International Finance and the First World War in the East

The two things I’m working on right now are:

  1. Non-state actors and the First World War contest over areas of the near eastern empires — Hapsburg, Ottoman and Russian competition over the Balkans, Galicia, the Caucasus, Central Asia (“the Great Game”), the Adriatic Sea, the Black Sea and the Turkish Straits; and
  2. International financial and monetary economics in the late Long Nineteenth Century, namely from the late 1880s to the turn of the century. Specifically I am researching on a Master’s thesis on the classical gold standard, the Goschen Conversion, British international investment, “the economic taproot of imperialism”, the Long Depression of 1873-1896, the Baring Crisis, the U.S. Panic of 1893, the depression of the 1890s and the Morgan-Belmont Syndicate of 1895.

Do these have anything to do with one another beyond chronological adjacency? My interests here have been partly inspired by a few observations made by Samuel R. Williamson, Jr. at a Wilson Center discussion (July 1914: Revisited and Revised—or The End of the German Paradigm, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D.C., 19 March 2012). In an answer (to a question posed by one of my advisors) during the question and answer period, he said, “The financial thing is one of those subtexts that needs to be studied” (at 1:09:31). Then in his concluding remarks he spent some time looking ahead, assessing what about the origin of the First World War remained understudied, returning to the issue of finance:

As we were talking about the financial thing, I was thinking about an injunction I was given in 1962 on the way to England by Ernest May, Sam Wells and my mentor, which was, “Look for the finance papers. You’ll find that’s what you need to be looking for. Look for the finance papers.” Well, I didn’t find the finance papers, but I found a lot of other good stuff. But the finance papers, there’s some real loads of stuff that are going to change the way people look at this and about the interaction. What’s interesting is, is whether many of the banks will not have destroyed this simply over the course of passage of time. The banks, just like about everybody else, prunes papers. And so this may be one of the things we will never know as much as we want to know about, but it’s an important subtext for the future. (at 1:22:10)

In this regard there are two research projects in progress that I can hardly wait to get my hands on:

  1. The first is that of Jennifer Siegel, an Associate Professor of modern European diplomatic and military history in the Department of History at Ohio State University. Her dissertation, completed at Yale University under the guidance of Paul Kennedy was published as Endgame: Britain, Russia and the Final Struggle for Central Asia (I.B. Tauris, 2002). She is currently working on a book to be titled For Peace and Money: International Finance and the Making and Unmaking of the Triple Entente, which will be “…an exploration of British and French private and government bank loans to Russia in the late imperial period up to the Genoa Conference of 1922…”
  2. The second is history doctoral candidate Hassan Malik’s dissertation, Bankers and Bolsheviks: International Finance and the Russian Revolution, 1880-1930, to be completed this year at Harvard under the supervision of Niall Ferguson. A longer description of what his dissertation will deal with can be found at the Social Science Research Council Dissertation Development Fellow page for his project. His twitter feed is here.

From these two projects, it seems that Professor Williamson’s assessment that finance remains one of the fecund future areas of research on the First World War era is an astute one (presumably it’s based on his finger on the pulse of research underway, not just proscription or surmise).

As long as I’m on the topic, I may also mention a third, related work that I am on watch for. In the new Preface to the 2010 reissue of Feroz Ahmad’s The Young Turks: The Committee of Union and Progress in Turkish Politics, 1908-1914 he writes that he is working on a sequel to cover the war years. His faculty page at T.C. Yeditepe Üniversitesi also lists a work, Turkey and the First World War, 1914-1918 as forthcoming. There have been a few recent books on the role of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, but one by Feroz Ahmad could be the most significant of the crop.

For a student such as myself, the next few years are on a course to be promising ones.

Update, 19 May 2013: And Sean McMeekin’s forthcoming book on the Russian Revolution of 1917 will focus heavily on financial aspects as well.

Update, 26 March 2015: Jennifer Siegel’s For Peace and Money: French and British Finance in the Service of Tsars and Commissars was published by Oxford University Press in December of 2014. According to his page at Harvard, Hassan Malik’s Bankers and Bolsheviks: International Finance and the Russian Revolution, 1892-1922 is under contract to be published by Princeton University Press in 2016.

Inflation on the Gold Standard

Oh, hey, look, the U.S. post war gold bullion standard did not prevent inflation. It just meant that gold and the currency inflated together at the fixed rate. In fact, it was in part the high inflation of the late 1960s and early 1970s that forced the U.S. off the gold standard in 1971.

"Inflation's Stubborn Resistance," Time, Vol. 96, No. 24, 14 December 1970

Inflation’s Stubborn Resistance,” Time, Vol. 96, No. 24, 14 December 1970, pp. 102-112.

Via Neil Irwin, The Alchemists: Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire (New York: Penguin Press, 2013), p. 65.

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Squelch ‘Em

There are two major points — one lesser, one greater — to Neal Stephenson’s In the Beginning … was the Command Line (Wikipedia | Amazon). The lesser point serves to feed the superiority complex of computer geeks, namely that people who work closer to the machine are more awesome than people who work with their machines through layers of mediation. The greater point is that maintaining a high degree of control of the devices that shape our lives is a critical element of freedom in the information age.

It’s not about turning your nose up at GUIs and other user-friendly efforts in favor of arcane monochrome text interfaces. The point is that when you cede control of the devices that comprise your environment — that serve as the basis of your personal capabilities — when you cede these to manufacturers, marketers, designers, content providers, legislators, then the limits they seek to impose become your limits as well.

It is as extending and impacting this point that I think Cory Doctorow’s talk, “The Coming War on General Computation” is so important (28th Chaos Communication Congress, Berliner Congress Center, Berlin, Germany, 27 December 2011).

