My 80th Birthday

Dear friends,                                                                         May 19, 2022

Life Begins at Eighty was a TV show in the mid 1950s. As our family only acquired a TV set later in the 1950s, I don’t think that I ever watched it. But I would like to take exception to its premise. For me, turning 80 is a time of reflection on a life well lived, no longer a continuation of the endeavor, or dare I say struggle, to achieve still more. As such it is a relaxed time of contemplation. I do not suffer Torschlusspanik. In fact, I am very grateful for having experienced a very interesting and eventful life.

When we are young it is all about preparing for and striving to do great things, or at least to realize our potential whatever that might be. As such it is a time of considerable tension. Will I make it? Will I graduate? Will I be hired/appointed? Will I get promoted? Will my project succeed? It is so nice to be beyond those.

I was born on my father’s birthday (what a gift) and raised in Bakersfield California. The first time I left my home state was also the first time I flew in an airplane, which was to New Jersey to prepare with others from around the country for a year abroad as part of the International Christian Youth Exchange (ICYE).

Two weeks of preparation later, we boarded the USS New York for a six-day Atlantic crossing to South Hampton then La Havre, France. In my case, at the age of 17, I traveled on by train to Kassel, Germany to meet the German family I would live with for the next year–my senior year of high school. Their house was in the nearby village of Rasdorf kreis Hünfeld in the Fulda Gap. My home for that year was a few hundred yards from the “ten meter strip” that marked the border with the DDR (East Germany)–the border dividing East and West Germany after WWII.

During that year in Germany (1959-60) I visited Berlin with my ICYE group. We attended my first opera in the Opera House located in what became East Berlin. The Berlin wall did not yet exist. I returned to Berlin and its Eastern Zone many times after the wall went up in 1961 and many times later after it come down in November 1989.

During that same year I graduated from Bakersfield High in absentia. When I returned home to the US, I attended Bakersfield College (the local Jr. College that allowed me to live at home for financial reasons for two more years) before transferring to the University of California at Berkeley. At Bakersfield College, with friends, I started and edited a politically conservative underground weekly paper we called the Weekly Blatt, thus launching a lifelong interest in public policy. It reflected the appreciation of the difference between free, capitalist economies and the repressive, impoverished communist ones that I saw and experienced from my year living on the edge of communist East Germany.

While at Berkeley, I was president of the University Conservatives and of my fraternity Alpha Tao Omega (ATO). When I heard Milton Friedman speak at Berkeley, I vowed to study under him at the University of Chicago. As the result of spending considerable time on the Free Speech Movement Council during my Senior year at Berkeley (1964) and misjudging the effort needed to slide through on a C in a very boring economic history class taught by a socialist, I was admitted on probation to the University of Chicago graduate program. But hard work and with Milton Friedman as Chairman of my dissertation committee (which also include Robert J. Gordon) eventually led to my PhD and an appointment as an Assistant Professor in the Economics Department at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia.

While studying at the University of Chicago, Professor Friedman introduced me to and sponsored my membership in the Philadelphia Society, which in those years held its annual meeting in Chicago. He later did the same for the Mont Pelerin Society, an international organization founded after WWII by Friedman, Fredrick Hayek, and others to defend free markets and liberalism against the socialism sweeping Europe at the time. Before finishing at Chicago, I took a year off to teach at the University of Hawaii where I married Louise Wilkinson who had left her graduate studies in the English Department at Chicago to teach at the University of Hawaii.

As a Californian, where history is largely about cowboys and Indians, I found Charlottesville, the hometown of Thomas Jefferson, a beautiful place wonderfully rich in American history. I loved my time there. My son, Brandon, and daughter, Daylin, were born there, which were transformative events as every parent knows.

After five years as an Assistant Professor at UVA, I joined the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for twenty-six years. Eight of those exciting years were spent leading the SDR Division of the Treasurer’s Department and the balance providing technical assistance to central banks in what is now called the Monetary and Capital Markets Department (MCM).

With the collapse of the USSR at the end of 1991, I moved back to the MCM Department from the Treasurer’s Department and immediately led a team to the Bulgarian National Bank followed by multiple visits to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and a few years later to Moldova. The first half of 1992 we flew (back-to-back) to Almaty (Kazakhstan) and Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) in chartered planes. Later in that year I was on the maiden Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Almaty. The institutions of the former Soviet Union were totally unknown to us, and our counterparts were very eager to learn the ways of capitalist economies. It was a very exciting time.

My earlier years at the IMF were also personally traumatic. I had hidden my sexual attraction to men from myself for years and I was beginning to lose that battle. I struggled to face up to the reality and implications of that fact. I was frightened. It was not at all an easy time. When it was no longer possible to deny or repress the truth, I separated from and later divorced Louise. Sadly, she moved with my two kids back to her home in Mercer Island, Washington. A new chapter of my life began. As we often said at the time, “God made me a homosexual, but I chose (finally) to be gay.”

