The new gilded age and its discontents

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz talks about the corporate looting spree and Bush's woeful mismanagement of the economy.

Published July 3, 2002 7:30PM (EDT)

Joseph Stiglitz began explaining why markets fail long before Enron and WorldCom rose, exploded and crashed. But not many people wanted to listen during the boom-boom '90s; Stiglitz was even fired from his position as chief economist at the World Bank after he repeatedly criticized the organization's free-market obsessions.

Today, Stiglitz's lifetime of work is suddenly all too relevant. Consider, for example, his theory of "asymmetric information." Stiglitz spent years demonstrating that one party in a transaction -- say, the owner of a factory -- often possesses more information than the other about that transaction, and thus has an advantage that allows for market inefficiencies, and potentially, human suffering. His work won Stiglitz the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics, but more to the point, it handily explains why Enron and other companies successfully hid their accounting tricks for so long. Because executives have the power to determine how to arrange their profit-and-loss numbers, the theory holds, they'll always have a leg up on detectives and accountants who are trying to uncover misdoings.

From 1993 to 1997, Stiglitz served as a member and then as the chairman of President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers. He then went on to become chief economist at the World Bank, where he stayed until 2000. At each step of his career, Stiglitz advocated for a critical look at what he calls "the Washington Consensus" -- the conventional wisdom that holds that everything bad in the economy can be laid at the government's door while everything good stems from the market.

Filled with accessible, on-the-ground examples from Ethiopia, Indonesia, Russia and elsewhere, Stiglitz's new book, "Globalization and Its Discontents," witheringly dismantles that consensus. The villains, Stiglitz argues, are obvious: The International Monetary Fund, Clinton Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and Wall Street all come off badly, more concerned with ideology and their own bottom lines than with the facts.

Salon sat down with Stiglitz in New York and discussed accounting trickery, why government is necessary and the present state of the world economy.

The American economy is engulfed in a wave of corporate scandal. WorldCom, Enron, Adelphia, ImClone -- the failures and frauds keep piling up. What's going on?

I think the most important, significant thing that [the scandals] bring home is the importance of regulation. You can't have markets work without good information, and it is not necessarily the case that people have an incentive to provide accurate information; [but] they do have an incentive if there are penalties for providing fraudulent information. So the government plays an absolutely essential role in enabling the markets to work.

Now there were some big mistakes made in the mid-'90s. When I was at the Council of Economic Advisers, FASB -- the Financial Accounting Standards Board -- proposed a change in the way stock options for executives would be treated. The Council of Economic Advisers supported the change, on the grounds that it would improve the quality of [corporate] information. Wall Street and Silicon Valley united to put political pressure to oppose this change. The U.S. Treasury gave in to this political pressure and put pressure on FASB, and FASB backed off.

The reasons it was so important were severalfold. First, the principle that accounting standards ought to be kept out of politics -- that principle was compromised. Secondly, it compromised the quality of information. Thirdly, it provided further incentives for the use of stock options. And that has contributed to the whole problem we're seeing.

Why? Because with stock options, executives have an incentive to get the value of their company up as fast as possible. They found that they'll make more money if you give inaccurate or distorted information rather than honest information. One of the things I've always argued as an economist is that incentives matter, and one of the things we did there was provide incentives to provide stock options, which provided incentives to provide dishonest information.

Is that the root cause of all these accounting irregularities and alleged frauds?

That's right. There are many factors; the go-go atmosphere, the attitude that anything goes. But if there is a single thing that you can say is the root cause, it is that -- the stock option decision and the mania to which it gave rise.

How does the present situation compare to other crises in American capitalism? Are we witnessing excesses on a par with the '20s, the '80s ...?

It's a pattern that we've had frequently, and it's often associated with what I would call deregulation episodes. The savings and loan debacle, for example, where the U.S. government had to bail out [banks] to the tune of several hundred billion dollars, was basically the same thing: misreporting, trying to claim as income things that weren't income. So in fact there is a pattern here, and that pattern continually reminds us of the need to have some kind of oversight, if we're going to make the market economy work.

But the pains of the '80s seemed to disappear relatively quickly. There was a minor recession in the early 90s, but the economy recovered. Will that happen again, or is this problem on a much larger scale?

