Tuesday, 26 March 2013


Conveniently priced at 57£ 'Rebellious Prussians' makes for a perfect Easter gift for a loved one. Or not. But you might consider asking your library to buy it for you.

Urban political culture under Frederick II

'Rebellious Prussians' is obviously the product of an earlier project.  Here's what it's about:

'Prussian discipline is legendary. Central to debates about modern German history is the view that an oppressive Prussian state cast a shadow on the development of civil society. In particular, historians have seen the absence of a revolution in the eighteenth century as a symptom of a delayed and incomplete emancipation of the Prussian bourgeoisie. Prussia's urban dwellers have often been portrayed as poor relations of the self-reliant and assertive bourgeois of Western Europe and the Atlantic world. Economically backward and politically oppressed, they were allegedly in no position to challenge the iron grip of the state and question the authority of the Hohenzollern dynasty. 

Drawing from extensive and original research, Florian Schui challenges the accepted view and argues that Prussians in the eighteenth century were much more willing to challenge the state than has been recognised. Schui explores several instances where urban Prussians successfully resisted government policies and forced Frederick the Great and his successors to give in to their demands. Rebellious Prussians thus sheds light on a little-known historical reality in which weak Hohenzollern monarchs - and a still weaker Prussian bureaucracy - were confronted with prosperous, fearless, argumentative, and occasionally violent Prussian burghers. 

Such conflicts between state and citizens were by no means unique to Prussia. Rather the events in Prussia were, on many levels, connected to similar contemporary developments in other parts of Europe and North America. Florian Schui systematically explores these links and thus develops a new European and Atlantic perspective on Prussian history in the eighteenth century.'

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Rebellious Prussians

Out now...

I'll post the blurb later. Meanwhile you can have a look inside here or here.

'Economic viagra'

is what Osborne's once called austerity. Robert Shrimsley has funny piece in today's FT looking at the story of austerity as a clinical trial: 'George Osborne, the economic scientist behind the development of the Austerity™drug, had been running live human trials on a select group fo specimens known as the British.' Read more here. (No need to subscribe to the FT. If you register you get a number of free articles per month.)

End of history?

This is a bit of dry spell for historical comparison. The Cyprus story does not seem to conjure up any memories from history classes in most journalists and politicians. Krugman had a very generic reference to antiquity. But that's all. Not much to comment on. So I will do some housekeeping. Like following the repeated requests for putting up a new photo. Let's see what can be done.

Monday, 18 March 2013


We're well beyond a thousand page views now but no one wrote in to claim the prize. Perhaps I should not have revealed what it is... Anyway I will now look for a suitable charity to donate the unclaimed prize.

Friday, 15 March 2013


As this blog is getting close to its 1000th viewer I decided that there should be a prize to celebrate this momentous event. On the right I installed a page view counter (on the right). If you see that you're no 1000 then send me an email (florian.schui@rhul.ac.uk) with your address and I will send you the prize. What the prize is? Through a series of mishaps I ended up with three copies of Hayek's 'Individualism and economic order'. Three copies is too many even of an important work as that one. The 1000th page view will get one copy mailed. I'll keep one for me and one for the next prize competition.

Austerians unite

Looks like 'austerians' everywhere are using the same, not always convincing, arguments. At my paper in Milan, one of the commentators talked about how his grandfather was a very frugal man and how that led him to great economic success. I tried to explain the difference between a grandfather and an economy. (Not necessarily something you would expect finding yourself doing in an economics department.) Today, I see that Paul Krugman, too, is making that point once again on his blog. In some respects that's a consolation. In others not so much. After all, Mandeville first pointed to the difference between private households and economies in the early 18th century.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

From the classics II

'The one thing modern democracy will not bear without cracking is the necessity of a substantial lowering of the standards of living in peacetime or even prolonged stationariness of its economic conditions.' (Hayek, Road to serfdom, Ch. 14.)

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

A problem shared...

At least I am not the only one having frustrating experiences with Italian economists. A whole different level, I know. Still offers a quantum of solace.

Austerity bunker, Italian version

Interesting experience at the economics department in Milan today. One commentator insisted that there are no economists who think that austerity does not work. Read the FT this morning? The whole thing felt a bit like walking into the conclave and asking whether they would consider a women as next pope.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Hayek on Grillo?

