Notes on “Re-aligning global value chains”

There is a danger that this may well end up becoming a habit, I publishing notes on an article written by Gulzar Natarajan, but well, it’ll be a worthwhile habit.

Here’s the one sentence take-away: “Good luck trying to move these chains away from China. Especially India.”

Ok, two sentences. My blog, my rules.

The article begins on a fairly upbeat note, if you think that a re-balancing of these chains away from China is a good idea. Japan has been mulling on this idea for a while, and the trend has only accelerated since the pandemic struck.

It goes on to speak about how the USA, and ‘like-minded’ nations such as Australia, India and Japan have also been considering walking down this path.

But then we enter into problematic territory:

  1. The pandemic has only accelerated this trend, as we already mentioned.
  2. Good luck.

Gulzar Natarajan pulls an extensive quote by Tim Cook from Inc. A part of it is quoted below:

“And the part that’s the most unknown is there’s almost two million application developers in China that write apps for the iOS App Store. These are some of the most innovative mobile apps in the world, and the entrepreneurs that run them are some of the most inspiring and entrepreneurial in the world. Those are sold not only here but exported around the world… China has moved into very advanced manufacturing, so you find in China the intersection of craftsman kind of skill, and sophisticated robotics and the computer science world.”

Tim Ferris had a useful insight that is relevant in this context. I’m paraphrasing here, but my takeaway is that it is perhaps better to be very good at a few things than be perfect at one and abysmal at everything else.

China is very good at a few things, and that makes it difficult to shift away from that country. It’s not enough, any longer, to be very good at cheap manufacturing. Not if you want to compete with China, because they’re still very good at that – and so much more.

And speaking of being very good at manufacturing:

“She is just one of dozens of workers we see at sewing machines and assembly tables at this umbrella factory. The factory tells us each worker will sew 40 umbrellas an hour, 1,600 a week. By year’s end, that’s 80,000 umbrellas a year from each worker like Chang. More than half those umbrellas will be sold in the United States. The factory chairman Lu Xinmiao reveals to us one of their biggest clients is Costco.”

And, from the same article…

“The head of the factory, Zhejiang Qingyi Knitting Company, tells us that if they could, they would hire 200 more workers today. He tells us that there is now more competition for workers. Some estimate it will take another 45 million workers from rural China within the next five years just to keep up with the demand for product. Here in Datang, Lu Xinmiao has given his employees 20 percent raises to make sure they stay. Cheng now makes 2,500 yuan a month, equal to $357.”

The article I quoted from speaks about umbrellas. Gulzar Natarajan speaks about coffins and bras.

Sample this, from The Economist:

“In this “Town of Underwear”, as the local government likes to call it, there are thousands of similar factories. Gurao produces 350m bras and 430m vests and pairs of knickers a year for sale at home and abroad. Undies account for 80% of its industrial output.”

But we can go on and on – specialized manufacturing that is still relatively cheap, especially when you take into account scale and (at least adjusted for the price that you’re paying) quality, means that China is still – even now! – a world beater in the manufacture of almost anything.

And the days of the bottom of the “manufacturing smile” are long since past for China as a whole:

“China now ranks second only to the United States in terms of start-up investment. From 2014 through 2016, China provided just under 20 percent of the world’s venture capital.”

That is from a McKinsey report titled Asia’s Future is Now. Left unsaid in the title is the fact that this is so because China would want it to be so.

In tomorrow’s essay, we’ll take a (big picture only) overview of how much of this cheap manufacturing shift away from China – to the extent that it happens at all – will actually come to India.

Notes on the IMF World Economic Outlook, June Update

On the 8th of January this year, this is how I opened the post for that day:

“Five links today to articles that were written recently about how things might pan out in 2020. Sticking one’s neck out and making predictions is difficult enough for relatively small issues – trying to guess where the global economy might end up is something I would never want to do. Kudos to those who try!”

Note to self: forecasting the global economy is an impossible task. Never forget!

All that being said, the International Monetary Fund came up with a June update to their April forecast. And (surprise, surprise) it doesn’t make for pleasant reading. What follows are passages I highlighted while reading the PDF, and in some cases, my comments below.

