The resurgence of economic orthodoxy is a great example of how declining schools of thought…
This blog is the second part (now of three) where I discuss how the international institutional framework has to be reformed to serve a progressive agenda where rich countries (and the elites within them) do not plunder then pillory poor countries. In this blog I detail why we should dissolve the World Bank, the OECD, and the BIS, all of which have become so sullied by neo-liberal Groupthink that they are not only dysfunctional in terms of their original charter but downright dangerous to the prosperity and freedoms of people. The third part will consider what a new international institution might look like and the role it can play in aiding poor nations, particularly those who are reliant on imported food and energy. We will also discuss reforming the foreign aid system.
The World Bank should be dissolved
The World Bank started life in 1944 as a result of decisions taken at the Bretton Woods Conference.
Originally known as the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), it was intended to assist in channelling funds in wartorn Europe as part of the Post-War reconstruction effort.
It morphed over time into an institution charged with reducing global poverty.
The location and structure of the World Bank reflected the dominance of the US dominant. Indeed, its first loan was to France, and the US insisted that before the loan was granted all the Communist Party members of the ruling coalition government be expelled.
As the neo-liberal dominance gained ground in the 1970s and 1980s, the World Bank, which had previously concentrated on providing loans to build public infrastructure – transport, ports and social expenditure (education, etc), shifted focus and started imposing so-called structural adjustment policies, while expanding its ‘export-led’ development bias.
The Bank pushed through an ‘Americanisation’ of agriculture in the less developed nations (building huge dams and irrigation systems) and pushing production towards export markets with reduced agricultural diversity (the ‘cash crop’ mania).
The consequences were devastating. Not only were subsistence cultures destroyed (and the diversity of agricultural production) but the nations were lumbered with massive external debt liabilities and diminished international market prospects due to the oversupply of agricultural products.
The enclosure of land to satisfy demands by American investors for ‘property rights’ also displaced millions of the poorest citizens in these nations.
The export-led bias was not the only reason for the collapse of prices in world markets. The US government oversaw the massive dumping of wheat onto third world markets, which ruined the commercial prospects of the local farmers.
And trapped them into unpayable debt, which then precipitated renewed calls for diversion of government spending away from health, education and other ‘well-being’ outcomes towards debt servicing.
The World Bank worked closely with the US to render it impossible for the poorer nations to escape the debt-poverty trap. In his 1994 analysis of the impacts of ‘Americanisation’ on less-developed nation agriculture, J.W. Smith noted that (p.63):
Highly mechanized farms on large acreages can produce units of food cheaper than even the poorest paid farmers of the Third World. When this cheap food is sold, or given, to the Third World, the local farm economy is destroyed. If the poor and unemployed of the Third World were given access to land, access to industrial tools, and protection from cheap imports, they could plant high-protein/high calorie crops and become self-sufficient in food. Reclaiming their land and utilizing the unemployed would cost these societies almost nothing, feed them well, and save far more money than they now pay for the so-called “cheap” imported foods.
Further, Smith noted (1994: 66) that:
The United States lent governments money to buy this food, and then enforced upon them the extraction and export of their natural resources to pay back the debt …
Not only is much U.S. food exported unnecessary, but it results in great harm to the very people they profess to be helping. The United States exported over sixty million tons of grain in 1974. Only 3.3 million tons were for aid, and most of that did not reach the starving. For example, during the mid-1980s, 84 percent of U.S. agricultural exports to Latin America were given to the local governments to sell to the people. This undersold local producers, destroyed their markets, and reduced their production.
[Reference: Smith, J.W. (1994) The World’s Wasted Wealth II, Institute for Economic Democracy.]
And nations that were once self-sufficient in food became dependent on food imports from the rich nations, which further worsened their balance of payments issues. Increasingly, more of their export income was devoted to paying debts and importing food rather than economic development.
As Michael Goldman noted (2008: 88):
… poverty grew as a result of the Bank’s development industry …
Although highly profitable for foreign investors, the new development regime was too costly for borrowers who did not have the resources to repay the large Bank loans.