The most important event of this new life was my introduction in 1999 to Dr. Ito Briones from the Philippines by my friend W. Scott Thompson (Jan 1, 1942 – Feb 19, 2017). After finishing a Master of Arts degree at Boston University, Ito relocated to Washington, DC and moved in with me. He received a PhD in Molecular Biology at Georgetown University and worked in the National Cancer Institute (NCI) lab in Ft. Detrick for five years. Yes, Ito is a renaissance man and a wonderful companion. We were formally and legally married on June 5, 2011.

At the request of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (coming from my former Chicago classmate David Lindsey who had tried to recruit me from UVA earlier), the IMF seconded me to the Board staff for one year (1979). That was the year Paul Volcker moved from President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to Chair the Board of Governors in the middle of my stay. The Board room went from a nonsmoking zone under Chairman Bill Miller to Paul’s big cigars. It was a very exciting year as the Fed crushed the 11.4% rate of inflation.

In 1989 I was also seconded to the World Bank to help write that year’s World Development Report (on Financial Systems and Development). It was like being back in graduate school. It was a wonderful experience led by Millard Long and Stan Fischer (WB Chief Economist at that time).

After 26 years at the IMF, I retired in 2003 at the Assistant Director level. During those years, I had led technical assistance missions to over 20 countries, primarily in the Former Soviet Union and post conflict countries such as Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo. But being only 62 (I had met the IMF’s rule of 85 for maximum pension–age plus years of service) I was not about to stop working.

In June 2003, I joined the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad for the US Treasury (see my Iraq book below). At the same time, I joined the Board of Directors of the Cayman Island Monetary Authority (CIMA) for the next seven years. Following that I was a member of the Editorial Board of the Cayman Financial Review from March 2011 to May 2017. While I no longer led missions, I joined them as a consultant member for the IMF, ODI in London, and Deloitte Consulting traveling to Albania, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kenya, South Sudan, Yemen (virtually), West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe. Between January 2002 and September 2013, I traveled to Afghanistan 20 times.

I spoke at conferences in Argentina, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, (Hangzhou) China, Paris, Ukraine, Freedom Fest in Las Vegas, London, Oxford, and the Eurasia Economic Forum in Astana, Kazakhstan.  I attended Mont Pelerin Society meetings in Guatemala City, Nairobi, Sidney, Prague, Galapagos Islands, Hong Kong, and Stockholm.

But it was not all work. I had a wonderful father-son trip with my son Brandon to Athens and the Greek Islands in 1992 and to London and around Ireland in 1994. My grandson Bryce came with me to Kenya for an IMF mission to the central bank in 2010 during which we spent a weekend ‎in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in the Rift Valley. The highlight was Bryce’s petting a live cheetah.

An almost annual highlight were the July gatherings at the home of Robert Mundell outside Siena, Italy, to discuss the international monetary system. In January 2015 my daughter Daylin’s marriage to Brett Baker in Las Vegas was great fun. In the summer of 2015 Ito and I spent a week in Southern Italy for the first time (Naples, Pompei, Sorrento, Capri, Sicily) following our usual Mundell gathering in Siena.  Ito and I attended the Edinburgh International Festival four times (joined on one occasion my granddaughter, Micaela in 2017) and spent several wonderful weeklong stays in Bruges for Ito’s art classes (2017 and 2019). Another highlight was the award ceremony in London in March 2019 at which I was presented the Central Banking Journal’s first “Award for Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building of Central Banks, Especially in Demanding Circumstances.”

My work at the IMF (and elsewhere) and with the teams I led in the field was challenging, stressful, sometimes dangerous, and highly rewarding. I developed friendships with many central bank staff and officials in these countries and believed that my work and the work of the teams of experts I lead had made significant contributions to bringing more stable and efficient monetary and financial systems to the countries we worked in. It is highly disappointing to see the disintegration and backsliding of many of them (Bosnia, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Kyrgyzstan).

Except for Turkey, the backsliding has been political rather than in monetary stability.  To cite a few examples of dramatic central bank successes, the inflation rates dropped from 1,000% in 1998 to 1.2% in 2020 in Bulgaria, from 1,660% in 1993 to 6.8% in 2020 in Kazakhstan, and from 789% in 1993 to 4.4% in 2020 in Moldova. The lack of political healing in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the annual inflation rate averaged 1.47 percent between 2006 and 2021, has been particularly disheartening. The messages I get almost daily from Afghanistan from friends wanting help in getting out are heartbreaking. And then, of course, the political environment in my own country has become dismal and divisive.

Were all my efforts for nothing? In fact, I am proud that I gave it my all whatever the result. I met and worked with wonderful people. The bonding with mission team members in the field, I imagine, was a bit like the war time bonding with your fox hole buddies. Life was not dull to say the least. I have written more extensively about some of these experiences in five books: “One currency for Bosnia-creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina”     “My travels in the former Soviet Union”   “My travels to Jerusalem”     “My travels to Baghdad” and “My travels to Afghanistan”.