  • “Global growth is projected at –4.9 percent in 2020, 1.9 percentage points below the April 2020 World Economic Outlook (WEO) forecast. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a more negative impact on activity in the first half of 2020 than anticipated, and the recovery is projected to be more gradual than previously forecast.”
    ..
    ..
    My guess (not a forecast) is that this will be revised downward further still. I hope I am wrong. My reasons for being so pessimistic? One, I think we still underestimate how difficult it will be to reopen, and even if the economy reopens, parts of the world will need to enter lockdowns of varying intensity for a long time to come. Planning with such uncertainty in mind will prove to be difficult. Also, rebuilding supply chains while not prioritizing for efficiency is desirable, yes. But it’s not easy!
    ..
    ..
  • Also, uh, China will not take any attempted rebuilding of these supply chains lying down. Ask us Indians about it!
    ..
    ..
  • “The adverse impact on low-income households is particularly acute, imperiling the significant progress made in reducing extreme poverty in the world since the 1990s.”
    ..
    ..
    The distributional consequences are going to be bad, and quantifying them will keep economists occupied for a very long time. But dealing with this is not going to be easy.
    ..
    ..
  • “As with the April 2020 WEO projections, there is a higher-than-usual degree of uncertainty around this forecast.”
    ..
    ..
    Duh.
    ..
    ..
  • “For economies struggling to control infection rates, a lengthier lockdown will inflict an additional toll on activity.”
    ..
    ..
    This applies to us here in India, and again, dealing with this is not going to be easy.
    ..
    ..
  • “The pattern reflects a unique combination of factors: voluntary social distancing, lockdowns needed to slow transmission and allow health care systems to handle rapidly rising caseloads, steep income losses, and weaker consumer confidence”
    ..
    ..
    Truly a crisis like no other, this one. As I mention in tomorrow’s post, this is neither a supply not a demand crisis. Macroeconomics will have to, yet again, update itself.
    ..
    ..
  • “Nonetheless, according to the International Labour Organization, the global decline in work hours in 2020:Q1 compared to 2019:Q4 was equivalent to the loss of 130 million full-time jobs.”
    ..
    ..
  • “The synchronized nature of the downturn has amplified domestic disruptions around the globe. Trade contracted by close to –3.5 percent (year over year) in the first quarter, reflecting weak demand, the collapse in cross-border tourism, and supply dislocations related to shutdowns (exacerbated in some cases by trade restrictions).”
    ..
    ..
    One of my biggest worries is that politics, both domestic and international, will likely make this much, much worse in the days to come.
    ..
    ..
  • “An important assumption is that countries where infections have declined will not reinstate stringent lockdowns of the kind seen in the first half of the year, instead relying on alternative methods if needed to contain transmission (for instance, ramped up testing, contact tracing, and isolation).”
    ..
    ..
    Neither citizens nor governments – at least in India – have the appetite for a lockdown that was as strict or as long as the one that lasted through until the end of May. In a sense, we have used up that particular strategy. Limited lockdowns, and intensive ones in those areas where there are outbreaks, will be the way forward. This, unfortunately, will not be as effective, and we will therefore live in a stop-start world for a while.
    ..
    ..
  • “For the first time, all regions are projected to experience negative growth in 2020. There are, however, substantial differences across individual economies, reflecting the evolution of the pandemic and the effectiveness of containment strategies; variation in economic structure (for example, dependence on severely affected sectors, such as tourism and oil); reliance on external financial flows, including remittances; and pre-crisis growth trends.”
    ..
    ..
    Same cause for the disease, in other words, but the treatment must necessarily be different. Not just across countries, but also within them. What works for Maldives will not work for India, for example, and what works for Goa won’t for Maharashtra. An argument, if you will, for policy to operate at more local levels.
    ..
    ..
  • “Moreover, with widespread school closures in about 150 countries as of the end of May, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization estimates that close to 1.2 billion schoolchildren (about 70 percent of the global total) have been affected worldwide. This will result in significant loss of learning, with disproportionately negative effects on earnings prospects for children in low-income countries.”
    ..
    ..
    Left unstated is the social impact of being cooped up at home, and on the entire family, not just children. The economic consequences – now and in the future – will be important.
    ..
    ..
  • “Development of a safe, effective vaccine would lift sentiment and could improve growth outcomes in 2021, even if vaccine production is not scaled up fast enough to deliver herd immunity by the end of 2021.”
    ..
    ..
    Last mile delivery of vaccines will take longer than most people think, and an improvement in “sentiment” might lead to unanticipated consequences.
    ..
    ..
  • “Beyond the pandemic, policymakers must cooperate to address the economic issues underlying trade and technology tensions as well as gaps in the rules-based multilateral trading system. The eventual recovery from the COVID-19 crisis would be endangered without a durable solution to these frictions.”
    ..
    ..
    Agreed! But color me sceptical on this panning out well.

Five articles I found informative

Andy Mukherjee on debt funds, Franklin Templeton and the regulatory mess that is about to get a whole lot worse:

Back then, Franklin Templeton’s unit holders probably had no idea their fund manager was sitting on practically the entire stock of zero-coupon debentures issued by Yes Capital Ltd., one of Kapoor family’s private investment vehicles. That was long before Yes, a major deposit-taking institution, became a basket case that was eventually rescued by a consortium led by government-controlled State Bank of India. The five funds that were involved in lending to Kapoor are among the six that have been suspended, suggesting that nothing really changed between then and now

Kurzarbeit. My word for the day. (I really should learn German)

He said Germany’s “Kurzarbeit,” or “short-time work,” program during the current pandemic has similarly set an example as to how deal with this economic crisis.

Under Germany’s system workers are sent home or see their hours slashed but are paid around two-thirds of their salary by the state.

China, India: follow the money!

Since 2014, an influx of Chinese capital in India has transformed the structure of India’s trade and investment relations with China. Until that year, the net Chinese investment in India was US$1.6 billion, according to official figures. Most of the investment was in the infrastructure space, involving major Chinese players in this sector, predominantly state-owned enterprises (SOEs). In the next three years, total investment increased five-fold to at least US$8 billion, according to data from the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) in Beijing, with a noticeable shift from state-driven to market-driven investment from the Chinese private sector.