You should definitely watch the whole thing: it’s entertaining as well as one of the most cogent talks I’ve heard in some time. To me his outstanding points are two:

1. The never-ending desire for a certain kind of ease of use that comes through circumscribed functionality is an invitation to, a kind of lazy collusion with, the likes of Apple who are more than happy to sell you a device hobbled in a way that maximizes corporate returns (the walled garden):

So today we have marketing departments who say things like “we don’t need computers, we need … appliances. Make me a computer that doesn’t run every program, just a program that does this specialized task, like streaming audio, or routing packets, or playing Xbox games, and make sure it doesn’t run programs that I haven’t authorized that might undermine our profits”. And on the surface, this seems like a reasonable idea — just a program that does one specialized task — after all, we can put an electric motor in a blender, and we can install a motor in a dishwasher, and we don’t worry if it’s still possible to run a dishwashing program in a blender. But that’s not what we do when we turn a computer into an appliance. We’re not making a computer that runs only the “appliance” app; we’re making a computer that can run every program, but which uses some combination of rootkits, spyware, and code-signing to prevent the user from knowing which processes are running, from installing her own software, and from terminating processes that she doesn’t want. In other words, an appliance is not a stripped-down computer — it is a fully functional computer with spyware on it out of the box.

2. Media copyright is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the incentive of corporations to turn to political-legislative attempts to prevent the disruptions to their business models that result from technological change:

And even this is a shadow of what is to come. After all, this was the year in which we saw the debut of open sourced shape files for converting AR-15s to full automatic. This was the year of crowd-funded open-sourced hardware for gene sequencing. And while 3D printing will give rise to plenty of trivial complaints, there will be judges in the American South and Mullahs in Iran who will lose their minds over people in their jurisdiction printing out sex toys. The trajectory of 3D printing will most certainly raise real grievances, from solid state meth labs, to ceramic knives.

And it doesn’t take a science fiction writer to understand why regulators might be nervous about the user-modifiable firmware on self-driving cars, or limiting interoperability for aviation controllers, or the kind of thing you could do with bio-scale assemblers and sequencers. Imagine what will happen the day that Monsanto determines that it’s really… really… important to make sure that computers can’t execute programs that cause specialized peripherals to output organisms that eat their lunch… literally. Regardless of whether you think these are real problems or merely hysterical fears, they are nevertheless the province of lobbies and interest groups that are far more influential than Hollywood and big content are on their best days, and every one of them will arrive at the same place — “can’t you just make us a general purpose computer that runs all the programs, except the ones that scare and anger us? Can’t you just make us an Internet that transmits any message over any protocol between any two points, unless it upsets us?”

The way to think of all of this is as akin to the transition from feudalism to capitalism. There’s no reason to think that an information economy will be just more capitalism (to think so is a contribution to capitalism as the end of history). That a growing list of industries face disruption on a scale where it’s hard to see their business model surviving in absence of ever escalating state measures to construct markets that otherwise would fail (a point well made by Mr. Doctorow with his wheels analogy) suggests significant incompatibility between capitalism and the information economy.

The retort of the defender of capitalism here would be that the information economy is a creature of capitalism — without chip fabricators and integraters and intellectual property and venture capital and server farms, the information economy doesn’t happen. But of course the feudal baron would have said the same of the capitalist upstart. History is a realm of contingency. It is not a logical system. Contradictions — and the deleterious eddies that result — are perfectly possible. That the information economy might end up destroying the very basis for its existence is within the realm of possibility.

Or perhaps this is perfectly compatible with capitalism and effected sectors are merely the cracks through which we can see the lie of laissez-faire throughout the rest of the economy. The government takes a heavy hand in constructing markets everywhere they exist.

But the point is that previous economic transformations weren’t tranquil evolutions, didn’t happen in a discrete moment. The social transformations that we today package under the rubric “capitalism” benefitted some, but came at terrible consequence to others. Those who stood to lose prestige, revenue, power, opposed these changes, frequently by violence. For them, capitalism wasn’t just social change, it was immoral. Ownership of property by those who did not directly fight for it, property as a transferable abstraction, rootlessness, equality among the classes, attacks upon the ancient privileges of nobility, the undermining of seigniorial obligation, the money economy, the violations of guild oaths, the codification of techne (craft), the insolence of entrepreneurs: these were violations of the moral order of society.

The practices that have grown up around the frictionlessness of the information economy’s core commodities are called piracy by the partisans of our present order. It is immoral. It is theft of property (property is here an analogy growing threadbare at the margins from being stretched too much). It is the collapse of the basis of prosperity. But how is a system of constant content theft to be harnessed to our system of material progress? I haven’t the foggiest notion. But capitalism too was a post hoc ideological construct. At the time it seemed like the end of the world. Remember that by the time Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, such processes were already far along. Smith wasn’t envisioning future pin factories: he was describing existent ones that he had recently visited.

Besides, if it is not within the scope of power to achieve these things, it does not matter the machinations of ideology. Ideology adapts. Moral and immoral will be renamed to accommodate the new arrangement of factors.

Rolling Back the Twentieth Century Watch: Abolish the FDIC

Rortybomb, like most of blue America, originated in red America and maintains ties there that give him an occasional finger on the pulse. He reports on how many fathoms the fever swamp (Konczal, Mike, “Things I’m Reading, 12/22,” Rortybomb, 22 December 2009):

Visiting home for the holidays, it’s amazing to me how certain groups of friends, who I mostly considered in the generic Republicans/conservatives camp, have been wading deeper into the Ron Paul territory. “Abolish the Fed” is one thing, but what surprised me the most was when I was at a Christmas party several people mentioned, fairly out of nowhere, how bad FDIC is for the economy. I think they thought that regular depositors could have done a better job vetting financial institutions than major sophisticated shareholders. When I tried to point out how if there wasn’t FDIC and millions of savings accounts were getting wiped out in ordinary bank runs we’d almost certainly have a wave of turn-of-the-last-century style violence that is hard for us to even imagine now — think bomb throwing anarchist violence — they seemed to be ok with that.