While re-reading Hayek I could not help but thinking of the new political forces emerging in European politics such as the Grillo Movement in Italy and Piraten Partei in Germany. Here's what Hayek says in the Road to Serfdom (Ch. 8): 'The resentment of the lower middle class, from which fascism and National Socialism recruited so large a proportion of their supporters, was intensified by the fact that their education and training had in many instances made them aspire to directing positions and that they regarded themselves as entitled to be members of the directing class.' According to Hayek, frustration of their ambition led them to embrace fascism. There are some interesting parallels in that both Piraten Partei and Grillo Movement have many supporters with university degrees. This is speculation, but many of them may feel cheated by the fact that today a university degree does not guarantee a privileged social or economic position anymore. Moreover, these movements have very little by way of an actual political program. Their main impetus is that they dislike the status quo (which is denying them the recognition they think they deserve) and that they want to send the current political elites packing (presumably to take up the privileged positions thus vacated). Often these movements are described as closer to the left than to the right. But I wonder if that is actually true.

See also this earlier post.


Tomorrow, at 12h15, I am giving a paper on 'Austerity: the old history of a new idea' at the Economics Department of the University of Milan. Apologies for the late notice.

Directions: The DEAS (Dipartimento di scienze Economiche, Aziendali e Statistiche) is at 7, via Conservatorio. Enter the main gate and turn right, where are just a few steps. Take the lift to the second floor. The seminar room is the first on the left.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Tu quoque

Liam Fox, yes, Liam Fox, is coming out against austerity. Here. Along with him a majority of Britons seems to have lost faith in austerity economics. Here. Good. But it's very hard to see how political leaders across Europe who are so wedded to the policy can bin it without loosing face.

The clown as a fascist

After many people have argued that Grillo is unlike the fascists of the 1930s here's a piece making the opposite case. No time to comment today. Do you have any thoughts?

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Medieval history

Finally, a historical comparison that does not involve the 1930s. Dario Fo compares Grillo to medieval fools. (A few days ago in the Guardian and now again in the print edition of Die Zeit.) Interesting, but I am way out of my depth here so will not comment.

More tragedy and farce

Wolfgang Münchau (like Gideon Rachman, the Economist and everyone else) contemplates the ascent of the clowns and compares them to Mussolini at al. (Here, in German.) Unsurprisingly, Münchau, too, prefers clowns to fascists. And, like me, he cannot resist making a reference to Marx's 'first tragedy, then farce' comment. (Germanic urge to display erudition?) But he adds an interesting twist compared to Rachman's story. One reason why Rachman likes the comics is that he believes they will behave reasonably once they're in power. And for him reasonable means that they will toe the line on austerity. Münchau, too, takes a cautiously positive view of Grillo, but for different reasons. He points out that Grillo has consulted with some prominent economists, including critics of austerity (Stiglitz, Krugman, Fitoussi) and therefore should not be considered economically naive. This is in contrast to the Economist's view. In the pre-election edition the magazine criticized Grillo for essentially not having an economic programme.

Commentators, like the political establishment in Europe, are clearly finding it difficult to make sense of Grillo. Is he a naive clown with no clue about economics, or an adaptive clown who can still be converted to 'reason' (i.e. austerity), or does he stand for a real alternative in economic policy. It may well be that at the moment Grillo and the members of his movement don't know the answer to this question themselves. But which way his movement and others in Europe go may have a significant impact on Europe's future economic and political.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Guest commentary by Malcom Tucker

Malcom's views on bloggers. Very funny. I should point out, however, that I never wear a track suit or sit in my bed-room when I write on this blog.

Some meta commentary

As I explained in my first post the primary function of this blog is to comment on the use of historical evidence in today's debates about fiscal and economic matters. This part is going well, I think. At least I am enjoying the writing and from the statistics that google shows me every time I open this blog, I can tell that at least some people are reading me. Well over 800 page views so far. That's great. Thanks a lot. By the power of google I can also see where readers are from: the US, Italy, Germany and Australia are top of the list.

But when I included this blog as a 'publication output' into my fellowship application with the Leverhulme Trust I also promised that I would talk about the progress of my research from time to time. I have not done much in that direction and should start today.

Put simply, the main question that I am trying to answer is 'Why are we so bad at learning from history in economic and financial matters?' More specifically, there is a good argument, made by Reinhart and Rogoff, that historically financial crises have developed according to very similar patterns. If true, this begs the question of why we are still so bad at handling them. Not that there has been no progress. Central banks were much more effective in the early stages of the current crisis than in the 1930s. But clearly there is still room for improvement. So, I am looking at how historical evidence has been used in public debates about fiscal crises in the last 250 years. I am mainly interested in what determines continuity and discontinuity in economic thought and what the main obstacles and catalysts of learning from the past are.

More details about the manuscript that I am working on will follow soon.  Now I have to ... ahem ... work on the manuscript.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

What is going on at the FT?

