One of the greatest achievements of the twentieth century was a social contract that provided far more economic security and prosperity for working Americans than had existed in any previous period. But successive waves of changes in the world economy, together with the ascendancy of a strain of economic philosophy that puts the freedom of capital above the interests of society, have placed enormous strain on the postwar social contracts of all Western countries, resulting in stagnating wages, greater insecurity and levels of income and wealth inequality not seen since the early 1900s. And even more far-reaching challenges arising from the current pattern of globalization, with its emphasis on the outsourcing of service as well as manufacturing jobs, may lie ahead.
Developing a strategy for taming global capitalism anew therefore constitutes the overriding challenge of our time. For that reason, we have invited some of the leading progressive thinkers in this country and a longtime observer of the American economy to offer their ideas on how the United States, as the major capitalist country and the major player in globalization, could reshape both capitalism and globalization in ways that build a new social contract serving the needs of working people everywhere.
A Progressive Response to Globalization
JOSEPH E. STIGLITZ
Globalization is often viewed as posing a major threat to “capitalism with a human face.” Trade liberalization puts downward pressure on unskilled wages (and increasingly even skilled wages), increasing inequality in more developed countries. Countries trying to compete are repeatedly told to increase labor-market flexibility, code words for lowering the minimum wage and weakening worker protections. Competition for business puts pressure to reduce taxes on corporate income and on capital more generally, decreasing funds available for supporting basic investments in people and the safety net. And international agreements, such as Chapter 11 of NAFTA and the intellectual property provisions of the Uruguay Round of trade talks, have been used to short-circuit national democratic processes.
Yet Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries have shown that there is an alternative way to cope with globalization. These countries are highly integrated into the global economy; but they are highly successful economies that still provide strong social protections and make high levels of investments in people. They have been successful in part because of these policies, not in spite of them. Full employment and strong safety nets enable individuals to undertake more risk (with the commensurate high rewards) without unduly worrying about the downside of failure. These countries have not abandoned the welfare state but have fine-tuned it to meet globalization’s new demands. We should do the same.
At the same time, we must temper globalization itself–not by withdrawing behind protectionist borders and not by trying to enhance the well-being of our citizens at the expense of those abroad who are even poorer. Rather, we should reshape globalization to make it more democratic, and we should moderate its pace to give countries more time to cope. There will still be losers in a reshaped globalization, but the vast majority of citizens in both the North and the South will be better off with the right policies.
Coping with globalization entails recognizing both the consequences of globalization and the limitations in the standard responses. Increased education is important, but it is not enough. At this time we should make taxation more progressive in order to offset the economic forces increasing inequality, not decrease the degree of progressivity as we have done in the past five years. We should strengthen our safety nets, not weaken them. The United States has one of the worst unemployment insurance programs in the advanced industrial countries. A redesign of our social insurance program to make it more of an integrated lifetime social insurance program, along the lines of the provident funds of Singapore, could provide substantially more complete insurance coverage without weakening economic incentives.
Most important, we should have a true commitment to full employment. The high priests of the financial markets have convinced many of the dangers of even moderate inflation, contending that even slight increases in inflation are very costly, especially to the poor, and that the costs of reversing inflation are extremely high. This is all nonsense, as we demonstrated in successive issues of the Economic Report of the President while I was chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. Today we should be worried not about inflation but about our lackluster growth, which leaves a large “jobs deficit.” Full employment is the most important social protection. And even moderate unemployment, even of the disguised kind (discouraged workers, increased numbers on disability and large numbers who work part-time involuntarily), puts downward pressure on wages, exacerbating the problems brought on by globalization.
There are two other elements of a progressive agenda that are sometimes not given sufficient attention. The first is enhancing savings among lower-income individuals, including by matching grants (for example, by cashable tax credits). Some conservatives have embraced the concept of the ownership society–by which they too often mean simply that those who own more get to own still more. But it is important for individuals of modest means to have a cushion to protect themselves against the vagaries of the market.