[Reference: Goldman, M. (2008) Imperial Nature: The World Bank and Struggles for Social Justice in the Age of Globalization, New Haven, Yale University Press.]
This approach shifted more attention on raising revenue to service the external debts to first-world nations and the Bank, itself, as well as pushing through harsh cuts to public services, including basic education and health.
Goldman (2008: 89) writes that:
By 1986, third world debt had risen to $1 trillion and countries were borrowing large amounts from the Bank and the IMF just to service the interest on their old loans. Many African countries were forced to use all their export earnings to service their ballooning debts …
As private lending dried up, governments succumbed to these pressures … [IMF and World Bank demands] … and dramatically cut their spending on health, education, and welfare in order to comply with the new conditions placed on World Bank and IMF loans.
While they masqueraded as development programs, these structural adjustment programs were, in reality, giant vacuum cleaners sucking out the remaining real resource wealth these nations had and pumping it into the pockets of the rich elites in the US, Europe and elsewhere.
They required large-scale privatisations – largely focused on utilities, followed by ‘capital market liberalisation’, the buzz phrase of the 1980s, which made it easier for resources to flow out of the poor nations and provided them with no defense against speculative attacks on their currencies.
User-pays policies followed which meant that poor citizens were forced to pay ‘market prices’ for essentials such as water, power, housing, and food.
The World Bank became inured to the humanitarian damage these programs were inflicting. Goldman (2008: 90) says the World Bank “shock therapy became a never-ending cycle of large debt-servicing loans and additional policy requirements that further destabilized borrowers”.
A study by UNICEF authors (Cornia et al.,, 1987) was extremely critical of the World Bank’s approach and called for an increased humanitarian focus in designing economic policies. Their people-oriented approach resonated strongly with those who had been increasingly critical of the austerity that was being forced onto poor nations, enslaved by external debt.
They conclude that the the World Bank policies had “reduced health, nutritional, and educational levels for tens of millions of children in Asia, Latin America, and Africa”.
[Reference: Cornia, G.A., Jolly, R. and Stewart, F. (1987) Adjustment with a Human Face: Protecting the vulnerable and promoting growth, Volume 1, Oxford, Clarendon Press.]
The neo-liberal Groupthink infested the World Bank as time passed and significantly influenced the decisions it made.
In 1999, Joseph Stiglitz was fired as the Bank’s chief economist (Source) as a result of his emerging criticism of the Bank’s lack of humanitarian awareness.
In an interview with the Observer (October 10, 2001) – The Globalizer Who Came In From the Cold – Joseph Stiglitz didn’t hold back in his criticism of the World Bank and the IMF.
He told Greg Palast that when Bank officials conducted an “in-country investigation” as a precursor to loading it up with more debt, the reality was that “the Bank’s staff ‘investigation’ consists of close inspection of a nation’s 5-star hotels.”
Bank officials would swan into a nation over some weekend, hole up in a ritzy hotel, live it up on the expense account, and leave on Monday for the next place, pronouncing expertise, and imposing, what Stiglitz called the “one-size-fits-all rescue-your-economy plan”, which, in reality, was just more scorched earth.
These plans follow the familiar pattern, which according to Stiglitz means that “There are lots of losers in this system but one clear winner: the Western banks and US Treasury, making the big bucks off this crazy new international capital churn”
Another high profile World Bank resignation followed in June 2000, when Ravi Kanpur, a development economist who worked at the World Bank from 1998, exited the bank in haste.
He had been in charge of the World Development Report on poverty, the Bank’s major annual publication on the topic.
His resignation followed his claims that the World Bank management had censored the WDR, in part, at the behest of the then US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, because it attacked the neo-liberal approach to growth and inequality, which Kanpur had clearly concluded had failed.
The UK Guardian article (July 4, 2000) – Don’t Bank on It – by Charlotte Denny publicised the Kanpur’s separation from the Bank.
Kanpur had echoed Stiglitz’s concern that development was a separate process from growth in real GDP. They both had observed that without redistribution and strong education, health and public infrastructure development, the poorest folk would miss the boat.
Kanpur had objected to the World Bank Groupthink bias that cuts to government spending helps the poor and that “and that neither democracy nor spending on health or education makes any difference to growth” (Guardian, July 4, 2000).
These high profile departures – on ideological grounds – sum up the problem.
As Greg Palast wrote following his interview with Joseph Stiglitz (Source):
… don’t be confused by the mix in this discussion of the IMF, World Bank and WTO. They are interchangeable masks of a single governance system …
Every time their free market solutions failed, the IMF simply demanded more free market policies.
The World Bank is so infested with neo-liberalism and is so US-orientated that it cannot function as a reliable vehicle to alleviate poverty.
As part of a ‘Progressive Manifesto’, the Bank should be dissolved.
The OECD should be dissolved
The OECD began life in 1948 as as the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC), which was a French led organisation designed to administer the European Recovery Programme (the ‘Marshall Plan’) funds aimed at the reconstruction of Europe after World War II.
It provided the administrative structure whereby the American financial aid was chanelled into various redevelopment programs.
It was a solid Keynesian-based organisation that well understood the role that activist fiscal policy (running fiscal deficits etc) played in promoting stable growth and full employment.
In 1952, the OEEC “declined … due to the unexpected end of the Marshall Plan and a subsequent shift in favour of NATO”. (OECD, 2016).
[Reference: OECD (2016) Organisation for European Economic Co-operation, http://www.oecd.org/general/organisationforeuropeaneconomicco-operation.htm.]
At that point, its function had been served and there was no further need to fund the massive bureaucracy that had been assembled in Paris.
But disputes between the British, the US and the European nations as to the on-going role of the OEEC relative to NATO led to the NATO Ottawa Conference which redefined a role for the OEEC in terms of “studying the question of the economic development of NATO countries”, leaving NATO to deal with security and military matters (OECD, 2016).
The US wanted increased European integration to further dull the prospects of any new German martial aggression. However, Britain was opposed this.
At a meeting of US Ambassadors in Paris on October 21, 1949, the US intent and its conception of the role that the OEEC should play was clear.
The US Ambassador to Great Britain, Lewis W. Douglas, told the meeting that the US should “take a more positive position on this whole subject in the OEEC” as part of its ambitions to integrate Germany back into Western Europe (Office of the Historian, 1949: 485)
The US High Commissioner for Germany, John J. McCloy, responded that the US “must put pressure on the French to let the Germans come in on a dignified basis” (Office of the Historian, 1949: 488)
The U.S. Special Representative in Europe for Educational and Cultural Affairs, W. Averell Harriman, who was also in charge of the Marshall Plan and cooperated with the CIA in creating anti-communitst trade unions and other propaganda organisations, added that when discussing the formation of the OEEC in 1948 (Office of the Historian, 1949: 489):
British had prevailed in setting the pattern of an organization whose impotency was now becoming alarming … the British will not cooperate in what we want in respect to European integration and, more important, what they agreed to do in signing the OEEC Charter. In last analysis the British are not facing up to the fact that they seem to be opposing the basic principle of cooperation upon which the Marshall Plan was presented to and supported by the U.S. Congress, and they must be told so bluntly and immediately. This points to the necessity of further US interest in European economic machinery, for it is clear that not only must US pressure towards integration increase but the US must find some areas for participation in order to accelerate the movement and give confidence to Europeans.
[Reference: Office of the Historian (1949) ‘Summary Record of a Meeting of United States Ambassadors at Paris, October 21-22’, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1949, Western Europe, Volume IV, LINK.]
He then said that within “the OEEC we must reaffirm the necessity for and increase our influence in obtaining the adoption of measures such as the abolition of quantitative restrictions and quotas, the lowering of tariffs and eventually the interconvertibility of currencies.”
So it was clear that the US considered the OEEC to be part of an institutional machinery to further American commercial interests in Europe.
That is why the organisation continued despite its initial function coming to an end.
In 1961, this organisation became the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) and its membership was broadened to include non-European states.
While the IMF and World Bank focus heavily on the poorer nations, the OECD membership is typically made up of high-income nations.
In the same way that the World Bank and the IMF have been taken over by neo-liberals (PhDs trained at right-wing US academic factories) and an entrenched and destructive Groupthink has evolved, the OECD has been similarly blighted.
It is now one of the foremost institutions promoting mis-perceptions and lies about the way the fiat monetary system functions and the operational realities that governments can exploit (via fiscal policy) to advance the well-being of its citizens, should they have the will.
The OECD Jobs Study agenda released in 1994 has become on of the major policy frameworks used by policy makers to justify privatisation, labour and financial market deregulation and massive changes to income support schemes.
These policies, advocated vehemently by the OECD have been aimed at weakening trade unions and making the most disadvantaged workers more desperate and, thus, compliant.
The OECD’s endorsement of inflation-first macroeconomic policies where monetary policy plays the prominent role and uses unemployment to discipline the inflation generating process has been consistent with the neo-liberal orthodoxy – the so-called Brussels-Frankfurt-Washington consensus.
The use of active fiscal policy has been eschewed and has been largely contractionary as a result, leaving a legacy of persistently weak growth, entrenched high unemployment and rising underemployment.
The policies advocated by the OECD created the conditions that led to the GFC and the massive overhang of despair and dysfunction that has defined the GFC aftermath.
The evidence base that the OECD has generated or relied on is weak to say the least. Martin Watts (2010: 3) says that “In its public reports, the OECD relies on obfuscation, by adopting sanitised and repetitive forms of exposition, which draw on carefully selected academic research but lack rigour ” (see also Dostal, 2004).
[Reference: Watts, M.J. (2010) ‘The role of the OECD in the design of macroeconomic and labour market policy: Reflections of a heterodox economist’, Working Paper 10-02, Centre of Full Employment and Equity, University of Newcastle.]
[Reference: Dostal, J.M. (2004) ‘Campaigning on expertise: how the OECD framed EU welfare and labour market policies – and why success could trigger failure’, Journal of European Public Policy, 11(3): 440-460.]
Watts (2010: 3) says that the OECD uses symbolic language:
… including sound public finance, fiscal consolidation and fiscal sustainability, conveys a sense of authority and impartiality about policy design, despite these terms never being defined in an operational manner and the social and economic consequences of their implementation rarely being explained. Indeed recent OECD documents make no reference to the public purpose of economic policy (emphasis in original).
Over the last 20 years or so, many academic studies sought to establish the empirical veracity of the orthodox view that unemployment rose when real wages and workplace protections increased.
This has been a particularly European and English obsession. There has been a bevy of research material coming out of the OECD itself, the European Central Bank and various national agencies, in addition to academic studies.
The overwhelming conclusion to be drawn from this literature is that there is no conclusion.
These various econometric studies, which have constructed their analyses in ways that are most favourable to finding that the orthodox line of reasoning is valid, provide no consensus view as Baker et al (2004) show convincingly (see also Mitchell and Muysken, 2008).
[Reference: Baker, D., Glyn, A., Howell, D. and Schmitt, J. (2004) ‘Labor Market Institutions and Unemployment’, in D. Howell (ed.), Questioning Liberalization: Unemployment, Labor Markets, and the Welfare State, Oxford: Oxford University Press.]
[Reference: Mitchell, W.F. and Muysken, J. (2008) Full Employment Abandoned: Shifting Sands and Policy Failures, Aldershot, Edward Elgar. LINK,
In the 10 years prior to the GFC, partly in response to the obvious reality that active labour market policies had not solved unemployment and had instead created problems of poverty and urban inequality, some notable shifts in perspectives became evident among those who had wholly supported (and motivated) the orthodox approach which was exemplified in the 1994 OECD Jobs Study.
