"Why do they hate us?" & the real IMF story from a former insider

Saturday, November 04, 2006 at 11:14 AM

Joseph Stiglitz does not toe the party line on the doings of the IMF, despite serving as chief economist and vice president of the World Bank from 1997 to 2000 (when, according to some pretty good evidence, he was dismissed under pressure from the U.S. Dept. of the Treasury, for failure to follow the program).

Before the World Bank, he served on Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers from 1993 to 1997; after the WB, he won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2001. He has been pretty public about the real role in the world of the IMF, as well as of the World Bank, and of the U.S. actions and interests that are often behind the actions of these institutions.

If you want an insider's view of the game, he's your guy.  Take, for example, these excerpts from his article in The New Republic back in April of 2000.  As you read through this, keep in mind the oft-asked question of the day among U.S. functionaries as they view the international arena:  Why do "they" hate us.

The IMF likes to go about its business without outsiders asking too many questions. In theory, the fund supports democratic institutions in the nations it assists. In practice, it undermines the democratic process by imposing policies. Officially, of course, the IMF doesn't "impose" anything. It "negotiates" the conditions for receiving aid. But all the power in the negotiations is on one side--the IMF's--and the fund rarely allows sufficient time for broad consensus-building or even widespread consultations with either parliaments or civil society. Sometimes the IMF dispenses with the pretense of openness altogether and negotiates secret covenants.
When the IMF decides to assist a country, it dispatches a "mission" of economists. These economists frequently lack extensive experience in the country; they are more likely to have firsthand knowledge of its five-star hotels than of the villages that dot its countryside. They work hard, poring over numbers deep into the night. But their task is impossible. In a period of days or, at most, weeks, they are charged with developing a coherent program sensitive to the needs of the country. Needless to say, a little number-crunching rarely provides adequate insights into the development strategy for an entire nation. Even worse, the number-crunching isn't always that good. The mathematical models the IMF uses are frequently flawed or out-of-date. Critics accuse the institution of taking a cookie-cutter approach to economics, and they're right. Country teams have been known to compose draft reports before visiting. I heard stories of one unfortunate incident when team members copied large parts of the text for one country's report and transferred them wholesale to another. They might have gotten away with it, except the "search and replace" function on the word processor didn't work properly, leaving the original country's name in a few places. Oops.
the older men who staff the fund--and they are overwhelmingly older men--act as if they are shouldering Rudyard Kipling's white man's burden. IMF experts believe they are brighter, more educated, and less politically motivated than the economists in the countries they visit. In fact, the economic leaders from those countries are pretty good--in many cases brighter or better-educated than the IMF staff, which frequently consists of third-rank students from first-rate universities. (Trust me: I've taught at Oxford University, MIT, Stanford University, Yale University, and Princeton University, and the IMF almost never succeeded in recruiting any of the best students.
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, two schools of thought had emerged concerning Russia's transition to a market economy. One of these, to which I belonged, consisted of a mélange of experts on the region, Nobel Prize winners like Kenneth Arrow and others. This group emphasized the importance of the institutional infrastructure of a market economy--from legal structures that enforce contracts to regulatory structures that make a financial system work. Arrow and I had both been part of a National Academy of Sciences group that had, a decade earlier, discussed with the Chinese their transition strategy. We emphasized the importance of fostering competition--rather than just privatizing state-owned industries--and favored a more gradual transition to a market economy (although we agreed that occasional strong measures might be needed to combat hyperinflation).

The second group consisted largely of macroeconomists, whose faith in the market was unmatched by an appreciation of the subtleties of its underpinnings--that is, of the conditions required for it to work effectively. These economists typically had little knowledge of the history or details of the Russian economy and didn't believe they needed any. The great strength, and the ultimate weakness, of the economic doctrines upon which they relied is that the doctrines are--or are supposed to be--universal. Institutions, history, or even the distribution of income simply do not matter. Good economists know the universal truths and can look beyond the array of facts and details that obscure these truths. And the universal truth is that shock therapy works for countries in transition to a market economy: the stronger the medicine (and the more painful the reaction), the quicker the recovery. Or so the argument goes.

Unfortunately for Russia, the latter school won the debate in the Treasury Department and in the IMF. Or, to be more accurate, the Treasury Department and the IMF made sure there was no open debate and then proceeded blindly along the second route. Those who opposed this course were either not consulted or not consulted for long. On the Council of Economic Advisers, for example, there was a brilliant economist, Peter Orszag, who had served as a close adviser to the Russian government and had worked with many of the young economists who eventually assumed positions of influence there. He was just the sort of person whose expertise Treasury and the IMF needed. Yet, perhaps because he knew too much, they almost never consulted him.

We all know what happened next. In the December 1993 elections, Russian voters dealt the reformers a huge setback, a setback from which they have yet really to recover. Strobe Talbott, then in charge of the noneconomic aspects of Russia policy, admitted that Russia had experienced "too much shock and too little therapy." And all that shock hadn't moved Russia toward a real market economy at all. The rapid privatization urged upon Moscow by the IMF and the Treasury Department had allowed a small group of oligarchs to gain control of state assets. The IMF and Treasury had rejiggered Russia's economic incentives, all right--but the wrong way. By paying insufficient attention to the institutional infrastructure that would allow a market economy to flourish--and by easing the flow of capital in and out of Russia--the IMF and Treasury had laid the groundwork for the oligarchs' plundering. While the government lacked the money to pay pensioners, the oligarchs were sending money obtained by stripping assets and selling the country's precious national resources into Cypriot and Swiss bank accounts.

The United States was implicated in these awful developments. In mid-1998, Summers, soon to be named Robert Rubin's successor as secretary of the treasury, actually made a public display of appearing with Anatoly Chubais, the chief architect of Russia's privatization. In so doing, the United States seemed to be aligning itself with the very forces impoverishing the Russian people. No wonder anti-Americanism spread like wildfire.

There's more, lots more, in Stiglitz's several books, which include:

Making Globalization Work (2006)
Fair Trade for All: How Trade Can Promote Development (Initiative for Policy Dialogue Series C) (2006, with Andrew Charlton)

The Roaring Nineties: A New History of the World's Most Prosperous Decade (2004)

Globalization and Its Discontents (2003)