Eventually, it's going to bounce back. I have absolute confidence in that. The American economy is very, very strong for the long run. But this may, and quite likely will, extend the recovery and slow it down.

The timing couldn't be worse. The fiscal mismanagement of the current administration -- leading to a change in the fiscal position of the United States over the past year -- is absolutely phenomenal; going from huge surpluses to huge deficits and the deficits are probably going to be larger than people anticipated. That means that foreigners are already losing confidence in the United States because the United States had earned a reputation for sound fiscal management -- and now that reputation is being destroyed. The United States had a reputation for the best accounting standards in the world; now people are saying, we don't know.

The last time excessive doubt in the U.S. economy occurred -- during the Depression -- new regulation followed. How will this episode affect the structure of capitalism, here in the U.S. and abroad?

It is an important warning. The view of capitalism in the late '90s was of a particular form; American capitalism was triumphant. The view was that you don't need regulations -- just let it rip. Now people are becoming much, much more cautious. They're looking at what America said at that time with a lot more circumspection. There's a recognition that there's a downside. And just like the lesson of the Reagan era -- the excessive deregulation of banks -- led most countries to recognize the importance of sound financial regulation, I think that this episode is going to lead people to say there ought to be sound accounting regulations, sound regulation on corporate governance, things that were insufficiently talked about before.

It's also going to mean that the premise that American accounting standards are better, say, than European standards, is no longer going to be convincing. People are going to say let's look at alternatives. There isn't one way, there are alternatives. Sometimes the American way is best but sometimes Americans ought to learn from others, and the accounting standards in Europe may in fact be a better system for dealing with the complexities of the current world.

Is that a sign of progress -- moving away from an American-centric economic worldview?

Yes, I think it is.

You mentioned that the Bush deficit isn't helping matters, but in terms of future policy, what needs to be done and do you think that Bush will do it?

What is interesting is how slow they've been to recognize the problems. We're now beginning to recognize the broader set of issues, what you might call conflicts of interest. Merrill Lynch brought those issues out into the open; that if a firm is trying to sell a stock through its brokerage houses, trying to get business through its IPOs, those conflicts of interest can lead to bad decisions.

But if you could name a list of things -- 1, 2, 3 -- that Bush and Congress could do to reinstill confidence in the markets and economy, what would they be?

We need to begin to think much more carefully about these issues of conflicts of interest, which are pervasive. We saw it in the accounting area, where the accountant firms have conflicts of interest between their role as consultants and their role as accountants. In the 1930s, the Glass-Steagall Act was passed, which talked about why we needed to separate out investment banks from commercial banks because of the potential conflicts of interest. I think another mistake that was made in the '90s was the repeal of that. The point was made that people were getting around it, and that was used as an argument against it. Well, there were two strategies: Do you try to limit the ability to get around it, or do you abandon it. I think they made the wrong choice.

Part of the reason they made that choice was because of Wall Street lobbying. Even now, post-Enron, most attempts at reform have been stalled due to opposition from Wall Street. How can anyone who wants to reform the system overcome such a powerful force?

It will be overcome when there is enough popular support, and when the problems begin to rebound seriously enough against the industry. Let me go back to another example. At the end of the 19th century, it was the food industry -- the meat industry -- that asked for government regulation. Why? Because as a result of Upton Sinclair's book "The Jungle," people said we don't trust meat. And they said, we'll trust the government if it starts inspecting the meat. So the industry demanded regulation to restore confidence.

Do you really think that will happen?

Henry Paulson [chairman of Goldman Sachs] has begun talking about the problem and you have to think that it's partly because of a recognition that if investors lose faith in American firms, they're going to put their money elsewhere. And that is going to be very bad for Wall Street. There are going to be two sources of concern: one, voters; secondly, investors.

Do you think that the current corporate implosions will undermine the force of the free-market fundamentalists -- who you identify as the Washington Consensus? Will fears of a lack of U.S. regulation extend to the world of international development?

