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Every student in economics is familiar with Robert Mundell's triangle of impossibility. Based on the model that the Canadian economist developed with Marcus Flemming in 1962, this trilemma states that it is impossible to have a sovereign monetary policy, free capital flows, and a fixed exchange rate at the same time--that two, and only two, of these objectives could be met. This impossible trinity came to dominate policy debates in Europe in the run-up to the European monetary union in the 1990s--a rare example when the result of a theoretical model had a direct bearing on policy choices.
Although he doesn't develop a formal model, Dani Rodrik offers his own, more ambitious version of the impossibility triangle. The political trilemma of the world economy, as he names it, is that we cannot have deep economic integration ("hyperglobalization"), national sovereignty, and democratic politics at the same time. We have to sacrifice one of the corners of the triangle. And for Rodrik, the objective that has to be abandoned is clear and straightforward. We cannot compromise on democracy, and global governance is nothing but a distant dream. We therefore have to jettison hyperglobalization in favor of a more shallow form of global economic integration, a new version of the compromise that was embodied in the postwar system laid out at Bretton Woods. In particular, unrestricted capital mobility and indiscriminate trade openness will have to go. This will make the world a safer and better place for democracy.
Dani Rodrik, who teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, is a first-class economist. In academic and policy circles, people talk about him with respect and sometimes even with awe--it is better to have him on the same side of an argument than sitting across the table. Some economists perfidly point out that he has a talent for bending numbers to support his claims-- that he is an expert in the art of political econometrics, or the use of statistical regressions to support one's political positions. But this is how the game of economics ought to be played. Although Rodrik is sometimes considered as a maverick and a lone wolf, he speaks from inside the tent. No one would put into question his qualification as an economist. Sure enough, his arguments are often controversial and even provocative, but they are receivable and debatable by the academic community. "He is one of us", most if not all economists would acknowledge.
This is why his criticism of globalization ought be read with great attention and interest. It comes at a time when the high hopes invested in globalization have receded, and the negative aspects brought about by open borders and financial liberalization now take center stage. At this juncture, as Rodrik underscores, we need a new narrative to shape the next stage of globalization. "Economists have been responsible for the narratives that interpret development success and failure, narratives which in turn have guided policy in many parts of the world." They now have a special responsibility for shaping the debate: because they have been the cheerleaders of the previous phase of global openness, and because they can help distinguish snake oil from real ointments, and separate "the legitimate wheat from the 'protectionist' chaff".
Many prominent economists are now starting to have second thoughts on globalization. True, their choir was never at unison: some had different pitches, and their endorsement of free and open markets often came with caveats and restrictions. Even a staunch free-trader like Jagdish Baghwati expressed warnings about unrestricted capital mobility. Now more voices are beginning to worry about the consequences of deindustrialization, the growth of inequality, and the race to bottom standards and regulations brought about the current wave of globalization in developed economies. As Keynes once famously remarked, "When the facts change, I change my mind--what do you do, sir?" Rodrik, for one, never changed his mind on trade liberalization. He was one of the first economists to bring the debate from the seminar room to the political arena, and to argue against the simplistic case for free trade that is often doled out to journalists to supports claims about the benefits of globalization. He comments the matter with considerable talent and great humor--never was a class discussion on comparative advantage and international trade theory so lively and refreshing.
Dani Rodrik doesn't limit his argument to modern textbook economics. He excavates from the dusty shelves of economics libraries some forgotten books and tracts that are singularly relevant for today. Henry Martyn's Consideration Upon the East-India Trade, written in 1701, anticipates many of the arguments that economists who favored free trade would marshal much later. In 1961, James E. Mead wrote The Economics and Social Structure of Mauritius, and proposed the same kind of diagnostic tools and policy approach that Rodrik and his coauthors would later develop and sell out to the World Bank. This approach, called the "Growth Diagnostics framework", now serves as reference in international policy debates and is quoted approvingly by senior officials from emerging countries who are now the darlings of international gatherings. Development economics has come full circle: as Rodrik notes, "that industrial policy, in whatever guise, is once again considered acceptable, and indeed necessary, speaks volumes about how far we have retreated from the trade fundamentalism of the 1990s."
Rodrik also have his weak points. He is candid about his limitations as a forecaster. He didn't see the Asian crisis coming in 1997, and he got it wrong again in 2007 when he missed the subprime crisis that was brewing in the U.S. More to the point, he picked up the wrong fight in the late 1990s, arguing against free trade when the real menace was coming from the excesses of financial globalization. One gets the feeling he still gives too much importance to the trade agenda as defined by the WTO in comparison to the new trade rules and conditions negotiated away from public scrutiny in the bilateral or regional trade agreements that now span the world in a complex web of policy arrangements. Rodrik is on less familiar ground when the discusses international finance, and his plea for an international transaction tax could have been more substantiated.
In making the case for their pet theory, economists often miss the broader picture. Not so with Dani Rodrik. His list of principles and recommendations that close the book offer an all-encompassing agenda for a better and safer globalization. It is altogether fitting that the quote which best sums up his policy stance was offered by a Chinese student, who recommended to keep the windows open, but without forgetting the mosquito screens. This utterance could have been offered by a future statesman and, considering the wide audience that Dani Rodrik's essay deserves, it could as well be picked up by one.