Can You Save an Economy by Tying It to the Mast of Globalization?

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In 1990, Argentina couldn’t have been in a worse economic mess. In almost perpetual crisis since the seventies, the country reeled under hyperinflation and a crushing debt burden. Incomes had shrunk 25 percent from their levels a decade earlier and private investment had come to a virtual standstill. Prices were rising at unprecedented rates, even by Argentina’s demanding standards. In March 1990, inflation climbed to more than 20,000 percent (on an annualized basis), sowing chaos and confusion. Struggling to cope, Buenos Aires’ world-weary residents took refuge in gallows humor. With prices soaring by the minute, they told themselves, at least it had become cheaper to take a cab than a bus. With the cab you paid at the end of the ride instead of the beginning!

Can You Save an Economy by Tying It to the Mast of Globalization?

Domingo Cavallo thought he knew the real problem. For too long, Argentina’s governments had changed the rules of the game whenever it suited them. Too much governmental discretion had resulted in a complete loss of confidence in Argentine policy makers. The private sector had responded by withholding its investment and fleeing the domestic currency. To restore credibility with domestic and foreign investors, the government needed to commit itself to a clear set of rules. In particular, strict monetary discipline was required to prevent governments from printing money at will.

Cavallo, an economist with a PhD from Harvard, was foreign minister in the administration of President Carlos Menem. He would get the chance to execute his plan when Menem put him in charge of the economy in February 1991. The linchpin of Cavallo’s strategy was the Convertibility Law, which legally anchored the Argentine currency to the U.S. dollar at 1 peso per dollar and prohibited restrictions on foreign payments. The Convertibility Law effectively forced Argentina’s central bank to operate by gold standard rules. Henceforth the domestic money supply could be increased and interest rates lowered only if dollars were flowing into the economy. If dollars were moving the other way, the money supply would have to be cut and interest rates raised. No more mucking around with monetary policy.

In addition, Cavallo accelerated the privatization, deregulation, and opening up of the Argentine economy. He believed open economy rules and deep integration would reinforce business confidence by precluding discretionary interventions and the hijacking of policy by special interests. With policy on automatic pilot, investors would have little fear that the rules would be changed on them. By the early 1990s, Argentina’s record in trade liberalization, tax reform, privatization, and financial reform was second to none in Latin America.

Cavallo envisioned globalization as both a harness and an engine for Argentina’s economy. Globalization provided not just discipline and an effective shortcut to credibility in economic policies. It would also unleash powerful forces to propel the economy forward. With lack of confidence and other transaction costs out of the way, foreign capital would flow into the country, allowing domestic investment to rise and the economy to take off. Imports from abroad in turn would force domestic producers to become more competitive and productive. Deep integration with the world economy would solve Argentina’s short- and long-term problems.

This was the Washington Consensus taken to an extreme, and it turned out to be right about the short term, but not the long term. Cavallo’s strategy worked wonders on the binding constraint of the moment. The Convertibility Law eliminated hyperinflation and restored price stability practically overnight. It generated credibility and confidence — at least for a while — and led to large capital inflows. Investment, exports, and incomes all rose rapidly. As we saw in chapter Six, Argentina became a poster child for multilateral organizations and globalization enthusiasts in the mid-1990s, even though policies like the Convertibility Law had clearly not been part of the Washington Consensus. Cavallo became the toast of the international financial community.

By the end of the decade, the Argentine nightmare had returned with a vengeance. Adverse developments in the world economy set the stage for an abrupt reversal in investors’ views on Argentina. The Asian financial crisis hit the country hard by reducing international money managers’ appetite for emerging markets, but the real killer was the Brazilian devaluation in early 1999. The devaluation reduced the value of the Brazilian currency by 40 percent against the dollar, allowing Brazilian exporters to charge much lower dollar prices on foreign markets. Since Brazil is Argentina’s chief global competitor, Brazil’s cost advantage left the Argentinean peso looking decidedly overvalued. Doubts about Argentina’s ability to service its external debt multiplied, confidence collapsed, and before too long Argentina’s creditworthiness had slid below some African countries’.