Well, what we're beginning to understand is that Wall Street is not the font of all wisdom that a lot of people in the '90s tried to sell it as -- especially the people on Wall Street. For instance, in the 1990s Wall Street pushed for capital market liberalization -- opening up companies to speculative money that could come in and out overnight. We now realize that capital market liberalization has contributed a great deal to the instability in the world: to the East Asia crisis, the global financial crisis. At the beginning of that crisis, Wall Street, U.S. Treasury, IMF said, Oh that's not the source of the problem. In fact, they said, speculative money is too small to be possibly a problem. A year later, when Long Term Capital Management was in trouble, the same kinds of people were saying that we need to bail out Long Term Capital Management because if we don't, this one firm -- one firm! -- could bring the whole global financial system down. Now, that kind of inconsistency, that kind of hypocrisy, caused a lot of people concern. Now what we're seeing is that there's a systemic problem; it's not just one company, it's many companies. And I think that breaking of the confidence in Wall Street is leading people to reexamine not only Wall Street but the influence it has had on the IMF, and in turn, the IMF policies and their consequences for the developing world.

Let's talk about those policies. You focus on Russia as an example of a failed IMF country, citing decreased gross domestic product, increased poverty and a widening gap between rich and poor -- most of it caused by a rapid, corrupt privatization process. But when I was reading about the new class of Russian oligarchs, I couldn't help but think that they -- not the IMF -- were the real source of the problem. Why not focus on holding the thieves accountable rather than blaming the IMF?

But incentives matter, and if we don't create the right incentives, we get bad behavior. As we talked about with the case of Enron, we had incentives to overstate profits, to get the stock prices up, and they responded to those incentives. In the case of Russia, the IMF helped create incentives that led to people taking their money out of the country. Let me explain: The IMF pushed these countries to have very rapid privatization, before they had corporate governance, while the economy was still in recession, and they pushed the privatization so rapidly that it was almost inevitably a corrupt privatization. At the same time, they pushed them to open up their capital markets. Think of yourself as one of the oligarchs that have managed to persuade Yeltsin to give you -- for a pittance -- these natural resources worth billions of dollars. Then you're told effectively by the IMF that you can either invest that money in Russia, which was in recession or depression, or take that money to the United States or a secret bank account. If you're smart enough to get Yeltsin to give you a billion dollars, you're smart enough to take your money out. Moreover, you would recognize that if you left your money in Russia, there was a good chance that in a couple years' time, the successor of Yeltsin might say, You got that money illegitimately. We want it back. And if you have your money in the United States or Cyprus bank accounts, they can't get it back. If you have your money in Russia, they can get it back. So it was their own self-preservation that led them to take their money out. But of course, as they all did that, the economy of Russia went further and further down. The culpability lies with setting up incentives that led people to behave that way.

Critics have argued that you underestimate the gains that have come from IMF policy, which you identify as the high-speed "hare" approach, compared to your gradualist "tortoise" approach. Poland, for example, underwent "shock therapy" and came out better than other countries in the region, like Ukraine, which followed a more gradualist approach.

Let me put it in the following way. What is fast and what is slow depends on what you're doing. Poland quickly brought down hyperinflation; that needed to be done fast. It brought down hyperinflation to moderate levels, 18-20 percent. It didn't push it further than that in the first instance. It then began a process of very gradual reform. So it, Hungary, Slovenia -- these were the tortoises. These tortoises have won the race. They are the economies with a GDP that's higher than it was 10 years ago. The hares are further behind. Their GDP is much lower than it was 10 years ago. Now of course there are some that are neither tortoises nor hares -- that aren't doing anything: Belarus, Ukraine. No one said that those are models you ought to follow. The model was, yes, have reforms but have it in a paced, balanced way. And Poland, Slovenia, Hungary show that there were alternatives to the "shock therapy." In fact, the deputy prime minister of Poland in 1993-95, when they were going through these changes, was very explicit that their success was a result of their not following shock therapy policies. It was that they did it with a systematic, gradual policy of structural reform. There are some things that you can do quickly, but changing societies, you can't do overnight. But if you do it in the right way, you actually do it in a reasonable length of time.

What is a reasonable length of time -- particularly when it comes to identifying what's succeeded and failed?

We are never really sure, but what we do know historically is that if Russia's economy is down 30 percent from what it was [in 1989], and let's say they start growing 4 or 5 percent a year, it's going to take them another decade or two just to get back to where they were. In that sense, yes, there will be ups and downs; the race is never over. But the shock therapy has cost the Russian people enormously, not only in terms of GDP. Their life expectancy is down while the rest of the world has life expectancy increasing. These are the kind of consequences that have resulted. Poverty went from 2 percent of the population to over 40 percent in 1998. These are just enormous changes.