The Continuance of the Savings Glut

With President Obama in China and the issue of the dollar-renminbi exchange rate presumably on the agenda, there has been a great deal of commentary about the threatening peril of the Chinese savings glut1. Here was Paul Krugman late in October on how the savings glut — the condition and a leading cause of the 2007-2008 financial crisis — remains unabated, continuing to propagate its distortions throughout the world economy2:

Until around 2001, you could argue that [the target value of the yuan was reasonable]: China’s overall trade position wasn’t too far out of balance. From then onward, however, the policy of keeping the yuan-dollar rate fixed came to look increasingly bizarre. First of all, the dollar slid in value, especially against the euro, so that by keeping the yuan / dollar rate fixed, Chinese officials were, in effect, devaluing their currency against everyone else’s. Meanwhile, productivity in China’s export industries soared; combined with the de facto devaluation, this made Chinese goods extremely cheap on world markets.

The result was a huge Chinese trade surplus. If supply and demand had been allowed to prevail, the value of China’s currency would have risen sharply. But Chinese authorities didn’t let it rise. They kept it down by selling vast quantities of the currency, acquiring in return an enormous hoard of foreign assets, mostly in dollars, currently worth about $2.1 trillion.

Many economists, myself included, believe that China’s asset-buying spree helped inflate the housing bubble, setting the stage for the global financial crisis. But China’s insistence on keeping the yuan / dollar rate fixed, even when the dollar declines, may be doing even more harm now.

Although there has been a lot of doomsaying about the falling dollar, that decline is actually both natural and desirable. America needs a weaker dollar to help reduce its trade deficit, and it’s getting that weaker dollar as nervous investors, who flocked into the presumed safety of U.S. debt at the peak of the crisis, have started putting their money to work elsewhere.

But China has been keeping its currency pegged to the dollar — which means that a country with a huge trade surplus and a rapidly recovering economy, a country whose currency should be rising in value, is in effect engineering a large devaluation instead.

And that’s a particularly bad thing to do at a time when the world economy remains deeply depressed due to inadequate overall demand. By pursuing a weak-currency policy, China is siphoning some of that inadequate demand away from other nations, which is hurting growth almost everywhere.

For thirty years now the prevailing grand social bargain in the United States has been that outsourcing and offshoring will be the means whereby capital will capture an increased portion of national income and the resultant consumer goods price deflation will substitute for the also resultant wage stagnation. In shorthand, this might be called the Reagan Revolution, though Reagan only brokered the deal. The conditions that gave rise to parties militating against the preceding post-war social bargain lay much deeper in the structure of the post-war international order. This social bargain is the basis of the financial problems of the U.S. as well as of the China problem.

The savings glut is not merely a problem with China, but in its Chinese component it is driven by two factors, neither of which is likely to be resolved by U.S. action. First, owing to population growth and the massive migration from rural farms to urban wage labor, China needs to create around 25 million new jobs per year. The memory of Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989 remains potent in the mind of Chinese Communist Party officials. It is widely believed among Chinese officials that preventing a repeat of the unrest of 1989 and hence the survival of the Party depends on the ability of the Chinese economy to provide jobs for these millions, preventing them from becoming a mass of disaffected urban unemployed. Second, the savings glut exists as a part of China’s long-term grand strategy of pursing peaceful development first and regional political realignment only once they have attained sufficient economic and military weight. For the U.S., the G-8, the IMF or whoever to ask China to abandon its policy of undervaluing the renminbi is to ask the Chinese government to commit suicide and to accept their second-tier world-political status; it is to ask them to run the highest order of political risk as an act of charity to the rest of the world. We cannot rely on China doing the U.S. any macroeconomic favors here. The only way to eliminate the macroeconomic conditions of the next financial crisis is to get our own house in order.

On the right and amidst the Lou Dobbs crowd you here these constant sidelong remarks about China holding the strings of America’s economic future. But this is not the result of some insidious plot on the part of China to acquire a financial WMD stuffed full of T-bills for deployment against the U.S. at some opportune occasion (like a WMD, to actually use it would result in mutually assured destruction). This is result of the Wal-Mart low-wage, low prices, long supply chain model of doing business (surprise: the day-to-day purchasing decisions of millions of people reach up to the commanding heights of world finance). We can try to brow-beat China to forego the opportunities of the system that we have created, but the origin of that system reaches down into what is now, under the midwifery of the right, claimed as the American way of life. And perhaps we have decided that getting off on a bad foot with the world’s next superpower is preferable to confronting our own economic culture.


  1. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the Director of the IMF, made a speech on the subject in Beijing, The International Monetary System: Reforms to Enhance Stability and Governance, International Finance Forum, Beijing, 16 November 2009; Krugman, Paul, “World Out of Balance,” The New York Times, 16 November 2009, p. A25; Wolf, Martin, “Grim Truths Obama Should Have Told Hu,” Financial Times, 17 November 2009.

