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War stories

As the war in Ukraine enters its second month, headlines are dominated by stories of appalling violence and destruction. Economists are responding by offering expertise where they can, while hoping for a swift end to the conflict.

Newsletter from 25 March 2022

Hopes of 2022 being a better year for humanity than the previous two have been horrifically dashed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While the natural catastrophe of the pandemic was devastating for the lives and livelihoods of millions, it was an experience to which the world was responding collectively – and we could all contribute, even if it was just by staying at home. It’s difficult not to feel helpless faced with the man-made disaster of war.

So what can we do? One possibility is giving to charities that support victims: indeed, an appeal by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) has already received donations of more than £200 million. As Sarah Smith (University of Bristol), one of our lead editors, points out on the Economics Observatory this week, that already makes it DEC’s second largest fundraising initiative in more than 50 years.

Sarah notes that while some critics have accused European donors of caring more about a humanitarian crisis unfolding on their doorstep than about similar tragedies further afield, evidence suggests that this is not the case. Rather, it is the scale of a disaster, together with media coverage, that most influence the response to an emergency appeal: DEC’s biggest ever fundraiser followed the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004.

Another way to help is to welcome refugees from Ukraine. And as Sascha Becker (Monash University and University of Warwick) explains in another recent Observatory piece, we shouldn’t just be looking to provide shelter and safety to the millions of forced migrants: we also need to offer access to education. Evidence from history, notably the millions of Polish people expelled from their homes during the Second World War, demonstrates the lifelong benefits of investment in human capital, particularly of refugee children, at the earliest opportunity.

A third potential contribution to the war effort is to make the case for an embargo against Russian oil and gas. Here at the Observatory, in our first piece on Ukraine, Erkal Ersoy and Chris Aitken (both Heriot-Watt University) explored the options for diversifying Europe's energy supply away from Russia, concluding that while the continent could realistically meet its energy requirements without Russia in the medium to long term, it is unlikely in the immediate future.

Nevertheless, a number of economists have been active in the campaign for action now. These include researcher turned politician Luis Garicano; former rector of the New Economic School in Moscow Sergei Guriev; Ben Moll (London School of Economics) and colleagues, whose analysis of the impact of stopping energy imports from Russia on Germany’s economy suggests it would be severe but manageable; and a poll of economic experts, several of whom indicated that while a total ban on Russian energy risks recession in Western Europe, it is a price worth paying.

Other notable contributions from economists to discussions of the economic consequences of the war, include a report by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR), whose director Jagjit Chadha, another of our lead editors, provided evidence to inform a House of Commons Treasury Committee report on economic sanctions on Russia; a debate hosted by VoxEU, featuring analysis by Luis, Sergei, Ben and many other experts; and the Kyiv School of Economics (KSE) led by Tymofiy Mylovanov, which together with Ukrainian businesses and state-owned companies, has launched a humanitarian aid campaign for Ukraine.

Spring season

While it is hard to think about anything other than what’s unfolding in Eastern Europe, let me mention some events in April and May that are likely to interest Observatory readers. Spring is generally a busy time of year for meetings in economic research and policy-making – and no fewer than six upcoming conferences are worth exploring.

Economic History Society 2022 annual conference (#EHS2022), Cambridge, 1-3 April

First up, the annual gathering of the UK’s economic historians features several researchers who’ve written for us on key questions: what can looking back at the past teach us about dealing with pandemics, recessions and related crises? And can it help us think through how best to ‘build back better’, notably in the aftermath of war?

John Turner, another of our lead editors, is managing editor of the Society’s journal, the Economic History Review. He has also contributed to the Observatory this week in a piece asking where Russia’s post-communism economic reforms went wrong. John notes that since the early 1990s, both Russia and China have reformed their economies – but the paths taken have been very different. In Russia, the speed of privatisation, alongside inadequate laws and institutions, led to economic collapse and ultimately the rise of Vladimir Putin.