In the face of the mounting criticism and empirical argument, the OECD began to back away from its hard-line Jobs Study position. In the 2004 Employment Outlook, OECD (2004: 81, 165) admitted that “the evidence of the role played by employment protection legislation on aggregate employment and unemployment remains mixed” and that the evidence supporting their Jobs Study view that high real wages cause unemployment “is somewhat fragile.”
Then in 2006, the OECD Employment Outlook entitled Boosting Jobs and Incomes, which claimed to be a comprehensive econometric analysis of employment outcomes across 20 OECD countries between 1983 and 2003 went further. The study sample for the econometric modelling included those who adopted the Jobs Study as a policy template and those who resisted labour market deregulation. The Report revealed a significant shift in the OECD position. OECD (2006) found that:
- There is no significant correlation between unemployment and employment protection legislation;
- The level of the minimum wage has no significant direct impact on unemployment; and
- Highly centralised wage bargaining significantly reduces unemployment.
These conclusions from the OECD in 2006 confounds those who have relied on its previous work including the Jobs Study, to push through harsh labour market reforms; retrenched welfare entitlements; and attacks on the trade unions. It makes a mockery of the arguments that minimum wage increases and comprehensive employment protection will undermine the employment prospects of the least skilled workers.
OECD (2006) found that unfair dismissal laws and related employment protection do not impact on the level of unemployment but merely redistribute it towards the most disadvantaged – including the youth who have not yet developed skills and have little work experience.
Like the IMF, the OECD has become a fractured, schizoid organisation as a result of the confrontation of the real world with its sterile neo-liberal ideology. In the face of incontrovertible evidence that the world does not work in the way the OECD models think it does, or would like us to believe it does, the OECD has been shifting (uncomfortably) in its ‘chair’.
The organisation, however, is so tainted with a failed economic ideology and so connected to the neo-liberal elites that it should be dissolved immediately. It really does not serve any productive function.
The Bank of International Settlements should be dissolved
The BIS was created in 1930 as part of the outcomes of the peace settlement after World War I. It was meant to broker the financial settlements specified in the peace treaties (that is, ensure Germany paid the agreed reparations).
Its secondary role was to build a network to facilitate cooperation between the Member central banks, which formally own the BIS.
It was mired in scandal in the lead up to World War 2 when it assisted in transferring gold from the Czechoslovakian central bank to the Nazis, after Germany had invaded that nation.
Further, throughout World War 2, despite claiming to be neutral, the BIS assisted Nazi Germany in laundering gold looted from central banks and taken from prisoners in death camps. Its management board comprised a major Nazi official and the CEO of the company that produced Zyklon 2.
The delegates at the Bretton Woods Conference received a proposal from the Norwegian Delegation on July 10, 1944 that as s a result of these scandals and the creation of the IMF, the BIS should be abolished.
After deliberation the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference (Bretton Woods meeting) recommended (UN, 1948: 929):
The liquidation of the Bank for International Settlements at the earliest possible moment.
[Reference: United Nations (1948) Proceedings and Documents of the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, July 1-22, 1944, Volume 1, United Nations Government Printing Office, Washington. LINK]
The decision was opposed by the British delegation led by John Maynard Keynes and despite the resolve of the Conference, political shifts in the US subsequently saw the determination abandoned.
It is our view that the BIS, which has become another neo-liberal organisation pumping out propaganda against the use of fiscal deficits, has no functional role to play in a progressive future and should be dissolved forthwith.
In the final part of this ‘two-part’ blog (which is now in three parts) I will consider the type of new international institution that might be created and disabuse the reader of notions that pop up in progressive discussions about the need for a global currency etc.
We will also discuss reforming the foreign aid system.
The series so far
This is a further part of a series I am writing as background to my next book on globalisation and the capacities of the nation-state. More instalments will come as the research process unfolds.
The series so far:
The blogs in these series should be considered working notes rather than self-contained topics. Ultimately, they will be edited into the final manuscript of my next book due later in 2016.
That is enough for today!
(c) Copyright 2016 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.