More shock therapy for neoliberalism
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More shock therapy for neoliberalism

Joseph E Stiglitz (File photo: Reuters)
Joseph E Stiglitz (File photo: Reuters)

The fallout from Russia's invasion of Ukraine has reminded us of the unforeseeable disruptions constantly confronting the global economy. We have been taught this lesson many times. No one could have predicted the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and few anticipated the 2008 financial crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, or Donald Trump's election, which resulted in the United States turning toward protectionism and nationalism.

Each of these events has had enormous macroeconomic consequences. The pandemic called our attention to our seemingly robust economies' lack of resilience. America, the superpower, could not even produce simple products like masks and other protective gear, let alone more sophisticated items like tests and ventilators.

Similarly, Russian President Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine is aggravating an already-worrisome increase in food and energy prices, with potentially severe ramifications for many developing countries and emerging markets, especially those whose debts have soared during the pandemic. Europe, too, is acutely vulnerable, owing to its reliance on Russian gas -- a resource from which major economies like Germany cannot quickly or inexpensively wean themselves. Many are rightly worried that such dependence is tempering the response to Russia's egregious actions.

Underlying the current lack of resilience is the fundamental failure of neoliberalism and the policy framework it underpins. Markets on their own are short-sighted, and the financialisation of the economy has made them even more so. They do not fully account for key risks -- especially those that seem distant -- even when the consequences can be enormous. Moreover, market participants know that when risks are systemic -- as was the case in all the crises listed above -- policymakers cannot idly stand by and watch.

Precisely because markets do not account fully for such risks, there will be too little investment in resilience, and the costs to society end up being even higher. The commonly proposed solution is to "price" risk, by forcing firms to bear more of the consequences of their actions. The same logic also dictates that we price negative externalities like greenhouse-gas emissions. Without a price on carbon, there will be too much pollution, too much fossil-fuel use, and too little green investment and innovation.

But pricing risk is far more difficult than pricing carbon. And while other options -- industrial policies and regulations -- can move an economy in the right direction, the neoliberal "rules of the game" have made interventions to enhance resilience more difficult. Neoliberalism is predicated on a fanciful vision of rational firms seeking to maximise their long-run profits in a context of perfectly efficient markets. Under the neoliberal globalisation regime, firms are supposed to buy from the cheapest source, and if individual firms fail to account appropriately for the risk of being dependent on Russian gas, governments are not supposed to intervene.

True, the World Trade Organization framework includes a national-security exemption that European authorities could have invoked to justify interventions to limit their dependence on Russian gas. But for many years, the German government seemed to be an active promoter of economic interdependence. The charitable interpretation of Germany's position is that it hoped commerce would tame Russia. But there has long been a whiff of corruption, personified by Gerhard Schröder, the German chancellor who presided over critical stages of his country's deepening entanglement with Russia and then went to work for Gazprom, the Russian state-owned gas giant.

The challenge now is to establish appropriate global norms by which to distinguish rank protectionism from legitimate responses to dependency and security concerns, and to develop corresponding systemic domestic policies. This will require multilateral deliberation and careful policy design to prevent bad-faith moves like Trump's use of "national security" concerns to justify tariffs on Canadian automobiles and steel.

But the point is not merely to tweak the neoliberal trade framework. During the pandemic, thousands died unnecessarily because WTO intellectual-property rules inhibited the production of vaccines in many parts of the world. As the virus continued to spread, it acquired new mutations, making it more contagious and resistant to the first generation of vaccines.

Clearly there has been too much focus on IP security, too little on the security of our economy. We need to start rethinking globalisation and its rules. We have paid a high price for the current orthodoxy. Hope now lies in heeding the lessons of this century's big shocks. ©2022 Project Syndicate

Joseph E Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, is University Professor at Columbia University and a member of the Independent Commission for the Reform of International Corporate Taxation.

Joseph Stiglitz

A Nobel laureate in economics

Joseph E Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, is University Professor at Columbia University. His most recent book, co-authored with Bruce Greenwald, is 'Creating a Learning Society: A New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress'.

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