  2. Krugman, Paul, “The Chinese Disconnect,” The New York Times, 23 October 2009, p. A35

Political-Economy and Inflation

Paul Krugman devoted his column two weeks ago to the conduct of economic punditry as if the economy were a nineteenth century morality play: sermons about “debasing” the currency, longings for gold, fretting over inflation at the nadir of an economic crisis, a masochistic enthusiasm for “belt tightening” (“Misguided Monetary Mentalities,” The New York Times, 12 October 2009, p. A23). Taking off from this, Matthew Yglesias makes the point about the degree that class-parochial interests play in purportedly objective economic analysis (“The Monetary Hawks,” ThinkProgress, 12 October 2009):

… I would suggest that divergent analysis is in part driven by things that have relatively little to do with analysis. … if we have four or five years of near-zero inflation and 9-10 percent unemployment that will be fine for prosperous middle aged people and devastating to the interests of the poor and the young. Conversely, if we have four or five years of modest unemployment with four or five percent inflation, that will be fine for young people and poor people but potentially detrimental to the interests of wealthy people sitting on large piles of savings. Ultimately, I don’t think it helps the progressive cause to ignore the class / ideological elements to this dispute and just pretend to be engaging in a neutral technocratic dispute about the correct application of the Taylor Rule. What we’re talking about, after all, is decision-making under conditions of moderate uncertainty. What the hawks are proposing to do is to implement a policy that’s extremely attentive to minimizing downside risk to the currently wealthy whereas Krugman is proposing a policy that’s [attentive] to minimizing downside risk for people with below-average labor market prospects.

The problem is that we’ve adopted a manner of speaking about economic issues denuded of any mention of interest. The language of popular economics today is categorical: a strong dollar is good, a week dollar is bad; stable prices are good, inflation is bad; low unemployment is good, high unemployment is bad; rising house prices are good, stagnating or falling house prices are bad; et cetera. But none of these factors are categorically good or bad (few things in life are). What is omitted is the “for whom” of these characterizations of good and bad. Low employment may be good for job seekers, but high unemployment is good for employers: they have their pick of workers when hiring and they hold the majority of the bargaining power in wage negotiations. A strong dollar may be good for Wal Mart and their customers, but it’s bad for General Motors and their employees.

Real estate maintains some knowledge of contraposition with their talk of a buyers’ market versus a sellers’ market. We do not speak with a similar respect to the value of the dollar: of an investors’ dollar (strong) versus a producers’ dollar (weak) or an importers’ dollar (strong) versus an exporters’ dollar (weak). Or in employment, some people might think getting a raise or ease in finding a job are good, but these are what someone else might call labor price inflation (bad).

Economics isn’t free of the language of interest per se, so much as of one particular set of interests. The propaganda victory of the economic interests of Wall Street, the investing class, large business is so complete that their economic preferences have become de facto the whole language of economics. The awareness of the interests of all other economic actors has been totally expunged from the language of economics — well, not totally: there is the disciplinary ghetto referred to as heterodox economics, an exception that proves the rule.

To have asserted control over the linguistic territory is to have banished the political dispute; to have disappeared from the lexicon is to have ceded political legitimacy. Disputes over the political mixture of the interests of one economic class versus those of another are no longer about one set of economic relations versus another, but now take place in the frame of a rational economic order versus chaos, unreason and decline.

A firm separation between economics in its positivist, scientific role and economics in its normative, polemical and political role should be vigorously policed. Or perhaps economics is simply to value-laden, too embedded in the hurly-burley of human affairs for such a division to be tenable. Perhaps we should dispense with the notion of economics as a hard science in favor of a thoroughgoing political-economy. Even if we admit the possibility of a purely positivist economics, all that economics can do in our political deliberations is serve as a speculative tallyman of the opportunity costs of various policy options. The primacy of politics should come to the fore whenever economics crosses over from the academy to the public realm.

Target values for economic factors represent a political compromise between contending societal factions. The most well known of these is the NAIRU, the trade-off between inflation and unemployment codified in the statutory guidance of most of the world’s central banks. But inflation isn’t an unqualified evil. Its primary evils are that it has a tendency to run-away and, related, that it breeds uncertainty (a certain anticipatable regularity to the future is necessary to the function of capitalism). It used to be well known amidst the working (and indebted) classes that a certain amount of inflation served their interest and that “sound money” was merely the rallying cry of the investor class. The class conflict of easy versus sound money used to be a significant fault line separating progressive from conservative, populist from whig. Hence the advocacy of arch-populist William Jennings Bryan of an inflationary policy of bimetallism or “free silver” in the election of 1896.

There’s talk today about how vile it would be for the government to attempt to inflate away its debt (“debasing the currency” they call it), but the government doesn’t only inflate away its debt, it inflates away all dollar-denominated debts. A couple of years of higher than target inflation might be good for a country that has seen twenty years of galloping gains for the investor class, but racked up unsustainable amounts of debt among the middle and working classes. The investing class would scream bloody murder, but not because 3-5% inflation would be the end of economic reality as we know it, but because it would be a wealth transfer from creditor to debtor.

The Last Days of Nature

In reaction to last week’s The New Yorker article on synthetic biology (Specter, Michael, “A Life Of Its Own,” 28 September 2009, pp. 56-65):

The objective of synthetic biology is the final subsumption of the logic of nature into the logic of capitalism. Capitalism being the logic of human desire, the objective of synthetic biology is — as with the whole of the technological endeavor — the elimination of all intercession between desire and its fulfillment. It is the attempt to return to the purity of the hallucination of the breast, to do away with despised reality testing, the creation of a world of pure subjectivity.

For a cyberpunk rereading of Hegel: Freud as the last of the Young Hegelians.

Who Screwed Up the 1970s?

