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Ron Smith


Today, it is my great honour to welcome Professor Ron Smith to a College Fellowship at Birkbeck, University of London.

Ron Smith gained a BA (1968) and then a PhD (1974) at the University of Cambridge. After teaching at Cambridge, he joined the college in 1976 and, except for a few Visiting Fellowships (at the London Business School and University of Colorado, for example), has never left us. For forty-seven years, Ron has served our community. In other words, Ron is a Birkbeckian.

Ron is an economist who focusses on applied economics and econometrics. It is impossible for me to do justice to the breadth and depth of his research. After all, he has published over 106 articles (most of which have been published in the most prestigious journals in the field), nine books, 11 chapters in edited volumes, two edited books, and 47 monographs. If you were to ask any economist to name the academic who is the most influential defence and peace economist in the world, Ron’s name would immediately spring to mind. As one colleague told me, Ron is the ‘father of defence and peace economics’ and, given the ‘huge number of people he has mentored in the area’, is probably the ‘grandfather or even great grandfather’ of the field. For his contributions, he was awarded the 2011 Lewis Fry Richardson lifetime achievement award for scientific studies of militarised conflict by the European Consortium of Political Research. He has also been made a Fellow of the International Association for Applied Econometrics. His book Military Economics: The Interaction of Power and Money (2009) was shortlisted for the 2010 Duke of Westminster’s Medal for Military Literature.

What Ron and his collaborators have done exceptionally well is to say: let’s look at the economics of arms trading and defence policy. That said, he is more than aware that ‘explanations of the [arms] trade that emphasize just economics or just politics must be unsatisfactory; both matter’. Along with Paul Levine, they contend that ‘The arms trade is highly controversial. The controversies tend to concentrate on the moral, military, and political dimensions of arms export decisions. [But] Quite a lot of light can be shed on this murky market by asking basic economic questions and using standard economic models’. In other words, Ron is a defender of quantitative as well as qualitative methods in peace research, noting the importance of knowing ‘the frequency and intensity of conflict’ and actual military expenditure. He encourages researchers to ask the ‘big’ questions of themselves and their data: Why are we doing this? Where is the data? What is the prior probability of our models? Do our models fit the data? Can we tell the difference between statistical and substantive significance? Can our results be reproduced? How much would we bet on the predictions of this model?

I have long been fascinated by Ron’s reflections on Carl von Clausewitz’s view of war as ‘uniting the trinity of passion, chance, and reason’. Ron recognises that studying the economic costs of war has a long history – he points, in particular to considerations of the costs of the Napoleonic wars by David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, and Jean-Baptiste Say. He seeks to move the field forward. In a recent book of his – entitled Defence Acquisition and Procurement: How (Not) to Buy Weapons (2022), he focusses on the repeated failings in military purchases and asks why ‘lessons are not learnt’. He blames the lack of incentives to reform since ‘all the actors – politicians, the military, civil servants and industry – have good reasons to under-estimate the cost, time, and difficulty of the project[s]’.

Ron’s intellectual range is enormous: it includes (to name a few) the economics of the use of organised force, the nature of the nation-state, Palestine and Israel, monetary policy and banking in the Caribbean, arms export controls, Greek-Turkish arms race, econometric analysis of international growth, Marxist economics, military spending and capitalism, arms control, and security at the individual, national, and global levels. He is also intrigued by something he calls ‘Pooled mean group estimation of dynamic heterogeneous panels’ – which I am going to have to ask him to explain to me over coffee one day!

Ron is widely acclaimed for his ‘careful reliance on theory, case studies, analytical narratives, and statistical evidence’. He provides other scholars, politicians, and military experts with ‘nuanced syntheses’, and his ‘incorporation of insights from behavioral economics and discussions of uncertainty, asymmetric information, and organizational incentive and constraints’ are ingenious.

These are controversial issues. After all, defence is expensive – modern governments spend billions on it. How is money best spent? Ron is unusual in that he is equally comfortable and respected working with peace movements as with the Ministry of Defence and the military staff college. Ron asks the ‘big questions’ of our time: ‘can any form of state continue to represent peace, liberation, and an end to conflict?’ Making a difference’ is what matters.

Ron has made an impact well beyond academia. He is in demand by numerous organisations. These include the Treasury and the Bank of England, where he provides instruction in econometrics. He has been consultant to the UK National Audit Office and to RAND Europe on defence topics. Since 1999, he has been an econometric advisor to Frontier Economics (one of the largest economic consultancies in Europe and one that prides itself on taking on the ‘big topics’ with ‘energy, imagination, and flair’.

Ron is also a ‘good citizen’ to our Birkbeck community. There are a great many things in the life of academia that bring no money and, frankly, little personal glory (although great glory for the recipients of the labour). Ron is unstinting in his support of other colleagues.

But there is another side to Ron. He has a keen interest in football and has translated this interest into a very serious enterprise indeed. Unlike many football fans, Ron does not follow any particular team (I was told that he ‘has no interest whatsoever in any of that nonsense’) but ‘as an econometrician’ he enjoys analysing football statistics. He has even worked with Stefan Śzymanski, co-author of the popular book, Soccernomics. In a riveting (even for a non-football person like me) analysis of 48 English Football League clubs, published in the International Review of Applied Economics, they set out to ‘present a theoretical model of the behaviour of football club owners which rationalises the observed intensity of competition’. This research has huge potential applications. For example, it can help answer the question of what expenditure would be needed to ‘raise a club from a low position to the top of the League’, and what impact would reforms to the structure of English Football have on its future growth and profitability.

Ron is also a brilliant teacher and supervisor of PhDs, not only in economics but also in political science. I have been told that he is ‘selfless…. ever available to help colleagues and students’. He is ‘completely incapable of saying no to anyone’.

What about ‘the man’? I am told that he is ‘a delight to work with’. One colleague admitted that it was Ron’s presence at Birkbeck that was ‘one of the reasons why I have lingered’ in the department. He is a ‘voracious reader’ – not of fiction but of history, politics, international relations, and, of course, economics. He reads the FT daily. His friends find him happiest sitting in a local pub or the Birkbeck Bar talking about the latest book he has read or theatre play seen. He is not a traveller but prefers ‘hanging out at home in Camden and around north London’. He is a walker and, when public transport is necessary, a bus-person rather than a tube-commuter. He is ‘a gentle and kind man’.

Ron Smith’s contributions to the college have revolutionised our community. We are forever grateful to him and, by awarding him this College Fellowship, are pleased that he will continue to be a valued member of our community and supporter of our mission.