So, as I reach 80 years of age I can rest and am grateful for the life I have led. It was filled with struggles, pain, adventures, and joy. I married a wonderful woman (Louise Wilkinson) who mothered my two wonderful children who in turn gave me seven wonderful grandchildren and two adorable great granddaughters. My painful struggle with homosexuality evolved (through several chapters) into a wonderful relationship with the loving and multitalented Ito. I have been blessed with wonderful friends and colleagues.

My life is certainly not over yet, the curtains have not yet fallen, but looking back at my life—I am grateful for the many adventures it has led me on.

Thank you all.

Warren

Ukraine’s and Russia’s War

Russia’s attack on Ukraine is horrifying, unjustified and illegal. We can’t help admiring the courage of the Ukrainian people in attempting to defend their country nor being enraged at Russia’s brutality.

In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Alexander Vindman argued that: “America Must Embrace the Goal of Ukrainian Victory  It’s Time to Move Past Washington’s Cautious Approach” “Will America embrace Ukraine victory goal?”  Vindman, best known to us as Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, was born in Ukraine. It is understandable, but not excusable, that Vindman puts Ukraine’s interests above those of the United States.

As a naturalized American, Vindman proved his patriotism by testifying on October 29, 2019, before the U.S. House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump, for whom he worked as a member of the White House’s National Security Council. But when determining our role in Ukraine’s war with Russia, we should give primacy to America’s best interests in both the short and long term.

Historian and military expert Edward Luttwak tweeted recently that “Friends complain that my suggested war aim of restoring the Feb 23, 2022, status quo ante is too modest; some want the expulsion of all Russian forces from all parts of Ukraine incl Crimea, with others emphasizing the need to drive Putin from office. But both mean much more war…”  “Luttwak on war in Ukraine”

It is hard not to sympathize with the desire to punish Russia for what Putin has done and is doing—i.e., to demand justice. Many aspects of the world are not to our liking or of our making, even here at home. But we must deal rationally with the world that exists in the hopes of moving it bit by bit toward a better place.

In today’s Washington Post Brendan Rittenhouse Green and Catlin Talmadge wrote an oped titled: “The U.S. is expanding its goals in Ukraine. That’s dangerous. Comments by political and military leaders suggest the goal is no longer to drive Russia to the negotiating table but to seek a total defeat of Russian forces. That increases the odds of catastrophe.”

 “Talk of total victory aligns well with another recently floated objective: an extended bloodletting of the Russian army. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin asserted on April 25 that the United States wants ‘to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.’ Yet crippling Russia’s military or expelling Russia from Ukraine are significantly more dangerous aims than preventing the further loss of Ukrainian territory or, through limited offensive operations, gaining some of it back. Unfortunately, if Russian President Vladimir Putin begins to think that his back is against the wall, he may lash out by directly confronting NATO, intensifying the conventional war in the east, or even using nuclear weapons.” “Ukraine war expansion risks nuclear”

Mr. Vindman wants us to make Russia a permanent enemy. That is never a good objective. Over the last half year both Presidents Zelenskyy and Putin have offered peace conditions that represented reasonable starting points for serious negotiations. Why haven’t we pressed them both to the negotiating table?

Vindman stated that: “A Ukrainian victory against Russia will be defined, first and foremost, by the Ukrainians themselves.” But then he also says that the US should give Ukraine more and better weapons. I am not sure that he sees the disconnect here. We should not push Putin into feeling he must escalate or lose. We should exert maximum pressure to bring this war to an end that is acceptable to both Ukrainian and Russian people and in a way that opens the door to a more peaceful Russia in the future. “Ukraine-France playing good cop with Putin”

Aside from the strong emotional desire to punish Russia for what it is doing, several of the usual suspects are dangerously prolonging this war. Billions of dollars are pouring into our defense industries, which, as always, have a profit incentive to keep things going. Though we are confronted with horrifying pictures of mangled buildings and bodies, they are “over there” somewhere. For most Americans the assumed horrors of war are academic, while in fact they are all too real for those involved. The huge cost of war in lives lost, human suffering, and economic and property damage are rarely given the weight they deserve as we cheer on the brave Ukrainians fighting to the last Ukrainian. Those very well-meaning Americans thanking our soldiers for their service rarely have any idea what we have asked of them to go and fight in other people’s wars.

So our emotions cry out to smash and punish the Russians. But how it ends will have a large impact on conditions in the world ten or twenty years from now. Our standard of living and the degree of security and cooperation in the world—particularly with Russia—will depend on when and how this war ends. We need to temper our emotions and engage our minds.

Our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, looked quite different at the end than they did as we undertook them. Ukraine is ranked only slightly less corrupt than Russia. “Transparency International” It is much more difficult doing business there than in Russia (Ease of doing business ranking lists New Zealand at the top, Russia 29 and Ukraine 64). “World Bank Ease of Doing Business index”  Thus it is a small wonder that John Hudson wrote in today’s Washington Post that: “Flood of weapons to Ukraine raises fear of arms smuggling Vague U.S. assurances spark concern about lost military equipment in Ukraine, a longtime hub of arms trafficking.” “Ukraine weapons trafficking”

It is too late to point fingers and ask why we did not press Ukraine and Russia to the bargaining table six months ago or four months ago. It is in our self-interest and the interest of Europe and the world to do so now.

