Thanks to government policies we’re unlikely to have bread lines and unemployment reaching over 30%, the current “recession” is looking more and more like the kind of economic event that heralds the end of a particular economic era. We will get through it and a new era will begin, but things will have to get a lot worse before they get better. The reason is politics: people interpret the world through their political lenses and so far have not yet been convinced that real change is needed.
The boom of 1948 to 2008, sixty years of prosperity and growth, can be divided into two parts. The recession of 1979-83 marks the break between the two. In the first part the industrialized West produced as much if not more than it consumed, budgets were for the most part in balance, debt accrued in the war was being paid down, and income disparities were narrowing. The standard of living went up, political stability grew. However, since the great recession ending in 1983 the industrialized West has gone further into debt than had ever been imaginable, production has shifted to the third world and a series of bubble economies have created the illusion of sustainable prosperity. In those three decades imbalances were being built that would ultimately ignite a global economic crisis. It’s far worse than 1980 because debt is massively higher, infrastructure much more out of date, and globalization has altered the nature of the global economy.
Globalization is a mix of the internationalization of global capital and the growth of information technology. Before 1980 it was difficult to merge companies across borders, invest in foreign markets, and go anywhere on the planet to find the best return on investment. Now capital has been unleashed from its national borders meaning that business and capital no longer had national loyalties. Whether this is good or bad is hotly debated. What is clear is that the global institutional structure that worked so well up through the 80s is no longer adequate. It was a state-centric approach now serving a world where state sovereignty is weakening. Current institutions were created when the dominant economies were in the West, closely linked, and relied on the US as the global hegemon to assure defense, provide the global reserve currency (the dollar) and promote free trade.
That old order began with a meeting of economists at the New Hampshire resort of Bretton Woods in July 1944. They were determined to completely reorganize the entire global economic system. Their goal was simple: save capitalism. Capitalism had been thought to have led to the great depression, fascism and systemic collapse. They believed that with US leadership and the proper institutional infrastructure capitalism could lead to true prosperity. The resulting “Bretton Woods system,” including fixed exchange rates (through 1971), the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT – now the World Trade Organization), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Together these institutions formed the foundation of this new system. Free trade was the lynchpin and the key to igniting the most impressive economic expansion in world history.
Those institutions are no longer adequate. The gold standard and the fixed exchange rates were jettisoned when they’d served their purpose in the early seventies. Once trust in currencies was strong enough so the market could handle currency valuation, there was no need for the gold standard. The rest of the institutions were built on two principles: a) state sovereignty; and b) American hegemony.
Hegemony is long gone. The dominant role of the US had faded by the late 60s, and since then the rise of the EU, Japan, China and others has created a real counter balance to US economic strength. With $14 trillion of foreign debt and a large current account deficit, the US no longer can snap it’s fingers and expect the world to comply with its wishes. Sovereignty is vastly overstated. True sovereignty never really took in much of the third world, while even the develop countries find that globalization vastly limits their capacity to develop national responses to problems. If the problems are global, a national response is inadequate. The US used to think that our size made us immune to this; the current crisis shows that is not the case.
The world needs a recasting of global economic institutions designed to function in a world of complex interdependence, powerful non-state actors, and the need for coordinated policy.
If we learned anything from the Great Depression, it’s that markets alone don’t magically fix a broken economy. To address the current imbalances, there needs to be a global effort to stimulate the economy and adjust the structural imbalances. This might include a new global reserve currency, acceptance of a weaker dollar, and a massive well orchestrated global intervention in the economy designed to stimulate growth and regenerate markets. That won’t happen until the situation gets much worse than it currently is.
In the US a huge chunk of the political discourse is run by people who equate any kind of government activism with “socialism,” an absurd charge but one which so tinges the political atmosphere that President Obama can’t even propose higher taxes on the wealthiest without being charged with class warfare. Right now the Republicans are waging class warfare on the poor, telling them to suffer unemployment and want while protecting the elite who are doing very well. The Democrats have to make that case boldly, with no apologies. They have to note that cutting spending stifles economic growth far more than tax increases on those wealthy who now pay historically low rates.
Despite the sloganeering, the goal is not to build socialism, but to correct imbalances that now prevent markets from functioning adequately. Markets have always needed a regulatory structure of some sort to work — even Adam Smith realized that. That structure could be a set of local customs and norms in a small setting, state laws and regulations in the post-war setting, and now transnational agreements and policy action.
At some point it will happen. If President Obama were to lead a call to bring top world economists back to Bretton Woods to plan a new global order, and states had the will to make it happen, it might quickly be as successful as the original Bretton Woods system. More successful, even, as now third world states would be part of the solution to global problems. But it’s not going to happen any time soon, thanks to a political mindset that still thinks primarily in terms of independent states rather than an interdependent global system. That mindset may be strongest in the US, but it exists across the planet — old ways of thinking resist change, even if the world is clearly in transition.
Last time it took a 10 year depression followed by a bloody six year war before the world embraced a new order. The success of the original Bretton Woods system is clear — never before has so much wealth been created so quickly. There is no reason to think this can’t be done again, this time involving the resources and dynamism of the entire international community, not just the West. First there has to be the political will to make it happen. Things will have to get a lot worse before that political will is evident. How much worse? Ten years of depression and six years of war like last time? I hope not.