Bill Gates simplifies the development of the vaccine for all of us:

Safety and efficacy are the two most important goals for every vaccine. Safety is exactly what it sounds like: is the vaccine safe to give to people? Some minor side effects (like a mild fever or injection site pain) can be acceptable, but you don’t want to inoculate people with something that makes them sick.

Efficacy measures how well the vaccine protects you from getting sick. Although you’d ideally want a vaccine to have 100 percent efficacy, many don’t. For example, this year’s flu vaccine is around 45 percent effective.

TLTRO’s explained (this is a great read!)

A capital starved NBFC world will see churn, but sometimes the lack of capital itself will cause a company to fold, even if it has good credit. The RBI action for TLTRO may be good to create some liquidity for some NBFCs, but the system itself is weak and it may eventually need the RBI itself to step up and take some of the risk. A simple rule can be: We’ll fund you Rs. 100 as debt if you can raise Rs. 50 as additional equity capital from the market. But for now, we have TLTROs.

 

The Chinese Government and the Corona Virus

There’s people, there’s the government that represents said people, and there’s a concept called “nation”.

They’re three separate things.

If you disagree, I submit that people have existed before nations have, and (most) nations have existed for longer than individual governments have. And the reason I bring this up is because I put up a video some while ago, arguing against tribalism, and therefore arguing that blaming the Chinese for the virus didn’t make sense.

Here’s the video:

And I stand by said video: it makes no sense to blame a country, or its people for a virus.

But a government? That’s a separate story, for as I said at the start of this essay, a government is not its people, and vice versa:

Some of the bravest men and women have been the Chinese doctors and nurses on the frontlines of this virus, who were bravely raising alarm, often at the cost of their lives, and suppressed by the most totalitarian and evil great power in the planet.

And the Chinese government can say what it likes, it bungled this up. Fact.

A study published in March indicated that if Chinese authorities had acted three weeks earlier than they did, the number of coronavirus cases could have been reduced by 95% and its geographic spread limited.

As with any quantitative model, treat the number with a pinch of salt, but fewer people would have died had the Chinese government acted faster, and communicated better.

We now know that the opposite happened: local authorities in China suppressed information about the outbreak, even destroying proof of the virus sometime in December. Official censors scrubbed social media posts from medical professionals warning of a new “SARS-like” disease. And as late as mid-January, Chinese authorities denied evidence of any community transmission, allowing the lunar new year celebrations to proceed despite having known about it for at least a month.

Not only is the Chinese government obviously aware of this fact, it is trying – surprise, surprise – to not only hush things up, but warning other countries of ‘adverse’ impacts if the line is not toed, stat.

Once the virus made its inevitable outward march, claiming lives beyond China’s borders, the CPC mounted a major public relations exercise that exploited common human decencies to evade accountability. Criticism of the Chinese government was equated with racist prejudice against ordinary Chinese people. The result: rather than confront China, precious energies were exerted to avoid the trap set by China. In February, the Mayor of Florence launched a campaign encouraging Italians to “hug a Chinese”, describing it as a “fight of solidarity and unity against virus”. The People’s Daily, a mouthpiece of the CPC, applauded young Italians advertising their virtuousness on the Internet with photos of themselves hugging Chinese tourists without mentioning a word about the mortal perils of human contact.

China didn’t owe an apology or an explanation to the world: the world owed China proof of its anti-racism.

China has legal problems on its hands, once the worst of the crisis is behind us:

While China’s intentional conduct is wrongful, is it unlawful? If so, do other states have a legal remedy? Under Article 1 of the International Law Commission’s 2001 Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, states are responsible for their internationally wrongful acts. This commission’s restatement of the law of state responsibility was developed with the input of states to reflect a fundamental principle of international customary law, which binds all nations. “Wrongful acts” are those that are “attributable to the state” and that “constitute a breach of an international obligation” (Article 2). Conduct is attributable to the state when it is an act of state through the executive, legislative, or judicial functions of the central government (Article 4). While China’s failures began at the local level, they quickly spread throughout China’s government, all the way up to Xi Jinping, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. He is now being pilloried by Chinese netizens for his failures of action and inaction. The most prominent critic, Chinese tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, lambasted Xi for his mishandling of the coronavirus, calling him a “power hungry clown.” Ren soon disappeared.

But that also depends on an internationally coordinated response, and that isn’t likely, given current evidence:

In this effort, the third event mentioned above, i.e., Donald Trump’s chaotic management of the spread of the disease in the US, is an asset for Beijing. The US President’s early responses were bumbling, flippant and motivated by narrow domestic political considerations. Trump went from being completely dismissive to eventually declaring a Europe travel ban, a national emergency and a potentially collaborative approach with G7 countries. It’s still early days, but if the US leadership continues to stumble in its efforts to contain the spread of the disease domestically and mismanages ties with international partners, it will work to Beijing’s advantage. In such a scenario, expect the Communist Party to further double down on the effectiveness of its governance system to contain unrest at home and reshape global norms

Demanding clear(er) communication ought to be requirement number one from any government here on in, beginning with the Chinese government. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Notes from Pale Rider, by Laura Spinney

This is a book that was recommended to be a while ago, but I only got around to reading it today. It likely would have been a page-turner in its own right at any time that I happened to read it, but in these times, it was the very definition of unputdownable.


