Feb 29 2012

Remarkably Dumb Journalism

Published by DStone under Uncategorized

While my post has little to do with Soviet military history, this does touch on Poland and on Harvard, so I can claim some relevance to the region and to higher education.

CNN Money this morning had the latest example of a remarkably stupid journalistic trope that never seems to die: that “Company X is worth more than Country Y.” In this particular case, it’s the claim that Apple is worth more than Poland, based on the idea that Apple’s market capitalization is greater than Poland’s Gross National Product. Both come to about $500 billion at the current Polish exchange rate, though Poland’s almost 50% better off if we use purchasing power parity.

Gregg Easterbook of ESPN likes doing the same thing for higher education, noting that Harvard, or rather Harvard’s endowment, is worth more than Kenya, or more than Iceland and Honduras combined.

Here’s the basic problem: comparing GDP to market capitalization or to endowment confuses what a what a country PRODUCES, the goods and services it makes, with what a company is WORTH, or what it would cost to buy it. Those are two entirely different concepts: comparing GDP to market capitalization or endowment is like comparing apples and apple trees. Take a bond: it might produce $5 in income a year, but cost $100 to buy.

The stock market says Apple is worth about $500 billion. So let’s see what we think Poland might actually be worth. Put another way, what would it cost to buy Poland? All these calculations are rough, back-of-the-envelope figures, but I think they illustrate the point.

Why don’t we start with industrial plant? An IMF working paper by Doyle, Kuijs, and Jiang puts Poland’s capital stock as of 2000 at about 200% of GDP, which would suggest that buying all the capital goods of Polish businesses would cost us about $1000billion.

Now agriculture. Poland’s largely agricultural: 40-50% of its land is farmland. Let’s say 40% of Poland’s 300,000 square kilometers is productive farmland, in order to be conservative. That makes 120,000 square kilometers, or 12,000,000 hectares. Let’s go with a conservative valuation of $4000 per hectare. That gives us $50billion for Polish farmland. That’s a substantial bargain, the result of legal obstacles to foreign ownership.

What about real estate? Poland’s got about 12 million households. Let’s take conservative estimates of a value of $1000 per square meter for residential real estate, and average property size of 60 square meters. That gives us $720billion for housing stock alone, not counting commercial property.

So leaving out all the malls and office buildings going up in Warsaw, and all those cows and pigs in the Polish countryside, we find it would cost at least $1770 billion to buy Poland, making it worth at least three times as much as Apple.

My question is why professional financial journalists make basic mistakes like this.

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Jan 19 2012

Kommersant on Russian Arms Imports

Published by DStone under Contemporary, Foreign Policy

Kommersant is usually a quite good newspaper, but published an article on Russian military purchases abroad that makes a serious historical mistake (partial English version here). Ivan Safronov is the reporter, but may not be responsible for the error. The article as a whole is an excellent survey of the issues surrounding the import of munitions, but its teaser paragraph claims “For the first time in the history of the Russian military, it had begun the purchase of weapons abroad.”

This neglects, of course, the imperial Russian army’s extensive purchases of weapons, particularly during World War I. It neglects the extensive Soviet purchase of systems, models and designs from abroad during the interwar period. The Soviet tank industry, for example, was essentially founded on designs from Vickers, Carden-Loyd, and Christie: the T-26, the T-27, and the BT series. And, of course, the Soviet Union used Western weaponry extensively during World War II as part of Lend-Lease.

In an accompanying survey of expert opinion, the Heritage Foundation’s Ariel Cohen quite rightly points to World War I and Lend-Lease, though not the interwar period closest to my heart. Sergei Maev, though, claimed that “During the First World War, tsarist Russia paid in gold for ten million rifles, but the rifles never reached our borders until the end of the Civil War.” In actual fact, looking just at the United States (I don’t have figures for other suppliers at hand), Russia ordered 3.6 million rifles, and had 400,000 delivered by the February Revolution. While I would never claim that as a sterling performance by American industry, it’s a long way from nothing. Maev, who’s head of DOSAAF, Russia’s chief voluntary organization supporting the military, and a former director of Rosoboronzakaz, really ought to know better.

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Dec 21 2011

Nikolai Vatutin: An Inconvenient General?

In keeping with the Soviet tradition of marking the birthdays of important historical figures, the Voice of Russia (Russian text here) marked the 110th anniversary of the birth of General Nikolai Fedorovich Vatutin. While the profile is in general terms a good one, several things about it struck me as more representative of the current state of Russian military historiography than of the actual historical record.