Cavallo’s relations with Menem had soured in the meantime and he had left office in 1996. President Fernando de la Rúa, who succeeded Menem, invited Cavallo back to the government in March 2001 in an effort to shore up confidence. Cavallo’s new efforts proved ineffective. When his initial tinkering with the trade and currency regime produced meager results, he was forced to resort to austerity policies and sharp fiscal cutbacks in an economy where one worker out of five was already out of a job. He launched a “zero-deficit” plan in July and enforced it with cuts in government salaries and pensions of up to 13 percent. The financial panic went from bad to worse. Fearing that the peso would be devalued, domestic depositors rushed to pull their money out of banks, which in turn forced the government to limit cash withdrawals.

The fiscal cuts and the restriction on bank withdrawals sparked mass protests. Unions called for nationwide strikes, rioting enveloped major cities, and looting spread. Just before Christmas, Cavallo and de la Rúa resigned in rapid succession. Starved of funds, the Argentinean government was eventually forced to freeze domestic bank accounts, default on its foreign debt, reimpose capital controls, and devalue the peso. Incomes shrunk by 12 percent in 2002, the worst drop in decades. The experiment with hyperglobalization had ended in colossal failure.

What went wrong? The short answer is that domestic politics got in the way of hyperglobalization. The painful domestic economic adjustments required by deep integration did not sit well with domestic constituencies, and politics ultimately emerged victorious.

The Inevitable Clash Between Politics and Hyperglobalization

The economic story behind Argentina’s economic collapse is fairly straightforward in hindsight. Argentina’s policy makers had succeeded in removing one binding constraint — monetary mismanagement — but eventually ran into another — an uncompetitive currency. Had the government abandoned the Convertibility Law or reformed it in favor of a more flexible exchange rate, say in 1996, the confidence crisis that engulfed the country later might have been averted. But Argentina’s policy makers were too wedded to the Convertibility Law. They had sold it to their public as the central plank of their growth strategy, making it virtually impossible to step back. Pragmatism would have served the country better than ideological rigidity.

But there is a deeper political lesson in Argentina’s experience, one that is fundamental to the nature of globalization. The country had bumped against one of the central truths of the global economy: National democracy and deep globalization are incompatible. Democratic politics casts a long shadow on financial markets and makes it impossible for a nation to integrate deeply with the world economy. Britain had learned this lesson in 1931, when it was forced to get off gold. Keynes had enshrined it in the Bretton Woods regime. Argentina overlooked it.

The failure of Argentina’s political leaders was ultimately a matter not of will but of ability. Their commitment to the Convertibility Law and to financial market confidence could not have been doubted. Cavallo knew there was little alternative to playing the game by financial markets’ rules. Under his policies, the Argentine government was willing to abrogate contracts with virtually all domestic constituencies — public employees, pensioners, provincial governments, bank depositors — so as not to skip one cent of its obligations to foreign creditors.

What sealed Argentina’s fate in the eyes of financial markets was not what Cavallo and de la Rúa were doing, but what the Argentine people were willing to accept. Investors and creditors grew increasingly skeptical that the Argentine Congress, provinces, and ordinary people would tolerate austerity policies long discredited in advanced industrial countries. In the end, the markets were right. When globalization collides with domestic politics, the smart money bets on politics.

Remarkably, deep integration cannot sustain itself even when its requirements and goals are fully internalized by a country’s political leadership. For Cavallo, Menem, and de la Rúa, globalization was not a constraint to be respected willy-nilly; it was their ultimate objective. Yet they could not keep domestic political pressure from unraveling their strategy. The lesson for other countries is sobering. If hyperglobalization could not be made to work in Argentina, might it ever work in other settings?

In his ode to globalization, The Lexus and the Olive Tre, Tom Friedman famously described how the “electronic herd” — financiers and speculators who can move billions of dollars around the globe in an instant — forced all nations to don a “Golden Straitjacket.” This defining garment of globalization, he explained, stitched together the fixed rules to which all countries must submit: free trade, free capital markets, free enterprise, and small government. “If your country has not been fitted for one,” he wrote, “it will soon.” When you put it on, he continued, two things happen: “your economy grows, and your politics shrink.” Since globaliza-tion (which to Friedman meant deep integration) does not permit nations to deviate from the rules, domestic politics is reduced to a choice between Coke and Pepsi. All other flavors, especially local ones, are banished.