Afghan update

The heart-breaking attack on Ukraine by Russian troops has distracted our attention from the tragic misrule (or failure to properly rule) of the Taliban in Afghanistan. An Afghan official I worked with over the last twenty years, who was able to leave Kabul on one of those final fights at the end of August 2021, sent me the following report on conditions in Kabul. I am not revealing his name for his safety and the safety of his family.

“The economy is getting worse day by day, businesses facing many problems, shopkeepers complain less sales, poor people hardly find one time meal, hunger is increasing, at DAB [the central bank], the payment system has been stopped, APS, FID and many other depts are paralyzed, they haven’t managed to print new banknotes, girls’ high school still closed, bomb blasts occurred in many mosques recently during Holy Month of Ramadan and only poor civilians killed, and many more problems.

God help people of Afghanistan.“

Indeed. Over the last twenty years Afghanistan gradually developed and strengthened its institutions of government. After toppling the elected government of Afghanistan, my hope, and the hope of the West, was that the Taliban would form an inclusive government that would build on that progress. It hasn’t happened. The new Taliban “government” has not even been able to solidify itself. If it fails, Afghanistan will suffer another (or continuing) civil war.  “Nation building in Afghanistan”

The former Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan, William Crosbie, commented that: “Hope is certainly receding that the TB will work towards a political settlement to make its military takeover a lasting peace. Our argument to those neighbouring countries and non-Western partners (e.g. China) has been that the TB regime is not sustainable as a Pashtun, TB clique relying on fear.  Quite apart from the economic devastation of a non-functioning government and private sector, the ethnic and tribal rivalries and other extremist groups will resort to the tactics that the TB used so effectively. And they will prove just as destructive.” 

God help the good people of Afghanistan.

What future Russia do we want?

It is not possible to see the pictures of dead bodies (320 and counting) and to hear the reports of the barbaric massacre of citizens of Bucha or the recent rocket attack on a train station in Kramatorsk that killed 50 and injured 98 civilians without feeling outrage towards the Russians and sorrow for the people of Ukraine. Understandable though such feels are, it is not a good state of mind in which to plan for a better future.

In a face-to-face interview with the Editor in Chief of The Economist in Kyiv on March 25, President Volodymyr Zelenskyin defined victory as: “being able to save as many lives as possible…because without this nothing would make sense.”  “The Russian war in Ukraine”  In this spirit, compromises will be made by both sides and a peace deal will be signed. It is for Ukraine to decide what is acceptable to them. But what should we wish for and— via various sanctions around the globe against Russia—what should we press for?

Our hearts cry out for revenge and punishment for Russia’s aggression and inhumane and barbaric behavior. But we would be much wiser to rely more on our minds than our hearts in fashioning the future. Existing and potentially strengthened sanctions will flatten the Russian economy if not lifted. Reallocating confiscated Russian property (e.g., the Central Bank of Russia’s foreign exchange reserves) for the reconstruction of Ukraine may seem justifiable but is surely illegal and no one should forget the role played by the Treaty of Versailles (providing for German reparations for WWI) in bringing about WWII. “How to stop a new cold war”

Ukraine President Zelensky has already indicated Ukraine’s potential willingness to become politically neutral ala Austria and give up seeking NATO membership. While taking territory by force violates international law, the formal return of Crimea to Russia, which is supported by over 80% of its residents, may well be part of a peace agreement. Should the U.S. and EU oppose such provisions? Should?

There are some, not just the defense industry, which profits from war, who believe that Putin is determined to reestablish the Imperial Russian Empire and must be resisted at all costs. We should fight Russia “to the last Ukrainian.” “How to stop a new cold war”  See the following interesting interview of Noam Chomsky: “Chomsky-US policy toward Putin assures no path to de-escalation in Ukraine”

Others, myself included, take seriously Putin’s (and Boris Yeltsin before him) pleas for a European security architecture in which Russia feels comfortable. We believe that America’s Monroe Doctrine is applicable to all major powers. Our true interest is in a peaceful Russia that is a comfortable member of the European continent ten or more years into the future. We should encourage Ukraine’s peace negotiations and our own sanctions and defense policies in that direction. Our defense industries have profited enough from our never-ending wars. Enough is enough. “Economic sanctions”

And we must never forget that our own flourishing rests, in part, on our reliable commitment to the rule of law. Why are we sanctioning Russians living outside of Russia and confiscating their yachts when they have not been convicted of any crimes? “The American Civil Liberties Union helped scuttle a bill this week that would have enabled the Biden administration to liquidate Russian oligarchs’ assets and turn the proceeds over to Ukraine.” “ACLU Ukraine-Russia-Oligarchs”

Our news media are confronting us daily with Russia’s atrocities (facts Russians are unable to see in their own country). It is hard not to want to strike out against Russia in kind. Such short-sighted reactions are not in Ukraine’s, nor the world’s, long run interest. We are, and should behave, better than that. “Ukraine itself is proposing terms that, if backed by a combination of U.S. and European sticks and carrots, stand some prospect of success.” “What can the US really do to protect civilians in Ukraine”  We should not let our short sighted, emotional, anger towards Russia and our military industry get in the way.

The good and evil in us all

Listening to political dialog in the U.S. has become very painful and disheartening because there is no dialog. The Republicans and Democrats simply hurdle nasty insults at each other. They are enemies rather than fellow citizens with different views. Serious policy issues and challenges do not receive the serious debate they need. The atmosphere is ugly.

Russia’s unjustified and increasingly barbaric attacks on Ukraine is another example of the worst in mankind.  Following four weeks of Russian attacks on Mariupol, Bucha, and other cities the destruction of lives and property is clearly visible. While it may take a while to sort out the truth of who did what, “President Biden on Monday joined the chorus of world leaders who have said reports of mass killings in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha constituted a ‘war crime,’ vowing to hold Russian President Vladimir Putin ‘accountable’ for the apparent atrocities in Ukraine.” “Bucha Biden sanctions Russia Ukraine”  However, it is natural, and appropriate, that we honor the bravery of Ukrainians defending their homeland and despise the savagery of the Russians invading it.

These understandable reactions do not excuse our damaging loss of our ability to differentiate among people, judging each other individually. Removing Russian performers from western stages may seem a childish reaction–OK it is a childish reaction–but it reveals a dangerous predisposition of caveman behavior. What are we to make of the removal of compositions of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky from current orchestral programs? He has been dead for more than a hundred years. Or as tweeted by Edward Luttwak: “The U of Milano cancels Dostoevsky course; Poland cancels Mussorgsky, Shostakovich & Stravinsky…. Actual thought is needed.”

Not all Russians living in Russia disapprove of their country’s war in Ukraine (hearing only official Russian propaganda) but many do according to those now leaving Russia in fear or disgust. We are told that many of the young Russian soldiers sent into Ukraine didn’t know why they were there and are not happy fighting their Ukrainian cousins.

Seeing such behavior has been very disheartening.

But man left the caves with admirable instincts as well. Helping their fellow man in need contributed to their own survival as well. The incredible welcome of 4 million Ukrainians in Europe in one month is breathtakingly heartwarming. Though I am embarrassed that the admission of Afghan and other war refugees has not been as easy or welcoming. My friend Tom Palmer continues to help fleeing Ukrainians relocate to Poland as do many others. A recent J Street webinar interview of Naomi Steinberg from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society about their work assisting Ukrainian immigrants was equally heartwarming. She noted that in earlier days HIAS helped Jews flying from persecution. Today, she said: “We are helping refugees, not because theyare Jewish but because we are Jewish.”

The fear and loathing of “others” and the desire to help those in need are both impulses that helped cavemen survive. But we no longer live in caves and our survival and flourishing requires that we tame the first instinct and encourage the second one.

The Russian War in Ukraine

“Mariupol. As things have worsened the escape routes, already dangerous, have become more deadly. Oleksandr Horbachenko, a welder, says that when he left on March 18th the city was in a state of collapse, with no municipal services, no drinkable water and no food. He says at least 80% of buildings are bombed out. ‘The whole of the centre is in ruins, with wires and glass everywhere. The worst thing is seeing the corpses strewn across the street. There are hundreds of them rotting away near the central market.’” The Economist: An uncertain outlook”

All wars are terrible, especially when seen up close. Those who recklessly urge them are almost always viewing them safely from afar.  Russia’s war on Ukraine has become tangible to us because the Internet brings it visually to us in our living rooms almost instantly and because Russia’s poor planning and poor excursion on the ground have pushed it to launch rocket attacks on civilian locations. Anatol Lieven: Why the Russians are losing their military gambit in Ukraine”

In an in-person interview of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyin his compound in Kyiv, The Economist staff asked the President how he would define victory.

“’Victory is being able to save as many lives as possible…because without this nothing would make sense. Our land is important, yes, but ultimately, it’s just territory.’ To save everyone, defend all interests while protecting people and not giving up territory is probably an impossible task, he concedes.”

Why then, asked The Economist, hasn’t the President agreed with Putin on the terms of a peace?

Zelensky replied that: “Everyone has varied interests. There are those in the West who don’t mind a long war because it would mean exhausting Russia, even if this means the demise of Ukraine and comes at the cost of Ukrainian lives. This is definitely in the interests of some countries. For other countries, it would be better if the war ended quickly, because Russia’s market is a big one that their economies are suffering as a result of the war. They would like to see Russia keep certain markets” The Economist: Volodymyr Zelensky in his own words

This should give you pause. The severe economic sanctions being imposed on Russia (leaving aside the legally questionable confiscation of the private property of Russian oligarchs living in England and elsewhere) seem designed to flatten and isolate the Russian economy. Why? To what end?  That certainly doesn’t benefit me or my country. Presumably they are meant to bring an end to the fighting, but what conditions must Russia satisfy to have them lifted? I have heard none stated.

Why hasn’t the U.S. pressed harder for negotiations? Who benefits financially from prolonging this war? Who besides the usual profiters of war (Military Industrial Congressional Media Complex)?

Russia: How should we fight back?

Russia’s attack on Ukraine has rightly outraged most of us. Leaving aside the history that brought us to this present conflict, Russia’s attack is totally unjustified. Our natural instincts are to help Ukraine resist its aggressor. As we watch the destruction of lives and property, it is natural to want to send in our boys or planes to help. Surely, we can stop this by using the might of our military and advanced weapons. Wars tend to look like that in the beginning. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq (I still can’t sort out what Bush/Cheney thought was America’s interest in attacking Iraq) looked like slam dunks going in. The realities were invariably very different by the end. How should we help Ukraine?

The U.S. and Ukraine’s NATO neighbors have been supplying Ukraine with weapons but left them to fight on their own. This was my assessment a month ago: “Ukraine-Russia-NATO”  As much as it strains against our impulse to help, President Biden is absolutely correct in ruling out our joining the war. For most of us, war, and the incredible pain it inflicts on those directly involved, is fought elsewhere by others. It is far too easy to say “sure, lets go to war.” “Ukraine-how should we help?”

But wars can be fought economically as well as militarily. Much of the West (the designation seems relevant again) has joined together to impose severe economic sanctions on Russia. But the objectives of these sanctions are not clear. They are too late to deter Russia from its invasion of Ukraine, though perhaps they provide an example of the potential cost to China if it decides to invade Taiwan. Are they meant to pressure Russia to come to the negotiating table? But it takes two to tango–Zelensky must be there as well. I have heard no statement of what Russia must do for the sanctions to be lifted.

The sanctions seem designed to cripple the Russian economy. Sadly, the pain will fall mainly on the Russia people rather than its government. Considerable pain will also fall on those imposing the sanctions. “The war in Ukraine and globalization”

Supply chains and financial channels will be disrupted for many years. But like military wars, the collateral damage an economic war is hard to predict. China and Russia and maybe India and much of Africa are being driven together to establish new trading relationships and non-dollar payment channels that don’t seem to serve American interests. If they are not explicitly linked to accelerating a negotiated peace, what are the sanctions for?  I don’t necessarily believe that our military industrial complex deliberately promotes the perpetuation of war, but as an economist I can’t ignore the fact that they have an economic incentive to do so.  

Missing from all of this seems to be the skillful deployment of diplomacy. The first priority, of course, is to end the fighting in Ukraine. But any peace agreement must look beyond the immediate war to the conditions that will promote peace and prosperity for Ukraine, Russia, Europe, and the world well into the future. As is often the case Chas Freeman says it best: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vxufUeqnuc

The War in Ukraine and Globalization 

We will cripple the Russian economy by cutting off their access to world markets. They will have to buy Russian.

We will strengthen the American economy by cutting off our own access to world markets. Buy American!

Both sentiments are circulating in the U.S. at the same time. If you don’t see the contradiction, you should probably stop reading. Cutting Russia off from external markets will definitely make it poorer but it will also hurt its former trading partners.

Without specialization and trade, we would all (the 99% of us) be poorer than dirt. See my very elementary explanation: “Econ-101-Trade in Very Simple Terms” This is why reducing Russia’s access to trade beyond Russia’s borders (cross border trade) will punish Russia and make it poorer. But this is often not properly understood even by very smart people: “Tony Judt on trade”

Trade is win-win, meaning that both the seller and buyer are better off as a result of their trades (assuming that their transactions are voluntary). Obviously then, restricting trade is lose-lose. Both sellers and buys are worse off as a result of restricting trade. I note this fact in my discussion of restricting trade with Russia: “How to Stop Russia in Ukraine” However, the rest of the world will have to scramble to replace Russian oil, gas, Ukrainian wheat, etc, and will pay higher prices for the substitutes.

Countries that impose trade restrictions on themselves (e.g., via tariffs) are often indulging in a form of corruption by enriching (“protecting”) favored industries or firms by reducing the competition they face from abroad (so called cheap Chinese labor, etc.). But trade policies and decisions can be more complicated than that.

Trade creates interdependencies. If a truck strike, or bad weather, or a cow disease, prevents the yogurt you no longer produce yourself from reaching your market (the local Safeway), you will go without it for a while. If semiconductors produced in Taiwan can’t reach American auto manufacturers on time and in sufficient numbers, car production is slowed. In short, supply chains that generally lower the cost of producing whatever, thus benefiting consumers, also increase the risks of supply chain interruptions. Businesses must (and do) evaluate the cost-risk trade off seeking a reasonable (profit maximizing) balance.  