You've argued that part of the problem is that the IMF doesn't pay attention to these social costs. Why is that? Why don't they look beyond things like GDP?

There are two or three answers to that question. One of them is that their major responsibility has been macroeconomics. At one point, the head of the IMF even said "we aren't concerned about poverty." They wanted to just look at macroeconomics -- and in fact, they didn't do a very good job of that. Secondly, they believed, a lot of them, in trickle-down economics: If you can succeed in getting [an economy] to grow, everyone would benefit.

In the United States, we've rejected trickle-down economics; you have to have pro-poor growth policies if you're going to succeed. It isn't necessarily true that a rising tide lifts all boats. Some are left behind.

Thirdly, they had a fixation on financial markets. Historically, people with that kind of focus worry more about inflation than they do about unemployment [because inflation does more immediate damage to their investments]. They worry less about poverty than they do about what will happen to the capital markets. In my view, a lot of that has been shortsighted. It is a mistake to ignore the social and political consequences of policies. Even if you don't worry yourself about poverty, it is bad economics. When the IMF cut out the subsidies for the food and fuel to the poorest people in Indonesia, it led to riots. Those riots led capital to flee and that exacerbated the economic downturn, the depression, in the country. So ignoring the social consequences is bad economics.

What do you make of the crisis in Argentina? Two people were killed June 26 in protests, while their economic minister was in Washington asking for the IMF to reinstate an $18 billion credit line. Should the IMF give in?

The issue in Argentina shows that the IMF still hasn't learned a lesson about the risks of contractionary fiscal policy. For 60 years economists have said that when you're in a recession you need expansionary fiscal policy. In the United States, during the much milder recession of 2000-01, both Democrats and Republicans said we need a stimulus. But what was the IMF doing in Argentina? The same thing it did in East Asia, which was insisting on a contraction, making the downturn even worse.

But you argued in your book that less IMF intervention should occur overall because lenders have come to expect and depend on international bailouts; they've been encouraged to loan money to high-risk borrowers because the IMF has acted like an insurance policy. So perhaps the IMF refusal to help is a necessary evil, a way to correct expectations.

The general principle that bailouts have not worked is becoming increasingly recognized. The bailouts did not work in Indonesia, Thailand, Korea, Russia, Brazil and now in Argentina. I don't think that the critical issue facing Argentina today is outside money. Most of the money that Argentina is likely to get will do nothing more than repay already existing loans. What Argentina needs to do is restart their economy. The human resources, the physical resources are still there. What they need is money, not to repay the IMF, not to repay the other loans that are outstanding, but money that can go to corporations that will allow them to buy the inputs, that will allow them to start producing goods that they can then sell and export.

So not a bailout but rather a stimulus ...

They need a stimulus, and that will require some money. But that's very different from a bailout. And what worries me is that if the price of getting a bailout is more contraction, it's going to exacerbate the problems.

Even if the IMF is still screwing up in Argentina, there are signs of reform. They've accepted responsibility for the Asian crisis and have enacted many reforms in the past few years. Are you encouraged by the institution's progress?

There have been some very encouraging signs. Now, they are recognizing the importance of poverty and the consequences of their policies for poverty.

What's your take on the anti-globalization protest movement? By trying to abolish the IMF, a stance also favored by Milton Friedman, are they making matters worse? Or are they an important catalyst for change?

I think that globalization -- which is nothing more than the closer integration of the countries of the world, as a result of lowering transportation costs, communication costs, the elimination of artificial barriers -- is something that's going to be with us. As this integration occurs, as we become more interdependent, we need to have rules and regulations. So if anything, today we need international institutions more than ever. The problem is that confidence in these institutions is lower than ever.

So my view is that if we abolished the IMF, we'd end up re-creating it. And the real danger is that we'd re-create it with some of the same blemishes that it has today. So it makes much more sense to me to work on reforming the institution; to return it to its original objective, which was to help countries facing an economic downturn have the resources to stimulate; so that a downturn in one country doesn't stimulate a downturn in its neighbors. Getting it to go back to some of its original mission is the right direction for it to go.

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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