The second is enhancing investment in research, strengthening our competitive advantages, so necessary if we are to maintain robust growth. Today, a disproportionate amount of our nation’s research budget is spent on military objectives; funds for basic science, or even advances in applied technology that would improve living standards and help us protect the environment, are scarce.
Globalization’s advocates often portray it as presenting unprecedented opportunities. For those committed to creating a society based on principles of social justice, it is also presenting unprecedented challenges. These are some of the elements of the progressive response to these challenges.
Joseph E. Stiglitz, University Professor at Columbia University, won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2001 and is the author of The Roaring Nineties.
A New Domestic and Global Strategy
The challenge we face today in the United States is how to engage in the global economy without decimating our own middle class and gutting our social regulatory system. The logic of global capitalism as currently practiced is to drive down workers’ wages, weaken their bargaining power and strip away their social protections in both rich and poor countries, while simultaneously encouraging and celebrating the excesses of debt-driven consumerism.
But this system is inherently unstable and unsustainable. The United States is running a current account deficit of more than $700 billion a year to fund consumption we can’t afford. This is not financially sustainable. Meanwhile, many workers in developing countries work twelve to sixteen hours a day, in dangerous conditions, without the right to form an independent union, at poverty pay, so that multinational corporations can boost their bottom line. That is not politically sustainable.
Any policy agenda to build a better system must have both a national and an international component. At the national level, we need to fight for workers’ rights to form unions and bargain for decent wages and working conditions; we need affordable and equitable healthcare and retirement security systems that do not create competitive disadvantages for domestic companies; and we need to invest in education, technology and infrastructure, especially in manufacturing.
While national reforms are critical to improving workers’ daily lives, we must not ignore the global component, because if we don’t get that piece right, unregulated global competitive pressures will eventually undermine any domestic reforms and worker gains. Trying to protect the American middle class without changing our interaction with the global economy is like pouring water into a leaky vessel.
For the United States, there are three key components to a new global strategy: taxes, currency and trade rules. In order to bring about real change, we need to work with domestic businesses as well as with our global justice allies. Domestic producers are equally frustrated by US policies that make it virtually impossible for them to compete in the global economy while producing on American soil.
First, our corporate tax system is insanely inefficient and unfair. American taxpayers currently subsidize the offshoring of their own jobs (at a rate of at least $7 billion a year) through policies that exempt income earned offshore from corporate taxes. Very few other countries have similar systems, and most have some form of “border adjustable” tax that exempts exports from sales or value-added taxes. Our current system taxes exports, while subsidizing the offshoring of jobs. We need a complete overhaul of our corporate tax system to address this self-inflicted wound.
Second, the overvalued dollar is killing our domestic manufacturing sector and exacerbating the problems in tradable services (a category that now covers everything not nailed to the floor). While the high dollar policy serves the Wal-Marts of the corporate world very well, it creates almost insurmountable competitive problems for domestic producers. The Bush Administration has clearly decided to cater to the retailers, outsourcers and importers. It is now up to Congress to pass legislation that will force China and Japan to stop manipulating their currencies to gain competitive advantage.
Third, the framework of rules in the global trading system (through the WTO and our own domestic agreements) is severely lopsided in favor of multinational corporate interests–leaving workers, small farmers, the environment and the poor ever more vulnerable and weak. If we understand the central problem of the global economy to be one of an imbalance of power and income distribution, then it becomes clear that global trade rules need to be rewritten to insure that workers have a voice at their workplaces and in national political debates. Linking core workers’ rights as defined by the International Labor Organization to market access would do three important things: It would empower workers and give them a fighting chance to bargain for their fair share of the wealth they create; it would help build a middle class, so that workers can buy some of the goods they produce; and it would put a leash on multinational corporations by taking the profit out of exploitation.
No single action will get us out of the hole we’re in, but together these tax, currency and trade policy pieces point us in the right direction.
Thea Lee is policy director of the AFL-CIO.
Re-creating Public-Interest Politics
Looked at from Europe and Asia, the US economy has emerged as a formidable global competitor with the leading brands, the leading technologies and a careful strategy of producing low-value-added goods in Asia while nurturing high technology at home. If American blue-collar jobs have been lost in mass-production manufacturing, they have been created in distribution, transportation and services–and also in the high-value-added “knowledge economy.”
Thus American blue-collar workers are split into four components: those under direct competition from Asia, those working in the blue-collar service sector, those directly or indirectly benefiting from high-value-added knowledge work and those who work in the public sector. Each component is in very different circumstances–and even in the public sector, the appeal of trade unions and collective action is fading. Democrats have allowed too many of these new categories of workers to be recruited to the Republican cause with their redefinition of the public interest as private. The repercussions for the battle of ideas have been global.
The first task in any rebirth of liberal politics is to recognize contemporary realities–the primacy of a highly individualized culture with a highly segmented working class with very different objective interests–and not hanker to re-create an order that is past. Liberals need to be clear-eyed about the extent to which the current world system benefits the United States; for example, Chinese goods are cheap, boost real incomes and create a disinflationary climate of low interest rates that has provided a massive economic stimulus. Protection might benefit one of the four components of the working class–those in direct competition with Asia–but it would hurt the other three, not to mention poverty-stricken Asian peasants now delighted to have the opportunity for self-improvement.
The second task is to understand that winning the argument at the big political level, as much as detailed policies, is a condition for winning power. In this regard, what has to be done is not to make the case for “government” or “collective” action, which goes against the contemporary grain of American political culture, but to recapture the idea of the public and the importance of the public institutions through which it is delivered. For example, American universities–among the country’s great public institutions–are the envy of the world, but they have increasingly become the preserve of the children of a rich elite who can afford the stunning fees, with a consequent alarming reduction in social mobility. They must be reclaimed; even the top private universities recognize the “publicness” of their vocation and the degree to which the “public” is currently being corrupted. Social mobility is a public interest, and its decline is of public concern. The argument needs to be made in those terms.
I would go further still. The United States was colonized by the values of the Enlightenment and its commitment to reason, to checks and balances in government, and to the importance of a lively public sphere. It was these Enlightenment values interacting with the great nineteenth-century egalitarian tradition that gave the United States its dynamism as much as its go-getting capitalism. Now the values of the market and increasingly religion have been allowed to crowd out the vitality of the entire fabric of Enlightenment institutions. The liberal case surely has to be to reassert why these institutions are so important and to remake the case in today’s context–hence the instinctive liberal support for open-sourcing, the public dissemination of knowledge and the fair distribution of access to information. I would also add the old progressive case against excessive corporate power and breathe life into the Sherman and Clayton acts. Trustbusting and taking on the creationists are essential parts of the story.
We also need to revive institutions of grassroots altruism and solidarity. Nowhere in the industrialized West has the progressive cause gone far without the support of organized labor; but the conventional trade union no longer captures the imagination or hearts of working people. Only when unions start growing with a much more clearheaded sense of what their members want and what can be delivered will there be a more secure political base.
But it all starts with associating liberals with the idea of the public in its best Enlightenment sense, showing how that has worked for the United States in the past and could work for it in the future.
Will Hutton, a British writer, is the author of A Declaration of Interdependence (Norton) and is completing a new book on China and the United States.
Taming Predatory Capitalism
JAMES K. GALBRAITH
In 1899 Thorstein Veblen described predation as a phase in the evolution of culture, “attained only when the predatory attitude has become the habitual and accredited spiritual attitude…when the fight has become the dominant note in the current theory of life.” After an entire century’s struggle to escape from this phase, we’ve suffered a relapse. The predators are everywhere unleashed; and the institutions built to contain them, from the United Nations to the AFL-CIO to the SEC, are everywhere under siege. Predation has again become the defining feature of economic life. Our first problem is to grasp this reality in full.
Postwar prosperity was built on a vast cut in the cost of security and the achievement of peace in Europe and much of Asia. The American role in the cold war system was to provide security; for this the dollar’s role as anchor of the world trading system was our reward. But now, with Iraq, we are seen worldwide as the leading predator state, promoting war as a solution rather than as the ultimate economic and human horror. For this, many would like to see our privileges revoked.
Corporate and financial fraud and political corruption form the second great domain of predatory capitalism. DeLay, Frist and Abramoff are the names in the news, but the tone is set by the leadership–Cheney of Halliburton and Bush of Harken Energy–a large predator and a small scavenger, specialists in cronyism and expert in nothing else. When predation becomes the dominant business and political form, the foundation of capitalism crumbles. Markets lose legitimacy, investors fly to safety in bonds, and authentic innovation and shared growth both become unattainable. The solution must be not just a change of parties but a new political class, including a new media not under corrupt control.
Then there is the predatory attack on unions and labor, in which many economists are complicit. This is far advanced in America and most visible today in Europe, as reflected by the doctrine of flexible labor markets, which claims that the conquest of unemployment requires cutting the pay of the working poor. But there is no history of unemployment ever being conquered this way–certainly not in the United States of the 1940s, 1960s or 1990s. Modern Europe also affords counterexamples of equalizing growth, from Norway and Denmark to recent gains in Spain, as well as object lessons, most recently in France, of the catastrophe of designed exclusion.
The way forward is a program for growth and justice built on the needs of the working population and the middle class. To begin with, in the United States there must be a powerful demolition of the old political order: We need elections where all votes are cast and counted. The campaign against voter repression is the essential civil rights struggle of our time, even though most progressives don’t seem to realize it yet. Prevailing will require fundamental reform such as the introduction of nationwide vote-by-mail (the Oregon system). Without that, and also many relentless prosecutions, nothing else will be achieved.
The economic commitment, in turn, must be to full employment here, to egalitarian growth in Europe and Japan, and to a worldwide development strategy favoring civil infrastructure and the poor. Public capital investment, stronger unions and a high minimum wage should frame the domestic agenda. Overseas, crackdowns on tax havens and the arms trade, a stabilizing financial system and an end to the debt peonage of poor countries should be among the priorities of a new structure.
The truths are that egalitarian growth is efficient, that speculation must be regulated, that crime starts at the top and that peace is the primary public good. These truths are poison to predators and are the reason predators have fostered and subsidized an entire cynical intellectual movement devoted to “free” markets made up of a class of professor-courtiers now everywhere in view. Taming predatory capitalism could start with breaking this econo-corporate analytical axis, and reviving the concept of countervailing power, first formulated by John Kenneth Galbraith in 1952.
James K. Galbraith, chair of the board of Economists for Peace and Security, teaches at the University of Texas and is senior scholar with the Levy Economics Institute.
A North American Social Contract
Social justice will come to the global economy only when enough people in enough nation-states are organized across borders to demand it. Yet in a world of 6.5 billion people in more than 200 separate countries–representing wide differences in culture, living standards and political consciousness–the idea of a popular transnational politics effective enough to humanize the relentlessly interconnecting markets seems impossibly utopian.
But if we think of establishing a global social contract as a step-by-step process, in which political solidarity is built first among neighboring societies, region by region, it becomes easier to imagine. The ongoing struggle for a “Social Europe” to match the expanded European capitalist market offers the best real-world example of the promise of a regional social contract.
We should open up a second front in this global class war in North America. The North American Free Trade Agreement was the template for the neoliberal global project. In its protection of corporate interests and its undermining of democracy, NAFTA is even more reactionary than the World Trade Organization. Not surprisingly, it has reinforced inequality and insecurity in all three countries–most visibly demonstrated by the daily migration of Mexicans across the border, desperately seeking jobs. NAFTA’s failure makes North America a microcosm of globalization’s Catch-22: Bringing social justice to global markets requires global institutions to regulate global business, but these institutions are dominated by elites who oppose social justice.
After twelve years, integration among the three North American economies has gone too far to reverse. So it is time for progressives in all three countries to mobilize together to promote a social contract on their own continent. This does not mean merging into one country. Rather, it means the creation of a cross-border political movement to challenge the agenda of elites in all three countries, who established NAFTA precisely to escape democratic constraints on their wealth and power.
The problems of developing political solidarity across North America’s national borders are different from but not necessarily more difficult than those encountered among the twenty-five countries that now make up the European Union. A cross-border movement could build on the many organizational and personal relationships that already exist. Early steps to gain experience and trust could include joint actions against corporate abuses that span the continent. A simultaneous strike against a common employer or a protest against a common environmental abuse could dramatize the interests that people in all three countries share. Progressives could develop a common legislative agenda, introducing the same proposals in all three legislatures. This agenda might come to form the basis of a new North American social contract that would include the following elements:
§ A Bill of Rights for citizens of North America, enforceable in all countries, that would reassert the primacy of civil protection of individuals and democratic government over the extraordinary privileges NAFTA gives to corporate investors.
§ A New Continental Deal, in which Canada and the United States commit substantial long-term aid to Mexico in order to nurture higher and sustainable economic growth while Mexico commits to policies (independent trade unions, minimum wages, equitable taxes) that assure a wider distribution of the benefits of growth.
§ A Continental Development Strategy that shifts the economic policy objectives of all three countries from subsidizing pursuit of global profits by corporate investors to support of greater industrial self-sufficiency, resource conservation and increased investment in health and education. Driven by these goals, a progressive North American Customs Union would manage modest levels of balanced trade with the rest of the world.
Creating a politics around such a continental social contract could help inspire progressive activists to develop their own common vision of the future to replace NAFTA’s nihilist nightmare of unregulated capitalism. Such a movement would also help reinforce beleaguered progressives in Europe, South America and Southeast Asia (China and India are regions in themselves), who are trying to bring to life regional models of development that respect human life and dignity. Finally, it could help undercut American elites’ messianic illusions of their moral right to rule the world–which infects liberals as well as conservatives–and force them to turn to the humbler but more productive task of making their own part of the globe a better place.
Jeff Faux was the founder and is now di stinguished fellow at the Economic Policy Institute. His latest book is The Global Class War.
Build the High Road Here
American progressives have lots of ideas on the alternative international rules and institutions in monetary policy, finance, trade, human rights and development needed to make globalization work better for the North and South. What we lack is the power to implement them. Under the “dictatorship of no alternatives” that defines current policy debates, it is important to propose one to the fraying “Washington Consensus” and seek allies, particularly in this NAFTA hemisphere, in its enactment. But we should not wait on international reform to build democratic power in this economy, starting from where we are right now. We should build a high-road–high-wage, low-waste, democratically accountable–economy right here. Doing so will give focus to domestic efforts, connect them practically to international ones and eventually yield the organization, experience and confident social base we want to contribute to global fights. Building the high road here should be at least half of any international strategy.
Of course, some progressives think internationalization already dooms this enterprise–that capital’s mobility will defeat any attempt at increasing democratic control over the economy. But they’re mistaken. Economies don’t just slide around on a frictionless, flat world. They have gravity and traction. The economic importance of place hasn’t been destroyed by internationalization but in many ways has increased. Capital markets are far from perfect, and capital is less mobile than commonly assumed. And some constraints on capital are actually a net gain to it, not a loss.
Around the country, hundreds of largely isolated projects are already showing this. They include worker-training and skill-certification programs that increase productivity while capturing it in income; the use of union pension funds to stabilize and grow distressed local economies while generating returns on investment; “smart growth” policies that reduce commuting times and lower real housing costs while improving the environment; living-wage and allied efforts to raise standards on company performance while increasing productivity; and the Apollo Alliance program for good jobs and energy independence. These efforts are considered by many progressives to be a sidebar to their main show and usually not even as a single class of activities. In fact, they are all examples of the high-road politics we should be pursuing.
This harnesses democracy as a force of production, a source of value, and not just values in the economy. It builds productive infrastructure (in part physical, in larger part institutional) that adds value, reduces waste and captures the benefits of doing both. Such infrastructure attracts capital by increasing its return but also grounds capital by its own immobility. And with capital’s exit threats thus reduced, real bargaining can again begin. The essence of that bargaining is demanding more of capital than is now demanded by markets–less pollution, higher wages, better labor relations, more community investment–in exchange for the infrastructure that allows capital to meet the demands profitably under competitive conditions.