The standard narrative of the stagflation of the 1970s is the one that the right has advanced. The left has no countervailing narrative. In that of the right, the economic doldrums of the ’70s can be squarely hung round the neck of liberals: in the simplified version, because of the welfare state, no further explanation required; in the more complicated one, the inability to choose between the guns of Vietnam or the butter of the Great Society, of Keynesian fine tuning and oil shocks resulting from liberal pussyfooting around in foreign policy. The hero of this narrative is Ronald Reagan who unwound twenty years of leftist regulation and redistribution, unleashing the U.S. economy to do what it does best.

As a liberal, this is the narrative against which I must justify my policy preferences, but more basically, I think it just simplifies a much more complex story. As an example, when Reason, a right-of-center libertarian publication, decides to hold a colloquium on the renewed threat of stagflation, which president do they put on the cover as the personification of the memory of the inflation of the 1970s? Gerald R. Ford:

Reason Magazine, October 2009, President Gerald Ford as the poster-boy for inflation

Poor Gerald Ford: an honorable man whose best association is Chevy Chase spoofs from Saturday Night Live of him tumbling down the airstairs.

It should be recalled that Reagan’s first run for the presidency consisted of his failed challenge to incumbent Ford for the 1976 Republican nomination, and that the real bête-noire of the Ford-Kissinger foreign policy was not the Democrats or the left, but the anti-détente, anti-arms control neoconservatives and elements of the right who found their political figurehead after Barry Goldwater in Ronald Reagan. It should also be recalled that the policy maker credited with the defeat of the inflation of the 1970s is then Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, a Carter appointee, rather dishonorably shown the door for his efforts by President Reagan in favor of Alan Greenspan.

Michael Lind’s Unified Theory of U.S. Political-Economic Grand Strategy

On Friday, 24 July 2009 I went to see a New America Foundation panel discussion of The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free, by Christopher Preble, the Director of Foreign Policy Studies at CATO. Mr. Preble is, along with Andrew Bacevich, Robert Jervis, Christopher Layne and others, a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy. It was a very Coalition-y event, with a panel comprised of ideological misfits amidst our ill-representative bipolar political spectrum. At one point Mr. Preble felt it necessary to state that people think he’s a Republican because he works at CATO, but that he is not.

I’m a fan of Mr. Preble, and a swath of other of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy thinkers. I have previously made Preble’s point with respect to Gareth Porter’s book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (“Militarism: Loose It or Use It,” 3 February 2008). Mr. Porter’s book is a specific case study of Mr. Preble’s point with respect to the Vietnam War era.

What interested me most about this discussion was Michael Lind’s comments. When his turn came, off the cuff Mr. Lind spun one of the most trenchant, compelling and unified analyses of the last century of U.S. grand strategy I’ve ever encountered. Without saying it in so many words Mr. Lind shows how the present economic crisis is a systematic crisis resulting from the evolutions of an international system that is the product of a U.S. grand strategic and international political-economic bargain decided upon coming out of the interwar crisis years and the outbreak of the Second World War.1

A transcript of the relevant sections of Mr. Lind’s comments, as well as editor’s notes, follow (Mr. Lind’s comments are 0:43:03-1:00:15, I excerpt his comments starting at 0:45:11):

Michael Lind, Gordon Adams, Christopher Preble, Michael Cohen, The Power Problem, New America Foundation, Washington, D.C., 24 July 2009

I think if you look at both our national security policy and our global economic strategy — and there is one — these two things are not completely unrelated even though they’re usually discussed as though they’re on separate planets — you can understand both by referring to four countries, which happen to be the other four great powers or greatest powers: Germany, Japan, Russia and China. You can’t understand out national security strategy or our trade policies without thinking about these countries in particular.

First our national security strategy. As many people have pointed out — this is simply the standard interpretation2 — our foreign policy during the Cold War was one of dual containment. We were containing four countries, not just two. We weren’t just containing the Soviet Union and communist China, but we were also containing post-1945 West Germany and post 1945 Japan. And the reason the U.S. adopted this hegemonic global military strategy — which was not what it had intended in World War II. In the course of World War II the Roosevelt Administration in its planning assumed you would have a three power world, essentially the British, the Soviets and the Americans and that Chan Kai Check would govern China as a satellite of the Americans.

But in the Cold War this all broke down. And what evolved was a system in which the Germans and Japanese would be permanently demilitarized. Their security would be provided unilaterally by the United States. You can call it NATO, but it would essentially be a unilateral offer of guarantee for this disarmed Japan and this disarmed West Germany. At the same time the Soviet Union and China — which late in the Cold War became a geopolitical ally of the U.S. — would be contained, they would be outside of the system. And we would be protecting Japan and Germany — Japan from both China and the Soviet Union and Germany from the Soviet Union.

Now, what does that have to do with economics? There was a deal implicit in this strategy, which is, okay Germany and Japan you have this massive military industrial complex and unlike after World War I we’re not going to have punitive reparations and so on to bring about some future Hitler as a result of humiliation. We want to rebuild you and integrate you into this American-led system, including a global free trade system, or managed trade system. So the deal is, you don’t make tanks, you make cars, you don’t make guns, you make radios. So you will become civilian manufacturing superpowers and this is in the interest of the United States, at least according to American strategists because this will avert the reemergence of an independent Japanese military great power and an independent (even) West German military great power and the emergence of a multipolar world, with multipolar rivalries, like those of the 1930s.

So the deal, which was taken up more by Japan than by West Germany, which has had fairly liberal trade relationships, both with us and with its neighbors in Europe, was that you export to us and we will turn a blind eye to the fact that you, Japan, use non-tariff barriers to keep our products out of your markets, to the fact that you’re targeting particular industries in the U.S., to the fact that you’re hiring lobbyists in Washington to promote your industrial strategy in the 70s and 80s. We will turn a blind eye because we’re willing to sacrifice certain American industries — and here the libertarians part from my interpretation — we will sacrifice certain American industries in order to keep you part of the U.S. Cold War coalition and we will tolerate things that if we were not military allies and protectors we would never put up with. And so that was basically the pattern.

Now, the end of the Cold War comes along. There was a fascinating debate. I was sort of on the sidelines of it as executive editor of The National Interest, Irving Kristol’s foreign policy magazine by the way, back in the early 1990s, late 1980s. And you had the America first isolationists, you had the balance of power school, there were the liberal internationalists and so it was a fascinating debate. It was all shut down in the aftermath of the Gulf War and we’ve had the de facto basic same strategy under both Clinton and Bush and now under Obama — with the exception of the more aggressive neoconservatives slant.

And the decision was made — it sort of evolved, you know, it’s not a conspiratorial thing, but this became the new consensus after the Gulf War in 1991 — the decision was made we will continue the policy of dual containment. In other words, we’re not going to rethink it. We’re not going to say oaky, NATO, we’re going to admit Russia and turn it a concert of power, or we’re going to get rid of it, we’re going to come up with a new system and bring in the Chinese. No, basically we will continue to be Japan’s protector nation and South Korea’s, we will maintain these Cold War alliances and we will maintain NATO, which will be expanded, for fear — and I’m simply reporting, I’m not endorsing this because I agree, I think, with everyone on this panel that a certain paranoia has driven all of this — for fear that after reunification Germany would emerge as a Fourth Reich, this sort of lose canon neo-militaristic power. And so the geostrategic purpose for the expansion of NATO, it served both of the goals of dual containment after the Gulf War. You push NATO all the way up to the borders of a weakened, post-imperial Russia so you’re still containing Russia, no longer the Soviet Union, but the Russian Republic. And at the same time, you’ve embedded Germany even more deeply in this system of U.S. alliances, of hegemonic alliances.

It’s not a traditional alliance system. Traditional alliance system is more like the allies in World War I, World War II. … The American alliance system is a hegemonic system. We expect nothing, really, in return. They’re essentially client states and protectorates, most of our so-called allies. They’re not actual equal partners. We will protect them for what we perceive as out interest in a world order that’s beneficial to us. They really don’t have to do anything in return to protect us. But we don’t see this as charity, at least the establishment. This is promoting a world order.

We maintain this dual containment system after the Cold War. Paul Wolfowitz and others had a name for it in the early 1990s some of you may recall from stories in the New York Times and elsewhere.3 It was called Reassurance. That was the initial [name] during the first Bush administration. This was called the Reassurance Doctrine. We would reassure the other great powers of the world that because we would look after their geopolitical interests, they would not need to rearm and they could continue to devote their economic energy — in fact, George W. Bush said this at Westpoint in [2002].4 He said the other countries should concentrate basically on trade and we will maintain these enormous strengths [crosstalk]. My point is, this is not a crazy idea. I think all of us would agree that this is flawed and ultimately doomed, but there is a system here.

My final point in analyzing this consensus system is the economic counterpart since the Gulf War. And this is a system called Bretton Woods II. Bretton Woods II is the term that economists use for this very strange global economic order that evolved in the last twenty years. In which American consumers went into debt in order to purchase goods from primarily China. China has, at least up until the crash, 90 percent of the non-oil trade deficit with the United States. But even before China moved up in this decade, it was East Asian countries,5 to a lesser extent Germany in Europe. So you get this very odd system where the United States is the consumer market of first resort for the other three leading market or quasi-market economies of the world, which today are Japan, China and Germany. Japan, China and Germany all have substantial merchandise trade surpluses. The United States has had an ever growing merchandise trade [deficit].

When you read these discussions taking place on economy planet and national security planet, without the frame of reference to the bargain here it’s just kind of missing the point. There was a geopolitical bargain underlying America’s offer of unilateral access to U.S. markets, particularly to Japan which practices a fairly sophisticated form of mercantilism at the expense of U.S. exports. And then after the cold war the elites in the United States decided to extend this to China.

This brings us up to the present and why this system is collapsing before our very eyes. What worked for Japan, a country much smaller than the United States, they could trade with us while protecting their markets from American exports. This cannot work, that export-oriented model was doomed the moment China, the world’s most populous nation adopted it. There are simply not enough first word consumers in the U.S., or in the U.S., the E.U. and Japan put together, to accommodate all of the stuff that first China and now India are capable of doing. In that sense this bargain is doomed. This is one of the underlying reasons for this crash, because China would not have had these enormous dollar surpluses — some of the oil-exporting countries would have, but China would not have — had it had a more demand-oriented domestic consumption driven policy. It’s this export-oriented policy that allowed it to accumulate these dollar surpluses and indirectly, through purchasing American debt, for reasons we need not get into, but that also helped their exports, enabling American consumers to go on this binge which then helped build up what is really gross overcapacity in Chinese manufacturing.6 So this system has crashed now. It’s not coming back. … It’s run into its limits. So Bretton Woods II is dead as a global economic system. There is no other domestic consumer market, apart from the U.S., that is capable of accommodating all of the export capacity, not only of China, but of Japan and even Germany, which has trade surpluses with all its European neighbors.7

So how does this effect security policy? Well, my prediction is that the costs of digging our way out of this collapsed 1990s, 2000s post 1992 global economic system, which again rested on this geopolitical bargain between the U.S. and these potentially threatening great powers, except for Russia, which is becoming more and more of a resource power, but it was the other three major industrial great powers: China, Japan and Germany. We’re simply not going to be able to afford a military that’s at four of five percent, particularly a military which had as its actual purpose — and let me wrap up just by saying this — the actual purpose if you read Michael Mandelbaum, who wrote a very good book setting forth what I think is the establishment position,8 I’d recommend it to everybody, if you want a view from the inside. [crosstalk]

But he says the real reason we have this giant military is not because we need all these aircraft carriers in order to prevent jihadists from sneaking into the U.S. and getting on airplanes. We don’t actually need this giant army to deal with the North Koreans or this or that rogue state. Rogue states and terrorists — which are real problems I’m not diminishing this I may take them more seriously than some of the other people up here, I mean they’re problems.