First, Martin Wolf becomes a Keynesian and now Gideon Rachman is turning Marxist. In today's column, he essentially argues that we are seeing a replay of the 1930s, but this time as a farce, not a tragedy. In light of the Italian elections, he argues that the voters of the European crisis countries are turning to clowns rather than fascists. This, he says, is good because they're more entertaining, less brutal, and ultimately also quite responsible. The reason, he says, is that Europe is much richer today. Therefore, the pain inflicted by the crisis is not quite the same as in the 1930s.

It is refreshing to see someone arguing that it's not the 1930s all over again. And it would, indeed, be very difficult to argue that Grillo is the new Brüning. Some journalists have compared him with Mussolini, but that's not very apt either. And not only because of the hair.

However, there are some problems with Rachman's argument. First, there is the problem of evidence. He's basing his argument on Grillo's success and the election of a comedian as major of Reykjavik. But two comedians don't make a trend. He is right to say that there has been no significant rise in neo-fascist movements. Even in Greece this has remained a limited phenomenon. But we have seen another phenomenon that is quite pre-occupying: the re-emergence of nationalism, often with chauvinistic overtones. There is much anti-German sentiment, even in mainstream politics, in the European periphery. At the same time, a dangerous mix of arrogance and fear is prompting mainstream politicians in Germany and elsewhere in the European centre to play on deeply ingrained prejudices against southern Europeans. This is not neo-fascism, but nationalism can be destructive enough on its own.

There is another problem: Rachman seems to believe that it was misery that swept Hitler and Mussolini to power. But that is only partly true. The fascist movements on the 1930s were essentially petit-bourgeois movements. People who were hanging on to their 'bourgeois' status by the skin of their teeth and who were fearing to be 'declassed' as a result of the crisis were the driving force behind fascism. In contrast, fascist movements found it much harder to tap into the working class vote. The unemployed often voted communist. What mattered was not poverty per se, but fear of a relative loss of economic and social status. And this mechanism can apply at any level of wealth. Also in today's comparably much wealthier societies.

Finally, Rachman argues that clowns are not that bad because ultimately they behave reasonably once they're in power. What is his evidence for that? When Grillo's people took charge in Parma they began to cut public spending and the stand up comedian who became major of Reykjavik began to fire municipal employees. Is that the new litmus test for reasonableness? I think, Rachman needs to start reading his colleagues columns about austerity.

Monday, 4 March 2013

The spirit of '45

It's easy to forget, but not so long ago the UK was a nation leading human progress. Ken Loach's new film is about how it came to be that and how it ceased to be that. I haven't seen it, yet, but it's bound to be brillant. And it's very much about linking past and present, learning from the past and all that. See the trailer here:

And a Guardian review here.


For those of you who are in London. Might be an interesting lecture:

'The (Very Deep) Roots of Greece's Crisis: A Historical Reassessment'

The Hellenic Observatory research seminar 

Date: Tuesday 19 March 2013
Time: 6.30-8pm
Venue: TW1.G.01, Tower 1
Speaker: Professor Stathis N. Kalyvas 
Chair: Professor Kevin Featherstone 

Taking the present crisis in Greece as a departure point, Professor Kalyvas takes stock of the surprising number of critical junctures during the past two centuries, when Greece managed to become a focal point, both in negative and positive terms, of critical issues in European and global politics. This lecture also questions why a country so small and peripheral has come to play such a role, providing an interpretation based on a review of the country's history since it became an independent state in the third decade of the 19th century.

Stathis N. Kalyvas is Arnold Wolfers Professor of Political Science, Director of the Program on Order, Conflict, and Violence, and Co-Director of the Hellenic Studies Program at Yale University.  
This event is free and open to all with no ticket required. Entry is on a first come, first served basis. For any queries contact Ioanna Antonopoulou by email i.antonopoulou@lse.ac.uk or phone 020 7107 5326. For further information visit theHellenic Observatory website

'The sad record of fiscal austerity'

It's not only Italian graffiti artists who think austerity is not working. The chief economics editor of the FT thinks the same. See Martin Wolf's recent piece 'The sad record of fiscal austerity'. I wonder if Angela Merkel is reading the FT or the writing on the wall in Italy.

While you were away....

Here's the big news that I missed during my absence: 'Italy ungovernable'. Other breaking news that I missed include: +++next pope likely to be a catholic+++bears prone to defecating in the woods+++earth probably not flat+++

Perhaps the only glimmer of hope is that Italians expressed a clear view about current economic policy. The writing on the wall in Italy is this:

It has to be said that the Italian people chose rather odd messengers to deliver the message. But nonetheless, the success of Berlusconi and Grillo who ran on an anti-austerity platform (together well over 50%) along with the clamorous defeat of Monti are a clear vote of non-confidence for a policy that does not work. I doubt that Grillo and Berlusconi have much to offer in terms of a long term political programme that gets Italy out of the crisis. But their success may be instrumental in liberating Europe from a misguided economic policy.