Friedman was wrong to presume that deep integration rules produce rapid economic growth, as we have already seen. He was also wrong to treat his Golden Straitjacket as an established reality. Few countries’ leaders put on the Golden Straitjacket more willingly than Argentina’s (who then also threw the keys away for good measure). As the unraveling of the Argentine experiment shows, in a democracy, domestic politics win out eventually. The only exceptions are small nations that are already part of a larger political grouping such as the European Union; we will look at the case of Latvia in the next chapter. When push comes to shove, democracy shrugs off the Golden Straitjacket.

Nevertheless, Friedman’s central insight remains valid. There is a fundamental tension between hyperglobalization and democratic politics. Hyperglobalization doesrequire shrinking domestic politics and insulating technocrats from the demands of popular groups. Friedman erred when he overstated the economic benefits of hyperglobalization and underestimated the power of politics. He therefore overestimated the long-run feasibility, as well as desirability, of deep integration.

When Hyperglobalization Impinges on Democratic Choices

We cherish our democracy and national sovereignty, and yet we sign one trade agreement after another and treat free capital flows as the natural order of things. This unstable and incoherent state of affairs is a recipe for disaster. Argentina in the 1990s gave us a vivid and extreme example. However, one does not have to live in a badly governed developing country ravaged by speculative capital flows to experience the tension on an almost daily basis. The clash between globalization and domestic social arrangements is a core feature of the global economy. Consider a few illustrations of how globalization gets in the way of national democracy.

Labor standards. Every advanced economy has detailed regulations that cover employment practices. These regulations dictate who can work, the minimum wage, the maximum hours of work, the nature of working conditions, what the employer can ask the worker to do, and how easily the worker can be fired. They guarantee the worker’s freedom to form unions to represent his or her interests and set the rules under which collective bargaining can take place over pay and benefits.

From a classical liberal standpoint, most of these regulations make little sense. They interfere with an individual’s right to enter into contracts of his or her choosing. If you are willing to work for 70 hours a week below the minimum wage under unsafe conditions and allow the employer to dismiss you at will, why should the state prevent you from accepting such terms? Similarly, if you think it is a good thing for your fourteen-year-old daughter to get a full-time job in a factory, why should the government tell you otherwise? According to classical liberal doctrine, people are the best judge of their own interests (and the interests of their family members), and voluntary contracts, entered freely, must leave both parties better off.

Labor markets were once governed by this doctrine. Since the 1930s, however, U.S. legislation and the courts have recognized that what may be good for an individual worker may not be good for workers as a whole. Without regulations that enforce societal norms of decent work, a prospective employee with little bargaining power may be forced to accept conditions that violate those norms. By accepting such a contract, the employee also makes it harder for other workers to achieve higher labor standards. Thus employers must be prohibited from offering odious contracts even if some workers are willing to accept them. Certain forms of competition have to be ruled out. You may be willing to work for 70 hours a week below the minimum wage. But my employer cannot take advantage of your willingness to work under these conditions and offer my job to you.

Consider how international trade affects this understanding. Thanks to outsourcing, my employer can now do what he previously could not. Domestic labor laws still prohibit him from hiring you in my place and putting me to work under conditions that violate those laws. But this no longer matters. He can now replace me with a worker in Indonesia or Guatemala who will work willingly under those same substandard conditions or worse. To economists, this is not just legal; it is a manifestation of the gains from trade. Yet the consequences for me and my job do not depend on the citizenship of the worker bidding down my labor standards. Why do national regulations protect me from downward competition in employment practices from a domestic worker but not a foreign one? Why should we allow international markets to erode domestic labor regulations through the back door when we do not allow domestic markets to do the same?

