Monday, November 24, 2008

Obama’s Economic Advisors: Will Well-Tested Enemies of Africa Prevail?

By Patrick Bond

One of Barack Obama’s leading advisors has done more damage to Africa, its economies and its people than anyone I can think of in world history, including even Cecil John Rhodes. That charge may surprise readers, but hear me out.*

His name is Paul Volcker, and although he is relatively unknown around the world, the 82 year old banker was recommended as ‘a legend!’ to Obama by Austan Goolsbee, the president-elect’s chief economic advisor (and a professor at the University of Chicago). Volcker was recently profiled by the
Wall Street Journal: ‘The cigar-chomping central banker from 1979 to 1987, he received blame for driving up interest rates and tipping the US into the deepest recession since the Great Depression.’

We’ll consider the impact of Volcker’s rule on Africa in a moment. But why dredge up crimes nearly thirty years old?

This kind of reckoning is important, as three current examples suggest:

• Reparations lawsuits are now being heard in New York by victims of apartheid who are collectively requesting $400 billion in damages from three dozen US corporations who profited from South African operations during the same period. Supreme Court justices had so many investments in these companies that in May they had to bounce the case back to a lower New York court to decide, effectively throwing out an earlier judgment against the plaintiffs: the Jubilee anti-debt movement, the Khulumani Support Group for apartheid victicms, and 17 000 other black South Africans.

• Last month a San Francisco court began considering a similar reparations lawsuit – under the Alien Tort Claims Act - filed by Larry Bowoto and the Ilaje people of the Niger Delta against Chevron for 1998 murders similar to those that took the life of Ken Saro-Wiwa on November 10, 1995.

• In Boston last month, Harvard University’s Pride Chigwedere released a study into preventable deaths – at least 330 000 – caused by Thabo Mbeki’s AIDS policies during the early 2000s. The ex-president has ‘blood on his hands,’ according to Zackie Achmat of the Treatment Action Campaign, requesting a judicial inquiry.

The same critical treatment is appropriate for Volcker, because of the awesome financial destruction he imposed, within most Africans’ living memory. His policies stunted the continent’s growth when it most needed internal economic coherence. Even the International Monetary Fund’s official history cannot avoid using the famous phrase most associated with the Fed chair’s name:
'The origins of the debt crisis of the 1980s may be traced back to and through the lurching efforts of the world’s governments to cope with the economic instabilities of the 1970s… [including the] monetary contraction in the United States (the ‘Volcker Shock’) that brought a sharp rise in world interest rates and a sustained appreciation of the dollar.'
Volcker’s decision to raise rates so high to rid the US economy of inflation and strengthen the fast-falling dollar had special significance in Africa, write British academics Sarah Bracking and Graham Harrison:
'1979 marked a radical change in global economic policy, inaugurated with the ‘Volcker Shock’ (so called after Paul Volcker, then chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve) when the United States suddenly and dramatically raised interest rates. The sudden change of interest rate policy increased the cost of African debt precipitously, since a majority of debt stock was held in dollars. The majority of the newly independent states had been effectively delivered into at least twenty years of indentured labor. From that point on access to finance became a key policing mechanism directed at African populations.'
Adds journalist Naomi Klein in her great book The Shock Doctrine,
'On their own, the debts would have been an enormous burden on the new democracies, but that burden was about to get much heavier. A new kind of shock was in the news: the Volcker Shock. Economists used this term to describe the impact of the decision made by Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker when he dramatically increased interest rates in the United States, letting them rise as high as 21 percent, reaching a peak in 1981 and lasting through the mid-eighties. In the U.S., rising interest rates led to a wave of bankruptcies, and in 1983 the number of people who defaulted on their mortgages tripled. The deepest pain, however, was felt outside the US In developing countries carrying heavy debt loads, the Volcker Shock - also known as the ‘debt shock’ or the ‘debt crisis’ - was like a giant Taser gun fired from Washington, sending the developing world into convulsions. Soaring interest rates meant higher interest payments on foreign debts, and often the higher payments could only be met by taking on more loans. The debt spiral was born. In Argentina, the already huge debt of $45 billion passed on by the junta grew rapidly until it reached $65 billion in 1989, a situation reproduced in poor countries around the world. It was after the Volcker Shock that Brazil’s debt exploded, doubling from $50 billion to $100 billion in six years. Many African countries, having borrowed heavily in the seventies, found themselves in similar straits: Nigeria’s debt in the same short time period went from $9 billion to $29 billion.'
The numbers involved were daunting for a typical African country. According to University of California economic geographer Gillian Hart, ‘Medium and long-term public debt [of low-income countries] shot up from $75.1 billion in 1970 to $634.4 billion in 1983. It was the so-called Volcker Shock… that ushered in the debt crisis, the neoliberal counterrevolution, and vastly changed roles of the World Bank and IMF in Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia.’