Vatunin isn’t as well known in the West as he ought to be. His record at the 1943 Battle of Kursk and the subsequent liberation of southern Russia and eastern Ukraine from the Germans is an impressive one. Vatunin’s problem is that he died during the war, and as a result left no memoirs and played no role in the shaping of the war’s history in the way that comparable figures like Aleksandr Vasilevskii or Sergei Shtemenko could.

What the article focuses on, though, is Vatutin’s role as an “inconvenient [neudobnyi] general,” one who stood up to the country’s misguided political leadership on the eve of war. While this is an interpretation with obvious resonance in current circumstances of Russian military reforms that are opposed by the bulk of the high command, it’s not clear to me what grounds there are for this judgment in the historical record.

Vatutin’s rise to prominence postdated the 1937 purges, and so he didn’t have much opportunity to say anything especially controversial until 1938. While he did participate in the Main Military Council (the Soviet military’s collective deliberative body) in the pre-war years, it’s not clear that he said or did anything especially noteworthy. The Voice of Russia article cites Mikhail Miagkov to claim that Vatutin, not Georgii Zhukov, was the major force behind the May 1941 idea of a spoiling attack to disrupt Hitler’s obvious preparations for an invasion of the Soviet Union. This likewise seems to me to lack much foundation. Vatutin here seems to be useful as a man who spoke truth to power, and then conveniently died. To credit Zhukov as the real force urging more active measures against the Germans would bring in all sorts of complications with Zhukov’s subsequent political career.

What struck me, though, was how little the article made of the circumstances of Vatutin’s death. He was ambushed by Ukrainian nationalist partisans in early 1944, and died of his wounds in hospital. While the article certainly mentions this fact, it does little with it. Given the Kremlin’s current preoccupation with East European nationalist movements, and its tendency to label as “falsification” any history that sympathizes with them against the Soviets, this was a missed opportunity to lambast the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.

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Dec 12 2011

If I had it to do all over again . . . new research on the Great Fatherland War

Published by DStone under Conferences, Great Patriotic War

One of the things that this year’s ASEEES meeting brought home to me is the way in which all of our judgements as historians are inherently and unavoidably provisional. In particular, I heard quite a few things from new research on World War II that made me think about The Soviet Union at War, 1941-1945, and the things I’d like to be able to put in that book if I could do it again.

This is not to say I have “editor’s remorse.” As I’ve said previously (and actually meant), I’m delighted with the quality of the chapters in the book. But when you hear about new research, it’s hard not to wish for a chance to find some way to get exciting results in. I’ll cross my fingers and hope for a paperback edition.

One panel in particular had a lot of new material. While Peter Waldron focused on World War I (discussed elsewhere), other papers brought in new and exciting research on World War II.

Donald Filtzer looked at the phenomenon of deprivation and death among the Soviet population, but as a social historian with access to reams of statistical information. We tend to throw around numbers on excess deaths, but given the enormous demographic shifts in the wartime Soviet Union, it’s hard to get a good handle on what was really happening to the population. Teasing out the difference between death from disease and death from malnutrition is quite difficult. Filtzer’s approach is to look at reams of mortality data from Soviet cities during the war. This mortality data is as problematic as you might expect. Lots of deaths took place without much inquiry from medical professionals, so the proportion of causes of death attributed to “other” skyrocketed during the war. Can we make sense of this?

Filtzer argued that though malnutrition can mimic the wasting of tuberculosis (endemic in the Soviet Union), malnutrition can also unleash a previously dormant case of tuberculosis. By combining figures for tuberculosis mortality with “other” mortality, and comparing that to those mortality levels before the war, we can get a reasonable sense of malnutrition-related deaths.

OK–but besides satisfying morbid curiosity, what do we learn? Well, Filtzer finds some intriguing patterns in the data. In the first year or so of the war, malnutrition killed vulnerable populations: children, the elderly, inmates of the Gulag. By 1943, though, starvation was killing males of working age in large numbers, far more than females. This leads to a couple of follow-up questions. One was asked at the panel: could it be that healthy adult males were in the Red Army, leaving the weak and sickly males on the home front to die disproportionately from malnutrition? Of course, it’s sobering to think just how sick someone would have to be to NOT make the Red Army’s standards, given enormous manpower losses. My question is slightly different: evidence from other cases of hunger (like, for example, the Donner party) suggests that women are more resistant to starvation than men; is that what we’re seeing here? We’ll have a better sense with Filtzer’s full results.