#EconomicPolicy, Paris, 7-8 April

The Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) will be holding the half-yearly meeting of the journal Economic Policy in a hybrid format – online and in Paris at the French finance ministry, Direction Générale du Trésor.

The standout session is an online public debate on the potential effects of school closures during the pandemic on children’s futures, featuring new evidence from Germany and the United States presented by Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln (Goethe University Frankfurt). On the panel will be Monica Costa-Dias (University of Bristol and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, IFS) and Andreas Schleicher (director for education and skills at the OECD), and the discussion will be moderated by Andrew Jack, global education editor at the Financial Times.

Royal Economic Society 2022 annual conference (#RES2022), online, 11-13 April

The UK’s annual gathering for economists features a presidential address by Tim Besley, another lead editor, and contributor of Observatory pieces on a national infrastructure bank for the UK and how an independent Scotland might build fiscal capacity.

Further RES conference highlights include plenary lectures by Stefanie Stantcheva (Harvard), who has written for us about policy actions on inequality, and Nicholas Bloom (Stanford), who has contributed to several Observatory pieces on the impact of the pandemic on firms and industries, and its effects on future working arrangements; plus former RES president Partha Dasgupta, lead author of the independent government review of the economics of biodiversity, in conversation with Diane Coyle, another of our lead editors.

Scottish Economic Society 2022 annual conference (#SES2022), Glasgow, 25-27 April

Towards the end of the month, the birthplace of economics hosts the annual gathering of economists in Scotland, including some policy roundtables in Edinburgh and Glasgow with the Observatory. No doubt there will discussion of some of the issues raised in our continuing series on the economics of Scottish independence, curated by Graeme Roy (University of Glasgow), another of our lead editors, and Stuart McIntyre (University of Strathclyde).

The role of economics and economists in public policy and public debate, Chicago, 28-29 April

This conference, which will examine how economists engage with different groups of people outside academia, is hosted by the Initiative on Global Markets (IGM) at the University of Chicago. I am co-organising it with Chicago Booth economists, Anil Kashyap, who is also a member of the Bank of England’s Financial Policy Committee, and Christian Leuz, who has written for us on mandatory corporate reporting on sustainability.

Topics will include how economists influence public policy and public opinion, teaching approaches, evidence-based policy-making, the debate over the causes and consequences of inequality, and an analysis of responses in the IGM expert panels – the last an issue that has been discussed recently on the Observatory by Sarah Smith in a piece on women’s voices in economics.

ESCoE conference on economic measurement 2022, Glasgow, 25-27 May

The Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence (ESCoE) will hold its annual conference, organised in partnership with the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) at the University of Strathclyde. The Observatory will be running a data masterclass introducing best practice in data visualisation and a 'code along' to create an interactive chart (including using the ONS API). We're also contributing to a panel on effective communication of data and statistics.

 Other news

The Society of Professional Economists is inviting entries for this year's Rybczynski Prize. This prestigious award is given to the best piece of writing on an issue of importance to economists, and offers individuals the opportunity to increase their profile among professional colleagues. The Society is particularly keen to receive entries from women.

The big economic news story in the UK this week has been the government’s spring statement. Many of the economic experts and organisations that work with us at the Observatory are key contributors to the in-depth independent evaluation of economic policy announcements like this, and their implications for families, firms, public finances and the economic recovery.

As ever, the IFS provided detailed pre- and post-match analysis. So too did NIESR, the Resolution Foundation (which focuses on living standards of low and middle-income households) and, with a Scottish perspective, the Fraser of Allander Institute at the University of Strathclyde.

And finally, next week on the Observatory, we’ll be launching a series of pieces on what we’ve learned about the impact of the pandemic two years on from the first lockdown in March 2020. These will include a look at what’s happened to businesses in the UK as a result of restrictions and recession, and an overview of the past, present and future effects of Covid-19 on public health.

Author: Romesh Vaitilingam, Editor-in-Chief
Picture by Drazen Zigic on iStock
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