 

I have pages and pages of notes, and I’m just going to note stuff over here in haphazard, higgedly-piggedly fashion. Hopefully, I will come back to it later on and write a more considered essay. For the moment, this must do.

  • Between the first recorded case, on the 4th of March 1918 up to sometime in March 1920, the Spanish flu killed anywhere between 50 million to 100 million people. For point of comparison, the two world wars, put together, killed 77 million people.
  • The reason we don’t hear as much about the Spanish flu is because of the Euro-centric reporting of the time. France lost six times as many people to the war as it did to the flu, Germany four times as many – Britain three times and Italy two.But everywhere else, the flu killed more people than did the war.
  • A virus doesn’t typically “jump” over the species barrier. To use the author’s phrase, it “oozes” over, across multiple generations of the virus. And in some cases, having oozed over, it finds itself mutated into a formidable shape indeed: ideally suited to grow and humans unable to defend themselves against it.
  • Climate can cause disease, but there have been cases where disease has caused climate – and as recently as the sixteenth century. The germs unleashed by Europeans in the Americas could possibly have ushered in the Little Ice Age.
  • The flu struck in three waves, and the second wave was by far the deadliest.
  • Australia was almost entirely unaffected by the second wave because of very strict maritime restrictions. But as it turns out, they lifted the restrictions far too soon, therefore becoming susceptible to the third wave.
  • The Vaccine Revolt of Brazil.
  • Naming viruses and the diseases they cause has been a tricky thing for years. Hong Kong objected to the SARS virus outbreak being called that because the full name of Hong Kong then was the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong.
  • The Spanish flu had nothing to do with Spain. It emerged either in China, or America or France, but certainly not in Spain. But historical accidents, and the victorious nations of WWI called it the Spanish flu, and so the name stuck.
  • The Spanish, incidentally, called it the Naples soldier flu.
  • Influenza itself simply means influenced by the stars, as that was one of the then prevailing theories of the cause of the flu. When I say then prevailing, I mean much, much before 1918, of course.
  • Shansi’s history with the flu, and the role of Yen Hsi-Shan and an American missionary called Watson was fascinating, as much for the cultural aspects as for the masterful reasoning employed by Watson.
  • Even back then, people were theorizing that the flu may have been biowarfare. The suspicions about the aspirin tablets manufactured by Bayer was particularly interesting.
  • The history of the town of Zamora was also fascinating – and heartbreaking.
  • A sense of disgust is an evolutionary gift that allows some species to dispose of their dead. This is not unique to humans. It is an innate survival mechanism.
  • One of the most important lessons of that time was the ability to quickly identify the source, then the vector (how the disease spreads) and finally ensuring compliance. Again, social distancing matters.
  • The natural experiments of American and Western Samoa were eye-openers. Read more here. Again, social distancing matters.
  • This book has been added to the list.
  • In New York, in the 1830’s cholera was thought to be an Irish disease, while TB was known as the “Jewish disease”.
  • Polypharmacy: multiple medicines being used by a single patient. But in this context, it is the medicinal equivalent of throwing the kitchen sink at the opponent. Because nothing works, use everything.
  • Karen Starko advanced the theory that aspirin might have actually been a poison, so widely was it prescribed and overused. Along similar lines: arsenic, mercury. Not to mention cigarettes and alcohol. (Yes, I am aware that some things haven’t changed)
  • Black Wedding: this was, of course, tried as a cure. Among many other things, worldwide.
  • Learning more about Wu Lien-Teh was fun.
  • Étaples, and the theories surrounding the origin of the Spanish flu over there ought to be a case study in statistics classes the world over.
  • Would you give yourself an injection of the coronavirus in the cause of furthering science? This guy, René Dujarric de la Rivière, did.
  • Between 13 million and 18 million Indians died because of the 1918 outbreak of the flu.
  • In Paris, some of the highest fatalities were recorded in the most affluent areas. But a deep dive into the data revealed that it was the servants living below the richer floors that had the highest rates of fatality.
  • I got to learn about the molecular clock.
  • Culture, diet, gender, religion and heritable traits all played – and still play! – a role. This point deserves a separate blog post of its own.
  • The painter Edward Munch may have gone through two bouts of the flu – and one of it may have been responsible for The Scream.
  • The silver linings were that Russia, USA and China, among other nations, updated their National Health Systems after the Spanish Flu.
  • The flu may have had a role in how the Treaty of Versailles played out, which is a fascinating thought.
  • Might there be a link between La Nina and pandemics? Speculative, but worth a read.