Another leading political economist, Elmar Altvater of Berlin’s Free University, recalls how the world ‘slid into the debt crisis of the 1980s after the US Federal Reserve tripled interest rates (the so called “Volcker Shock”), leading to what later has been described as the “lost decade” for the developing world.’

How ‘lost’? The
British Medical Journal complained in 1999 of orthodox World Bank structural adjustment policies that immediately followed:
'According to Unicef, a drop of 10-25% in average incomes in the 1980s—the decade noted for structural adjustment lending—in Africa and Latin America, and a 25% reduction in spending per capita on health and a 50% reduction per capita on education in the poorest countries of the world, are mostly attributable to structural adjustment policies. Unicef has estimated that such adverse effects on progress in developing countries resulted in the deaths of half a million young children—and in just a 12 month period.'
A few honest mainstream economists also explain Africa’s economic crisis in these terms. ‘The external shock that might have precipitated the developing country slowdown is the increase in real interest rates after the Volcker Shock in 1979’, wrote World Bank senior researcher William Easterly in 2001. ‘The interest on external debt as a ratio to GDP has a statistically significant and negative effect on growth.’

A few blocks away from the Federal Reserve, one of Volcker’s closest allies was World Bank president Tom Clausen, formerly Bank of America chief executive officer. As the Volcker Shock wore on, in 1983, Clausen offered his Board of Directors this frank confession:
'We must ask ourselves: How much pressure can these nations be expected to bear? How far can the poorest peoples be pushed into further reducing their meagre standards of living? How resilient are the political systems and institutions in these countries in the face of steadily worsening conditions? I don’t have the answers to these important questions. But if these countries are pushed too far, and too much is demanded of them without the provision of substantial assistance in their adjustment efforts, we must face the consequences. And those will surely exact a cost in terms of human suffering and political instability.'
At that point, ‘Africa was not even on my radar screen’, Volcker told interviewers Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin.

Meanwhile, the Bank’s sister institution, the International Monetary Fund, was described by Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere as ‘a neo-colonial institution which exploits the poor to make them poorer and serves the rich to become richer.’ Volcker had, ironically, played a central role in the destruction of the Bretton Woods system’s dollar-gold convertibility arrangement, effectively a US$80 billion default on holders of dollars abroad, when in 1971 he served Richard Nixon as under-secretary of the Treasury (deputy finance minister). Eight years later, even though then-president Jimmy Carter did not know him, he was chosen to chair the Federal Reserve, which sets US (and by extension world) interest rates. Explained Carter’s domestic policy advisor Stuart Eizenstat,
'Volcker was selected because he was the candidate of Wall Street. This was their price, in effect. What was known about him? That he was able and bright. And it was also known that he was conservative. What wasn’t known was that he was going to impose some very dramatic changes.'
In 1985, Ronald Reagan offered Clausen’s job to Volcker, but he decided to stay on at the Federal Reserve until he retired in 1987.

Now he is back, and according to a recent profile by the
Wall Street Journal,
'Obama is increasingly relying on Mr. Volcker. His staff now routinely reviews policy proposals and speeches with Mr. Volcker. Conference calls and face-to-face meetings of the Obama economic team are often reorganized to accommodate his schedule. When the team discusses the financial crisis, ‘The most important question to Obama: What does Paul Volcker think?’ says Jason Furman, the campaign’s economic-policy director… When Sen. Obama raised the prospect of a package of spending and tax measures to "stimulate" the economy, Mr. Volcker disapproved. "Americans are spending beyond their means," he told the group. A stimulus package would delay the belt-tightening and savings needed, he added, proposing instead better regulation and assistance to banks.'
By November 8, the odds of Volcker being appointed Treasury Secretary were down to 10%, according to the betting pool at the Journal. The race was between New York Federal Reserve Bank president Tim Geithner and former Clinton Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, at 40% odds each.