If you look at the structure of our military, it is designed to intimidate China, Germany and Japan and Russia if they even think about rearming. That’s why we have the size of the military. Because it’s grossly oversized if you actually want to fight jihadists and AFPAC. But when people come out and say — as President George W. Bush is — that’s the purpose of our military: no one should even think about competing with our capabilities. Well, who’s thinking about competing with the capabilities of the U.S. military? A bunch of guys in suburbs or a cave in Afghanistan, Pakistan? No. We know what the countries are, the ones that can never be named as objects of U.S. Strategy: China, Germany, Russia, Japan.

I’ll end with a prediction. The collapse of Bretton Woods II is going to bring down this Reassurance strategy by creating a fiscal crisis for the American state, of which we are in the early stages because of the enormous debt from the bailout, combined with, if we avoid future bubbles, a fairly slow rate of growth. And this is going to create enormous political conflict in the United States. The defenders of the Pentagon — of whom I am one — I don’t want to cut to dangerous levels — but there’s going to be a battle between the Pentagon and the American Association of Retired Persons over if we’re going to cut government spending by two or three percent, is it going to come out of the Pentagon budget or are we going to slash Social Security … or are we going to slash and reform Medicare. And so my money is on the old people.

Editor’s Notes

  1. A thumb-nail sketch of this history: The formative political experience for the Second World War and early post war foreign policy establishment was the failure of Wilsonianism in the Interbellum years: the Great Depression, the downward spiral of beggar-thy-neighbor economic policies, the rise of fascism and militarism, the intensification of great power competition leading to a repeat of “the war to end all wars” and the eventual need for the United States to return to Europe for a second major war within 25 years. The post-war international system that these people — Harry Truman, George Marshall, Dean Acheson, George Kennan, Paul Nitze, Harry Dexter White; in Europe: John Maynard Keynes, Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Ernest Bevin — created was only partly spurred by suspicions of the Soviet Union. Its other motivating force was the avoidance of a third repeat of the pattern of world war that dominated the first half of the Twentieth Century. That system consisted of the suppression of great power competition under the political-military preponderance of the United States as the just guarantor of international order, combined with with market — and market only — based access to resources under a pseudo-legal international economic order in the IMF, the IBRD (World Bank) and GATT, eventually WTO. Already by 1960 this system was being challenged by a world recovering from the devastation of World War (Arthur Schlesinger reported that President Kennedy often said that “the two things which scared him most were nuclear weapons and the payments deficit”). For a decade the United States fought a rear-guard action to uphold its obligations, until the strain of guns and butter (the Vietnam war era inflation and current account deficit) lead the Nixon administration end the Bretton Woods policy of dollar-gold convertability on 15 August 1971.

    What followed was a period of monetary instability and a number of ad hoc attempts to remedy it — the Smithsonian Agreement (1971), The European Snake (1972), The Exchange Rate Mechanism (1979), the Plaza Accord (1985) — as well as a period of financial crises of increasing of increasing size and scope — the Latin American Debt Crisis of 1982-1985, the June 1982 ERM realignment and François Mitterrand’s liberal turn in the face of intense dollar-Deutche mark pressure on the franc, The Mexican peso crisis of 1994, the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-98. All of these developments are evolutions of a system of dollar hegemony. Throughout this period the current account deficit grew in fits and starts, leading to the current crisis, whose primary cause is the faltering of the United States in its attempts to prop up the world economy by turning its consumer base into the buyer of last resort and mopping up the worlds excess money in its current account, consumer and fiscal debts.

    For my part, whatever its failings, this system has obvious competitive advantages over what came before it. Mr. Preble ends the session saying, “Power held by others is something to be welcomed, not feared.” I’m not so sure about that. There is, however, one failing with which I cannot argue: as Mr. Lind’s said, that of its being doomed.

  2. E.g. this is the interpretation of the reigning standard work on the early Cold War formation of U.S. grand strategy, Melvyn Leffler’s A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992).

  3. Tyler, Patrick E., “U.S. Strategy Plan Calls for Insuring No Rivals Develop,” The New York Times, 8 March 1992, p. A1. The document in question was the Defense Planning Guidance of 1992, early drafts of which were leaked to the New York Times. At the time, the Secretary of Defense was Dick Cheney. Mr. Wolfowitz was Undersecretary of Defense for Policy in the Pentagon. Secretary Wolfowitz had delegated the job of writing the document to his deputy, Scooter Libby, who had in turn delegated it to Zalmy Khalilzad. Participants in the discussions surrounding the Defense Planning Guidance included DOD Office of Net Assessment head Andrew Marshall and independent defense intellectuals Richard Perle and Albert Wohlstetter. These are the usual suspects. A subsequent, whitewashed Planning document omitting the language of dual containment was released as the official, final version, Tyler, Patrick E., “Pentagon Drops Goal of Blocking New Superpowers,” The New York Times, 24 May 1992, p. A1. See Mann, James, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet (New York: Viking, 2004), pp. 208-215.

