got what he wanted and will not be impeached. It’s true that the League has strongly increased its support since the election in opinion polls, but that mostly precedes the ministerial crisis. Brexiteers are still clinging to an attempted triumphalism over Italy. The Italians are standing up to Brussels, which supposedly is a lesson to Britain to be tougher in Brexit negotiations. Well it is a bit soon to say whether the Coalition in Italy represents Eurosceptic triumph and hard to see what this has to do with Brexit negotiations.

What loud mouthed Brexiteers in the UK say about Italy is in some ways not very important, but what is important is the presumption to know more than they do and circulate false assumptions about European politics in the UK, which in turn distorts our debates and assumptions, and which can then pop up amongst Proper centre-right journalists and commentators Who Should Know Better.

Something similar has emerged with Brexiteer attitudes towards Ireland’s attempts to keep an open border with Northern Ireland. Manipulated by the EU institutions with naive and incompetent leaders (rather reminiscent of old prejudices about the Irish being stupid) has been standard opinion, and then there was the claim by a senior Conservative politician, Iain Duncan-Smith, that the Irish position is to do with a forthcoming presidential election. 1. The Irish president has no political powers whatsoever 2. There may not be an election, since no one has announced a wish to run against the incumbent so far and it may suit the major parties in Ireland to leave it like that. Funnily enough all those stupid naive Irish leaders manipulated by the EU have given Ireland much greater economic growth than the UK. What an economic miracle there would be in Ireland if they were as clever as Brexiteers!

It’s difficult to stop Brexiteers from 1. using simplistic rhetoric about majorities and Will of the People to suit their immediate anti-EU goals without concern for consistency and the values of liberal democracy 2. Living in an imagined world where European politicians they disagree with are stupid and/or slaves of the European Commission, conspiring against democracy. These views should be challenged and left with the true believers, away from informed debate.

Brexiteers and German car companies

UK enthusiasts for leaving the EU have a strange obsession with German car makers. They export so many cars to the UK, they will MAKE the German government which will MAKE the European Commission give us the exit deal we want. This has been going on from all kinds of people ever since the Leave Referendum (maybe during the campaign as well, but I missed that). It is an expectation that has obviously been falsified by the course of negotiations in which the EU has got 10s of billions of Euros from the UK to even start negotiations (though the UK tries to pretend otherwise) and has refused the kind of market access the Brexiteer enthusiasts assumed they would get automatically thanks to Volkswagen, BMW, and Mercedes (!).

Even today, listening to the Telegraph Brexit podcast, I heard Christopher Hope (the highly affable and mostly reasonable chair) keep on about how German carmakers were going to make Brussels gives the UK what it wants. The guests, pro-Brexit people from the Telegraph, were clearly bemused as they had been explaining how the UK was going to remain ‘aligned’ with the single market. Clearly if the UK is already de facto accepting the ‘indefinite’ (i.e. permanent) application of single market rules, German car makers have no incentive to MAKE Merkel give the UK another deal preferable to hardcore Brexiteers.

Of course the saddest expression of this muddled thinking came from Boris Johnson (the notoriously attention seeking and inconsistent foreign minister) when he claimed Italian prosecco wine manufacturers would make Rome/Brussels give the UK a Brexiteer-friendly trade deal. It turns out demand for prosecco in Italy is greater than supply and the makers can easily live with reduced demand in the UK.

The German car industry is of course much larger and not dependent on the supply of a particular kind of grape. Still, just one seventh of German cars are sold in the UK. Now obviously it would be very bad news to lose one seventh of the market, but there are no circumstances in which German manufacturers would sell no cars in the UK, the drop would never be as great as one seventh. Sales of German cars are already declining in the UK and given weak UK economic performance compared with Germany, the decline is likely to continue. Anyway, it should now just be really bloody obvious that German car manufacturers have not united to force Berlin/Brussels to accept a hardcore Brexit agenda! There is clearly a very big stream of reality distorting national self-obsession amongst Brexiteers who believe this kind of thing. Well it has now been shown to be thoroughly incorrect, let go now!

Brexit Bureaucracy and Renouncing UK Citizenship

UK nationals living outside the UK in the EU are applying for citizenship abroad to retain rights they lose after Brexit. Some of these countries forbid dual citizenship so UK citizens are renouncing UK citizenship. The Home Office takes the opportunity to raise fees for renouncing citizenship, though evidently its revenue is already increasing because of charges for renouncing citizenship. Didn’t Brexiteers tell us Brexit would reduce state bureaucracy?


  1. How Alan Shepard Became First American in Space Rick Brownell, Historiat
  2. Public Debt: a global perspective Livio di Matteo, Worthwhile Canadian Initiative
  3. Italian voters head for euro showdown Alberto Mingardi, Politico EU
  4. What good is religion? Manini Sheker, Aeon

Divergence and Convergence within Italy

Two years, I wrote a post on this blog on the process of regional convergence in Italy. In that post, I made the observation that it seems that, economically, Italy was as fragmented at the time of the unification as it is today which made it an oddity in terms of regional convergence. To make that claim, I used this table of relatively sparsed out observations produced by Emanuele Felice: which was published in the Economic History Reviewitaliangdp










As one can see, there is a pronounced “lack” of integration for the Italy in terms of living standards. This is reinforced by a more “continuous” set of estimates produced, again, by Emanuele Felice (this time, its a working paper of the Bank of Italy) that now include the 1870s and go to 2011 (as opposed to 2001). This is the result, which I find fascinating. The first graph shows GDP per capita – for which there is divergence to 1951 and then a mild convergence thereafter but still well above the levels at the time of unification.  More fascinating is the fact that productivity is at its most integrated since unification (2nd figure) suggesting a divergence in levels of labor activity (3rd figure). In these three graphs, you have a neat summary of Italian labor markets since 1870.

Italian Convergence

Revisiting Epstein’s Freedom and Growth

I was fortunate to be invited give the Epstein Lecture at LSE this March. The series is named after the great LSE economic historian Larry (Stephen) Epstein. Here I’ll summarize why it was such an honor to give the lectures. The content of the lecture will be another post.

Epstein was a historian whose origin field of expertise was medieval Italy. I encountered him through Freedom and Growth. Published in 2000, I first read it a couple of years later, perhaps in 2002 or 2003. At the time I was devoted to a story of economic growth shaped by Douglass North, particularly Structure and Change in Economic History (1981).

The focus of Structure and Change was on transaction costs. High transaction costs limited market exchange and kept societies poor for most of history. Sustained economic growth could only occur once transaction costs fell to a level that allowed markets to expand and the division of labor to develop. On this view, market expansion or Smithian growth was itself a stimulus to technological innovation. But what kept transaction costs high?

One answer North gave was the state. To paraphrase: the state had the ability to both keep a society mired in poverty through predatory behavior and to provide the preconditions for growth by securing property rights. The origins of sustained economic growth for North lay in institutional changes that occurred secured property rights and lowered transaction costs. The most important such institutional change was the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

North’s account received many challenges, but the issue that Epstein honed in on was the assumption that there was such a state, able to either revoke or secure property rights. It was assumed that “rulers rule”. Epstein contested this arguing that New Institutional Economists

“project backwards in time a form of centralised sovereignty and jurisdictional integration that was first achieved in Continental Europe during the nineteenth century; they therefore fundamentally misrepresent the character of pre-modern states.”

North, Wallis, and Weingast would address this in their 2009 Violence and Social Orders. But Epstein’s criticism was spot on in 2000. Epstein argued that alongside the problem of predatory states, a central problem was the lack of integrated markets. He attributed market disintegration to coordination and prisoners’ dilemma problems between political authorities. In so doing, Epstein set the agenda for the subsequent “state capacity” research agenda.

Epstein made several points which continued to be expanded upon by current research (see here). First, he documented that the lower interest rates that the British state paid after 1688 were characteristic of city republics from the middle ages onwards. He argued that the English monarchy in the 17th century was characterized by an anomalously backwards financial system. Lower interest rates after 1688 partly represent a convergence to the Republican norm achieved by Italian city-states centuries earlier.

Second, he challenged the argument that monarchies “overtaxed” cities. There was “no evidence that townspeople paid higher taxes under monarchies than republics”. Per capita taxes were likely higher in Republican city-states.

Third, he disputed that Republican city-states like Florence brought economic freedom noting that “republican subjects faced several limitations to their economic and political freedoms that monarchical subjects did not”. All of this challenged generalizations made by historical sociologists like Charles Tilly and economic historians like North.

Epstein’s historical evidence came from medieval Italy. Late medieval Italy was highly urbanized and prosperous by pre-industrial standards. According to Broadberry’s estimates, per capita GDP in Italy in 1450 was not matched by England until 1750. Like growth elsewhere in the premodern world, it was Smithian growth, driven by trade, market integration, and the division of labor. But unlike in England, this Smithian growth did not continue and blossom into modern growth. Epstein’s explanation for why this did not take place was that late medieval Italy suffered an “integration crisis”.

He saw the late medieval period as characterized by new opportunities for growth and innovation. Urbanization increased. Capital markets expanded and deepened. Interregional trade developed. Proto-industrialization took place. But Epstein contended these opportunities were only seized in areas where political authority was centralization.

In reference to proto-industrialization, he observed that

“Crucially, the success of regional crafts was inversely proportional to the concentration of economic and institutional power in the hands of a dominant city.”

With respect to the establishment of permanent fairs, he noted that

In fifteenth-century Lombardy, new fairs proliferated only after the balance of power shifted decisively from the former city-states to the territorial prince with Francesco Sforza’s victory in 1447.

Market integration was complemented and perhaps driven by political integration. Integrated urban hierarchies were themselves the product of political centralization.

“Centralisation underlies all the major institutional changes to market structures previously described. It lowered domestic transport costs, made it easier to enforce contracts and to match demand and supply, intensified economic competition between towns and strengthened urban hierarchies, weakened urban monopolies over the countryside, and stimulated labour mobility and technological diffusion.”

The more centralized parts of Italy — notably Lombardy — were better able to benefit from these trends than was Tuscany. But in general, political fragmentation and regional diversity were “distinctive features of pre-modern Italy” in general and an impediment to its long-run growth prospects.

Unlike in his analysis of interest rates, Epstein brought little data to bear on these claims and I am unaware of subsequent research on late medieval Italy. As such, the thesis of a late medieval integration crisis laid out in Freedom and Growth remains speculative. Epstein would no doubt have fill in the details had he lived longer. Subsequent research has mostly focused on early modern rather than medieval Europe (see here).  But the larger message: the importance of the state for premodern economic development has been central to subsequent research, including my own work (e.g. here).

World War I destroyed Christianity

That’s the argument I put forth in this week’s RealClearHistory column. As usual I frame the argument in the form of a “Top10,” and in this case I used battles. An excerpt:

6. Battle of Asiago: May 15 – June 10, 1916. Another nasty battle fought along the Austro-Italian Front, Asiago is considered a victory for Italy even though it lost more men than the Austro-Hungarians. Altogether, the surprise attack launched by the Hapsburgs inflicted severe casualties on the Italians, with the latter losing 140,000 men and the aggressor losing 100,000. The surprise did not work for the Hapsburgs, either, as their armies were turned back and the position continued to be held by the Italians. There is a beautiful war memorial dedicated to both sides in Asiago today, and there are no crosses to be found for the dead there.

Please, read the rest.