Saturday, August 14, 2010

Those Who Forget History, Are Probably Historians

There are hardly any economists or economic historians who have contributed more to our understanding of the role of international finance in the Great Depression than Barry Eichengreen and Peter Temin. [1] So it's disappointing to see them so strenuously refusing to learn from that history.

They start by correctly observing that the fatal flaw of the gold standard was the "asymmetry between countries with balance-of-payments deficits and surpluses. There was a penalty for running out of reserves .. but no penalty for accumulating gold." Thus the structural tendency toward deflation in the gold standard era, and the instability of the system once workers recognized that lower wages for "sound money" wasn't such a great deal. If Temin and Eichengreen want to draw a parallel with the Euro system today, well, I'm not sure I agree, but it's an avenue worth pursuing. But as they want to apply it, to the US and China, it's unambiguously wrong, as economics and as history.

"The point," say Temin and Eichengreen, "is not to let deficit countries off the hook." Barry, Peter -- read your books! Letting the deficit countries off the hook is exactly the point. If there's one lesson in Lessons from the Great Depression, it's that no practical response to the crisis was possible until the idea that a trade deficit represented a kind of moral failing was abandoned. The whole point, first, of leaving the gold standard, and later, of the Bretton Woods institutions, was to free deficit countries from the obligation to "live within their means" by curtailing domestic investment and consumption.

Keynes couldn't have been clearer on this. The goal of postwar monetary reform, he wrote, was "A system which would maintain balance of payments equilibrium without trade discrimination but also without forcing unemployment .. on deficit countries," [2] in other words, a system in which governments' efforts to pursue full employment was not constrained by the balance of payments. We needn't take Keynes as holy writ, but if we're going to analyze current arrangements in light of his writings in the 1940s, as Temin and Eichengreen claim to, we have to be clear about what he was aiming for.

One would expect, then, that they would go on to show how "global imbalances" are constraining national efforts to pursue full employment. But they don't even try. Instead, they offer ambiguous phrases whose vagueness is a sign, perhaps, of a bad conscience: Keynes "wanted measures to deal with chronic surplus countries." What kind of surpluses, exactly? and deal with how?

The beginning of wisdom here is the to recognize the distinction between the balance of payments and the current account. Keynes was concerned with the former, not the latter. Keynes didn't care if some countries ran trade surpluses or deficits, temporarily or persistently; what he cared about was that these imbalances did not interfere with other countries' freedom "to pursue full employment and progressive social policies." In other words, current account imbalances were not a problem as long as the financial flows to finance them were guaranteed.

"Creditor adjustment" is rightly stressed by Eichengreen and Temin as a central feature of Keynes' vision of postwar monetary arrangements, but they seem to have forgotten what it meant. It didn't mean no one could run a trade surplus, it just meant that the surplus countries would be obliged to lend to the deficit ones as much as it took to finance the trade imbalances. As Keynes' follower Roy Harrod put it,"The most important requirement [is] to get the United States committed to creditor adjustment. .... Creditor adjustment could be secured most simply by an agreement that the creditor would always accept cheques from the deficit countries in full discharge of their debts. ... So long as their credit position cannot cause pressure elsewhere, there is no harm in allowing a further accumulation.” All of Keynes' proposals at Bretton Woods were oriented toward committing the countries with surpluses to lend, at concessionary rates if necessary, to the deficit ones.

China today accepts American checks in full discharge of our debts; they don't demand payment in gold. The Chinese surplus isn't putting upward pressure on US interest rates, or constraining public spending. All Keynes ever wanted was for all surplus countries to be like China.

"Sixty-plus years later, we seem to have forgotten Keynes' point," Eichengreen and Temin conclude. True that.

[1] The strangely forgotten Robert Triffin is one.

[2] The historical material in this post post, including all quotes, is drawn from chapters 6 and 9 of the third volume of Robert Skidelsky's biography of Keynes.

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