Brandon Schechter, a graduate student at Berkeley, looked at the material culture of daily life in the Red Army during World War II. This is something that really hasn’t been done before–we have a good sense, much like the Soviet leadership did, of the big, glamorous items of supply like tanks and aircraft. We have much less sense of mundane issues like uniforms and canteens. Some of what Schechter finds isn’t surprising, either in the specific Soviet experience or cross-culturally: food was vital to morale, for example, and scrounging, improvisation, and theft were quite common.

Other findings are newer and more startling. I didn’t know, for example, that Soviet soldiers carried glass canteens (with concomitant problems of weight and breakage) until very late in the war. The Soviet military initially focused on providing soldiers with high-calorie, low-bulk food that kept them fighting but made them unhappy. Soviet soldiers perceived a clear improvement in the provision of supplies over the course of the war.

My question to Schechter was, given the scale of Soviet pre-war maneuvers, and the Soviet experience of campaigns in Eastern Poland, Manchuria, and Finland, why were there such difficulties of supply in 1941? Was it the purges, the defeats and retreats or 1941, or something else? Schechter suggested that it was a combination of circumstances (distance and destruction), together with the Red Army’s decision to tie itself to field kitchens to keep its soldiers fighting, contrary to the American model of extensive preserved rations to enable soldiers to fight for at least some time without being bound to food supplies from the rear.

Finally, over lunch with Scott Palmer, GlavKom of this blog, I heard a great deal about his upcoming project on technology in Russian history. Of all the chapters that ought to be in the book but aren’t, I’d put science and technology at the top of the list. In part, that omission was a result of the lack of a lot of literature out there on those questions for the wartime years. Palmer’s book promises to be an excellent step in that direction. Perhaps he can be persuaded to share some ideas in this forum.

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Dec 01 2011

So What Does it Take to Lose a University of London Ph.D?

Published by DStone under Academia

Evidently, 1200 words taken without proper attribution aren’t enough to lose you a Ph.D. As previously posted here and here, I found that much in Saif Gaddafi’s dissertation in a hour or so with google. The Saif Gaddafi plagiarism wiki has more. So we now know a lower bound for the acceptable level of cheating –the question that remains to be determined is how high you can go.

This morning, the London School of Economics released its Woolf report on its ties to the Gaddafi family and how that subverted its academic integrity.

Prominent by its absence in the report is any real discussion of the plagiarism in Saif Gaddafi’s Ph.D thesis. Granted, Saif Gaddafi has more serious problems at this point, but I’d like to think an institution of the standing of the London School of Economics would pay a bit more attention to the issue of plagiarism. The text of the report itself uses the word “plagiarism” once, though there are a few more references in footnotes. There’s no substantive discussion of what happened in Gaddafi’s dissertation.

The reason seems to be that the question of plagiarism was outsourced from the London School of Economics to the University of London, which had authority over LSE Ph.Ds at the time Gaddafi did his work. In contrast to the voluminous Woolf report, the University of London’s discussion of the matter is laughably short. In a page with the ironic heading of “1836-2011: Celebrating 175 Years of Academic Excellence,” the University of London explains that it has investigated the plagiarism allegations, passed them on to the LSE, and any details (what was found, who found it, what standards for acceptable plagiarism were employed) are confidential.

So what did the University of London conclude? Since it won’t say, we have to turn to the LSE for an answer. It’s not much of an answer. The LSE tells us “The University of London has concluded that the PhD should not be revoked. The PhD thesis has been annotated to show where attribution or references should have been made.” Move along, nothing to see here.

As you might expect, this leaves me with a couple of questions. What exactly were the grounds for concluding that the Ph.D shouldn’t be revoked? Do we now have a precedent for acceptable levels of plagiarism? Granted, I live in a more litigious society, but if I were disciplined for plagiarism at the LSE or the University of London, I’d be counting words and prepping my case.

But here’s what I really wonder: who’s the poor graduate student who got to go through Saif Qaddafi’s Ph.D thesis and fix his faulty footnotes? I’ve heard of some bad jobs in grad school, but that would seem particularly soul-destroying. In a more self-serving vein, I found at least some of the plagiarism that’s floating out there: when do I get my thank-you note from the LSE for helping them with their corrections?

One last piquant note. David Held, one of Qaddafi’s advisers at the LSE, said “The evidence for plagiarism is not as great as people think and the issue will be: to what extent did he have help from an outsider? I don’t know what the evidence is at this stage.” Held is now heading to the University of Durham. That’s the home of Joe Painter, one of the people Qaddafi plagiarized. AWKWARD!

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