Understanding Afghanistan A Little Bit Better

“Here is a game called buzkashi that is played only in Afghanistan and the central Asian steppe. It involves men on horseback competing to snatch a goat carcass off the ground and carry it to each of two designated posts while the other players, riding alongside at full gallop, fight to wrest the goat carcass away. The men play as individuals, each for his own glory. There are no teams. There is no set number of players. The distance between the posts is arbitrary. The field of play has no boundaries or chalk marks. No referee rides alongside to whistle plays dead and none is needed, for there are no fouls. The game is governed and regulated by its own traditions, by the social context and its customs, and by the implicit understandings among the players. If you need the protection of an official rule book, you shouldn’t be playing. Two hundred years ago, buzkashi offered an apt metaphor for Afghan society. The major theme of the country’s history since then has been a contention about whether and how to impose rules on the buzkashi of Afghan society.”

That is an excerpt from an excerpt – the book is called Games Without Rules, and the author, Tamim Ansary, has written a very readable book indeed about the last two centuries or so of Afghanistan’s history.

It has customs, and it has traditions, but it doesn’t have rules, and good luck trying to impose them. The British tried (thrice) as did the Russians and now the Americans, but Afghanistan has proven to be the better of all of them.

Let’s begin with the Russians: why did they invade?


 

One day in October 1979, an American diplomat named Archer K. Blood arrived at Afghanistan’s government headquarters, summoned by the new president, whose ousted predecessor had just been smothered to death with a pillow.

While the Kabul government was a client of the Soviet Union, the new president, Hafizullah Amin, had something else in mind. “I think he wants an improvement in U.S.-Afghan relations,” Mr. Blood wrote in a cable back to Washington. It was possible, he added, that Mr. Amin wanted “a long-range hedge against over-dependence on the Soviet Union.”

Pete Baker in the NYT speaks of recently made available archival history, which essentially reconfirms what seems to have been the popular view all along: the USSR could not afford to let Afghanistan slip away from the Communist world, no matter the cost. And as Prisoners of Geography makes clear, and the NYT article mentions, there was always the tantalizing dream of accessing the Indian Ocean.

By the way, somebody should dig deeper into Archer K. Blood, and maybe write a book about him. There’s one already, but that’s a story for another day.


Well, if the USSR invaded, the USA had to be around, and of course it was:

The supplying of billions of dollars in arms to the Afghan mujahideen militants was one of the CIA’s longest and most expensive covert operations. The CIA provided assistance to the fundamentalist insurgents through the Pakistani secret services, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), in a program called Operation Cyclone. At least 3 billion in U.S. dollars were funneled into the country to train and equip troops with weapons. Together with similar programs by Saudi Arabia, Britain’s MI6 and SAS, Egypt, Iran, and the People’s Republic of China, the arms included FIM-43 Redeye, shoulder-fired, antiaircraft weapons that they used against Soviet helicopters. Pakistan’s secret service, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was used as an intermediary for most of these activities to disguise the sources of support for the resistance.

But if you are interested in the how, rather than the what – and if you are interested in public choice – then do read this review, and do watch the movie. Charlie Wilson’s War is a great, great yarn.

 


 

AP Photo, sourced from the Atlantic photo essay credited below.

Powerful photographs that hint at what the chaos of those nine years must have been like, from the Atlantic.

 


 

And finally, from the Guardian comes an article that seeks to give a different take on “ten myths” about Afghanistan, including the glorification of Charlie Wilson:

 

This myth of the 1980s was given new life by George Crile’s 2003 book Charlie Wilson’s War and the 2007 film of the same name, starring Tom Hanks as the loud-mouthed congressman from Texas. Both book and movie claim that Wilson turned the tide of the war by persuading Ronald Reagan to supply the mujahideen with shoulder-fired missiles that could shoot down helicopters. The Stingers certainly forced a shift in Soviet tactics. Helicopter crews switched their operations to night raids since the mujahideen had no night-vision equipment. Pilots made bombing runs at greater height, thereby diminishing the accuracy of the attacks, but the rate of Soviet and Afghan aircraft losses did not change significantly from what it was in the first six years of the war.

Afghanistan Today

After Poland and Germany, let’s pick an Asian country to understand better for the month of March. And given the recent deal that has been signed, about which more below, let’s begin with Afghanistan.

As always, begin with the basics. The gift that is Wikipedia, on Afghanistan:

“Afghanistan is a unitary presidential Islamic republic. The country has high levels of terrorism, poverty, child malnutrition, and corruption. It is a member of the United Nations, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Group of 77, the Economic Cooperation Organization, and the Non-Aligned Movement. Afghanistan’s economy is the world’s 96th largest, with a gross domestic product (GDP) of $72.9 billion by purchasing power parity; the country fares much worse in terms of per-capita GDP (PPP), ranking 169th out of 186 countries as of 2018.”

And from the same article…

The country has three rail links: one, a 75-kilometer (47 mi) line from Mazar-i-Sharif to the Uzbekistan border; a 10-kilometer (6.2 mi) long line from Toraghundi to the Turkmenistan border (where it continues as part of Turkmen Railways); and a short link from Aqina across the Turkmen border to Kerki, which is planned to be extended further across Afghanistan. These lines are used for freight only and there is no passenger service.

Now, as opposed to how I structured the essays on Poland and Germany, I intent to begin with the now and work my way backwards. This is primarily because of what Afghanistan is in the news for:

The joint declaration is a symbolic commitment to the Afghanistan government that the US is not abandoning it. The Taliban have got what they wanted: troops withdrawal, removal of sanctions, release of prisoners. This has also strengthened Pakistan, Taliban’s benefactor, and the Pakistan Army and the ISI’s influence appears to be on the rise. It has made it unambiguous that it wants an Islamic regime.

The Afghan government has been completely sidelined during the talks between the US and Taliban. The future for the people of Afghanistan is uncertain, and will depend on how Taliban honours its commitments and whether it goes back to the mediaeval practices of its 1996-2001 regime.

Doesn’t bode well for India, obviously, but doesn’t bode well for the United States of America either, says Pranay Kotasthane.

And the New York Times says a complete withdrawal of troops, even over the period currently specified, may not be a great idea. Ongoing support is, according to that newspaper, necessary:

More important than troops, potentially, is the willingness of the international community to continue to finance the Afghan government after a peace deal.

“The real key to whether Afghanistan avoids falling into an even longer civil war is the degree to which the United States and NATO are willing to fund and train the Afghan security forces over the long term,” Mr. Stavridis said. “When Vietnam collapsed and the helicopters were lifting off the roof of the U.S. Embassy, it was the result of funding being stopped.”

But it’s not just military funding! Afghanistan needs a lot of the world’s support in the years to come. Water, for example, will be a contentious issue in the years to come, and that’s putting it mildly.

Afghanistan doesn’t face a water shortage – it’s unable to get water to where it’s needed. The nation loses about two thirds of its water to Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and other neighbors because doesn’t harness its rivers. The government estimates that more than $2 billion is needed to rehabilitate the country’s most important irrigation systems.

And water, of course, is just one of many issues. Health, education, reforming agriculture, roads – it’s an endless list, and it will need all kinds of ongoing and sustained help.

So, amid all of this, what should India be doing?

Meanwhile, India’s interests in Afghanistan haven’t changed. India hopes to build up Afghanistan’s state capacity so that Pakistan’s desires of extending control can be thwarted. Given this core interest in a changed political situation, what’s needed in the long-term in the security domain is to build the strength of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). Without a strong ANDSF — which comprises the army, police, air force, and special security forces — peace and stability in Afghanistan will remain elusive. India’s aim should be to help the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and ANDSF claim monopoly over the legitimate use of physical force.

But, the article presciently warns us of the same what/how problem we first encountered in studying the Indian budget:

In short, the budget might itself not be the biggest issue. The US has pumped nearly $3.6bn on average every year for the last 19 years solely on reconstruction of the ANDSF, a support that is likely to continue even if the US withdraws its soldiers. The bigger problems are insufficient processes to plan and execute budgets resulting in unused funds and lack of infrastructure leading to pay shortfalls.

Now, to unpack all of this, we need to study the following: the Soviet invasion and its aftermath, American involvement in the region, the rise of the Taliban, leading up to Operation Enduring Freedom, 2002. That’s next Wednesday!

Germany: What Next? (And a fascinating read as a bonus)

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed learning more about Germany as a consequence of writing these articles. Alas, I am all too aware that the learning has been very superficial indeed, but that will hopefully only serve to whet my appetite further. I’ll attempt to summarize my key learnings in a post scheduled for later this week, and in March, we’ll learn more about France.

Onwards then, to the topic of today’s essay: where does Germany go from here?

For many years, Germany’s economic strength has been based on prudent
monetary policy, a highly skilled workforce and a renowned manufacturing
sector that has successfully built up export markets across the world. Germany
has enjoyed political stability and exhibited a contained approach towards
foreign policy, where Germany regularly played by the rules set by others in the
liberal international order.
However, these pillars of Germany’s strength and stability may not be the right
tools to manage the upcoming disruptive changes.

That is from the executive summary of a report titled “Is Germany ready for the future? The case for action in a climate changed world“. The report speaks about how increasing digitilization, rising social inequality (globally), the disruption to the rules based trading order that worked so well for Germany, rising nationalism (again, globally) and low/non-existent aggregate demand will challenge Germany’s current model. The infographic below gives their (the authors) recommendations to deal with these challenges. Also, the word for the day where I am concerned: mittelstand.

Figure 1 from the same report linked to above

“Germany isn’t exactly in a state of disrepair. It doesn’t feel as though it is, even though potholed streets aren’t a rarity, trains often don’t run on time and cellular reception is spotty outside cities. Nor, however, does it feel future-proofed enough, even after a decade and a half of Merkel’s generally successful rule. The WEF touts unshakable financial stability (the country got 100 points out of 100 for it in the competitiveness ranking) as one of Germany’s biggest advantages, but that stability has been achieved, in part, by shifting problems to the local level. “

That is from a short, but excellent, persuasive and full of surprises column in Bloomberg by Leonid Bershidsky. The report that he cites is, alas, in German, but his takeaways make for thought provoking reading. And speaking of surprises, from the same article:

The World Economic Forum ranks Germany as the world’s seventh-most-competitive economy this year, down from third in 2018. According to WEF, its greatest weakness is in information and communication technology adoption, where it’s ranked 36th in the world; only one German out of 100 has a fiber optic broadband subscription, compared with one out of 32 in South Korea.