Geithner served under Summers and Robert Rubin in Bill Clinton’s Treasury Department during the 1990s. Summers is best known for the sexism controversy which cost him the presidency of Harvard in 2006. But fifteen years earlier he gained infamy as an advocate of African genocide and environmental racism, thanks to a confidential World Bank memo he signed when he was the institution’s senior vice president and chief economist:
'I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that… I’ve always thought that underpopulated countries in Africa are vastly underpolluted, their air quality is vastly inefficiently low…'
After all, Summers continued, inhabitants of low-income countries typically die before the age at which they would begin suffering prostate cancer associated with toxic dumping. And in any event, using marginal productivity of labour as a measure, low-income Africans are not worth very much anyhow. Nor are African’s aesthetic concerns with air pollution likely to be as substantive as they are for wealthy northerners.

Such arguments were said by Summers to be made in an ‘ironic’ way (and in his defense, he may have simply plagiarized the memo from a colleague, Lant Pritchett). Yet their internal logic was pursued with a vengeance by the World Bank and IMF long after Summers moved over to the Clinton Treasury Department, where in 1999 he insisted that Joseph Stiglitz be fired by Bank president James Wolfensohn, for speaking out consistently against the impeccable economic logic of the Washington Consensus.
DATE: December 12, 1991
TO: Distribution
FR: Lawrence H. Summers
Subject: GEP

‘Dirty’ Industries: Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [Less Developed Countries]? I can think of three reasons:

1) The measurements of the costs of health impairing pollution depends on the foregone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.

2) The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low cost. I’ve always though that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City. Only the lamentable facts that so much pollution is generated by non-tradable industries (transport, electrical generation) and that the unit transport costs of solid waste are so high prevent world welfare enhancing trade in air pollution and waste.

3) The demand for a clean environment for aesthetic and health reasons is likely to have very high income elasticity. The concern over an agent that causes a one in a million change in the odds of prostrate cancer is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostrate cancer than in a country where under 5 mortality is is 200 per thousand. Also, much of the concern over industrial atmosphere discharge is about visibility impairing particulates. These discharges may have very little direct health impact. Clearly trade in goods that embody aesthetic pollution concerns could be welfare enhancing. While production is mobile the consumption of pretty air is a non-tradable.

The problem with the arguments against all of these proposals for more pollution in LDCs (intrinsic rights to certain goods, moral reasons, social concerns, lack of adequate markets, etc.) could be turned around and used more or less effectively against every Bank proposal for liberalization.
In Islam, Kirama Katibin are the two angels sitting on a person’s shoulder throughout life. Katibin sits on the left, recording bad deeds, and in modern caricatures takes on the mythical role of the devil whispering in Obama’s ear. There we see Volcker, Summers and a whole crew of similar capitalist economists, whispering for a resurgent US based on brutal national self-interest. They need Obama to relegitimate shock-doctrinaire neoliberalism – and in turn, they need Obama’s Africa advisors (like Witney Schneidman) to promote military imperialism in the form of the Africa Command.

Where is Africa’s Kirama, trying to identify good deeds for the continent’s people, economy, environment? Can Obama hear African supporters like Bill Fletcher, Imani Countess and Danny Glover, who made TransAfrica (as one example) a visionary economic justice organization, by fighting the policies of Volcker and Summers? Can AfricaAction, the Institute for Policy Studies, the American Friends Service Committee, Jubilee USA, ActionAid and other genuine advocates for the continent get a word in edgewise, between fits of cackling from the corporate liberals who think they own Obama? Will the president-elect ever get advice from economists James K. Galbraith of the University of Texas or Center for Economic and Policy Research codirectors Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot, who correctly read the various financial crises way ahead of time, and whose records promoting social justice would serve Africa far better?

Probably not. So it is vital for Africans to wake up to the danger that the likes of Volcker and Summers represent. Anyone paying attention to the continent’s economic decline since 1980 knows the damage they did, but Obama apparently needs to hear more of their sins against his father’s people before he chooses his Treasury Secretary next week. And while he’s at it, how about a revision of Obama’s utterly neoliberal ‘fundamental objective’ for the continent, which is ‘to accelerate Africa’s integration into the global economy’?

*In the US Federal Reserve System a quarter-century ago, I was one of this man’s most obscure employees (my job was promoting consumer regulation and community reinvestment), first in Washington in 1981 and again in Philadelphia from 1983-85. So I feel obliged to spill the beans.

Note: This article was written slightly prior to the announcement a few days ago that Tim Geithner will be named Treasury Secretary. A shorter version of this piece was originally published on Znet.

Biog: Patrick Bond directs the Centre for Civil Society in Durban, South Africa.

No comments: