Posts Tagged ‘Soviet Union’

Malthus on the Mind

May 11, 2008

With food and energy prices continuing to race upward, the econ blogosphere sounds like a scratched Malthusian 45. Here is Bryan Caplan on Hitler’s justification for murdering Jews (for more read the excellent Wages of Destruction by Adam Tooze). Here is Brad DeLong picking out the Malthusian undertones of posts by Megan McArdle and Greg Clark.

The standard Economist’s response to Malthusian alarmists has to do with extensive vs. intensive growth. Extensive Malthusian growth is growth through the addition of inputs into production. Say it takes one monk two years to write out a bible. If we add another monk to the monastery we can complete the bible in one year. If we have a total of four monks we can finish the bible in six months, etc.

Intensive growth is about combining inputs in more productive ways. If we give the monastery a printing press, once the blocks are set one monk can complete a bible in only a few days time, for instance. This frees up the other monks to do some other productive task, meaning that we have increased our monastery’s production with the same amount of labor input. As long as intensive growth is fast enough, we can outrun the Malthusian constraints on food or other resources.

I am reading The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Economy by Philip Hanson. He repeatedly stresses that the incentives of the state planning system worked adequately for extensive growth, but were very poor at creating intensive growth. Soviet economic growth was driven by adding more inputs instead of by technological innovation.

I have sometimes wondered what would have happened to the Soviet Union in an international vacuum. Certainly the fall of the USSR had something to do with the arms race and the fact that the citizens of Western countries enjoyed comparatively higher standards of living and faster growth rates. Without a West to compete with, the Soviet Union could have lasted longer than it did. However, I suppose, the jaws of the Malthusian trap would have closed eventually.

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Soviet Destruction

May 4, 2008

I am racing (blitzkrieg?) to finish The Wages of Destruction by Adam Tooze before it is due on Tuesday.  Today I read the chapter about Germany’s planning for and carrying out the invasion of the Soviet Union.  I had never read about the murderous extent of that campaign.  If you get a chance read the book yourself, but to give you a taste:

…it was the Soviet prisoners of war from whom the Hunger Plan exacted the heaviest toll.  In the first phase of Barbarossa [beginning in June 1941] no less than 3.3 million Red Army soldiers fell into the hands of the German army…Of these only 1.1 million were still alive and only 400,000 were in sufficiently good physical state to be capable of work [by December, 1941].

Part of the reason for the high death count were Nazi orders to shoot any representative of the Soviet government on sight.   Many other prisoners were deliberately starved to death.

I have sometimes wondered about what kind of economic impact the enormous death toll of World War II had (to say nothing of lost capital).  Of course, many of the dead were replaced rather quickly, but the time wasted while the children grew up as well as their educational costs were deadweight loss.  If World War II didn’t happen, would the human race have had the internet 20 years earlier in 1970?  Would the ipod have come out in 1980?  What would the world of 2008 have looked like?  I guess we will have to wait until 2028 to find out.