In an embarrassing episode on Monday, a state TV broadcast about a special government session on improving mobile coverage was broken off because of a bad connection.

I traveled through parts of Germany last month, and while Internet speeds in both Airbnb’s that I stayed in were slower than in France, they were certainly good enough, and with no loss in connectivity. I’ll note that for about four hours in a town called Gottingen, I lost connectivity on my phone.

Does this report on population trends in Germany by the year 2050 hold a cultural clue that might help us think more about the excerpt above? Pure conjecture on my part, of course, but worth thinking about, perhaps.

As a result, there will be a clear shift in the age structure of working-age people.
At present, 50% of working-age people belong to the medium-age group, which includes people of 30 to 49 years, nearly 20% belong to the young age group of 20 to
29 years and 30% to the older age group of 50 to 64 years. In 2020, the medium-age
group will account for as little as 42%, the older one, however, will remain almost
unchanged at about 40%; the situation will be similar in 2050 (medium group: 43%,
older group: nearly 40%). The percentage of the 20 to under 30-year-olds will not
change very strongly. As a result, older people will clearly prevail among working-age population.

I’d never heard of Strategic Perspective 2040 until I started searching for phrases linked to the future of Germany. But the fact that it was written, leaked, and the responses to it – they’re all equally fascinating.

The assumption behind the UK’s repeated promise of security cooperation with Europe after Brexit is that the core democracies – Germany, France, Italy and Spain – will remain committed to Nato, democracy and the rule of law. And that a reformed and revitalised Europe will deliver enough jobs and growth to sap the energy of the nationalist and xenophobic right. But it would also be wise for politicians to begin admitting that these things are no longer certain. If we want order, we have to create it – through engagement, multilateralism, by accommodating what we can of the demands of rising powers and through the promotion of resilient democratic institutions. If we fail to achieve order, we must deal with disorder when the US is no longer a reliable ally, nor even a stable democracy.

And now for the bonus. I have read quite a few articles/PDF’s/essays about Germany, and given last week’s essay, about the Berlin Wall. None was as gripping as this one. It is titled “The Story of Tunnel 29“, and it is an absolute must read.

My thanks to Gandhar Joshi, a student of the BSc programme at Gokhale Institute, for sharing it with me.

One on inflation, and four on Germany’s reunification

As a student of economics, I think I’ve read one article too many on Germany’s inflation. In fact, one of the many joys of writing this blog has been discovering how bad inflation was in other parts of the world: the version of economic history that I have studied has underplayed this.

(Name four countries that experienced hyperinflation: Germany! Zimbabwe! Venezuela! Uhhhhhh…..)

But that being said, learning more about Germany this month wouldn’t be complete without at least one article about it’s hyperinflation. And the reason I enjoyed the one I excerpt from below is because while it is full of interesting anecdotes about the period of hyperinflation, it also speaks about how it all ended – and with what consequences. And a fun fact which you may have not known earlier: the root of the word credit means to believe. That’s modern finance, in a nutshell.

Obviously, though the currency was worthless, Germany was still a rich country — with mines, farms, factories, forests. The backing for the Rentenmark was mortgages on the land and bonds on the factories, but that backing was a fiction; the factories and land couldn’t be turned into cash or used abroad. Nine zeros were struck from the currency; that is, one Rentenmark was equal to one billion old Marks. The Germans wanted desperately to believe in the Rentenmark, and so they did. “I remember,” said one Frau Barten of East Prussia, “the feeling of having just one Rentenmark to spend. I bought a small tin bread bin. Just to buy something that had a price tag for one Mark was so exciting.”

All money is a matter of belief. Credit derives from Latin, credere, “to believe.” Belief was there, the factories functioned, the farmers delivered their produce. The Central Bank kept the belief alive when it would not let even the government borrow further.

The political “give” that was needed to get the political, economic, cultural and civilizational “take”, in an interesting article from DW. The set of links at the bottom of this article are also worth a read. (Note that I have added the WIkipedia link to the 2 Plus 4 Agreement, it is not there in the original).

The 2 plus 4 Agreement, also called the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, recognized all European borders established after World War II, resolving this outstanding dispute once and for all. Bonn and Berlin’s signatures to the treaty meant that a newly reunited Germany would recognize national borders as they stood, not as they once were. Coupled with the reduction in military concentrations, the acceptance of current borders was a significant step toward an enduring peace in Europe at large.

An unusually short excerpt by my own standards, but this is the last sentence in the Wikipedia article about German reunification. It deserves to be read in the full, the entire article, especially if you were under the impression that reunification in Germany was relatively quick, painless and that there was much happiness all round.

The absorption of eastern Germany, and the methods by which it had been accomplished, had exacted a high price throughout all of Germany.

But there is an argument to be made that it was worth it, because one way of thinking about it is this: West Germany purchased access to culture by sharing economic prosperity, while East Germany purchased access to economic propserity by sharing culture. Costs matter, but maybe, just maybe, culture trumps economics?

“On average, people in the East are less successful, less productive and not as wealthy. Materially speaking, they’re less happy,” Seemann said. “But that’s exactly why cultural diversity in the eastern states plays a more important role than in the West. People in eastern Germany are aware that there are things which are more important than making money and paying taxes. They see the arts as a creative process of ‘togetherness.’ We need to strengthen this consciousness, because that’s the only way to ensure culture and society continues to thrive — regardless of where we stand economically in the years to come.”

Note that there are links at the bottom of this article about whether lessons from German reunification can apply to Korea. Alas, the article says no. I am an Indian, so double the alas for me, please.

And finally, a reminder that these things take time! This article is about the reunification of not Germany, but of the German language. Note that the East Germans had to adapt, and not the other way around. Maybe, just maybe, economics trumps culture?

The former East and West Germany have grown closer together in many areas over the past 26 years. At the same time, some differences are still marked precisely by the former border between East and West, such as economic strength, family structure and wealth. Furthermore, stereotypes about Wessis and Ossis have still not been consigned to history. According to a study carried out by the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, it will take another generation before German unity is firmly anchored in people’s minds. It has, however, long been reflected in the way they speak.

Germany after World War II

What was Germany like after World War II? How different were the two parts of Germany, and why? How different was the growth trajectory in each part, and what consequences did it have for their current state? These are the questions that we try and answer in today’s post.

Still, not all participating nations benefitted equally. Nations such as Italy, who had fought with the Axis powers alongside Nazi Germany, and those who remained neutral (e.g., Switzerland) received less assistance per capita than those countries who fought with the United States and the other Allied powers.

The notable exception was West Germany: Though all of Germany was damaged significantly toward the end of World War II, a viable and revitalized West Germany was seen as essential to economic stability in the region, and as a not-so-subtle rebuke of the communist government and economic system on the other side of the “Iron Curtain” in East Germany.

A very short, and simple introduction to the Marshall plan from history.com. Key takeaways for me? It might be useful to think of the Marshall plan as first a political tool and second an economic plan (or at least a combination of the two), that political alignments (past and present) had a role to play in allocations, and the CIA seems to have been a surprisingly (although perhaps not, if you think about) large beneficiary of the plan!

As we have indicated, that Germany was a Marshall Plan recipient in the first place
did not make the other participating countries very happy, but taking economic revenge was simply not a viable alternative. In fact, Germany had already received a large amount of U.S. aid before the Marshall Plan was even conceived: starting almost immediately after the end of the war, the Allied-occupied part of the country received U.S. goods through the GARIOA program (Government and Relief in Occupied Areas), and the value of these goods amounted to around $1.7 billion.
So the Marshall Plan aid to Germany, which amounted to about $1.4 billion in the
first four years, was not that dramatic in itself. Britain, France and Italy all received a larger slice of the cake (see listing below for the distribution of help to the ERP countries). And yet Germany put the aid to better use than any other country, and today, 50 years later, still continues to benefit directly from the ERP counterpart fund, known after 1953 as the ERP Special Fund.

Put it this way: because of the lessons learned from the First World War,the Marshall Plan can be seen as the response to the Economic Consequences of the Peace. This article was also worth a read for me because it spoke about the origins (sort of) of the KfW, the 1972 visit of Chancellor Brandt, and a useful counterfactual towards the end of the essay.

What if I wanted to teach myself what post-war German society was like through the medium of movies? The only one I have seen is The Reader.

But here’s an IMDB list that is as much of a bookmark for me as recommendations for you! I have not seen almost all of them.

“There is no example of merging two states with such vastly different political systems that has worked so smoothly. But this reunification was, and continues to be, far more difficult to achieve than was thought during the exuberance of the reunification celebrations.

“Even if the two parts were only separated for 41 years – that’s less than two generations – the citizens of east and west were socialised in such a different way that in retrospect the idea that integration would be swift was utopian.”

Klingholz estimates that it will take at least another generation before the two parts have truly grown back together. One major piece of evidence for that, he says, is that “many Wessis have never even been to the east,” while most Ossis have been to the west.

Written on the 25th anniversary of reunification, this article from the Guardian cites how long it takes for cultural reunification, and how little time (or generations) it takes for a hitherto united nation to grow apart. For obvious reasons, a depressing read. The report cited in the article is in German – if anybody knows of a English version, please let me know!

In 1936, industrial labour productivity was already 9 per cent lower in the East than in the West, largely due to a transfer of less productive industries to the East German region, and more productive sectors to the West. By 1950, this gap had reached 35 per cent and East Germany had lower labour productivity in every industrial sector. In fact, Sleifer estimates that 36 per cent of the East–West productivity gap between 1936 and 2002 had occurred before 1950. The main causes for this decline can be attributed to the war, reparations to the Soviet Union, and the loss of access for East German industries to their West German suppliers.

That is from a book review, the subject of which has now been added to the ever expanding list!