The inconsistency is further highlighted by considering whether a society would condone allowing those Indonesian and Guatemalans to be employed at home as guest workers under the same labor standards they face in their native countries. Even most free traders would object to such a practice. There should be a single set of labor standards in a country, they will say, applied to all workers regardless of the passport they carry. But why? Outsourcing jobs through trade has exactly the same consequences, for all concerned, as allowing migrant workers to toil under a lower set of standards.

How significant are these issues in the real world? Less than many labor advocates claim, but more than free traders are willing to admit. Wage levels are determined first and foremost by labor productivity. Differences in productivity account for between 80 to 90 percent of the variation in wages around the world. This puts a significant damper on the potential of outsourcing to undermine employment practices in the advanced countries. An employer’s threat to outsource my job to someone who earns half my wage does not pose much danger to me when that foreign worker also has half my productivity.

But 80 to 90 percent is not 100 percent. The political and social institutions that frame labor markets exert some independent influence on labor earnings, quite separate from the powerful effects of productivity. Labor regulations, unionization levels, and more broadly the political rights exercised by workers shape the bargains between workers and their employers and determine how the economic value created by firms is shared between them. These arrangements can move wage levels up or down in any country by 40 percent or more.6 It is here that outsourcing, or the threat thereof, can play a role. Moving jobs to where workers enjoy fewer rights — or threatening to do so — can be beneficial to employers. Within limits, it can be used as a lever for extracting concessions on wages and employment practices from domestic workers.

There aren’t easy solutions to these conundrums. An employer’s freedom to choose where he wants to operate is a competing value that surely deserves attention. The interests of the Guatemalan or Indonesian workers may collide with the interests of domestic workers. We cannot however pretend that outsourcing does not create serious difficulties for domestic labor standards.

Corporate tax competition. The international mobility of firms and of capital also restricts a nation’s ability to choose the tax structure that best reflects its needs and preferences. In particular, this mobility puts downward pressure on corporate tax rates and shifts the tax burden from capital, which is internationally mobile, to labor, which is much less so.

The logic is obvious and figures regularly in the arguments of those who push for lower taxes on business. Senator John McCain invoked it prominently in his pre-election debate with Barack Obama when he compared America’s corporate tax rate of 35 percent to Ireland’s 11 percent. “Now, if you’re a business person, and you can locate any place in the world,” McCain noted, then obviously “you go to the country where it’s 11 percent tax versus 35 percent.” McCain got his number for Ireland wrong: the Irish corporate tax rate is 12.5 percent, not 11 percent; but note that he accepted (and cherished) the constraint imposed by globalization. It enabled him to fortify his argument for lower taxes by appealing to their inevitability, courtesy of globalization.

There has been a remarkable reduction in corporate taxes around the world since the early 1980s. The average for the member countries of the OECD countries, excluding the United States, has fallen from around 50 percent in 1981 to 30 percent in 2009. In the United States, the statutory tax on capital has come down from 50 percent to 39 percent over the same period. Competition among governments for increasingly mobile global firms — what economists call “international tax competition” — has played a role in this global shift. The arguments of McCain and countless other conservative politicians who have used globalization to advance their agendas provide still more evidence of this role.

A detailed economic study on OECD tax policies finds that when other countries reduce their average statutory corporate tax rate by 1 percentage point the home country follows by reducing its tax rate by 0.7 percentage points. You either stand your ground and risk seeing your corporations depart for lower tax jurisdictions, or you respond in kind. Interestingly, the same study finds that international tax competition takes place only among countries that have removed their capital controls. When such controls are in place, capital and profits cannot move as easily across national borders and there is no downward pressure on capital taxes. The removal of capital controls appears to be the main factor driving the reduction in corporate tax rates since the 1980s.

The problem has become a big enough headache for tax agencies that efforts are under way within the OECD and European Union to identify and roll back instances of so-called “harmful tax competition.” To date, these activities have only focused on tax havens in a number of microstates ranging from Andorra to Vanuatu. The real challenge is to safeguard the integrity of each nation’s corporate tax regime in a world where enterprises and their capital are footloose. This challenge remains unaddressed.

Health and safety standards. Most people would subscribe to the principle that nations ought to be free to determine their own standards with respect to public health and safety. What happens when these standards diverge across countries, either by design or because of differences in their application? How should goods and services be treated when they cross the boundaries of jurisdic-tions with varying standards?

WTO jurisprudence on this question continues to evolve. The WTO allows countries to enact regulations on public health and safety grounds that may run against their general obligations under the trade rules. But these regulations need to be applied in a way that does not overtly discriminate against imports and must not smack of disguised protectionism. The WTO’s Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures recognizes the right of nations to apply measures that protect human, animal, or plant life or health, but these measures must conform to international standards or be based on “scientific principles.” In practice, disputes in these areas hang on the interpretation of a group of judges in Geneva about what is reasonable or practical. In the absence of bright lines that demarcate national sovereignty from international obligations, the judges often claim too much on behalf of the trade regime.

In 1990, for example, a GATT panel ruled against Thailand’s ban on imported cigarettes. Thailand had imposed the ban as part of a campaign to reduce smoking, but continued to allow the sale of domestic cigarettes. The Thai government argued that imported cigarettes were more addictive and were more likely to be consumed by young people and by women on account of their effective advertising. The GATT panel was unmoved. It reasoned that the Thai government could have attained its public health objectives at less cost to trade by pursuing alternative policies. The government might have resorted to restrictions on advertising, labeling requirements, or content requirements, all of which could be applied in a non-discriminatory manner.

The GATT panel was surely correct about the impact of the Thai ban on trade. But in reaching their decisions, the panelists second-guessed the government about what is feasible and practical. As the legal scholars Michael Trebilcock and Robert Howse put it, “the Panel simply ignored the possibility that the alternative measures might involve high regulatory and compliance costs, or might be impracticable to implement effectively in a developing country.”

The hormone beef case from chapter Four also raises difficult issues. In this instance, the European Union ban on beef reared on certain growth hormones was not discriminatory; it applied to imported and domestic beef alike. It was also obvious that there was no protectionist motive behind the ban, which was pushed by consumer lobbies and interests in Europe alarmed by the potential health threats. Nonetheless, the WTO Panel and appellate body both ruled against the European Union, arguing that the ban vio-lated the requirement in the SPS Agreement that policies be based on “scientific evidence.” There was indeed scant positive evidence to date that growth hormones posed any health threats. Instead, the European Union had applied a broader principle not explicitly covered by the WTO, the “precautionary principle,” which permits greater caution in the presence of scientific uncertainty.

The precautionary principle reverses the burden of proof. Instead of asking, “Is there reasonable evidence that growth hormones or GMOs have adverse effects?” it requires policy makers to ask, “Are we reasonably sure that they do not?” In many unsettled areas of scientific knowledge, the answer to both questions can be no. The precautionary principle makes sense in cases where adverse effects can be large and irreversible. As the European Commission argued (unsuccessfully), policy here cannot be made purely on the basis of science. Politics, which aggregates a society’s risk preferences, must play the determinative role. The WTO judges did acknowledge a nation’s right to apply its own risk standards, but ruled that the European Union’s invocation of the precautionary principle did not satisfy the criterion of “scientific evidence.” Instead of simply ascertaining whether the science was taken into account, the rules of the SPS Agreement forced them to use an international standard on how scientific evidence should be processed.

If the European Union, with its sophisticated policy machinery, could not convince the WTO that it should have leeway in determining its own standards, we can only imagine the difficulties that developing nations face. For poor nations, even more than rich ones, the rules imply a single standard.

Ultimately, the question is whether a democracy is allowed to determine its own rules—and make its own mistakes. The European Union regulations on beef (and, in a similar case in 2006, on biotech) did not discriminate against imports, which makes international discipline designed to promote trade even more problematic. As I will argue later, international rules can and should require certain procedural safeguards for domestic regulatory proceedings (such as transparency, broad representation, and scientific input) in accord with democratic practices. The trouble occurs when international tribunals contradict domestic proceedings on substantive matters (in the beef case, how to trade off economic benefits against uncertain health risks). In this instance, trade rules clearly trumped democratic decision making within the European Union.

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