Some products, e.g., those related to our national defense, are sufficiently critical that the government forces producers to forgo the economic efficiencies of importing them in order to minimize the risks of supply interruptions, especially in war time. While this is often justified, the line between risk reduction for national defense and corruption to buy votes or benefit friends is sometimes fuzzy. But no one can believe that buying steel from Canada is a national security risk as Trump claimed and as I note here: “Econ-101- Trade Deficits”  Buy American policies are more often in the corruption rather than the national interest category.

There is also an interesting political dimension to trade currently in our faces. The dramatic growth in trade in goods and services (from $63 billion in 1950 to $17,249 billion in 2020 “Worldwide export volume in trade since 1950”), has produced a dramatic reduction in poverty around the world (from 76% of the global population in extreme poverty in 1820 to 10% in 2018 “Extreme poverty in brief”’). It has also created significant interdependence between countries. This has positive and potentially negative aspects. While depending on Russia, China, Mexico, etc. for many of the things we enjoy (and sometimes even need) creates economic incentives to retain peaceful relationships, it also (the other side of the same coin) creates vulnerabilities and thus economic weapons to punish bad behavior. If the trade didn’t exist in the first place, cutting it off couldn’t be used to punish Russia. While we can inflict economic pain on Russia for its war on Ukraine by cutting off its access to our goods and services, Russia can and is inflicting pain on those of us who invested in Russia and who depend on Russian oil and enjoy Russian caviar.  

The pain some in the West have inflected on themselves (and the rest of us) out of their anger at Putin by canceling our enjoyment of Russia’s rich culture, is beyond comprehension coming from so called adults. “Russian musicians, artists, athletes and other cultural figures are facing broad backlash as Russian President Vladimir Putin has continued to press his relentless and increasingly brutal invasion of Ukraine.” “Ukraine war-be careful canceling Russia”

Among the tragedies of the physical and human losses in Ukraine, and the disruption of the lives of millions of Ukrainian refugees, are the damage to trading relationships and the global order. See my commons in:  “Ukraine-Russia-Nato”  We failed to deal properly with Russia and its concerns the first time around after the USSR was dissolved. It will take a long time to repair the damage done to the international order by Russia’s attack on Ukraine. We need to do a better job next time around.  “Western sanctions on Russia are like none the world has seen” We also need to better address the costs to those who must seek out new jobs and skills as a result of new technology and greater labor productivity, to which trade contributes. “Our Social Safety Net”

How to stop Russia in Ukraine?

In violation of international law, Russia has invaded Ukraine and the world is rightly outraged. Countermeasures to stop the fighting and punish Russia’s aggression do not include sending NATO armies against Russia for the very good reasons that it would significantly increase the risk of a devastating nuclear war and because our experiences with such wars in the last half century are not encouraging. What countermeasures might we (and are we) use(ing)?

Our primary tools are to economically and culturally isolate Russia in order to damage their economic ability to continue waging their war and to hurt their pride. What might that include within the limits of our commitment to the rule of law?

Each of us as individuals, companies, and governments have the right to decide who we trade and deal with. Refusing to sell to or buy from Russia can have a powerful impact on the Russian economy. Examples of companies that have ended or restricted their sales to and/or operations in Russia include Ford, GM, Toyota, VW, Volvo, Nissan, Honda, Subaru, Harley Davidson, Apple, BP, Equinor, Shell, ExxonMobil, Visa, Mastercard, Google, and Netflix. And the list continues to grow by the hour.

“Ikea, the world’s largest furniture company, is closing its 17 stores in Russia. The company said the conflict is having a “huge human impact” and “resulting in serious disruptions to supply chain and trading conditions.” In addition to pausing its retail and manufacturing operations in Russia, it will suspend all trade with the country and its ally, Belarus.” “CNN: Companies pulling back from Russia”

Sports and entertainment organizations certainly have the right to determine their members and kicking Russian teams or performers out of competitions, etc. can usefully demonstrate disapproval of Russia’s behavior.

More problematic are the announcements by Boeing and Airbus that they have suspended support services to Russian airlines flying their planes. Airbus stated that “it has ‘suspended support services to Russian airlines, as well as the supply of spare parts to the country.’” These are problematic because they might be breaking provisions in contracts these companies have with Russian airlines.  However, such contracts often provide for suspension in the event of war or other unusual circumstances. Moreover, if Russia withdraws from Ukraine in the next few weeks and the more severe sanctions are withdrawn, these reservations may become mute.

While social media platforms and entertainment companies (Disney, DirectTV, and WarnerMedia) also have the right to cut off Russian users, I am not convinced that it is always wise to do so. In my view we should all be able to view the propaganda disseminated by, for example, RT.  While I am sure that WarnerMedia’s decision to “pause the release of ‘The Batman’ in Russia,” will be devastating for many Russians, they do have more challenging issues to worry about at the moment.

A rather different category of sanctions are those taken by and/or imposed on others by governments. For example, all Russian airline flights are now banned from EU, U.S., and Canadian airspace. As a result, or perhaps for other reasons, the Russian delegation to the World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA-20) of the International Telecommunications Union now underway in Geneva didn’t come. This important meeting is held every four years to allocate spectrum and set other global telecom standards. By its absence Russia has lost all opportunities to nominate and elect chairmanships of any study groups and task forces for the next four years.

Most payments in dollars, Euros and most other currencies have been forbidden by the issuers of those currencies with specific exception. Russia has been blocked from using S.W.I.F.T. for sending payment instructions. The most important economic exception is that Russia may continue to sell oil and gas to Europe and to receive payment for them. Another is that Russia may continue to make debt service payments on Russian debt securities held abroad. The assets of all Russian banks outside of Russia, including its central bank, have been frozen. I am not sure how these two are reconciled. “BBC News”  

The approach of blocking economic activity by blocking payments for them is a bit similar in spirit to Anti Money Laundering (AML/CFT) restrictions, which attempt to stop illegal activities by stopping the use of the proceeds of “crimes” that haven’t been proven, rather than stopping the illegal activities themselves. The effectiveness of blocking payments in key currencies depends on how widely they are supported. A UN resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was supported by 141 members. Only 5 countries voted against (Russia, Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, and Syria). China and India and 33 other members (including, surprisingly, Cuba) abstained. Germany completely reversed earlier policies and is sending serious weapons to Ukraine and is increasing its military expenditures above NATO recommended minimums. While the extent of support is impressive, the abstainers open sufficient holes to undermine the impact of financial sanctions. None the less, the dramatic shrinkage of trade and real economic interactions will be devastating. Russia will be flattened and isolated.

More recently some countries have seized the assets of private Russian citizens.

The Russian Oligarch Igor Sechin’s yacht was seized Thursday by French Authorities while docked for repairs in La Ciotat, near Marseille. On the same day “Germany seized the Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov’s 512-foot mega yacht Dilbar, which is valued at $600m, which was moored in Hamburg.” “Russia sanctions superyacht seizures”. To my knowledge, neither of these Russians committed any crimes in France or Germany or anywhere else outside of Russia. The legal basis for these seizures, unless they are being held temporarily pending a court determination of whether crimes have been committee, is very questionable.  

Imposing harm on Russia and Russians of the types discussed above, will have costs to us as well. This by no means suggests that we should not use them. Properties and businesses abandoned in Russia and goods and services no longer sold there or purchased from there will impose costs on the western companies involved.  Western owners of Russian securities are likely to incur losses. Some Russian debt will default. But Russia’s aggression must be stopped, and future aggression strongly discouraged. Watching the Soviet tanks crush Hungarian and Czech demonstrators in 1968 without our military intervention to help them was very painful but was the right thing to do, just as our nonmilitary approach now is the right approach, as long as we apply sanctions lawfully.

Putin’s reckless war in Ukraine is destroying Russia. Let’s hope that the good and long-suffering people of Russia will not allow him to also destroy the whole world.

Ukraine: How should we help?

It is impossible not to admire the bravery of the people of Ukraine as they fight for their independence and freedom. Without help, Russian troops are almost certain to capture Kyiv and other key cities. The EU and many other countries have pulled together as never before to impose serious sanctions and provide military and humanitarian supplies. See: “Sanctions”  Putin’s failure to prepare the Russian people for a military attack on their fellow Russians and cousins in Ukraine is provoking protests in Russia against this war.  But these may not be enough to save Ukraine and it is tempting to think we should provide boots on the ground to insure a Russian defeat. President Biden is right to believe that this would be a grave mistake.

Military interventions always look more compelling at the start, while going through the front door. Sure, our army can squash whoever. Years later, as we leave or are pushed out the back door (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc.), they are revealed as foolish endeavors from the beginning. While Vietnam has prospered after our withdrawal and Iraq’s development is promising, they might well have reached these achievements sooner if we had stayed out. Why is this so? Why can’t we just take over countries under attack and make them better?

Generally, the countries we attack are engaged in civil wars (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Libya). Even Russia’s attack on Ukraine has elements of a civil war. We almost never understand the nuances of such battles nor have sufficient military and diplomatic officials who speak their languages and know their histories as they rotate in for two years then out. We can never be sure which side or sides we should support.

Putting aside that we don’t really have the resources to fully police the world, we have rarely achieved our objectives in the wars we have undertaken since WWII even if those objectives seemed reasonable at the outset. Iraq is an example where we did not have a good reason (or any reason at all except feeding our military industrial complex) to begin with. Part of the reason is that we have never invested in the training needed to be successful imperialists. We are bad at running other countries. You can read some of my firsthand experiences with just how bad we were at running Iraq in my book: “My travels to Baghdad”

If we send in the American Army to defend Ukraine against Russia, even if no escalation in fighting results (which is by no means certain), we will be forced to remain there for X number of years to keep the peace. Which factions would we support or favor? Why do we imagine that it would be different than our experiences in Afghanistan or Iraq? While it is emotionally hard not to walk through that front door with our troops, we must remember what the back door feels like, not to mention the X years in between. President Biden is right not to do so. “Reflections from the netherworld”

Most Americans are good hearted and want to help those in need. However, I am hard pressed to think of a time when we successfully did so with our Army.