  4. Bush, Jr., George W. “Commencement Address at the United States Military Academy at West Point,” West Point, New York, 1 June 2002, (accessed 26 July 2009). The key passage would be as follows:

    Competition between great nations is inevitable, but armed conflict in our world is not. More and more, civilized nations find ourselves on the same side — united by common dangers of terrorist violence and chaos. America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge (applause) thereby, making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.

    While overt talk of the strategy of hegemony was originally suppressed in the Defense Planning Guidance of 1992 (supra, note 1), after September 11th, 2001, the neoconservative element in the administration was ascendant, peoples’ sensitivities to bald talk diminished and the strategy became overt in the September 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States. Sanger, David E., “Bush to Outline Doctrine of Striking Foes First,” The New York Times, 20 September 2002, p. A1.

  5. Mr. Lind is here telling the long history of the present crisis. The intermediate history goes back to the dot-com bubble and the developing nation foreign direct investment bubble, precipitating the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998, on which I have previously commented (“The Committee to Save the World, Ten Years On,” 26 March 2008).

  6. The idea that capitalism has entered a phase of overcapacity and hence perilously declining profit margins can be found in its most Marxist “propensity of capitalism to crisis” version in the two works of Robert Brenner, The Economics of Global Turbulence (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2006) and The Boom and the Bubble: The U.S. in the World Economy (W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), both based on his special issue of New Left Review, “The Economics of Global Turbulence,” series I, no. 229, May-June 1998. Similar theories can be found in more mainstream versions in Robert Reich’s Supercapitalism (New York: Knopf, 2007) which draws heavily upon John Kenneth Galbraith’s The New Industrial State (Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1967).

  7. The unnamed theory behind Mr. Lind’s reasoning about the current crisis is that of the “savings glut” (or alternately, demand dearth) advocated by, among others, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke “The Global Saving Glut and the U.S. Current Account Deficit” (Virginia Association of Economics, Richmond, Virginia, 14 April 2005) and Financial Times economic correspondent Martin Wolf, first in his special comment and analysis column, e.g. “The Paradox of Thrift: Excess Savings Are Storing up Trouble for the World Economy,” Financial Times, 13 June 2005, then in his book, Fixing Global Finance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008). I’m tempted to say something to the effect that in these articles you have the “economy planet” whose orbit never crosses that of “national security planet,” of which Mr. Lind spoke — that the grand-strategic bargain underlying the savings glut is never addressed — but in the 2005 piece, Mr. Wolf writes:

    True, the huge current account deficit gives the US the happy combination of guns and butter in the short run. Since the external deficit is bigger than the fiscal deficit and also bigger than the amount that the US is spending on its armed forces, either of these can be regarded as a free lunch, if only for the moment.

  8. Mandelbaum, Michael, The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World’s Government in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Public Affairs, 2005)

Photograph, left to right, Michael Lind, Gordon Adams, Christopher Preble, Michael Cohen; courtesy of the New America Foundation; used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

The Hegemony of Neoliberalism

A roundup of some recent thinking on the hegemony of neoliberalism:

  1. Taking off from what Matthew Yglesias calls “Prestige Cross-Pollination1 and Ezra Klein “The Tyranny of the Economists,”2 Mike Konczal at RortyBomb relates of the,

    … “credibility gap” between sociologists and economists, even when they deploy the same methods, when it comes to the public debate over the issues we face.3

    It helps to have a paradigm, and in recent years economics has rather forcefully acquired one.4

  2. In his review of Steven Teles’s new book, The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement,5 Henry Farrell makes a brief assessment of the state of the tyranny of the bureaucracy:

    If you win the technocrats (and [the law and economics movement] arguably has won the technocrats), then you very nearly have won the entire game.6

    This strikes me as about true. The shift rightward of the economics and policy intelligentsia since the New Frontier / Great Society heyday of Keynesian fine tuning has played a significant part in the general right-ward drift of the polity. There aren’t exactly dais upon dais of unreconstructed Keynesians offering policy makers intellectual cover on the Sunday morning shows.

  3. Via Charles Mudede7, Steven Shaviro reacts to Peter Ward’s new book, The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive?8 Using the purported instability of ecological systems — one of the paradigm cases of self-organization — Mr. Shaviro sets himself against emergence, evolution, complexity, network theory, et al. He identifies Friedrich Hayek as one of the key thinkers of self-organization — the market would be one of the other paradigm cases —

    But the most significant and influential thinker of self-organisation in the past century was undoubtedly Friedrich Hayek, the intellectual progenitor of neoliberalism. … inspired by both cybernetics and biology, Hayek claimed that the “free market” was an ideal mechanism for coordinating all the disparate bits of knowledge that existed dispersed throughout society, and negotiating it towards an optimal outcome. Self-organization, operating impersonally and beyond the ken of any particular human agent, could accomplish what no degree of planning or willful human rationality ever could.9

    Friedrich Hayek, cyberneticist.

Combine these three and where are we for policy making and policy debate?

  1. Yglesias, Matthew, “Prestige Cross-PollinationThink Progress, 2 June 2009
  2. Klein, Ezra, “The Tyranny of the Economists,” The Washington Post, 2 June 2009
  3. Konczal, Mike, “Economists, Methods and Government,” RortyBomb, 3 June 2009
  4. The Future of Economics is Here: The Arational and the Irrational,” This is Not a Dinner Party, 28 September 2008
  5. Teles, Steven, The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement: The Battle for Control of the Law (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008)
  6. Farrell, Henry, “Fabians and Gramscians in Law and Economics,” Crooked Timber, 30 April 2009
  7. Mudede, Charles, “Self-Made,” SLOG, The Stranger, 28 May 2009
  8. The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009)
  9. Shaviro, Steven, “Against Self-Organization,” The Pinocchio Theory, 26 May 2009