None of this is rocket science. We already know how to add value in places by improving education and worker training; increasing research and commercialization capacity; providing the marketing, financial and other business services that are beyond the capacities of individual firms; and helping to cluster firms to realize complementary strengths while enlisting workers in their upgrading. We know how to reduce waste by establishing markets and making direct investment in renewable energy and more resource-efficient–and, with accurate accounting, much cheaper–energy, housing, transportation and consumer durables. We know how to improve government efficiency by democratizing elections, applying the private sector’s metrics revolution to its operations and engaging citizen organizations in open-source problem-solving and regulatory enforcement. Doing these things together improves living standards by strengthening democracy. It shows democracy as a solution in organizing daily life, not part of the problem.
This is not a new insight. Markets can’t set rules for themselves, solve their collective-action problems or elicit wide voluntary citizen contribution. Democracy’s ability to do them all is its signature strength, and there are no limits on their being done better and better–thus producing more wealth, more citizen engagement and wider freedom in future choice. This directly helps immobile workers, even under internationalization. Indeed, even in the “worst case” of perfect competition, with instantaneous capital adjustment to changes in expected after-tax rates of profit, all gains from such place-based democratic efficiency would go to the immobile workers who call those places home.
Neoliberalism declares unfettered business domination our best bet for material well-being. We should declare high-road democracy a better bet, and invite others to place it with us. We will not lack for takers in the United States. Americans are sick to death of “business as usual,” and desperate for an alternative that works. And our working class wants more of government than death and taxes, more of life than their irrelevance, more of their “leaders” than fake empathy and real contempt. A role in constructing a better economy, and a society fit to live in, is what paving the high road provides.
Joel Rogers, a Nation contributing editor, teaches at the University of Wisconsin.
The non-college-educated majority of working Americans, and increasingly even some college-educated workers, face two long-term problems. First, the buying power of their wages cannot keep pace with the cost of the things they need, including healthcare, housing and schooling. Second, their path to upward economic mobility is disappearing because stagnant and falling real wages combined with ever more severe economic segregation limit their ability to invest in themselves or their children, whether alone or collectively, because of the weakened tax base of working-class communities.
It is very difficult to find a way to reverse the downward pull of globalization and global labor migration on the wages of modestly educated people. But that does not mean that we are without a way of improving the standard of living of working people. Ironically, the problem may provide its own solution. Let me explain. Contemporary economic trends are pushing the wages of workers down while boosting the returns to financial capital and knowledge capital. That being the case, the best way to promote economic opportunity for low-wage workers and especially their children is to pioneer collective forms of capital ownership and wealth accumulation. In short, we should work to make every American a capital owner.
One way to proceed is for the federal government to reserve a portion of each year’s tax receipts–say, 1 percent of GDP–for contributions into a collective capital account that is invested in a set of privately managed and federally supervised index funds. This capital fund, which I will call the Opportunity Fund, would be a trust fund completely free of government interference, subject to the same rules and regulations as other index and mutual funds. With contributions of tax receipts each year, its value would grow as the financial wealth of the country and the economy grows, generating not only capital gains but also interest and dividend income for the American people.
The interest and dividend income generated by the Opportunity Fund could be used in a variety of ways. It could be used to supplement working families’ wage income by providing the funds needed for a basic annual income payment, whose size could vary according to such criteria as age, number of children and income level (perhaps with a work requirement to avoid dependency problems). It could also be used to fund a child savings account system that builds up an inheritance for every child on a progressive basis, with a larger share of the funds going to children from poorer families. The child savings account could be used when a person reaches age 18 or soon thereafter to pay for college, buy a home or establish a retirement nest egg, or to pursue some other approved investment purpose.
The Opportunity Fund form of universal capitalism is, in short, a method for redistributing capital income through collective savings. It could put a more sustainable floor on the income of workers than does our collapsing welfare state. It could provide the financial basis for the children of every working family to be able to invest in their own human capital and their own economic future. It could also help correct the problem of economic and wealth inequality by creating a system of public inheritance that would help those who are not lucky enough to have been born into families that can pass on wealth to their children.
The Opportunity Fund is viable, practical and eminently doable right now. It is also the best way–perhaps the only way–to meet all of our country’s most pressing economic and social objectives. Not only must we promote fairness within and between generations; we also need to save more and borrow less (subject of course to Keynes’s lesson that too much saving too fast can cause recession and unemployment) so our country will have a more sustainable financial future. And we must also rebuild our economy by investing more in order to be able to better compete in today’s world economy. The Opportunity Fund form of universal capitalism is an idea whose time has come because it can meet these objectives better than the current collapsing social welfare system.
Marcellus Andrews is the author of The Political Economy of Hope and Fear: Capitalism and the Black Condition in America.
Reform the International Financial System
President Richard Nixon’s decision to end the Bretton Woods agreement in 1971 was a milestone in the erosion of the Western social contract. This decision ushered in a new international monetary system–one in which international payments in dollars would be made by private banks rather than exchanges of gold between the Federal Reserve and other central banks, and the value of the dollar would be determined by supply and demand.
This new dollar-centric international monetary system has been a powerful force in shaping the global economy and is, to a great extent, responsible for the current pattern of globalization. For the United States, it has meant that US policy-makers have had to hold real US interest rates higher than those of other strong currencies and have had to accept a higher value of the dollar relative to other major currencies. This has not only led to slower US economic growth but has made US goods less competitive vis-a-vis those of other economies. Thus the cost of American dollar hegemony has been the loss of export markets and, along with it, the loss of relatively good jobs in the tradable-goods sector of the economy.
For developing countries, the consequences have been no less serious. The post-Bretton Woods system has pushed more and more economies toward export-led growth, which tends to suppress domestic wages and regulatory standards. Countries that cannot pay for imports and attract foreign investment in their own currencies must “earn” these external currencies, mainly dollars, by exporting more than they import to one or a few countries that issue the global means of payment. To remain competitive with other nations and insure continued access to these markets, they have adopted policies that maintain downward pressure on wages and exchange rates and have shunned those that stimulate the demand necessary for sustained development.
This export-led growth paradigm created by the current international monetary system appears to have benefited the United States, the key currency country, especially in recent years, enabling us to consume more than we produce. A large share of the dollars that flow out of the United States to pay for imports flows back as investments in US financial assets. This foreign investment expands credit and allows Americans to spend more and save less. It also makes many Americans feel wealthier than they actually are by fueling inflated real estate and equity prices. But the cost of this pattern of growth has been the rapid buildup of both domestic and external debt.
This extraordinary growth in both US domestic and external debt now raises questions about the sustainability of this paradigm. Will highly indebted US households be forced to reduce their spending? If so, will a fall in imports reduce foreign financial investment, raise interest rates and induce or exacerbate a recession? And if the United States does, in fact, falter in its role as buyer of last resort in the global economy, what policies in which countries will insure continued growth?
To build a new global social contract, the underlying logic of the international financial system must be radically altered. What is needed is a new international monetary regime that can open access to international trade and investment for all nations on equal terms by allowing all currencies to be used in cross-border as well as domestic transactions. Keynes’s international clearing agency could serve as a basic structure for such a system, reclaiming the public sector’s role in global payments through a process of debiting and crediting cross-border payments against reserve accounts held with the clearing agency by member countries, with changes in reserves used to determine periodic adjustments in exchange rates.
An international monetary system based on the idea of an international clearing agency could also be designed to create a true lender of last resort, replacing the current ad hoc facilities, which depend on taxpayer donations. This would provide an effective channel for containing damaging financial crises and maintaining the financial stability needed for balanced growth in the global economy. It would also permit a resumption of the demand-led growth policies that are a necessary support for a new, global social contract.
Jane D’Arista is an author, lecturer and former Congressional staff economist who writes for the Financial Markets Center.